Carbon emissions pricing met its first big electoral test this week, as British Columbia voters rewarded BC premier Gordon Campbell, who last July instituted North America’s first major carbon tax, with a third four-year term.

News service AFP reported that with more than 60 percent of the votes counted, Campbell’s Liberal Party held a 46-42 lead over the opposition New Democratic Party, whose leader, Carole James, denounced the carbon tax throughout the two-month campaign and promised to replace it with a cap-and-trade scheme.

Elections aren’t referenda, as I hastened to note when the Liberals were routed in Canada’s national election last fall. But that outcome was tied to the Liberal candidate’s hapless campaign style, compounded by his backing away from the carbon tax plank in his party platform. In the BC campaign Campbell stood squarely behind his carbon tax. Indeed, voters appear to have rewarded the Liberals for sticking to principle as much as for the substance of the carbon tax itself.

Here’s how AFP put it (emphases added):

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The Liberals and New Democrats, the province’s two main parties, had sparred during the campaign over issues including the economy, homelessness and several local scandals. But the environment — and especially the carbon tax — became the key election issue.

The tax, the first straight carbon tax in North America, was introduced by the government of British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell in 2007 [correction: 2008] to help fight climate change. The tax is revenue neutral — the collected tax money is paid once a year to provincial residents.

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The New Democrats, led by Carol James, fiercely opposed the carbon tax, arguing that it especially hurt rural residents. But the party’s opposition to the tax cost them the support of almost all environmental organizations, which sided with Campbell solely on the issue, while the nonpartisan Conservation Council launched a campaign telling voters to choose “anybody but James.”

The election win gave Campbell a third term – a rare occurrence in the province -with his party holding a majority of British Columbia’s 85 legislature seats.

The contrast with the U.S. is stark. Not a single governor here publicly backs a carbon tax. Few of the major environmental organizations have anything positive to say about a national carbon tax, and most are still cheerleading for the carbon cap-and-trade alternative no matter how loose the cap or polluter-friendly the trading.

The BC carbon tax that took effect on July 1, 2008 is modest, equating to just $7.50-$8.00 (U.S.) per ton of CO2. However, it is to rise each year through 2012, reaching the U.S. equivalent of around $11.75/ton on July 1 and, in July 2012, around $23.50.

A U.S. carbon tax at that level would raise petrol prices by approximately 23 cents a gallon and national-average electricity prices by around 1.7 cents a kilowatt-hour. (Virtually all power generation in British Columbia is hydro-electric, so their carbon tax effectively exempts electricity.) The BC tax is revenue-neutral, with revenues returned to taxpayers through personal income and business income tax cuts.

In a recent e-mail to the Carbon Tax Center, American climatologist and climate campaigner James Hansen said, “The important thing is to get on the right policy track at the beginning – the policy must attack the fundamental problem, that dirty fossil fuels are the cheapest energy because they are not made to pay their costs to society.”

Yes, carbon taxes must reach high levels and go global quickly. But for now let’s celebrate that the first major jurisdiction – and party – to choose the right policy track has seen its vision recognized and its courage rewarded.