Confused, Muddled and Misleading – Ontario’s Plan for Climate Change

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“Marge, come here! There’s money coming out of the walls!”


Doug Ford’s Conservative government is spending millions of Ontario tax dollars to complain about a federal carbon tax, which he argues will cost Ontarians dearly.  But, the television ads which have cluttered the airwaves for the past few weeks show a different picture – a puzzled man sitting on a sofa reading a newspaper, watching a stream of cash spurting from a heat vent onto his living room floor.  A stunned-looking woman filling up with gas being treated to a cascade of coins flowing from the pump.  Grocery store shoppers side-stepping the money shooting out from between ketchup bottles.  Contrary to DoFo’s intentions, the ads show that under a federal carbon tax, cash streams in, not out.

That sort of confused, muddled and misleading thinking and messaging epitomizes DoFo’s entire approach to climate change.  It’s a bit of a mess.

“We have a cunning plan”

At the end of the ads, we are informed that Ontario has “a better way” to fight climate change, and are invited to learn more about Ontario’s plan.”  Let’s have a look:

The “Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan” is 53 pages long, covering all sorts of environmental issues (water quality, litter reduction, greenspace preservation, etc.) as well as climate change. It includes platitudes about Ontarians’ love of the outdoors, examples of institutions and government bodies doing good things for the environment, and elements of a plan to address climate change.  And is it truly a better way?  Not even close.  If you follow the Blackadder reference above, Ford’s plan would barely be worthy of Baldrick, Blackadder’s dimwitted sidekick.

Ontario’s Environment Minister Rod Phillips sets the tone by dismissing cap-and-trade or carbon tax programs as “punishing people for heating their homes or driving their cars.”  He decries “expensive, ineffective policies and programs that do not deliver results.”

I would refer both Phillips and Ford to the work of William Nordhaus, who shared the Nobel Prize for economics for his work on carbon pricing.  Nordhaus’ research has shown that carbon pricing (through such means as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program) is a far more effective and efficient way of limiting carbon emissions than direct government controls. But hey, why should Ontarians believe a Nobel laureate in economics over a Humber College dropout (Ford)?

Phillips also talks of balancing a healthy economy with a healthy environment. So why did he and DoFo rush to cancel a cap-and-trade program that fulfilled both objectives?  A program that was supported by industry, and was clear and transparent in its operation? And produced revenues that paid for many of the same initiatives that are assumed as part of the Ford plan, but now without funding? The new plan doesn’t say.

So what is in it?  Here’s a brief guide to what’s there and what’s not:

Defer to others

The “Addressing Climate Change” section of the environmental plan starts with a statement that Canada is responsible for 1.6% of global [greenhouse gas] emissions, with Ontario responsible for less than 0.4% of global emissions.  That’s straight from the conservative playbook of feigning concern about GHGs and climate change, while inviting the audience to dismiss any local actions to combat climate change as being irrelevant and/or ineffective.  It’s why commentary on climate change in conservative publications, when it doesn’t still question the validity of climate science, tends to revert to “we’re screwed anyway, so why bother?”

Claim success already

In the section “Doing Our Part”, the current Conservative government boasts of Ontario’s accomplishments in reducing greenhouse gases.  Yes, emissions have decreased significantly since 2005 – because of the bold moves by previous Liberal governments in shutting down all coal-fired generating plants in the province,.  The DoFo government obviously seeks to claim credit for these reductions, having had nothing to do with achieving them.

The narrative repeats the claim that Ontario has already done its share of reducing GHG emissions, saying that “almost all of Canada’s progress towards its 2030 Paris Agreement targets has been driven by Ontario.”  So what?  It’s hard to say whether DoFo wants an undeserved round of applause, or a pass on taking further significant action.

Focus on adaptation, not abatement

At least the Ontario government acknowledges the reality of climate change – that it will have serious consequences for infrastructure, agriculture, residences, etc.  However, if I’m looking for a defense of how Ontario’s plan beats carbon pricing as a way to combat climate change, I’m not swayed by reading “10 ways to prevent home basement floods” or even an outline of how Ontario is building “climate resilience” into building standards.   Adaptation and preparation are still essential, but cannot replace efforts to abate climate change in the first place.

Rely on initiatives/technologies/programs yet to be developed

Ontario’s forecasted emission reductions rely on several categories that have yet to be developed, or even yet to be thought through.   As an example, “Innovation” accounts for 15% of emission reduction by the year 2030.  What does that represent?  According to the plan, it’s “potential advancements in energy storage and fuel switching in buildings to lower carbon fuels.”  In other words, “we don’t know yet.”

And the Ontario Carbon Trust, which is pegged at 4% of emission reductions?  It’s undefined as to what projects might be funded by this Trust and what the impact of those projects would be on GHG emissions. Although this initiative is to receive over $400 million in Ontario taxpayer dollars, it’s also heavily reliant on private capital and additional contributions from the government of Canada.  But, the DoFo government does not have a good track record of working with private industry on clean technology projects (see White Pines below), and burned its bridges with the federal government before it even got elected.  So, prospects for this part of the plan producing meaningful results appear dim.

Hope for the best

You might think that given a multi-million dollar ad campaign touting the environment plan, it would be a bold, declarative document giving details of this “better way” toward tackling climate change. Nope. It’s full of qualifications and hedges, which don’t really commit the government to doing much.

   “to be finalized based on feedback we get from businesses and communities”
   “…once program details are finalized”
   “the program may include…”

In other words, it’s not finished yet.  But, it’s still being promoted as the alternative to carbon pricing, even though there’s no analysis, no comparison, no evidence to support a claim that their plan is in any way superior to having carbon pricing.  Close your eyes and hope for the best.

Give themselves an out

According to the television and radio ads, Ontario’s better way of dealing with climate change is to “hold big polluters accountable.”  All well and good, but will Doug follow through?  Not likely.  For along with a claim that the Ontario government will ensure strong enforcement of rules, it also leaves itself a way to ignore those rules.  Even in this high-level document, the conservatives have given themselves an “out” if they choose to take it.  Here’s the language:

“Our made-in-Ontario standards will consider factors such as trade exposure, competitiveness and process-emissions, and allow the province to grant across-the-board exemptions for industries of particular concern, like the auto sector, as needed.” And “the final impact of this approach will depend on consultation with industry partners.”

In other words, “we will hold big polluters accountable, except when we don’t.”

And this: “we will create and establish emission performance standards to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions ….the program may include compliance flexibility mechanisms such as offset credits and/or payment of an amount to achieve compliance.”

In other words, a cap-and-trade program, only selectively applied.

You want consistency?

For the environment plan to be credible, it should be at least consistent – consistent with other government actions and policies so it all hangs together.  It’s not, and it doesn’t.  Here are a few examples:

A significant portion of emission target reduction is from “Low Carbon Vehicles Uptake” – primarily increased adoption of electric passenger vehicles.  However, in revoking the cap-and-trade program, DoFo’s government also cancelled the program which provided subsidies to consumers for buying electric vehicles.  They take away the incentives for consumers to buy electric vehicles, then bank on more drivers buying electric vehicles.  Brilliant.

Other initiatives include pursuing “clean technologies that are commercially viable.” This after Premier Ford repealed the Green Energy Act, which was put in place to pursue clean technologies that are commercially viable.  And as for encouraging “private investments in clean technologies and green infrastructure,” perhaps he can explain his recent cancellation of contracts to produce renewable energy – i.e. to develop a green infrastructure.

Prospective investors in the Ontario Carbon Trust initiative will no doubt consider the experience of the German company wpd AG, whose White Pines project was to have placed wind turbines in Eastern Ontario.  After the company invested many years and $100 million in the project, DoFo’s government abruptly cancelled it, even passing legislation to retroactively limit compensation to the company and bar it from suing the government. So, DoFo calls for private investment in green infrastructure projects, after pulling the rug out from under a company which invested in a significant green infrastructure project.  Brilliant.

And, as the government advises us to prepare for the impact of climate change, DoFo has reduced the budgets for emergency forest firefighting (after a year of unprecedented climate-driven wildfires) and to conservation authorities for flood management (after a year of unprecedented flooding).   Wonderful.

Where to now?

No-one expected Doug Ford to be an environmentalist.  But, I would have expected that if he was going to pick a fight with the feds over carbon pricing, and spend millions of dollars trying to convince Ontarians that he is right and the feds are wrong, he could at least come up with a convincing argument and a realistic alternative.  Instead, we get this half-baked collection of initiatives and programs that may or may not be implemented, coupled with an attitude of “we’ve done our part already.”

Maybe I should just collect the cash pouring out of my heat vents and keep quiet.

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