Monday, December 3, 2018

Conservatives' Climate Plan Takes Ontario Back to the Past

At this critical moment in history, when we’re being warned by the best and the brightest that we have just 12 years to get our act together if we’re going to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C, Ontario’s new Conservative government released its climate change plan.  It’s a plan that can only be described as a sick joke that sets Ontario back decades.

The plan appears to be little more than what could have been cobbled together over a weekend by disinterested highschool students.  The “Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan” isn’t even exclusively about climate change – greenhouse gas reduction initiatives are buried in the middle of other proposals dealing with clean air and helpful hints that homeowners can use to guard against basement flooding (see: Preserving and Protecting our Environment for Future Generations: A Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan,” Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, November 2018).

The Conservatives insist that the policies and programs described in the Plan will lead Ontario to achieving an even less ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target than the one offered up by the Wynne Liberals.  But without identifying any way of measuring success, or even just indicating how much certain actions will contribute to reducing emissions, it’s impossible to determine how the Conservatives arrived at that conclusion.

The Plan’s marquee initiative is the $100 million-a-year Carbon Trust Fund.  It’s similar to the previous Liberal government’s Green Bank initiative.  The only big differences between the Liberal and Conservative plans involve who’ll be paying.  The former Liberal government was intending on using funds collected from industrial polluters via cap and trade, while the current government will fund the initiative largely from the public purse.  And funds that would have been available to homeowners for energy efficiency upgrades will now be restricted to the private sector.  It’s a real lose / lose for the people.

Of course, for the Wynne Liberals, the Green Bank was intended to be one of many tools used as part of a larger, comprehensive plan that included measurable outcomes and pricing carbon pollution (see: “Climate Change Action Plan, 2016,” the Government of Ontario (archived)).  For the Conservatives, the vaguely-outlined Carbon Trust is one of only two prominent tools that will be used to reduce emissions.  And the other tool – regulating industrial pollution via emissions performance standards – has been decried as the most economically inefficient way to reduce emissions. 

Of course, mandating hard caps on industrial pollution can lead to lower emissions.  But the Conservatives’ plan is riddled with “flexibility mechanisms” that translates into  exemptions for specific businesses or entire industrial sectors. Companies will also be offered the option to purchase dubious carbon offsets or to simply pay penalties.  What we’ll end up with isn’t a hard cap at all, but rather a floppy one that could actually lead to a higher level of greenhouse gas emissions.
Making polluters pay by putting a price on carbon pollution is the most economically efficient way to reduce emissions.  But that just wasn’t in the cards for a Conservative government that seems to have a penchant for wasting taxpayer money on nonsense – like spending $30 million to fight the federal government’s carbon pricing initiative.

Worse than all of this, the Plan actually includes measures that will raise emissions, by calling for lower prices on gasoline and natural gas.  It’s Economics 101: lower costs leads to more consumption.  But that’s the plan for both gasoline and natural gas.  And that’s no plan at all for lowering emissions.

Inexplicably, the plan also calls for upping the ethanol content of gasoline to 15%.  When all inputs are considered, ethanol is an emissions wash at best.  But the threat to food security posed by increasing ethanol production means that we should be phasing it out of the gasoline mix altogether (see: Corn Ethanol Will Not Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Scientific American, April 20 2009; and, “The Case Against More Ethanol: It’s Simply Bad for Environment,” C. Ford Runge, YaleEnvironment360, May 25, 2016).

Those helpful hints to prevent basement flooding might actually be the most useful part of the Conservatives’ plan.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published as "Sudbury column: Tory climate plan takes Ontario back to the past," in print and online in the Sudbury Star, December 1, 2018.

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