Saturday, August 10, 2019

Motions on Council's Agenda a Microcosm of Conflicting Vision for Our Future

They sit together, side by side, on the agenda for the upcoming August 13, 2019 meeting of the Council of the City of Greater Sudbury. Two motions that represent a microcosm of the cultural divide that we find ourselves in at the end of the Oil Age.

The first motion, M-3, calls on staff to produce a report for that identifies ways that the City can collaborate with local partners who have an expertise in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. The preamble for the motion provides the rationale: dealing with climate change is a strategic priority for the City. And although not specifically stated in M-3, there is the reality that both our federal and municipal governments have just recently acknowledged that we are living in a time of climate emergency.

The second motion, M-4, calls on staff to prepare a different kind of report. This report will assess what tools the City has available to make gasoline prices less expensive, including the use of price controls. The motive behind this motion, too, appears in the preamble: rising gasoline prices are making life less affordable for citizens.

Two motions. One, looking pragmatically forward to the future, laying the groundwork for the paradigm shift that is already underway thanks to global heating. The other, mired in a past that we simply can't afford to cling to – the notion that 'cheap oil' is something to strive for at all costs – even to the point of serious government intervention in the marketplace to keep prices down.

The argument for inexpensive fossil energy is compelling – who doesn't like paying less for something? Especially when that something appears to be a product we have little choice but to buy due to a lack of alternatives. We all have to put gasoline in our cars, right?

Well, no. That's not actually how it works. When gasoline prices rise, people generally drive less. In 2008, when gasoline prices exploded, leading to a global recession, people still drove, but perhaps by combining trips, car-pooling, or just opting to walk or bike for some trips – they drove less. Clearly for many people and families, there were alternatives to driving as much as they were used to.

Upward pressures on gasoline prices are helpful in reducing emissions. That's one of the reasons that carbon pricing works. That's good for the climate and – perhaps surprisingly to some – it's good for most Ontarians, especially those with lower incomes, because proceeds from the federal government's back-stop program are credited back to every household through a tax rebate. For example, this year my family received a rebate of $345. By 2022, that will rise to $807. That's more money in our pockets that we can choose to use to address rising prices at gasoline pumps. Or we can drive a little less and come out ahead. We've opted for the latter and have discovered the benefits of walking and cycling to some of our destinations.

Of course, the federal backstop is an intervention in the marketplace. Sin taxes are imposed on cigarettes and alcohol – legal products that nevertheless have significant costs to society. Part of those efforts have been to discourage purchases, and they've worked. Every decade, there are fewer smokers.

Governments also massively subsidize the fossil fuel industry. A study released earlier this summer showed that in Ontario alone, these subsidies amounted to $700 million annually. Throughout Canada, subsidies are estimated to be over $2 billion a year.

Times are changing. Governments are getting out of the subsidy game for fossil energy. There's simply too much at stake to continue to justify marketplace interventions or even direct investment. Not when we know that the only way to avoid global catastrophe is to switch from fossil energy to non-greenhouse gas emitting sources.

Here in Greater Sudbury next Tuesday, our Council will be asked to invest our own scarce municipal resources to support two starkly different visions for the future. This tug-of-war between the future and the past isn't unique to our city. It's playing itself out globally. If I were a betting man, I would always bet on the future. I hope our Council does too.


Text from Aug 13 Council Meeting Agenda

M-3. Collaborating With ReThink Green Regarding Climate Change

As presented by Councillors McCausland and McIntosh:

WHEREAS Climate Change is a strategic priority of City of Greater Sudbury Council;

AND WHEREAS a number of City staff are developing a variety of approaches for inclusion in 2020 work plans to address Council’s desired outcomes;

AND WHEREAS reThink Green is an organization with valuable resources, relationships with other organizations and experience that can support Greater Sudbury Council’s desired outcomes for climate change;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Greater Sudbury directs staff to prepare a report no later than the fourth quarter of 2019 describing potential approaches for collaborating with reThink Green, with business cases incorporated in the 2020 Budget as appropriate, for Council’s consideration.

M-4. Request For Report Regarding Retail Price of Gasoline

As presented by Councillor Kirwan:

WHEREAS the retail price of gasoline in the City of Greater Sudbury has consistently been higher than prices in other major municipalities across the Province of Ontario;

AND WHEREAS the additional retail cost of gasoline is reducing the amount of disposable income that local residents have available;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Greater Sudbury directs the Chief Administrative Officer to present a report for Council’s consideration, at the earliest possible time, which would set out the following:

a) An explanation as to why the retail price level in Greater Sudbury is higher than the provincial average;

b) Options designed to put downward pressure on the local retail price of gasoline; and

c) The possibility of imposing some form of price control on retail gasoline establishments operating in the City of Greater Sudbury.

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

Originally published online and in print as, "May: Council has conflicting visions for Sudbury’s future in oil," at the Sudbury Star, Saturday August 9, 2019 - without Background.