Ontario’s auditor general gives the Tories’ climate plan a failing grade

ANALYSIS: Ontario’s auditor general says the Tory climate-change plan assumes imaginary reductions — and still won’t meet the province’s own targets
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Dec 04, 2019
This year’s annual report from Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk was released Wednesday at Queen’s Park. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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The Tories haven’t actually had a lot of good days on the climate file recently, but the problems they’re facing today are entirely of their own making. It was the Progressive Conservative government that abolished the position of the environmental commissioner and folded that office into the auditor general’s. If the Tories thought that move would defang some of their critics, this year’s annual report from Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, released Wednesday, has proved them wrong.

In its substantial investigation into the “made in Ontario” climate-change plan, announced last year, Lysyk’s office found that the government has substantially overestimated the benefits of its climate policies and (bizarrely, given that this is an allegedly penny-pinching leadership) failed to count any of the broader economic costs. It’s also been crediting itself with the benefits of policies it had already cancelled by the time the climate plan went to press — for example, it’s assumed a massive uptake in electric-vehicle purchases, even though cancelling EV incentives was among the government’s first orders of business.

Lysyk’s investigators established that, internally, the ministry admitted that the climate-plan policies won’t allow the government to meet its 2030 target of a 30 per cent reduction in GHG emissions from 2005 levels, or a provincial total (after cuts) of 143.3 megatonnes. Ontario would need to eliminate 17.6 megatonnes of annual carbon-dioxide emissions to reach that target, but, even if it were to implement all the policies spelled out in the plan, it’d only achieve about 13 megatonnes at most — and perhaps as little as 6.3 megatonnes. And we’re talking about the less stringent — about 30 megatonnes less stringent — target the Tories adopted after abandoning the one they had inherited from the Liberals.

To top it all off, it seems the work Ontario needs to do is only going to get harder: the auditor general had the government re-run its model using more recent and realistic assumptions, and the results are grim. The update raises the “business as usual” estimate of future emissions from 160.9 to 163.6 megatonnes — but, one way or another, the target is to get down to 143.3 megatonnes by 2030.

Ontario’s 2018 GHG emissions were 160.8 megatonnes, and the most optimistic note Lysyk strikes in her report is that the Tories may, if everything works, reduce that number to 150.6 megatonnes. The most pessimistic estimate from the auditor general is that, under the current climate plan, they could end up being as high as 157.3 megatonnes in 2030. That would still put Ontario’s emissions at 23 per cent below its 2005 levels, but nearly all of that be the result of work done before the Tories took power last year.

In short, even an assessment of the climate plan that relies only on the targets the Tories themselves set reveals that it’s not working and cannot work.

This is obviously a problem for anyone in Ontario who’s concerned about mitigating climate change, but it also poses a potential problem for the government — one that will be an issue long before 2030. Ontario and Saskatchewan are going to the Supreme Court of Canada early next year to try to have a federal carbon tax struck down as an unconstitutional infringement of provincial powers. One argument that the province’s lawyers have explicitly made — it turns up at the very beginning of their factum to the court — is that “this case is not about whether action needs to be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Ontario agrees that climate change needs to be addressed, or so say its lawyers: it simply disagrees with the feds on the best way to do so.

This isn’t a minor issue: the claim that the provinces are fully capable of addressing climate change on their own — without federal interference — is central to Ontario’s argument, and the province cites the Tory climate plan as evidence of how it intends to do so without a carbon tax. As of Wednesday, the factual basis for that argument is a shambles, as a non-partisan officer of the Ontario legislature has said that the province could very well achieve next to no substantial reductions under the current plan.

The odds that the province would come away with a victory at the Supreme Court next year were already slim — the federal carbon tax has survived two court challenges at the provincial level — but the auditor general’s report, and the ammunition it gives the defenders of strong climate action, has made them slimmer still.

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