Ontario’s political climate: How the four parties stack up on the environment

ANALYSIS: Climate change hasn’t been a dominant issue this election season — but the province’s future depends on what our politicians choose to do about it, writes Tim Alamenciak
By Tim Alamenciak - Published on May 24, 2018
Of the 857,155 new vehicles sold in Ontario last year, 7,477 were electric. (iStock.com/jeremyiswild)

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The province is entering a critical period when it comes to climate change. In order to meet our international commitments, dramatic actions have to be taken. The global situation is becoming increasingly dire — in April, the world had its 400th consecutive hotter-than-average month and broke the record for carbon concentration.

And yet the discussion of climate has been muted in this election. The leaders, for example, weren’t asked about it during the first debate. The dialogue has focused more on pocketbook politics than on the looming environmental catastrophe.

The parties have publicly taken positions on pieces of climate policy, and most have fully costed plans. (The Progressive Conservative Party has not yet released a costed platform, though leader Doug Ford has said that one is on the way.) In some cases, similar proposals allow for apples-to-apples comparisons. But there are also stark differences. Here’s a breakdown of three key areas: carbon pricing, transportation, and environmental protections.

Carbon pricing

The Liberals’ cap-and-trade system was put in place in 2016 and is deeply intertwined with the economies of Ontario, Quebec, and California. This plan requires that polluters buy permits from a system in order to release emissions. Under a Liberal government, proceeds from these permits would continue to flow to energy-efficiency programs, retrofits for affordable housing, and the expansion of electric-vehicle infrastructure and incentives.

The NDP would tweak the cap-and-trade program to return 25 per cent of the proceeds to those in areas and demographics at risk of being affected by climate change, like rural, northern and, low-income people. The tweak is a significant one, says Dale Beugin, executive director of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission.

“It's not always the case, but it's often the case that low-income households have disproportionately higher costs. That's the problem they're trying to solve,” says Beugin. The Liberal budget aims to do so by targeting some green subsidies toward lower-income households.

The Green Party would go all in on returning the funds to people. It would phase out cap-and-trade and switch to a carbon tax while implementing a fee-and-dividend system that would return revenue to individuals.

“That provides certainty as to the price of carbon, but not as to ultimate levels of emissions reductions (vice versa for cap-and-trade). But both systems create a carbon price, both will minimize costs overall, and both will drive innovation. So more similar than different,” says Beugin.

PC leader Doug Ford came out of the gate saying he would scrap cap-and-trade and fight the federal government on its carbon tax.

“It's not going to be easy — it's not going to be a simple thing to get out of cap-and-trade,” says Beugin.

Transportation

The Liberal electric-car policy has been a cornerstone of its climate policy — and rightfully so, as about 35 per cent of the province’s emissions are from transportation. Progress, though, has been slow: in 2017, of the 857,155 new vehicles sold in Ontario, 7,477 were electric. There’s a long way to go, and the Liberal budget continues to invest cap-and-trade revenues in this area.

The NDP are looking to land-use planning to drive down transportation emissions, and emphasizing changes in transit. The platform commits to electrifying the GO lines and UP Express, as well as funding 50 per cent of the operating costs of local transit systems.

“The current government’s Growth Plan has made major strides in this direction, and it is great to see the NDP and Greens thinking about other ways to ensure integrated land use and transportation planning,” says Lindsay Wiginton, managing director of the Pembina Institute's transportation and urban solutions team.

Ford has promised to lower gas prices by 10 cents per litre if elected. He has committed $5 billion to funding transit in Toronto (although one estimate indicates that current projects will cost $30 billion) and supporting all-day GO service to Niagara, among other transit projects.

Environmental protections

The biggest headline in environmental protection flows from the federal Liberal commitment to direct $1.3 billion in funding toward designating 17 per cent of Canadian land as protected by 2020.

“We have a lot of catching up to do, and I'm encouraged that the parties, at least three of them, have biodiversity as part of their platform,” says Anna Baggio, senior staff member and director of conservation planning for Wildlands League, a chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Currently, about 11 per cent of land in Ontario is protected, says Baggio.

The Liberals, NDP, and Green parties all committed to meeting the 17 per cent goal in their responses to a survey sent out by Green Prosperity. The PCs did not respond to the Green Prosperity survey, but leader Doug Ford did briefly suggest opening parts of the Greenbelt to development before walking back the idea amid widespread opposition.

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