The Green party’s big gamble on climate policy

OPINION: TVO.org speaks with Green leader Mike Schreiner and deputy leader Dianne Saxe about their election 2022 climate plank and why they think voters want an honest plan — even if it costs them
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 28, 2021
From left to right: Green party leader Mike Schreiner (Globe and Mail); deputy leader Dianne Saxe. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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The Green Party of Ontario released its climate plan for the 2022 election on Thursday morning, only days before the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference begins in Glasgow. In it, the Greens pledge that, if they were to form government, they’d implement an Ontario-based carbon tax that would increase to $300 per tonne by 2032 (under the current law, it’s set to go up to $170 per tonne by 2030).

While that carbon tax, much like the current federal one, would be rebated back to taxpayers and businesses, the Greens have big plans, and they want to implement them with $65 billion in new spending over the four years of the next legislature: they estimate that road tolls and parking levies would bring in $14.5 billion in new money — more than 20 per cent of the total and more than twice what the Greens are proposing to bring in through a “green surcharge on top earners.”

So, the party is promising a much larger carbon tax and multiple new fees that would make it more expensive to drive or own a car. I asked Green leader Mike Schreiner: Is he actually trying to win the next election? (To his credit, he laughed at the joke.)

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“We need an honest plan,” Schreiner said when TVO.org spoke with him and his deputy leader, Dianne Saxe, on Wednesday. “This lays out an honest, doable plan for how we can meet our climate obligations and do it in a way that leaves no one behind.”

Nobody can accuse the Greens of not thinking big: they want to double the size of the province’s electricity system so that it can accommodate a huge shift from fossil fuels to clean electricity for such things as transportation (moving people from gas-powered vehicles to battery-powered ones) and heating buildings. The party’s previously announced housing plan features prominently, because land-use policy is climate policy — something Saxe was saying back when she was the province’s environmental commissioner.

“I reported to the Ontario legislature in my very last report — two days before my office was silenced — about the critical role sprawl plays in driving up climate emissions and environmental destruction, as well as locking us into the worst commutes in North America,” Saxe said. “It’s bad for everything I care about, and it’s totally unnecessary.”

The plan also includes setting a provincial carbon budget in law — something Schreiner introduced earlier this week as a private member’s bill, which will be debated Thursday at the legislature. A carbon budget estimates how much net new greenhouse gas Ontario can emit while still meeting the (Green plan) commitment to get to net zero by 2045; the Greens allow for 1,630 megatonnes between now and then. Schreiner’s bill would set deadlines between now and then for reducing GHGs and require the environment minister to pay 10 per cent of their salary for missing the deadlines set out in the law. (The Tories did something similar when they introduced a budget-deadline-related penalty for the premier and finance minister.)

Much of the rest of the plan involves elements that will be relatively familiar because they’ve appeared in the plans of other parties or in previous Green documents: accelerating the uptake of electric vehicles, encouraging the broader use of transit, retrofitting existing buildings to be more energy efficient, and requiring new buildings to be energy efficient. Schreiner and Saxe emphasized that their plan relies on known, existing technologies and policies to achieve its GHG reductions.

“Betting the planet on magic is a bad idea,” Saxe said. “We need a rapid acceleration of the things we already know how to do.”

But technically possible is not the same thing as easy or attractive for consumers (or else it would have happened already), which is why the plan also calls for helping households and businesses finance the transition to clean energy.

“The government can’t pay for everything, but the government has a role in easing the first step,” Saxe said. “The key to bringing the cost down is scale, and the key to scaling up fast is government.”

The political reality of Ontario in October 2021 is that the Greens are unlikely to form the next government — they’re currently polling in single digits, and Schreiner might not even keep his seat in Guelph, much less get such candidates as Saxe elected. But winning on June 2 isn’t the only way for the Greens to influence policy. At the Liberal party’s annual general meeting this month, Liberal leader Steven Del Duca specifically told his own partisans to take a look at the Green housing platform, saying it  “includes ideas that should be seriously considered.”

Schreiner said he wouldn’t mind if his party’s ideas were to make it into government policy only through some judicious plagiarizing by a larger party — far from it.

“One of the things Greens have always done, historically, is put out honest, good public policy, and we’re always happy to have other parties steal it,” he said. “Because our primary motivation is to improve the lives of people, not to play political games.”

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