The Tory climate plan costs less — but that’s because it does less

ANALYSIS: The Progressive Conservatives’ new climate plan makes the government’s priorities clear, and climate policy isn’t one of them, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on November 30, 2018
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Rod Phillips, Ontario’s minister of environment, conservation and parks, unveiled the government’s climate plan in Nobleton on Thursday. (John Michael McGrath)

There’s an odd nugget of advice in the new Tory climate plan, released Thursday afternoon in Nobleton. On page 20 of the document, in an otherwise forgettable passage educating homeowners about how to avoid basement flooding, we find this: "Store your belongings in watertight containers."

Anyone who's had a basement flood can tell you that while watertight containers are extremely useful when the water is up to your knees, they don't do anything to actually prevent the flood. In the language of climate policy, they're a form of adaptation not mitigation — and their mention here highlights a theme that runs through the document unveiled this week by Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks Rod Phillips.

Are we trying to prevent climate change — with serious policy that will direct our economy away from fossil fuels — or have we given up the fight and started focusing simply on trying to make sure people will survive the coming climate change? Both are good ideas, but the government should at least be clear about what their priority is.

When it comes to the urgent need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the Tories have established a goal less ambitious than the one adopted by the Liberals: Ontario now officially aims to reduce its 2005 level of GHGs by 30 per cent by 2030. That’s in line with the Canadian national goal, but Ontario has already come close to achieving it thanks to the closure of coal-fired power plants. Before being ousted in this year's election, the Ontario Liberals had committed the province to a 37 per cent reduction from 1990s levels. The Tories, then, are committing to a future in which we emit 143 megatonnes of GHGs in 2030; the Liberal plan committed to 112 megatonnes.

How will voters judge the government’s success? It’s not clear, as the government’s own projections don’t show the needle moving very much between now and the next election. The government might “succeed” by doing nothing at all. Indeed, Phillips all but conceded that, arguing Thursday that Ontario has done its part to reduce GHG emissions while other provinces have done the opposite.

The irony is that the Progressive Conservatives, after howling about the increase in electricity prices that followed the closure of the coal plants, aren't above taking credit for the environmental benefits now.

And several elements of the allegedly new climate plan have, in fact, been lifted from the Liberals. Encouraging people to use electric heat pumps instead of natural gas for home heating, investing in GO rail, making it easier for people and businesses to install electric-car charging infrastructure — all were Liberal policy points, and all survive in the new Tory plan.

Then there’s the establishment of an “Ontario Carbon Trust,” which will, in theory, match public money with private investment on projects to reduce GHG emissions. It’s easy to imagine, though, that this will function along the lines of the Liberal “slush funds” the Tories used to denounce — as a pipeline that will allow public money to flow to splashy ribbon-cutting events.

There are some interesting new elements in the Tory climate plan. An Australian-style "reverse auction" that sees bidders compete to deliver greenhouse-gas reductions at the lowest possible cost to the government could plausibly reduce emissions — although it hasn't actually succeeded in doing so in Australia. But maybe Ontario will be different? Possibly. But the Tories are committing only $50 million to it out of a total budget of $400 million. (The late Liberal plan boasted billion-dollar spending.)

The program for large industrial emitters is the biggest question mark. Using an "output-based performance standard," the government will be regulating GHG emissions from the province's largest polluters. Large industrial businesses could, for example, be required to buy offset credits or pay fines for excessive emissions. Call it a teeny-tiny cap-and-trade carbon tax, in the language of this government. But the government hasn’t provided a detailed explanation of what the program will actually involve — who it will apply to, how it will be applied, and how much money is in question.

And some of the positive climate impacts the Tories point to are dubious at best. They cite the province’s uploading of the TTC's subway as climate “action” — but shifting responsibility does nothing to reduce GHG emissions from Toronto’s subways (which, unlike GO trains, are already powered by electricity from the province’s relatively clean grid). The Tories won’t have been able to do more than tinker at the margins of the city’s system by 2030, much less the next election in 2022. The Scarborough subway the premier wants to build will actually serve fewer riders, not more — a net climate harm, not a benefit.

The fundamental question the government will need to answer — through actions, not words – is what the actual purpose of this plan is. Most aspects of it have yet to be implemented, and it’s entirely possible that the Tories will simply spend the next four years kicking the can down the road while proclaiming their commitment to the “plan.” Some moves will be both easy and popular — the carbon trust and the reverse auction are really just new ways to spend public money in crowd-pleasing ways.

What’s still up in the air is whether the Tories actually intend to follow through on their plan, or whether it’s just there so that they can tell voters they have one.

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