On Saturday morning, the Ontario New Democrats released a climate plan whose objectives substantially exceed anything the current Progressive Conservative government has to offer. This isn’t terribly surprising, as almost any attempt to take climate policy seriously would have to be better than the current Ontario plan, which Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found will barely do anything by 2030. There are, nevertheless, some important details in the plan, which was presented by NDP leader Andrea Horwath and MPPs Peter Tabuns, Sandy Shaw, and Sol Mamakwa.
Key to the NDP plan is changing Ontario’s approach to carbon pricing (once again). This province had a cap-and-trade system under the Liberals, but the Tories abolished it. Then the federal Liberals imposed a carbon tax under their Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (which the Ontario government and other provinces have challenged in court). Now, the NDP is proposing to revert to a cap-and-trade system, albeit one it says would be “more fair” than the current system.
This would have two immediate effects for Ontario if the NDP were to form government: between 2022 and 2026, it would add a projected $30 billion to the provincial treasury that the NDP would put toward numerous programs. But — and this might cause a prospective government some headaches — it would also mean that Ontarians who currently receive the federal tax rebate no longer would, as the federal price floor starts rising to $170 per tonne by 2030. (The higher carbon price will flow through to consumers as higher gasoline or natural-gas prices whether it’s levied by Ontario or Ottawa, but under the federal plan, consumers get a rebate; they mostly wouldn’t under the NDP plan — that money would flow to Queen’s Park instead, except for a rebate available to people on low incomes and those living in rural and northern areas.)
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Or it might not: the Supreme Court of Canada is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the federal carbon price any day now, and, at least in theory, it’s possible that the feds might be told that their national carbon price is unconstitutional. Even if that worst-case scenario doesn’t materialize, they could be forced to change their plan to reflect a judicial ruling.
For Horwath, this is the virtue of proceeding with an Ontario-made carbon price.
“We use these as guideposts because that’s what in place now,” she said of the federal price on Saturday. “But when we bring in our own plan into place, who knows how much it can expand and grow. I don’t think we should be in any way limited, but we can be practical in terms of implementation. We shouldn’t abdicate our responsibility in Ontario to fight the climate crisis.”
A smaller point in the NDP’s climate plan could potentially have major effects: the party pledges not to “expand Ontario’s nuclear capacity unless cost and waste storage issues are resolved.” This would leave the current refurbishment of the Bruce and Darlington nuclear stations untouched, but future nuclear projects would be subjected to the NDP’s scrutiny and skepticism.
The NDP’s skepticism of nuclear power isn’t new, as both Tabuns and Horwath conceded, but there are two issues a future Ontario government will likely have on its plate: first, the agreement signed with other provinces to develop a small modular reactor for construction here in Ontario. As we’ve explained before, Ontario has something no other province can offer: an environmental assessment that’s survived court challenges all the way up to the Supreme Court, meaning that, once a reactor design has been chosen, the province can proceed reasonably quickly to construction. But it’s not going to happen before the next election, so in theory an NDP government would need to be convinced that the costs would be manageable.
Waste storage is another core issue, and it’s going to be a live one for the next government: just before the pandemic hit Ontario last year, Ontario Power Generation’s long-planned deep geological repository in Bruce County failed to win the support of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, ending that project’s chances of moving forward. But the waste that was going to go in that depository still exists, and the spent nuclear fuel that Ontario has already created still exists, and the waste that our reactors will keep producing at least for another several decades is going to exist, so the province and the federal government (which is responsible for the spent fuel) are going to need to come up with some kind of plan. The federal agency planning for long-term spent-fuel storage is hoping to settle on a preferred site by 2023, but one could realistically be selected at any time over the term of the next government. If nothing else, an NDP government would need to decide whether a deep geological repository meets its threshold for “resolving” nuclear power’s waste issue.
There is much more to the NDP’s climate plan, which can be read in its entirety here. It places a strong emphasis on using climate policy both to create good jobs and to advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. The pledge to massively invest in public transit is welcome, as are the promised supports for electric vehicles. But a lot of those measures are going to be either easy or popular or both, while the items highlighted above could pose some thorny questions for the NDP if it forms government.
In the meantime, the document is useful for voters trying to make up their minds about 2022.
For more, read Steve Paikin’s “The NDP vs. Greens showdown is on.”