Within days of their June electoral triumph, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives proudly declared cap and trade dead. As per their campaign platform.
Promise made, promise kept.
Not to worry, the governing Tories quickly pledged: We will find a better way one day.
That day was Thursday, when the PCs unveiled their long-awaited climate change proposals to replace cap and trade — and displace a federal carbon tax. But after all this time, Doug Ford has revealed himself as a man without an environmental plan — merely a premier with a prop, trying to buy time.
Promise made, promise procrastinated.
But it also reverses the onus: Rather than imposing a price on carbon pollution as a cost of doing business, the Tories are shifting the burden to taxpayers by making them subsidize big business.
Instead of polluters paying up, polluters are being paid off with $400 million in corporate carbon welfare that comes at taxpayers’ expense. Turns out that the premier’s famous “axe the tax” slogan served to disguise a bait-and-switch ploy that lets big business escape unscathed — taking the hatchet to taxpayer’s pocketbooks while slashing environmental protection.
Ontario’s “Government for the People” has produced a “Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan” that tries to reinvent the wheel on climate change only to roll us backwards. Neither a robust action plan nor a coherent statement of principles, it is an unprincipled manifesto of inaction, setting aspirational targets (downsized from before) without any rational way of achieving them.
The document begins by declaring “Ontario responsible for less than 0.4 per cent of global emissions,” as if our small population base somehow diminishes our moral responsibility as one of the planet’s highest per capita energy consumers (at the very time we are trying to dissuade the developing world from matching our unsustainable consumption patterns). It goes on to argue that Ontarians have already done their part by eliminating coal-fired power generation, putting us “on track” to meet our obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
That is a misreading of the trend line. Removing coal gave us a head start, as did the shift from manufacturing to a more diversified economy, but that was in many ways the low-hanging fruit; the heavy lifting in this province remains carbon emissions from transportation, which might have been better addressed through a cap-and-trade scheme that redeployed billions of dollars in emissions allowances to invest in public transit.
Instead, a Progressive Conservative government that regularly rages against red tape is returning to a regulatory framework — and a reliance on tax dollars — for outcomes that could be achieved more cost-effectively through the magic of free-market solutions under cap and trade or a carbon tax (which use price signals to incentivize reduced emissions). The Tories are proposing the Ontario Carbon Trust, “ an emission reduction fund that will use public funds” to encourage compliance.
The new Carbon Trust bespeaks the Tories’ approach — trust us — that brings to mind the Russian saying, “Trust but verify.” For Ford, this is an ideological (and illogical) backflip that betrays the environment, burdens entrepreneurs, and breaks faith with his fellow Tories.
The latest report promises special exemptions for industrial sectors, while stressing: “This approach does not enforce a blanket cap on emissions across Ontario.”
Ontario’s independent environmental commissioner, Dianne Saxe, has decried the new climate proposal for being “one-third as ambitious” as the cap-and-trade program it is replacing. Saxe exhorted the previous Liberal government to do better, and she has encouraged the Progressive Conservatives no less since they took power, but their response was to announce her position will be eliminated.
The Tories not only axed the tax, they sacked Saxe.
Despite the best efforts of Environment Minister Rod Phillips, carbon emissions can’t be converted into pixie dust with the wave of a political wand. Phillips knows that, of course, because he publicly supported a carbon tax for Ontario until Ford won the party leadership and reversed course.
Handed an impossible assignment, Phillips has opted to rag the puck. Thursday’s proposal puts off the day of reckoning by promising more industry consultations, and further study, before coming up with a final plan.
Time’s up. Ontario has already missed Ottawa’s deadline for coming up with a coherent pricing scheme for greenhouse gas emissions (which would exempt the province from the federal carbon tax backstop, as the cap-and-trade program would have until Ford axed it).
Instead, the Tories are putting their faith in failed alternatives that have already fallen flat in Australia and Saskatchewan. And they are pandering to a partisan base that, according to recent polling, is deeply divided about the causes of climate change and possible remedies — unlike Ontarians at large who want action now.
Promise made. Unsurprisingly, an unpromising plan.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn