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Carbon tax or bust, Ontario watchdog warns

Province can start carbon pricing on own terms or get dragged in later, environmental commissioner says
David Nesseth
EcoLog, 12/7/2012 2:48:00 PM

It’s December 4, 2012. The temperature in Toronto is a record high 16 degrees Celsius (C); yet to the disbelief of Ontario’s environmental commissioner, the province remains carbon tax-free.

A typical fourth of December in Toronto would be hovering around the freezing mark with a high of 3 C. But following the 2011 winter-that-wasn’t — with its warm temperatures and record-breaking lack of snow — typical may be a thing of the past.

“A good day to talk about climate,” assures Gord Miller, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner, as he sits down to unveil his new climate change report from the Queen’s Park media studio.

As Miller speaks, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses an international climate conference on the other side of the world in Qatar. He’s telling environment ministers and climate officials from nearly 200 countries that “the abnormal is the new normal.”

Miller’s “A Question of Commitment — Review of the Ontario Government’s Climate Change Action Plan Results” delves into why exactly the province has hit the wall on climate change, while other countries and Canadian provinces are making progress on reducing greenhouse gases (GHG).

The report title, “A Question of Commitment”, is appropriate, Miller says, because “there’s been no discernible progress since I reported on this file over a year ago,” he tells reporters at the news conference. 

Miller’s report touches on six sectors he says need to be considered when discussing climate change in Ontario: industry, transportation, electricity, buildings, waste and agriculture.

However, Miller’s report and his news conference suggest there is one component glaringly absent from Ontario’s plan to make inroads on GHG reduction — a component utilized in every major Canadian province but Ontario.

“We’re in a competitive world economy,” Miller says, “and there are a lot of economies around the world coming to terms with carbon pricing. And do we want to be left out?”

Alberta, British Columbia (B.C.) and Quebec are all on board when it comes to putting a price on carbon pollution. The United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden have had carbon taxes in place for more than a decade. California, and recently Australia and Japan, have got into the mix.  

To recap the carbon pricing concept, let’s look at the July 2012 plan introduced in Australia. A business that emits more than 25,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually must purchase emissions permits. Down Under that equates to $23 per tonne with an increase of 2.5 per cent per year, until a transition to linking with the European Union Emissions Trading System in 2015–2016.

To Miller, it’s the Ontario government’s lack of engagement on carbon pricing that keeps getting under his skin. He says if only one thing is to be accomplished over the next year, this should be it.

“Ontario has to decide whether it gets on board at a time when we can control our entrance into this, or it can get dragged in at a later date when we can’t set the terms of admission,” Miller warns.

Even corporate leaders are calling for a price on carbon in Ontario, Miller says.

Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent has been critical of some provincial carbon taxes, suggesting they’re not tough enough on heavy polluters. He’s stated that he wants to ensure federal emissions policy gets real results, rather than allowing companies to buy emissions offsets or pay into a fund that can subsequently be accessed by the very companies that paid into it.

A reporter at the news conference asks Miller whether it is appropriate for Ontario to implement carbon pricing while its economy is still shaky.

Miller responds that “British Columbia has lowered its emissions while at the same time lowering taxes with their particular carbon tax.”

B.C.’s economy has outpaced the rest of Canada since it introduced the carbon tax in 2008. Its fossil fuel use is dropping at a record pace, and the province is double the national average in terms of electric vehicle use.  

Miller says 2007 was a pivotal start for Ontario’s fight against climate change, but the province has long since lost the lead to B.C.

In response to whether fiscal restraints could excuse the Ontario government’s lack of “commitment” to fighting climate change, Miller says that reasoning doesn’t hold up. He refers to the province’s cuts to its plan to help create incentives for Ontarians to buy electric vehicles:

“[The province] said, ‘well, we cut the money back ‘cause there wasn’t a large uptake.’ Well, neither was there a big promotion.”

The Ontario government has cut $101 million from the two $164-million Electric Vehicle (EV) Programs and is re-evaluating them because of the slower than anticipated take-up, and the “slowing economy and shrinking revenues.”

Miller’s report also refers to the Green Commercial Vehicle Program. It committed $13.9 million to reduce GHG emissions from commercial fleets, but was cancelled early despite having achieved reductions that were 350 per cent higher than expected.

If Ontario’s moves are predicated on U.S. action, then Miller says that time has come.  He says the U.S. could potentially meet its 2017 GHG targets set in Copenhagen in 2010.

“Where does that put us?” Miller asks of Ontario. “If the United States turns around in a few years and says ‘well, we met out targets. Oh, what happened to Canada? The game goes on, and there have been (GHG) reductions in many countries around the world.”

Miller applauds the Ontario government’s progress on phasing out coal facilities, but otherwise calls the government’s commitment to its Climate Change Action Plan “questionable” and “no longer a priority of government”.

"Decisive action on carbon pricing could reboot the program and provide a rate and elusive win-win-win for the government, economy and the environment,” Miller says.

Any lack of activity makes achieving climate change goals “harder and more expensive”, Miller says. Canada has set a goal of reducing emissions to 607 megatonnes, or 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

In closing his news conference, Miller says he’s eager to know the next Ontario premier’s agenda for climate change.

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