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Ontario Environmental Commissioner speaks of climate planning in the past tense

by Mark Sabourin
EcoLog, 9/28/2018 2:09:00 PM

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s 2018 Greenhouse Gas Progress Report, “Climate Action in Ontario: What’s Next?”, tears a strip off the government for taking a wrecking ball to climate policies without any plan for a replacement.

“The previous government did a very poor job explaining to people what they had done or why they were doing things,” Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Dianne Saxe told EcoLog News, referring to the climate-related policies of the former Ontario government, most of which were swiftly axed by its successor with apparent widespread public approval.

In a stiffly-worded response to the report, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks Rod Phillips reminded the Commissioner that the government won its large majority in part on the back of its clear commitment to kill the cap-and-trade cornerstone of the province’s climate plan.

“Any suggestion that we should pursue policies that betray commitments we made to the people is not well taken,” he wrote in his response to the report.

During the election campaign, the Progressive Conservatives argued that the policies were not working. They were, says Saxe.

“By 2016, our greenhouse gas emissions fell to the lowest level ever reported, while Ontario’s population and economy grew,” Saxe says. Cap-and-trade proceeds, which the Progressive Conservatives labelled a slush fund during the election campaign, were in fact mostly directed to support fossil fuel efficiency programs, says Saxe. Those initiatives are now on hold. Putting an end to green energy programs means that 752 contracted green energy projects have been cancelled, she adds.

The business community has remained relatively quiet on the issue, but privately it admits the change has been very disruptive, she says. Businesses had made long-term plans on the assumption that cap-and-trade programs would remain in place. “It’s an enormous amount of effort. They’ve been left high-and-dry,” says Saxe.

“We had a climate law and programs that were working,” says Saxe. “Now we don’t.”

Ontario does have a new climate law in the works: Bill 4, the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act, 2018. It received first reading on July 25, 2018 in the Legislature and is open for comment on the Environmental Registry of Ontario until October 11, 2018. Saxe calls it “much too weak,” lacking emission targets, an obligation to meet them, and a transparent reporting mechanism.

Unless the federal government has a change of heart, come January 1, 2019, carbon pricing will return to Ontario through the federal backstop mechanism. Money raised in the province will be returned to the province. Ottawa appears to favour returning that money in the form of a cash dividend to households, but Saxe says Ontario might regain some of what was lost if it were returned as incentives through programs that replaced those lost in the cap-and-trade cancellation.

“I know there’s lots of lobbying going on about that,” says Saxe.

Much has been lost, but Saxe says the new Ontario government still has policy options to address climate change. It can aggressively promote conservation, expand interconnections with the Quebec grid, phase out fossil fuel subsidies, adopt stringent polluter-pay principles, but most importantly, begin taking action as quickly as it can.

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