The election platform just released by the Ontario Liberals includes a number of environmental measures. Besides its platform, a governing party will also be judged on its record, and a fair assessment of both the Liberal platform and record would call them good but mixed.
The environmental issue that will probably be most debated up to the election on October 6 will be the Green Energy Act. The centerpiece of the Green Energy Act is the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) program, which allows individuals, companies, municipalities, and cooperatives to sell renewable power into the provincial energy grid at guaranteed rates for the next 20 years. This clean-energy law has already led to billions of dollars of investment in green energy and the creation of thousands of well-paying jobs in the province.
Not surprisingly, the Liberal platform highlights the Green Energy Act and the FIT program. The Progressive Conservatives vow to scrap the FIT program and a contract with Samsung under which the company would invest $7 billion in green energy in exchange for priority access to the grid and favourable rates for its power. The NDP has promised to honour existing contracts (including the Samsung contract) but otherwise limit private sector investment in renewable energy to small FIT projects only, with all future large renewable energy projects being publicly owned.
A coal phase-out is also mentioned in the Liberal platform. Because of past coal-plant closures, Ontario's electricity-related emissions of greenhouse gases and smog-producing pollutants have gone down substantially. Though the legislated deadline for closing the remaining coal plants is 2014, Ontario Power Generation has confirmed that present power production exceeds demand even without the coal-fired power plants, which is why the David Suzuki Foundation and other environmental and health groups have called for a more immediate closure of the remaining coal plants. The Liberals, however, want to uphold the 2014 deadline, as do the Progressive Conservatives. The NDP has committed to an immediate phase-out.
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On the not-so-bright side, though not mentioned in the platform, the Liberals are still intent on investing in new nuclear capacity. The Progressive Conservatives go further by pledging to speed up nuclear power development. The NDP wants to reinvest money earmarked for nuclear power into energy efficiency and conservation, clearly a much better use for that money.
And then there's the Clean Energy Benefit, a 10 per cent rebate that the Liberals will continue to give to energy ratepayers until 2015. As mentioned in my previous blogs, this type of initiative may be good politics but it's terrible policy. Higher energy costs encourage conservation. And if a government is worried about low-income families being squeezed by rising prices — and it should be — then targeted measures such as boosting the Ontario Child Benefit are more effective at addressing poverty. And calling it the Clean Energy Benefit actually perpetuates the myth that clean-energy development is the reason for rising electricity rates, when research shows that implementing clean energy actually costs less. At least the Liberal giveaway is much more modest than the NDP's proposal to cut taxes on power, home heating, and gasoline, and the Progressive Conservative plan to cut the HST on electricity and home heating.
Public transit is also in the Liberal platform, mostly related to past investments, but also proposing expanded GO Train service. Spending on transit has been significant under the Liberals, but the 2010 budget also delayed a further $4 billion investment for five years, introducing unneeded uncertainty for Toronto and other municipalities. Also in the Liberal platform is the huge amount of spending that went into building new roads and highways, something that does not help boost sustainable transportation but does boost air pollution.
What will help reduce transportation-related pollution is the Liberal platform plan that electric cars will make up five per cent of new vehicle sales by 2020. To move Ontario toward that target, the Liberals will invest $80 million in charging stations and offer a rebate for buying an electric vehicle.
Although it isn't mentioned in the platform, a Liberal government would presumably continue to support implementation and enforcement of Ontario's new cosmetic pesticide ban. (It was the Liberals' initiative.) A David Suzuki Foundation assessment ranked Ontario and Nova Scotia as leaders on protecting their citizens from harmful cosmetic pesticides.
The Liberals are also committing to expand southern Ontario's world-class Greenbelt. They have pledged to work with willing municipalities, such as Peel and Halton regions, to protect farmland and green space in one of the fastest growing urban regions in North America.
Finally, the Liberal platform contains proposals that sound good but are quite vague and therefore difficult to assess. These include passing a Green Lakes Protection Act and a Local Food Act and partnering with community groups to get more kids outside to experience nature.
Our conclusion overall is that the Liberals intend to continue some of their good work on environmental protection, though past misplaced investments — notably for nuclear power production, for more roads and highways, and toward an energy rebate — are also proposed to continue.