Photo: Ontario acknowledges climate urgency

(Credit: Al_HikesAZ via Flickr)

By Gideon Forman; Climate Change Policy Analyst

In a recent Globe and Mail article, columnist Jeffrey Simpson attacked Ontario's climate plan, writing that it will be complicated and inflexible and will rely "on government to force-feed change." Putting aside the fact that the authorized version of the plan has not even been released yet — all we have at this point is a leaked document obtained by the Globe — the criticisms seem unfair. While some aspects of the plan are problematic, much of it appears highly beneficial.

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The plan would invest some $7 billion over four years in a variety of climate-change mitigation projects, including a program to help homeowners transition from natural gas to geothermal or electric heating, initiatives to boost the province's commuter-rail network and efforts to create protected lanes for bicycles. The plan also outlines targets for electric-vehicle sales, saying that by 2025 up to 12 per cent of vehicles sold in the province must be EVs. Perhaps the most audacious aspect of the strategy is its requirement that, from 2030 onward, new homes must be kept warm with electric-powered or geothermal heat exchange equipment.

Money to pay for the plan will come from the new cap-and-trade system, which is projected to generate about $1.9 billion annually from the sale of carbon-pollution permits to business.
Is a program of this scale likely to be complicated? Of course. But complexity is a feature of many important systems — parliamentary democracy and public health care, to name just two. It's hardly a fatal flaw.

Will the plan be inflexible? This criticism of Simpson's is unfair because flexibility (or its opposite) only becomes clear after a system has had a chance to run for a while and face real-life challenges. Prior to launch, we can't answer this question with any accuracy.

Is the government guilty of "force-feeding" change? It's not obvious what Simpson means by this phrase, but if he's suggesting Ontario is giving business insufficient time to transition he's mistaken. Under the plan, many industries will receive four years of pollution permits without charge. No one can accuse this government of neglecting the needs of Bay Street. In fact, if anything, its approach to business is too generous; two years of free permits would have been more than enough.

Or, is climate-action being rammed down the public's throat? It hardly seems that way. Over time we'll pay a little more for fuel and change how we heat our homes and travel from place to place. But the changes will happen gradually — the requirement that homes be heated without natural gas won't kick in for over a decade — and the transition will be facilitated through government grants and rebates. Perhaps most important, the majority of Ontarians give cap-and-trade a thumbs-up. Polling done by Angus Reid in 2015 found it's supported by nearly seven in 10 Ontarians (68 per cent). When people endorse a system, it's difficult to argue they're being force-fed.

It's not clear why Simpson, who has strong environmental sympathies, would give the climate plan such a poor grade. It's not perfect, of course, but it is remarkable in acknowledging the urgency of our climate situation and suggesting appropriate responses. In particular, its proposal to phase out natural-gas heating is exemplary. If this is acted on — and divisions among cabinet ministers make this a question mark — it will be a signature achievement.

The best science tells us that if we are to avoid climate catastrophe, the bulk of our fossil fuels need to be left in the ground. Here we have a government that seems to understand this imperative and is taking the first steps toward its realization.

May 25, 2016

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