Platform Primer: Environment
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Platform Primer: Environment

In the run-up to the provincial election on October 6, we’ll be comparing the major parties’ platforms on issues that matter to urban voters.

The environment is highly charismatic; it keeps us from dying and also is pretty and you can ride snowmobiles through it. Because the provincial government plays a big role in defining environmental policies, at election time all parties have to at least feign interest in eco-issues. Here’s how they stack up this time around.

The Liberals want to brand themselves as the greenest of the green, the key example of their greenness being the variously maligned and praised Green Energy Act of 2009. Among other things, the GEA looks to foster the growth of eco-friendly energy technologies via feed-in tariffs, which guarantee the payment of above-market rates for electricity from renewable sources. Following criticism that the policy was making the lightning juice unaffordable for families, the McGuinty government introduced the Clean Energy Benefit, which gives back 10 per cent of your hydro bill in the most confusing possible way. The rebate distorts the real cost of electricity, but plays well in technology-drunk 21st century households.

McGuinty’s government also brokered the famous Samsung deal, which would theoretically see the Korean electronics giant create 16,000 green energy jobs in return for guaranteed electricity sales and $437 million in incentives over 25 years. The agreement has been controversial, with the Conservatives calling it a “sweetheart deal” that won’t stimulate employment and will cost Ontarians dearly (the estimated cost is around $1.60 per year per hydro bill).

The Grits have placed their big bet on efforts to turn Ontario into the Silicon Valley of alt-energy, but they’ve also promised other green initiatives if re-elected. Their platform includes a Great Lakes Protection Act, which would put $52 million into cleaning up the lakes and reducing lagoon monster attacks on our beaches. They also say they’ll expand the Greenbelt, the 1.8 million acres of southern Ontario countryside that hasn’t yet been absorbed into the Greater Toronto Empire. While no details have been announced on the latter, it’s worth noting that the Greenbelt was an initiative from McGuinty’s first term in office.

Progressive Conservatives
Environment? What environment? While the Conservatives count “Environment” as one of a list of issues on their site, they don’t seem to have much interest in it beyond a bunch of blah-blah boilerplate about keeping things non-toxic for the grandkids.

Their first bullet point on the issue says a Tim Hudak government would shut down all coal-fired plants in Ontario, which is admirable but is just following the plan initiated by the McGuinty government several years ago and now well underway. Still it’s fun to watch the Tories try and take credit for the idea and engage in curmudgeonly harrumphing about how the program is behind schedule and they could have done it way better.

Other stay-the-course promises include “protect(ing) all programs that safeguard water quality” and “support(ing) local conservation efforts in protecting Ontario’s rivers”; weasely non-commitments that amount to standing outside Queen’s Park shaking green pom-poms and shouting “Go, go Lakes and Rivers!”

Tim and the Tories note that climate change is a “global challenge,” which can be loosely translated as “somebody else’s problem.” With that in mind they promise vaguely to work with other governments and unspecified “international partners” to “ensure Ontario is doing its part.” Glad that’s fixed, then.

The PCs do like the parts of the environment you can drive to in RVs and drink beer in, so they’ll throw 10 million dollars into the Ontario park system, as well as put some money into land acquisition for the Bruce Trail.

Most cynically, the Tories say that “there is an environmental element to many of our policies,” and offer up their commitment to reducing traffic congestion as an example. And how will they fight traffic jams? Elsewhere in their platform, they borrow a populist platitude from Mayor Rob Ford and promise to end “the war on the car” by building more roads, a policy for which the environmental element is less obvious to the casual observer than to the Hudak communications team.

Tim Hudak also says he would unilaterally scrap the Samsung green energy deal, and has hinted he’d like to stop new wind farms being planned for the province.

The New Democrats took some flak early in the campaign when they echoed the Tories by calling for cuts to gas and electricity prices through removal of the provincial portion of the HST. Disappointed environmentalists shook their bearded, bandannaed heads and pointed out that artificially low energy prices send the wrong market signals and discourage conservation, making it an odd policy for a traditionally eco-friendly party.

Since then, leader Andrea Horwath and the New Democrats have gone on the offensive to prove that orange is green, producing a document called “Affordable Green Choices” (all NDP policy document now include the word “affordable”—a move intended to combat the  slanders of  Sun  blog-commenters who view New Democrats as socialist spendthrifts throwing taxpayer money around like drunk welfare moms at a global warming conference).

As a government, the NDP would promote the feed-in-tariff program for small, local projects, but would also honour existing green energy commitments, including the Samsung deal.

Like both Liberals and Tories the NDP would mothball Ontario’s coal-fired power plants. Unlike the competition, they would put a moratorium on new nuclear power projects until the costs and risks could be more thoroughly evaluated. In the meantime, they say they’d put the money earmarked for nukes into retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, which is a lot cozier.

The NDP aren’t all about the carrots though; they’d also carry a stick. They devote a significant chunk of the their environmental platform to talking about punitive measures against big polluters, and to ending deals that allow developers to creep into greenbelt areas.

Horwath and company don’t like climate change, and would bring Ontario into the Western Climate Initiative. The WCI is a group of regional governments and related organizations across North America who have stopped waiting for the feds to do anything useful and are acting locally, notably through a cap and trade emissions program scheduled to begin next year.

Green Party
Environmental issues are the Green’s sandbox, and they cover all the bases with the enthusiasm and 30,000 foot view of a party that isn’t going to get elected. (That said, they are learning how to play the political game, and refer to “affordable” energy as often as they do to “sustainable” energy.)

Specifics of the Green dream include an unsurprising aversion to nuclear power, and a focus on “flexible, decentralized and community-based energy production.” Given Ontarians’ rush to NIMBYism over gas-fired plants and windmills, it’s hard to imagine communities welcoming a biomass plant down by the neigbourhood daycare, but the idea is consistent with the Green philosophy of organizing and operating services at a local level.

They’d keep some form of the feed-in-tariff but oppose what they call backroom deals with multinationals, like the Samsung contract. Whether they’d bust the deal if they formed a government isn’t clear, but it’s moot in any case. The Greens and their leader, Mike Schreiner, also advocate spending time and dollars on conservation rather than developing expensive infrastructure that doesn’t provide an equivalent return on investment.

Much of the Green platform is high-level, and possibly impractical, like: “Remove barriers so entrepreneurs can save us money with innovative technologies in conservation, efficiency and a new smart grid.” Great in principal, but fraught with hyper-optimistic assumption about hypothetical entrepreneurs and magic technologies being held back only by government red tape. Equally uncertain is “Pursue a secure and financially responsible energy supply,” a goal easy to agree with but harder to achieve.

The platform document doesn’t speak extensively to measures against climate change, but the Greens do advocate a price on carbon emissions. They also aren’t ready to go to war with cars, acknowledging that a lot of people need them to get around, but as a compromise offer up subsidies on fuel-efficient and electric vehicles.

The Upshot
You’ve got to admire the Grits for rolling the dice on green energy in a tough economy, but whether it’s a boondoggle or a Prius ride to prosperity probably won’t be clear for a decade. We give credit to the Liberals for wanting to do the right thing: they’ve consistently promoted a green agenda through their terms in office and have implemented some commendable programs. However, they’re also politicians first, and have displayed a pusillanimous streak when faced with real opposition, backing down on wind farms in Scarborough and during the “eco-fee” fiasco of 2010.

The Tories, who’ve never seen a parcel of greenery that wouldn’t look better with a Home Depot on it, are betting that voters are more interested in job creation than planet saving. Their campaign materials convey a sense that they think the whole eco-thing is a little effete, to be trotted out only under pressure and with some embarrassment, like that scarf your wife made you wear when you went to Montreal.

The NDP got off to a rocky start with their call to make driving cheaper, but have since recovered and arguably have the most comprehensive environmental platform of any party likely to see the inside of Queen’s Park this year. If the Grits or Tories end up forming a minority government, some NDP ideas are likely to come to the fore in the inevitable horse-trading.

The Greens, are well, green. Their environmental platform is more visionary and far-reaching than the others and consequently less likely to buy them a seat in the legislature. However, they’re still doing what Greens do best, which is introducing radical concepts that eventually get picked up and mainstreamed by the larger parties. And good for them.