Canada is among the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas polluters. CNS file photo

Cathy Majtenyi: Ontario strikes big blow against a healthy world

  • July 24, 2018

It’s the timing that makes Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cap-and-trade announcement particularly ironic.

In the middle of a heat wave that broke records worldwide and claimed 70 lives in Quebec, Ford pulled the plug on a 2017 program meant to combat climate change by limiting the amount of greenhouses gases that businesses and institutions can emit. 

One of the major greenhouse gases — so named because of their ability to trap heat in the atmosphere — is carbon dioxide, the main driver behind human-induced climate change. Carbon dioxide is released by the burning of coal, oil, natural gas and other fossil fuels, in addition to natural processes.

Companies emitting less carbon dioxide than their limit, or cap, had the option of selling carbon allowances to companies that exceeded the amount of carbon dioxide they were allowed to release.

The projected $1.9 billion generated each year through this “cap-and-trade” system was to fund initiatives that would reduce greenhouse gas pollution by an estimated 18 million tonnes in 2020.

Canada is among the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas polluters, emitting around three times the global average per person.

Ford’s campaign promise to axe what he calls a “wasteful cap-and-trade carbon tax regime” became reality in his July 3 statement: “Our focus will be to give people lower gas prices, lower energy bills and a real break in their wallets in order to get our economy going and create jobs.”

It’s the old environment vs. economy battle, an enjoy-now-and-pay-later way of living.

Yes, assuming oil companies co-operate, we could save up to 10 cents per litre at the pump. A Toronto Sun report estimates that businesses have charged their customers $2 billion more each year because of carbon pricing. Again, assuming companies co-operate by lowering their prices, the end of cap-and-trade could translate into savings for consumers.

But what lies ahead may offset these immediate savings.

Ontario companies have spent almost $3 billion in now useless cap-and-trade allowances. Will those companies demand a full refund from the government? Will consumers and businesses investing in energy-efficient technologies receive their promised rebates? 

How will the cancellation of the program affect Ontario’s environmental and clean-tech industry, which generates $8 billion in annual revenues and employs 65,000 people? Already, there are many reports of such businesses planning to leave Ontario or reduce their operations.

And Ontario will get taxed anyway. Come January, the feds will impose a $20 per tonne carbon tax on Ontario if there’s no program. The federal government is also reviewing a $420 million fund allocated to Ontario under the Low Carbon Economy Leadership Fund.

The real numbers that aren’t being factored in here are the costs to the environment of continuing our unsustainable lifestyles. These include rising temperatures that continue to break records, receding Arctic sea ice cover and increased acidity in the ocean.

These and other trends combine to create and exacerbate a volatile, degraded environment in which droughts, flooding, heat waves and many other disruptions are becoming the norm. Claims associated with natural disasters are costing Canadian insurers about $1 billion per year, up from $400 million in earlier decades. The record was $4.6 billion in 2016.

If science has shown us the connection between atmospheric greenhouse gases and climate change, and if we can do something to reduce or at least level off these gases, why aren’t we?

Even if the previous government’s attempts were “wasteful,” even if we’re unsure about the details of the science — made more difficult now that Ford fired chief scientist Molly Shoichet — we still bear responsibility.

This is through our biblical, Catholic call to be responsible stewards of our natural environment. Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ pays particular attention to what he refers to as the “common good” — climate — and the devastating impacts of climate change, especially on the poor.

“Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it,” he writes.

“There is an urgent need to develop policies so that, in the next few years, the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases can be drastically reduced, for example, substituting for fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy.”

Ontario’s cap-and-trade program was one such policy. We need to either reinstate it or replace it with something that will bring about the carbon dioxide reduction described by Pope Francis if we are to realize a healthy, prosperous, just world. 

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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