‘They’re making it free to pollute’: Environment Minister Catherine McKenna rejects Ontario’s ‘backwards’ climate policy

OTTAWA — Environment Minister Catherine McKenna spurned Ontario’s “backwards” climate plan Thursday, suggesting Ottawa will push ahead with plans to enforce a carbon tax in Canada’s second-most polluting province.

“All I know about Doug Ford’s plan — Premier Ford’s plan — is that they’re going backwards on climate action, that they’re making it free to pollute,” McKenna told reporters Thursday.

Her comments add to a deepening rift between the federal government and a handful of provinces, who have roundly rejected the Liberal’s plan to introduce a nation-wide carbon tax. McKenna did not explicitly say the Ontario plan failed to meet Ottawa’s goals under the Pan-Canadian Framework, which lays out Canada’s climate targets. However, she voiced no support for the policy, which does not include a carbon tax.

They’re going backwards on climate action, that they’re making it free to pollute

Ontario Environment Minister Rod Phillips unveiled the plan on Thursday, saying it would allow the province to reach its Paris targets “without picking their pockets for a carbon tax like Justin Trudeau wants to do.”

Ottawa has long said that it would enforce a minimum price on carbon in any province that does not do so itself by 2019. In October, the environment minister released the details of its so-called carbon “backstop,” which will be applied in the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick, where no carbon tax is currently in place. Jason Kenney, leader of the opposition United Conservative Party in Alberta, has also vowed to remove various climate policies if he wins the upcoming provincial election, which would further weaken Ottawa’s bid to enforce an economy-wide carbon tax across the country.

Ontario Environment Minister Rod Phillips discusses the government’s climate plan during a press conference at the Cold Creek Conservation Area in Nobleton, Ont. on Thursday, November 29, 2018. Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Phillips said he was “hopeful” McKenna and Trudeau would accept Ontario’s climate policy and also said he hoped that the “dogma about having a carbon tax won’t be as important” if the province can successfully meet its environmental targets.

Ontario lowered its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of its plan Thursday. The province now aims to reduce its carbon footprint 18 megatonnes by 2030, or 30 per cent below 2005 emissions. That is lower than the 37 per cent reduction under the previous provincial government, but is still in line with federal and international goals.

Few details were provided under the Ontario plan as to how the province will reduce emissions. The reduction is mostly expected to come through various regulations that target heavy emitters, rather than a consumer tax that would raise the costs of heating homes or filling up at the pump.

“That means it’s missing a big chunk of the emissions in the economy,” said Chris Ragan, an economist and chair of Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, who said the plan is unlikely to allow the province to meet its targets.

Nobody should ever say that there are no alternatives to carbon pricing

Many economists, including Ragan, argue that carbon taxes are the cheapest way to reduce emissions. But he also acknowledged that carbon taxes are not the only way to reduce emissions.

“Nobody should ever say that there are no alternatives to carbon pricing,” he said. “There are alternatives to carbon pricing—the problem is they cost more.”

A report by the Auditor General in March 2018 found that neither Ottawa nor the provinces are likely to meet their Paris commitments, due to polices that are weak and lacking in detail.

The federal carbon tax will begin in 2019 at a price of $20 per tonne, and rise $10 per year until 2022.