Sacrificing the Planet for the Car

The section of the Ford Government’s Get it Done Act that has received the most attention is its requirement that the current and future Ontario governments hold a referendum before introducing a carbon tax. The Ford Government wants to demonstrate yet again its bona fides as opponent of the carbon tax. The act even states (Schedule 5, section 7 (2)) that if another party forms a government and holds a referendum, a vote supporting a tax cannot require it to enact the tax.

This section of the act is also targeting the new Liberal Party leader Bonnie Crombie, attempting to force her either to maintain her support for the carbon tax, dating to her service as a Liberal MP between 2008 and 2011 (which the Ford Government thinks is the political third rail), or to disavow the carbon tax, thereby showing her as an opportunist and flip-flopper. Crombie’s response, a variant of “a carbon tax if necessary but not necessarily a carbon tax,” is appropriate for a new opposition party leader in the middle of the government’s mandate. Political posturing aside, the act can be seen as part of the Ford Government’s consistent policy of sacrificing the environment to privilege automobile use.

An Environmentalist in his own Mind

The Ford Government doesn’t indulge in outright climate change denial. Rather, it argues that it is reducing Ontario’s carbon footprint because of its decisions regarding three major projects: building public transit in Toronto, especially the Ontario Line; refurbishing Ontario’s nuclear reactors in Darlington and Pickering; and contributing $500 million in loans and grants to enable the ArcelorMittal Dofasco steel mill in Hamilton to replace coal-burning with electric ovens. These are all long-term projects; the steel mill renovation is planned to finish in 2028 and the Ontario Line planned to open in 2031. They are also projects that Ontario governments of any political stripe would have undertaken. Given Toronto’s overburdened road system, it would be inconceivable not to expand public transit. The nuclear power plants make up the largest component of Ontario’s electric energy grid. The federal government decided to provide support to convert the Dofasco steel mill before the province did.

But the beneficial impact of these projects is being undercut in two major ways in the near term – that is, within the scope of Ford Government’s current mandate and even its next.

The Ford Government is building natural gas plants as transition to and backup for the refurbished nuclear plants. But it has done absolutely nothing to support the development of solar or wind technology, both of which are cheaper than nuclear energy and unlike natural gas plants, do not emit greenhouse gases. The McGuinty Government achieved a major reduction in Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions by replacing coal-fired electrical generation with natural gas, but natural gas itself should be replaced with zero-emission technologies.

The All-Powerful Automobile

The Ford Government’s cumulative record of privileging and prioritizing cars and drivers is now deeply ingrained and, if you are concerned about their impact on greenhouse gasses, local air pollution, and traffic congestion, extremely depressing. In addition to its continued opposition to a carbon taxes, its record includes:

  • Reducing the gasoline tax from 14.7 cents per litre to 9 cents per litre from before the 2002 election until June 30, 2024 and likely beyond (stay tuned for the budget this spring).
  • Eliminating vehicle licence fees in 2022 and now automatically renewing vehicle licences,
  • Fast-tracking environmental review of highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass,
  • Committing to not imposing road tolls anywhere except on Highway 407,
  • Providing minimal support for purchasers of low-emission vehicles (only permitting them to use HOV lanes regardless of the number of people in the car).

The Ford Government ignores automobile use as environmental and congestion issues, but rather treats driving as a cost-of-living issue. It has some policy levers in this area, such as taxation and regulation. Politically, the Ford Government sees drivers, especially in Toronto’s 905 suburbs, as an important constituency to be courted.

Environmental groups and the political opposition have argued that Highway 413 would be unnecessary if the government shifted truck traffic from Highway 401 to Highway 407, which it could readily do by subsidizing their tolls. This subsidy would cost the government less than building Highway 413. It and the Bradford Bypass both have significant and detrimental environmental impacts, which the Ford Government wants to ignore in a quick-and-dirty environmental review process. Road tolls could be used to reduce congestion and fund investment in public transit, rather than using the government’s capital budget. Though the Ford Government hasn’t released the details of how it plans to make licence renewal automatic, it seems to me that it runs the risk of encouraging drivers to counterfeit or obscure licence plates to avoid both Highway 407 tolls and red-light cameras.

With the Ford Government’s legislative majority, the Get it Done Act will itself get done. But much of the “it” isn’t worth doing. That is the case environmental groups, citizen’s groups, and the opposition must make now and in the next election campaign.

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