‘Ottawa’ Kevin Libin: The False ‘Choice’ of Kathleen Wynne’s High-Cost, Low-Carbon Utopia
Towards the end of the 86-page “Five Year Climate Action Plan,” officially released by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne on Wednesday, is an artist’s representation of what the province is intended to look like in 2050. Designed like a screenshot of a progressive policy-maker’s utopian video game, there are rows of condos — no sign of any single-family houses — cladded with solar panels and tapping the earth’s geothermal energy for warmth. Towering wind turbines spin overhead helping to power “low-carbon” businesses, bearing trite signs on their buildings like “Kleen Tech” or simply a logo of a green leaf. Commuters are whisked about on electric rail and electric buses. You have to look closely to find the cars being refueled with ethanol and renewable electricity; they’re outnumbered by the bicycles. Trees bloom everywhere, except in a small patch where they’ve been harvested “sustainably.” A sailboat coasts by the shoreline. And in the middle of all of it sits Queen’s Park, the control centre for this perfectly harmonious, carbonless Shangri-La.
This, finally, is the plan that’s been leaking out of Wynne’s government for weeks, early versions reportedly proposing lunacies like eventual bans on natural gas for new homes and policies to prevent Ontarians from owning more than one gas-powered vehicle. Now that it’s arrived, the far-fetched schemes are still there, only now they’re engineered through bribery, not force, deploying thousands of dollars in subsidies to get “less fuel-efficient vehicles off the roads” with handouts for electric-car buyers, and to get homeowners to “purchase and install low-carbon energy technologies such as geothermal heat pumps and air-source heat pumps, solar thermal and solar energy generation systems.” Possibly Wynne and her even more ideological minister of environment and climate change, Glen Murray, realized from the intense blowback to their initial trial balloons that coercing citizens into living, working and travelling according to government edict was less political saleable than paying them to do it, even if the money ends up coming out of Ontarians’ own pockets.
The five-year plan is adamant that people will get to keep their precious freedoms. This “will not take away personal choice,” it says, but “rather … creates the conditions that provide choice.” A little later it adds, “Fundamentally, through this action plan, the government is ensuring choice.” And in case you’re still unsure, it adds further along that “This plan creates options and choices for individuals and businesses.” All told, the plan emphasizes the element of “choice” 15 times.
The plan’s particular blueprint of exactly what the province should look like in 34 years might indicate that if people continue making unacceptable choices, that autonomy might have to go, as has happened in other jurisdictions where climate-fixated governments quickly turned subsidies into regulations after desired results failed to materialize. The plan to lure Ontarians to buy 15 times as many electric cars as they do now under an already rich subsidy scheme is alone destined to fail barring some form of compulsion. And, despite all that choice talk, already there are hard rules here for building developers who must install vehicle-charging stations, and for homeowners who will have to undergo an energy audit before selling. But even if the directives stop there, what Ontarians won’t have a choice in is paying for it all.
Of course, the government would have you believe this will all pay for itself.
Just listing the galaxy of subsidies the province has cooked up would take the rest of this column, from housing retrofits to electric car allowances to biofuel funding, new trains, cycling networks, rebates and refunds to homes and businesses, green-job training, and a massive new “green bank” to finance the initiatives. But at least the plan provides a convenient, tallied-up estimate of what it will all cost, assuming anyone believes that won’t eventually spiral out of control: Between $6 billion and $8 billion, to reduce the province’s carbon footprint by roughly 10 million tonnes — an average cost of between $600 and $800 per tonne.
As economist Ross McKitrick has pointed out, even the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading light for climate-change scientists, has suggested a point at which the economic costs of eliminating carbon are more damaging to people and society than the climate impact from the same amount of carbon. And the IPCC’s boundary seems to be about $20 per tonne. Carbon-price schemes in Alberta and B.C. price carbon at $30 per tonne. In Quebec, it’s $15. It climbs as high as $140 in Sweden, which even the David Suzuki Foundation considers “hefty.” Now, Wynne and Murray’s plan, through this lacework of subsidies, costs at least quadruple that. At worst — again, on the naïve assumption the numbers don’t rise — it’s 40 times the IPCC’s threshold.
Of course, the government would have you believe this will all pay for itself. It even provides a simplified illustration of a “virtuous cycle,” where proceeds from its new carbon cap-and-trade program are funneled through the Climate Action Plan to produce a “low-carbon economy.” It promises that the end result will be more jobs, more productivity, a more competitive Ontario that makes everyone better off. But ultimately those cap-and-trade proceeds, billions of dollars each year — leveled on businesses, drivers and consumers — must come out of the same Ontario pockets into which they will eventually be subsidized back, only much reduced after passing through the inefficient bureaucratic process of government collection and redistribution. Perhaps that’s the reason that Ontario’s legislature has been drawn sitting at the centre of this idealized image of the province’s future.