Ontario promises to meet Kyoto targets (almost … kind of)

Dalton McGuintyAnother Canadian province, the industrial heartland in Ontario, is doing what the federal government has declined to try: Premier Dalton McGuinty is promising to cut Ontario’s greenhouse-gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2014. That’s not quite what the Kyoto Accord calls for, but it’s surprisingly close. Um, if you can count on the premier to keep this promise, which is a somewhat less significant than it appears.

(Here’s an aside: we need some kind of an index that represents both the emissions cuts and the timelines the Kyoto Accord sets out, which in Canada work out to getting greenhouse-gas emissions to an average annual level between 2008 and 2012 that’s six per cent below the 1990 level. No non-specialist can process a formula that complex, meaning the target is wide open for bogus comparisons.)

Anyway, McGuinty’s promise will be easier to keep because of the McGuinty government’s longstanding promise to shut down several coal-fired electricity plants, including one that ranks with the biggest in the world (PDF from Canada’s Clean Air Alliance). Closing all those plants was supposed to be just about done by now, the subject of an overambitious election promise four years ago that his government realized was unkeepable almost immediately upon being elected, but they’re on it now and making good progress. This alone is supposed to get Ontario halfway to the goal McGuinty sets out, and it’s unquestionably a big deal.

The rest, I admit, I’m a bit skeptical of. Here’s the official breakdown of the remaining 50 per cent:

  • About 15 per cent will come from transit investments and working on initiatives with the federal government and other partners, including strong, national fuel-efficiency and auto emissions standards.
  • Some 15 per cent will result from policies recently or soon to be announced in Ontario, including home audits and incentives for municipalities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The remaining portion will come from research and innovation into new technologies which would fight climate change and strengthen the economy.

The last point, 10 per cent, I think we can discard entirely. The Progressive Conservative party McGuinty’s Liberals defeated in 2003 had “balanced” the province’s budget by including $2 billion in unspecified savings in their last budget, which amazingly never materialized in time for the election, and this is exactly the same trick: “Somehow, things are gonna work out. We don’t know how, but trust us, it’ll be great.”

I’m going to start calling pledges like this “flying-car promises,” in honour of Lewis Black.

The other 30 per cent are real things, but they’re just guesstimates about the effectiveness of a whack of government programs, including some from other governments. There’s certainly no enforcement mechanism, like a self-correcting carbon market, if the promises aren’t met. They’ll probably have some effect, but let’s not count on them.

Update, almost immediately: Tyler Hamilton of the Toronto Star sat in on an editorial-board meeting today where McGuinty fleshed out some of the details. Hamilton shares my skepticism of the flying-car element:

“Research and Innovation” … will account for 17 per cent of reduction by 2014. We asked McGuinty what this is exactly, and he said we have to have faith in new innovation to help us bridge the innovation gap that exists today. So, basically, 17 per cent of the province’s target is based on… well, nothing. It was a mistake to make this it’s own category, because presumably research and innovation will be a large part of what helps us achieve targets in other categories

Hamilton has the impression McGuinty is promising to make his targets a legal obligation, though I don’t see that in any of the literature the premier put out today — and as I say, there’s definitely no mechanism described for enforcing the obligation, any more than there is for the Kyoto Accord targets that are also the law of the land in Canada.

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