After the announcement of Ontario’s new cabinet, some commentators suggested that former transportation and infrastructure minister Glen Murray had been demoted by being appointed minister of environment and climate change.
It’s true that the Ministry of Environment historically has had a small budget compared to some others. And there are still those who believe that protecting the environment is a “nice to have,” secondary to a focus on economic growth.
But the reality is addressing climate change and protecting the environment will help strengthen Ontario’s economy. Thankfully, the Liberal platform appears to recognize this.
The unprecedented recognition of climate change as a central challenge, reflected in Ontario elevating this issue to the role of a dedicated cabinet position, should mean that we will join other jurisdictions, such as B.C., California and Quebec, in putting a price on the pollution that drives global warming. Charging polluters for the pollution they create would encourage businesses to use ingenuity to reduce their costs, become more efficient and consume fewer fossil fuels.
Putting a price on carbon is the most economically efficient way to reduce emissions, which is why it has been recommended by groups as diverse as the National Round Table on Environment and Economy and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It would also allow for reducing the tax burden on other areas such as income, something businesses and individuals alike would welcome.
As part of addressing the climate issue, we could invest in infrastructure that will help Ontario communities adapt to the levels of climate change that are now unavoidable even if we reduce emissions. According to the World Bank, these investments would create jobs and increase GDP. For Ontario, this could include mandating new development standards that ensure communities are planning for increased rainfall by creating flood prevention wetlands or the creation of disbursed hydro smart grids that are less prone to disruption during major storms.
Ontario’s government has committed to a new Great Lakes Protection Act that will set targets for reducing pollution and nutrient-laden run-off that is contaminating our rivers and lakes — a problem that will get worse with greater storm frequency and intensity caused by climate change. Not only does this impact water quality but it can lead to lost fishing and tourism revenue. To encourage positive change, we need new mechanisms. Farmers could be paid to change their farming practices to reduce run-off. Similarly, we could reward urban residents for reducing the amount of run-off from their properties through reduced fees on their water and sewage bills. These can be done in revenue neutral ways and both of these actions are in line with the government’s election platform.
Ontario’s economy can benefit from smart changes to our investment strategies that recognize and plan for pending changes to the global economy. In a world addressing climate change, the growth and decarbonization of the electrical grid is expected. Growth will come from greater demands for the electrification of trains, buses, streetcars and cars. Decarbonization is already happening as the U.S. and some Canadian provinces reduce the portion of electricity provided by coal. Ontario can help. We are well positioned to enhance our export of hydro, wind and solar electricity (all dropping rapidly in price). We can also work with Quebec, whose hydro power is the perfect battery needed for renewables to provide a baseload of power to other areas of North America.
As the world takes climate change more seriously, it’s not just what powers our homes that’s changing. What powers our cars is changing, too. The electric car industry is growing quickly. Ontario manufactures 20 per cent of the automobiles produced in North America. This industry is critical to our economic prosperity and focused strategies to attract the emerging electric vehicle industry will help the province’s manufacturing sector today and pay dividends for generations to come.
Finally, support for local and organic food will help farmers in this fast-growing industry that provides jobs to thousands of Ontarians. Creating Ontario’s first Food Belt in the GTA and expanding the Greenbelt will help to protect the region’s rich farmland for future agricultural growth. Moves to address the impacts of toxic chemicals on the biodiversity that sustains this industry will ensure that we have local, high quality food for Ontarians and for export. The government’s commitments during the election suggest an intention to act in these areas.
Addressing environmental issues is demonstrably the key to a smart, economically robust investment strategy for Ontario and Canada. If Murray can lead on this, those early commentators will soon see he has been given the biggest and most important job in cabinet.