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Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes an announcement about building transit and highways, during an election campaign event in Bowmanville, Ont., on May 6.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press

Ahead of Ontario’s June 2 election, Doug Ford occupies an unusual space in Canada’s struggle with how to confront climate change.

The Progressive Conservative Leader has remained uninterested in setting ambitious targets to reduce domestic greenhouse-gas emissions. The same goes for implementing policies, such as reducing pollution from transportation and buildings or developing renewable electricity supply, that could help reach those goals.

But since taking office four years ago, Mr. Ford has found religion around industrial transformation to position Ontario as an international supplier of low-carbon goods, about which he was initially skeptical as well.

His government has partnered with Ottawa for a recent flurry of green-jobs subsidies, especially for electric-vehicle manufacturing. And in its pre-election budget, it presented the development of an EV supply chain – along with hydrogen, green steel and other sectors critical to global decarbonization – as the focal point of its economic strategy.

It’s a contrast both to some fellow conservatives who are more dismissive of clean-economy transition altogether, and to progressive politicians – including Mr. Ford’s Liberal and New Democratic opponents – who want to address it much more ambitiously and holistically.

And it makes for a test of voters’ climate attitudes and expectations – of whether they see a moral obligation to help save the planet, beyond self-interested economic needs, and whether those two imperatives can even be separated from each other – that will have reverberations nationwide.

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With Canada having made an international commitment last year to reduce national greenhouse-gas emissions 40 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, there is a strong case that Ontario should be leading the way.

Mostly because the previous provincial Liberal government ended reliance on coal-fired electricity, Ontario’s emissions had already come down more than 20 per cent from 2005 levels by 2019. So the current provincial commitment to a 30-per-cent reduction by 2030 is modest next to both the federal target and the potential cuts given Ontario’s running start.

If voters are seeking more of a stretch goal, it’s certainly on offer. Both Andrea Horwath’s New Democrats and Steven Del Duca’s Liberals are pledging to change the 2030 emissions target to a 50-per-cent cut.

To achieve that, they are both promising suites of regulatory and spending policies aimed specifically at emissions reduction (alongside others geared toward the green-jobs agenda that Mr. Ford is also pursuing). Among them are sales quotas for zero-emissions vehicles, accompanied by EV purchase rebates atop federal ones; subsidies for energy-efficiency retrofits for homes and other buildings; further decarbonizing electricity supply by supporting renewables and reducing natural-gas reliance; and expanded nature protection of nature spaces.

The two parties’ plans are not identical. The NDP has more emphasis on fusing environmental and social-justice policies, is more skeptical of nuclear power’s role in the electricity mix, and seems more eager to introduce a made-in-Ontario carbon-pricing system to replace the federal backstop policy currently applied. The Liberals have an intriguing proposal – albeit a longshot – to depoliticize climate policy by striking an all-party cabinet committee.

But in general, their pitches will be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the climate strategies of relatively progressive governments elsewhere, including federally.

There is no inherent reason why Mr. Ford could not embrace some of these policies himself.

Particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he has largely approached other areas of governance as a pragmatist willing to generously spend public funds. Some of the climate expenditures that his opponents are putting forward, such as the home-retrofit and EV purchase subsidies, could be framed as measures that will help make life more affordable for Ontarians, which is a theme that he (along with everyone else) is eager to push this campaign.

But with the odd exception – such as a recent commitment to install EV charging infrastructure, which his government halted when it took office – he has eschewed anything along those lines. Meanwhile, he is campaigning on some policies, such as a new highway running through the protected Greenbelt in the Greater Toronto Area, that are actively at odds with environmental goals.

The political calculus seems to be that his party’s prospective voters don’t care about climate policies for their own sake, and might be actively put off if he shifted toward that sort of agenda – especially after coming to office lambasting pre-existing measures, such as a provincial carbon-pricing system and renewables programs, as expensive and elitist nonsense.

By contrast, he seems to have been persuaded by industry – especially the auto sector – that it would abandon the province if his government didn’t back the shift toward producing low-carbon goods, which would hurt communities otherwise inclined to support him. So he would rather stand alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, announcing hundreds of millions of dollars for each major North American automaker to pivot to EV-making, in return for thousands of jobs. The same goes for the $500-million that his government is putting toward a Hamilton steel plant switching to low-emitting industrial processes.

There may indeed be a large receptive audience for the implicit argument that the government needs to ensure that industries are keeping up with shifting international markets, without worrying too much about the small slice of global emissions for which the province itself is responsible.

But aside from any concerns about virtuousness, there may only be so much that one of those objectives can be pursued absent the other. One oft-invoked example involves EV demand, with advocates for purchase rebates and other supportive policies arguing that manufacturers would prefer to make the vehicles where there is also help selling them.

A better example might be around the power grid.

Among the draws that have been cited by automakers and others committing to manufacturing low-emitting products in Ontario is the province’s clean electricity supply, especially compared with competing U.S. jurisdictions. That advantage could erode if the province keeps declining to invest in new renewable sources – even as demand rises owing to electrification – and winds up with natural gas holding a significantly bigger share of its supply mix, as projections show.

Realistically, many voters won’t dive deep into this sort of calculus during a brief campaign with plenty of other, non-climate concerns to consider. For those who just want to know their government is willing to adjust to the way the world is changing, Mr. Ford’s green-jobs support may suffice.

But that won’t stop broader impacts and lessons being drawn from how the race plays out.

The federal government’s prospects of making good on its 2030 emissions commitment will look different depending whether the most populous province is run by a government pursuing a weaker or a stronger target than the national one.

And if Mr. Ford’s approach proves a winning one electorally, other conservative leaders trying to figure out how and how much to talk about climate policy will surely take notice.

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