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opinion

Traffic on the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto on Oct 5, 2021.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Doug Ford’s comfortable re-election victory is a significant setback for Canada’s contributions to the battle against climate change.

The Ontario Premier displayed almost no interest, during his first term in office, in actions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions of the country’s most populous province.

He began it by waging war on carbon pricing while scrapping energy contracts and electric-vehicle charging infrastructure. He ended it with weakened land protections and pollution from electricity generation – which fell under his predecessors because coal use ended – expected to rise again because of growing natural-gas dependence.

This spring’s campaign gave little indication that his second term will be different. Unlike his opponents, he offered no promises of spending or regulations to reduce emissions from transportation or buildings, and he spoke only vaguely of wanting a cleaner power grid. His favourite topic during the race was new highway projects.

But environmental advocates should recognize an opportunity and an imperative in Mr. Ford’s win – and it’s not just to campaign harder against him next time.

It’s to persuade Mr. Ford of the merits of emissions-reducing policies, but on his terms: as economic imperatives, not moral ones.

And if they can pull it off, the reframing could point the way toward consensus on clean-economy transition, beyond Ontario.

With soaring inflation, a global energy crunch and fear of a looming recession, even many Canadians who recognize climate change as a long-term existential threat are more preoccupied with their families’ immediate needs. That sentiment is channelled by many Conservative politicians, who cast climate ambition as the domain of elites who don’t have to worry about affordability or their children’s ability to find work.

Mr. Ford is one of those politicians, to a point. But he has also demonstrated that he can be persuaded of the merits of climate-related policy, if the tangible benefits – mostly in the form of job creation – are obvious enough.

So far, that’s primarily involved wooing investments in making low-carbon products – especially his successful pursuit (and subsidization), alongside Ottawa, of EV-manufacturing commitments.

That’s indicative of some open-mindedness, since he was initially dismissive of that sort of industrial transformation. But with the odd exception – notably decarbonizing existing steel production – it hasn’t yet had much correlation with reducing Ontario’s emissions, since the products are largely for export.

The preoccupation now, for anyone who strongly believes in policies that would actually lead to significant GHG reductions within the province, should be on persuading Mr. Ford that they, too, would have major economic benefits.

Consider electricity policy.

Finger-wagging about emissions from that sector being projected to rise as much as fivefold by 2035, because of increased natural-gas reliance, will fall on deaf ears at Queen’s Park.

But Mr. Ford has at least begun to publicly acknowledge the need for clean power in order to attract manufacturing by companies increasingly making their own net-zero emissions commitments. As of now, the only type of non-emitting generation in which he has shown strong interest is nuclear, including development of small modular reactors. So advocates for wind and solar energy have a job to do, in persuading him those could also help build industrial advantages.

They also need to persuade him that renewables can help with affordability for ratepayers – his main electricity focus since taking office.

Yes, ill-fated renewables subsidies by the previous Liberal government contributed to high rates, and to lingering perceptions that those remain expensive energy sources. But wind and solar prices have since come down so much that they should now be part of the solution. That’s especially the case when it comes to microgrid technologies, such as solar panels and energy-storage options, that give homeowners more control over their costs and even the ability to turn profits if the province embraces market reforms.

Consider energy-efficiency retrofits for buildings, too. Mr. Ford is not going to suddenly start caring about curbing emissions from fossil-fuel heating, through measures such as heat-pump installations and better insulation. But he might warm to the idea of supports for those investments, such as grants and loans, helping homeowners or businesses lower their energy bills.

He might further warm to the retrofits concept if he’s sold on the potential to create jobs in construction and contracting. And even more so if a compelling case could be made for a more holistic strategy that would lead to manufacturing of retrofit components.

Then there is the transition to electric vehicles. On transportation electrification, there is obviously an argument to be made that a province already trying to position itself as an EV-making powerhouse should incentivize consumers to purchase those vehicles.

But the stronger case may be on the cost-of-living side. A time of sky-high gas prices should be opportune for repositioning EVs, still widely perceived as the domain of eco-conscious urban dwellers, as a solution for cash-strapped commuters likelier to be Mr. Ford’s supporters. There could even be room for his government to innovate, in designing purchase rebates to benefit those who drive long distances daily, as opposed to downtowners who will mostly have the vehicles sit in their driveways.

Whatever the merits of these and other climate-related pitches that could be made to Mr. Ford, it will also matter who is enlisted to make them.

Environmental groups don’t have much sway with his government, and they probably never will.

But it’s a different story with others who stand to benefit – industries that he wants to attract or sustain, trade unions whose support he has courted with some surprising success, municipal leaders to whom he proved increasingly responsive during his first term.

The more those interests can be aligned to help make the case, the likelier these sorts of polices will get traction in the Premier’s office.

Launching that sort of persuasion effort is still sure to be an uphill battle, and may not feel terribly inviting in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s vote.

But it’s an effort worth making – especially given the countrywide need to persuade Conservatives that environmental policy is also the kind of economic policy their supporters want.

Mr. Ford is currently the most powerful member of his party in Canada. He is movable. It’s incumbent on those who care deeply about climate policy to see how much they can move him.

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