With Stephen Harper spending oodles of tax dollars in a chaotic scramble to green his party before the next federal election, the Ontario Libs have been quietly flying below the climate-change radar.
But not for long. "The press perceived Harper as anti-Kyoto, so it focused on him,' says Jack Gibbons of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance. "McGuinty's rhetoric, on the other hand, has been very Kyoto-friendly. But there is no substance.'
No doubt the opposition parties will be repeating ad nauseam the story of McGuinty's broken promise to end coal-fired electricity generation by 2007 (now it's 2014). But in fact, the deadline switch is significant: had coal been shut down as promised, Ontario would have been able meet 50 to 80 per cent of its greenhouse emissions targets by 2010. It may not stand a chance otherwise, especially without a comprehensive conservation plan.
Since the coal phase-out was the cornerstone of the McGuinty climate change plan, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund applied in October for a policy review of both the Energy and Enviro Ministries. "The Ontario Environmental Bill Of Rights grants citizens the right to ask for these kinds of reviews,' says Sierra lawyer Hugh Wilkens.
"Without closing coal-fired generators, their environmental platform is in disarray. Not only that, but it puts Canada in a very tough spot in terms of Kyoto, because these closures would represent the largest single step to reducing greenhouse gases in the province, at 30 megatonnes a year.'
By law, the government has 60 days to respond to a policy review request. And while that deadline passed long ago, Environment Ministry rep Lindsay Mack reassures me that a response is imminent. "The file is on the minister's desk,' she says.
But with BC's recent strategy earning qualified praise, the Libs' faint eco pulse may start beating stronger.
"Greenhouse gas reduction is a major priority,' says Mack. "The absolute drop-down date for closing all coal generators is 2014, but we want to close them as soon as possible, possibly in 2011 or 2012.'
Wilkens has his doubts. "What they are actually saying is 2014, yes, but if and only if it won't jeopardize electricity system reliability,' he says.
The government says it's working on an action plan due out in the spring coincidentally, just in time for an October election. "We just wrapped up 16 stakeholder round tables, and we are working very fast on this,' says Mack.
Not according to many enviros. "It was an insulting and meaningless process,' says Greenpeace energy coordinator Dave Martin. "The amazing thing was that they had nothing on the table.' Martin concedes that coal emissions have gone down, but not because of Liberal smarts. It's probably, he says, the sum total of reduced coal use because of the restart of Pickering reactors, the collapse of Ontario's pulp and paper industry and the increase in voluntary conservation.
Another problem for McGuinty is the vehicle exhaust that, according to Keith Stewart at World Wildlife Fund, represents fully 20 per cent of Ontario's greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, the Libs have offered financial incentives to the Big Three to build their current spate of muscle cars.
"If the government is going to hand out cheques, these should be linked to greener cars,' says Stewart. "I think the province has gotten off very easy.'
As Ontario inches toward a fall election, expect that to change big time.