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Op-ed: McGuinty's green plan pollution as usual - May 18, 2009

Peter Tabuns: On the environment, some unfortunate similarities between Chrétien and McGuinty

When I was executive director of Greenpeace, I wanted Jean Chrétien to succeed. An odd thing to say, but it’s true. It was 2001. Canada had yet to support the Kyoto Protocol, eight years after Chrétien first promised to act. When Canada finally did sign on, I, prematurely as it turned out, congratulated him.

Eight years later, I want a Liberal to succeed again.

This time, it’s Dalton McGuinty. And the issue is kick-starting a renewable energy industry in Ontario—to cut emissions, and create jobs.

But without changes to his Green Energy bill, I fear McGuinty will do a Chrétien. There will be a flurry of good news before pollution as usual resumes.

In Michigan, companies are investing $1.7 billion in green energy. In Toledo, Ohio, 6,000 people work in solar power. More jobs will come from President Obama’s $2 billion fund to create greener car batteries, a key ingredient for electric cars.

Here in Canada, Ontario is sandwiched between two provinces moving fast, too. Manitoba is emerging a leader in geo-thermal power. To the east, a requirement of 60 per cent locally built turbines is turning Quebec into a wind power leader.

For decades, we’ve heard warnings about the dangers of climate change. The most recent came last month. European scientists say the world is on track to overshoot the safety limits on greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. But as we know, warnings are insufficient to get Canada to act.

So if ecological imperative isn’t enough, perhaps the economy is. McGuinty forecasts his bill will create 50,000 jobs, as Chrétien predicted emissions would go down, not through the roof.

A new transmission line from Sudbury to Barrie is touted as one of the bill’s job creators. But it was planned years before the bill was introduced. When it comes to actual manufacturing jobs in green energy, experts say it falls well short.

Why?

If we want to encourage people to generate more green energy, we need to guarantee they will have markets to sell it. Just like Germany and Denmark, two of the world’s green energy leaders, already do. Local companies want Ontario to as well.

The government has other ideas, which threaten to undermine the good intentions behind the proposed law. Simply put, instead of guaranteeing markets for renewable energy like wind or solar, McGuinty is guaranteeing the nuclear industry at half or more of Ontario’s electricity market. And when the nuclear power plants generate more power than the system can use we pay customers to take it.

American studies show electricity from new nuclear stations costs almost triple what Ontarians currently pay for power. They also create fewer jobs than renewable energy, while generating radioactive, toxic waste for which there is no safe method of disposal.

Indeed, to protect the nuclear industry, McGuinty’s plan allocates new renewable energy generators 14 per cent of the power market. In other words, as Europe and America rush to economies based on 21st Century renewable energy, Ontario is staying stuck on nuclear technology from the 1950s.

We can do better. First, by giving real incentives to renewable energy producers to invest in Ontario—like guaranteeing them we will buy their power. And second, by toughening enforcement of the building code so more buildings use less power.

Together, these can meet Ontario’s energy needs without expanding costly nuclear power. They offer businesses and workers in manufacturing and construction a better chance to prosper, by creating a green energy industry in Ontario for the needs this century will bring.

With a majority, nothing can force McGuinty to listen to constructive critiques. If he wants to pass the bill unchanged, he can. I hope, however, he is open to doing better.

We only have one shot at getting a green energy economy right. And looking good in the short term won’t improve things in the long run. Just ask Jean Chrétien. In the end, his emissions rose faster than in America under President Bush.

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Peter Tabuns is the energy and environment critic for the Ontario NDP.

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