Analysis

What the carbon pricing future looks like in Doug Ford's Ontario

The battle over a carbon tax pitting Ontario against the federal Liberal government is set to heat up, despite Premier Doug Ford's smiling photo op with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday.

New premier's meeting with Trudeau sets stage for battle over Ottawa's power to impose carbon tax

Ontario Premier Doug Ford met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Queen's Park on Thursday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

The battle over a carbon tax pitting Ontario against the federal Liberal government is set to heat up, despite Premier Doug Ford's smiling photo op with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday. 

Ford and Trudeau met for the first time, with the prime minister travelling to Queen's Park just six days after the new Progressive Conservative government took power.  

The first act of the Ford government was a direct snub to Trudeau's agenda on climate change: cancelling Ontario's cap and trade system for reducing carbon emissions. 

But for the next move, Trudeau wields a hammer: unless Ford presents his own carbon pricing plan to Ottawa by Sept. 1, the federal government will impose its $20/tonne carbon tax effective Jan. 1. 

"If provinces do not wish to be part of the national plan, the federal government will move forward on bringing in a carbon price backstop," Trudeau told reporters Thursday after his meeting with Ford. ​"The clear mandate that I got elected on was to bring in a national plan to fight climate change. That's exactly what I'm going to do."

Premier Doug Ford has not indicated whether he will stick to Ontario's targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are currently enshrined in law. (Mark Schiefelbein.Associated Press)

Trudeau said the money Ottawa collects from carbon pricing in the province will be returned directly to Ontarians. 

Ford did not speak to reporters after the meeting. In a statement, spokesman Simon Jefferies said Ford and the PCs "will fight any efforts by the federal government to impose a carbon tax on the people of Ontario in court."

It is far from certain that the province would win such a court battle. 

"Every legal analysis I've seen thus far says the federal government has the authority to impose a carbon price, if the province doesn't have one," Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner said Thursday.

"I think it is a fruitless exercise for the premier to try to engage in a legal battle with the federal government. It would be a waste of money and a waste of time," said Schreiner in an interview with CBC News. "I don't think anybody voted for the new premier to waste money on a court battle that we're going to lose." 

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner is now officially the MPP for Guelph. He was sworn in on Thursday. (Kenneth Armstrong/Canadian Press)

The legal challenge would cost taxpayers $30 million, the PCs said during the election campaign. 

The Manitoba government, which initially opposed the federal climate plan, sought an independent legal opinion that concluded the Supreme Court would likely side with Ottawa on the issue. 

"The experts have all said kind of unanimously that the federal government has clear jurisdiction to do this in any province," said Keith Brooks, programs director of the Toronto-based group Environmental Defence. 

"We have every expectation to believe there's going to be a carbon price in Ontario come January 1st, 2019," said Brooks in an interview Thursday with CBC News.

At this stage, it clearly looks like the carbon price will be Ottawa's version. Schreiner is trying to urge Ford to adopt what he calls a "carbon fee and dividend" system: charge polluters to emit greenhouse gases, and refund all of the proceeds to Ontario taxpayers.

Unless the Ontario government presents a carbon pricing plan to Ottawa, the federal government says it will impose its $20/tonne carbon tax on industry next January. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said all the proceeds will be returned 'directly' to Ontarians. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

"He can fulfil his campaign pledge to create jobs, boost our economy, and put money in people's pockets and tackle climate change at the same time," said Schreiner. 

Ford has framed the carbon-pricing debate as a pocketbook issue, setting aside the question of how to reduce Ontario's carbon emissions. The PCs have not indicated whether they will stick to the province's greenhouse gas reduction targets, which are currently enshrined in law. 

"I think it's reasonable that the premier is taking some time to figure out what he wants to do on climate change," said Brooks. "The good news is that he says he believes in climate change." However, without cap and trade or a carbon tax, Brooks said it isn't clear how Ford would reach the province's emissions targets.

Ford's move to end cap and trade means Ontario is "going backwards on reducing carbon pollution," said Schreiner. "Getting rid of our existing programs without having an alternative plan in place is gambling with our children's future and I think it's irresponsible." 

About the Author

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C. Follow him on Twitter @CBCQueensPark