by Yannick Trottier
At CCL, we lobby our representatives and governments to support carbon fee and dividend and end subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Most of us have learned to speak easily about that first part – our carbon fee and dividend plan – but the subsidies are a more slippery topic. But we can't let this second part of our agenda slide, otherwise subsidies could make any carbon tax ineffective. If you think of us as a team, then carbon fee and dividend is our offensive strategy, but we also need to play defense against subsidies.
If you simply ask your MP to end fossil subsidies, chances are that he will deny that they even exist. That's an easy way for them to shut down the conversation. To get past that deadlock, you need to give specific examples of what legal changes you want. You see, fossil subsidies are never called that outright in government documents. They have fancy names, like “exploration tax credits,” and complicated accounting that make them hard to recognize. It's a trick of language, similar to how the military never kills innocent civilians, they just have “collateral damage.” You have to learn to talk their language. That will show that you aren't so easily fooled, and they'll have to take our concerns seriously.
One fossil subsidy that matters to me as a geothermal installer is Ontario's “saveONenergy incentive.” Note that they call it an incentive, not a subsidy, and the clever name implies that it will save energy. This program gives homeowners up to $650 when they install a new furnace and air conditioner in their home. In theory, a newer system should be more efficient than an old one, so that should be a good thing, right? But in fact, it's a way to subsidize fossil fuel systems.
Heating oil and natural gas are still fossil fuels, and more and more of it comes from fracking. Every new furnace installation locks in that house to keep burning fossils for the lifetime of the furnace – maybe 30 years? Ontario's furnaces already produce more greenhouse gas emissions than our electric plants do.(1) Tweaking the efficiency is not a solution. You can't avoid cancer by smoking “light” cigarettes, and we can't solve climate change with shinier furnaces. We need to switch to completely emission-free heating systems, and we need to start now.
So what does an emission-free heating system look like? There are a few options, but one of the best solutions for Ontario is geothermal heat pumps. These systems draw energy from the ground to heat your home. Of course the electricity to run the pumps has to come from emission-free sources, but that's already close to reality in Ontario. The premier has promised to shut down the last two coal plants in 2014, and only one eighth of its electricity comes from burning fossils.
But guess what: geothermal heat pumps are not eligible for the saveONenergy program, nor for any other government subsidy.(2) Nor are electrical heating systems or solar heating or any other truly green technology. In fact, you could rip out an existing geothermal heat pump and replace it with a natural gas furnace and still get the subsidy, even though you would be burning more energy and producing more greenhouse gases. Doesn't that seem backwards to you?
That's how a noble-sounding program can in fact be hiding a fossil subsidy that encourages fossil systems over newer green technology. In many cases, your MPP will be fooled by it too. We need to wrap our heads around this so that we can explain it to them. You won't get anywhere by asking point blank for an end to fossil subsidies. You need to point to things like the saveONenergy program and ask for changes to those. And maybe cancelling them outright is not the best solution; maybe it would be easier to ask for at least equal subsidies for geothermal heat pumps, so we at least have a level playing field?