If consumer demand and a privately-funded business case where the only deciding factors, Pickering Airport would be under construction right now. So what’s the hold-up? National politics and the symbolism around building a new airport, while fighting climate change, may be the key reason an RFP (request for proposal) has not yet been issued by the current government.
In Canada, which lacks the trillion-dollar rail network and population density of Europe, aviation is often the most emissions-efficient mode of travel. For a solo traveler it is actually more efficient, and safer, than driving long distances. But aviation is also a carefully-controlled and heavily-regulated industry that requires federal government approval for every aspect of its operations. Unfortunately, this also makes it an easy symbolic political target.
The October 2019 election is now the second federal election in which all major political parties have acknowledged the impacts of climate change. All have signed on to meet Canada’s commitments to the Paris Accord. But the approach of each party to achieving these targets and the perception of air travel’s role in global warming is dramatically different.
The Conservative Party calls its environment and climate platform a “A Real Plan”. It is billed as business- and consumer-friendly and is focused on reducing emissions by improving efficiency. Building a new airport that would improve efficiency, reduce congestion and excess emissions and reduce noise pollution over Toronto is in line with their environmental strategy. A local Conservative MP running for re-election, Erin O’Toole, supports the building of Pickering Airport.
The Liberal Party’s climate plan is to promote efficiency with a carbon tax and rebate approach. It is controversial since it is a new punitive tax, and it allows larger transportation businesses (airlines) to partly dodge the tax by buying cheaper fuel in the US during trans-border operations. Interestingly the carbon tax may actually encourage air travel. For a solo traveler, flying from Toronto to Thunder Bay has less than half the carbon footprint of driving.
The Liberals are focused on and recognize that the main source of passenger travel emissions is driving not flying. They have set a symbolic electric vehicle target of 30 per cent of new light-duty vehicles being electric by 2030. Other steps include a new fuel standard to limiting the carbon content in fuels and a new $5,000 subsidy for electric vehicle purchases.
Jennifer O’Connell, a local Liberal MP running for re-election, and a long term opponent of the airport, has recently stated that she does not expect a Liberal government to build the airport. This might just be a local electioneering misdemeanor since this places her in direct conflict with a statement by her own government. The Minister of Transportation, Marc Garneau, has said in the past that he would follow the recommendations of the KPMG aviation capacity report initiated in 2016. This report is finished but its release has been postponed until after the election. The KPMG report is widely expected to recommend the immediate construction of Pickering airport.
The NDP (New Democratic Party) plans to maintain the carbon tax and price set out by the Liberals until 2022, but would remove exemptions for heavy industry. Rebates would be indexed to income, with wealthier Canadians being penalized. On transportation, the NDP says it will pump incentives for electric vehicle purchases up to $15,000 (if made in Canada) and eliminate the federal sales tax on them.
The NDP doesn’t have a direct position on Pickering Airport but it is not expected to look favorably on a privately-funded infrastructure project of this size.
The Green Party relies heavily on regulation and symbolism as a way of changing consumer and business behaviour. This a number of radical ideas such as the creation of a non-partisan “survival cabinet” that would have the same grave mandate as a wartime cabinet. This detail-free idea lets our imaginations conjure up images of fuel rationing and travel restrictions as implemented in the past, during times of war. Ideas such as “de-growth” and changing how we measure GDP reflect the party’s anti-globalization roots.
The Green Party has proposed doubling Canada’s emissions reduction targets, and would raise the carbon tax to $130 per tonne by 2030. The Green Party wants to increase and subsidize rail for passenger transportation and has promised to one-up even the NDP’s ambitious electric vehicle plan. It is opposed to the expansion of infrastructure that enables urban sprawl. All of the local Green Party candidates are opposed to a new airport in Pickering, as is its leader who made a public statement in 2015. The only aviation initiative in the Green Party’s plan is to buy more water bombers to prepare for climate related natural disasters.
In summary, the Conservatives are the most likely to approve the building of a new airport, followed by the Liberals (placing a local candidate’s contraindications aside). The NDP is most likely to be opposed, but once the full aviation capacity crisis hits Toronto within the next decade, it could probably be counted on to act responsibly. Hell would need to freeze over before the Green Party approved a new airport anywhere.
In the 2019 election, will symbolism or substance win out? Even with the immediate construction of Pickering Airport, Toronto’s booming growth and ferocious demand to stay connected to the world will continue to squeeze airside capacity. How will you vote?