Canada: Ontario Failing Our Future On Climate Change

Last Updated: June 13 2013
Article by Dianne Saxe

In his latest report, Ontario's Environmental Commissioner again strongly criticizes the Ontario government for doing too little on climate change. The Ontario government has done a lot, most notably closing coal-fired power plants and adopting the Green Energy Act. In this, Ontario compares well to other provinces and to our foot-dragging federal government. However, Commissioner Miller can only comment on Ontario. He points out that we could and should be doing much more, whatever the political realities of a minority government.
His blog summarizes his disappointment and concern:

"My annual greenhouse gas (GHG) progress report, released today, makes it clear that the Ontario government does not see climate change as an important issue in need of policy attention. I used the famous Keeling Curve graphic on the cover of my report with good reason: within the past few weeks, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide monitored on Mount Mauna Loa in Hawaii crossed the 400 parts per million (ppm) threshold – a disturbing milestone. Why is the Ontario government dragging its feet on this file? The climate change mitigation initiatives and policies outlined by the government to date will not produce a decline in overall emissions. In addition, government energy policy may actually work against the government's stated GHG reduction goals (more on this below). In my opinion, the government needs to "re-boot" its entire effort in this area. To be blunt, we are running out of time.

Within the transportation sector, the biggest single contributor to GHGs in Ontario is passenger vehicles (cars, pick-ups, vans). While the new federal greenhouse gas emissions standards for light-duty vehicles are a step in the right direction, more needs to be done. In my 2010 report, I highlighted the role that road pricing can play in easing gridlock while reducing GHGs and other air pollutants and urged the government to examine this as a potential option. Metrolinx's just-released investment strategy, which examines potential funding options to tackle traffic gridlock in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, is a step in the right direction; now we must wait and see how decision makers will use this strategy.

The second largest source of CO2 emissions after transportation is industry. The government is exploring mechanisms to reduce emissions from this sector, likely by putting some form of a price on carbon, though no clear direction or policy is currently evident. This past January, the government posted yet another Discussion Paper [.pdf] on the Environmental Registry to solicit feedback from interested parties that "will inform the design of [a] program." This paper joins two earlier discussion documents posted on the Registry in December 2008 [.pdf] and May 2009 focusing on the development of a cap-and-trade system for Ontario. More than four years is surely long enough for the government to have taken the pulse of stakeholders, and particularly industry, on this issue – many members of which want a price on carbon – and provide clear policy direction. Most industrial companies now use a shadow carbon cost in their investment, planning and technology decisions. So, the time to move on this at the provincial policy level is NOW! The international community has signaled that some form of regulation with a carbon cost will be here soon. Industry has demonstrated that it is onside with this realization and is just waiting for government leadership.

The reluctance on the part of the government to price carbon is creating unintended consequences in the electricity sector. This sector is where most of Ontario's emission reductions to date have been achieved, largely through the elimination of coal-fired power generation and the increased penetration of renewables onto the grid. However, due to the need to refurbish a significant portion of Ontario's nuclear generation assets by the end of this decade, the Ontario Power Authority has indicated that natural gas will increasingly be relied on to fill the supply gap, resulting in a likely and potentially substantial increase in emissions. The problem is that the government is committing us to natural gas generation without factoring in a future price for carbon emissions.

It is important to note that the period of time that we will need the additional generation is only about four years. Gas-fired infrastructure is good for at least 20 years. So why are we building assets that are likely to become stranded and will continue to be greenhouse gas albatrosses for the next two decades? Given the great potential we have for electricity conservation in our system and the further potential for renewable generation, can we not draft a plan that allows us to meet demand during the refurbishment period with conservation initiatives so as not to incur the carbon liability? To the extent that Ontario's electricity sector has been significantly decarbonized, it represents an excellent source of low-carbon electricity to reduce emissions in other sectors such as transportation.

Ontario's continued predicted growth in GHG emissions cannot be reconciled with the government's goal to reduce emissions to 150 megatonnes (Mt) by 2020 and to 35 Mt by 2050. Much more needs to be done to close this gap. In the absence of a renewed effort, the government is failing our future. The window of opportunity to meet a 450 ppm world and to limit the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2°C is closing rapidly. Ontario needs to get out ahead of these developments."

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Dianne Saxe
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