Canada: Ontario Asks For Public Input On Making The Transition To A Low-Carbon Economy

Last Updated: March 4 2015
Article by Ian Richler

A discussion paper recently issued by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change leaves no doubt that the Ontario government is taking climate change seriously. It warns of "catastrophic consequences" if changes aren't made, and asserts ominously that "we have some fundamental choices to make."

At this point, some readers of the discussion paper might have been reminded of the old Woody Allen joke: "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

But the paper is actually more upbeat. "Climate change is a problem with a solution," the Minister's introduction insists. Indeed, "The new low-carbon economy will mean more and better jobs."

How to transition to that new model of economic growth – and to avoid utter hopelessness or total extinction – is the focus of the paper. While short on details, the paper identifies four "climate critical-policy areas":

1. Put a Price on Carbon

The paper canvasses different mechanisms for putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions, including a cap and trade system like Quebec's and a carbon tax like British Columbia's, but expresses no preference. Nor does it get into the myriad design details associated with any of the broad options. For example, if a cap and trade system were selected, which industry sectors should it cover? How should the cap be determined? And should it be linked to a regional system like the Western Climate Initiative? This part of the paper is likely to generate the most discussion. The paper promises that an approach to carbon pricing will be selected by the spring.

2. Take Actions in Key Sectors

The paper contends that putting a price on carbon will not be enough to achieve Ontario's greenhouse gas reduction targets; "sector-specific actions" are also required. The paper identifies the sectors that account for Ontario's current greenhouse gas emissions – namely, in descending order: transportation, industry, buildings, electricity generation, agriculture, and waste management – and suggests some broad policies for each of them. For example, for the electricity generation sector, the paper touts the emission reductions that have been achieved through the closure of coal-fired power plants, but says that "further reductions in emissions, and eventually carbon neutrality, are needed." The paper speaks in broad terms about reducing demand through energy efficiency and conservation measures but says little about the appropriate mix of generation assets. There is no mention at all of nuclear power.

3. Support Science, Research and Technology

"Ontario has the opportunity and capacity to develop and contribute to technologies of global significance," the paper maintains. This will require collaboration between the province, other levels of government, the private sector, and academia. "To achieve carbon neutrality," the paper says, "governments and the private sector must invest in basic research to lay the foundations for technological innovations that may be 10-20 years out. Technologies such as thin film solar, solar fuels, carbon capture and storage, air capture and artificial photosynthesis may also prove to be significant in the longer term, but require support in their development."

4. Promote Climate Resilience and Risk Management in Key Areas and with Key Partners

More than $130 billion in public infrastructure spending is planned in the next 10 years, according to the paper. These projects will need to be examined through an "adaptation lens" to ensure infrastructure can cope with climate change including the extreme weather it will bring.

This is Ontario's third discussion paper on climate change in just over six years, following ones released in December 2008 and January 2013. Neither of those papers led to a carbon price or sector-specific emission limits. Some observers may ask whether this time is different. But anyone who has heard Minister Glen Murray speak on the topic – including at the Gowlings Environmental Law for Business seminar on climate change on Jan. 28, 2015 – can tell he is fervently committed to fighting climate change, and eager to work with industry and other stakeholders. And on the same day he was named to the portfolio last June, the department was renamed from the Ministry of the Environment to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, which signaled something about the government's priorities.

A number of town hall style meetings on the discussion paper have been scheduled across the province. Comments will also be accepted online until March 29, 2015.  Comments are welcome from all Ontarians. But the paper has things to say that will be of particular interest to certain stakeholders such as:

  • companies and industry groups from the sectors that emit greenhouse gases;
  • First Nations and Métis communities;
  • municipalities; and
  • the research and development community.

Further information about these consultation opportunities and a copy of the discussion paper, click here.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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