After reading it, it’s no surprise that Ontario’s environment ministry drew zero attention to its latest annual greenhouse-gas report, which was made available on the ministry’s website on Nov. 13.
To put is generously, the report is uninspiring. It says nothing new. It shows little progress over the past 12 to 24 months, which you can bet Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller will highlight when he releases his own assessment of the province’s climate strategy on Dec. 4.
The report does describe climate change as “the defining issue of our times,” and goes into great detail to show how rising average temperature, shorter winters, and increased frequency of extreme weather will negatively affect our health, water supply, agriculture, electricity system, infrastructure, personal property, and ecosystems.
It’s a message, by the way, being repeated around the world. Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent called climate change a “real and present” danger just this week. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said after Hurricane Sandy that the risks of climate change should “compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
A report this week from the World Bank said the anticipated impacts of climate change “will pose unprecedented challenges to humanity” and “must not be allowed to occur.” Surely, we’ll be hearing similar high-level warnings as we approach the start of the Doha Climate Change Conference in Qatar on Nov. 26.
Despite all this talk, not enough is being done to adequately address the problem. Not Kent. Not President Obama, the man who Bloomberg endorsed in the recent U.S. election. Not the World Bank, which continues to finance the construction of coal-fired power plants in the developing world.
Closer to home, the McGuinty government’s climate strategy continues to disappoint, and there are too few initiatives in the pipeline to meet stated targets.
The province’s commitment is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2014, and to 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.
The report estimates – quite optimistically, many would say – that we’re likely to meet 91 per cent of our 2014 target and only 60 per cent of our 2020 target, and that’s based on the assumption that initiatives in place today will meet their mark.
Most of the heavy lifting so far has come from the electricity sector, explained by the transition from coal-fired power generation to natural gas, renewables and increased nuclear output. Since 1990, emissions here have dropped 21 per cent, with most of the reductions happening since 2007.
Industry, representing roughly a quarter of the province’s emissions – more than twice as much as the electricity sector – saw a 30 per cent drop in emissions as Ontario continued its transition from energy-intensive manufacturing to a service-based economy and absorbed the impact of an economic downturn.
Unfortunately, emissions from the transportation sector – representing a whopping 35 per cent of the provincial total – grew by 31 per cent since 1990, and there’s little evidence that planned transit projects are going to make the dent required. The strategy here seems to be hope, wait and see.
Emissions from buildings, including residential homes, commercial office towers, and institutional buildings, also grew by 11 per cent. It’s a clear sign the province has dropped the ball on energy conservation, and paid too little attention to the amount of emissions resulting from natural gas heating.
Natural gas, it should be noted, will also emerge as an issue in the electricity sector. Burning less coal and more natural gas makes sense right now, but after 2014 and as the province’s nuclear fleet goes through a cycle of refurbishments and decommissioning, rising dependence on (and emissions from) natural gas will be a reminder that the coal phase-out alone isn’t enough.
The government’s apparent lack of commitment to the feed-in tariff program is also concerning. It has been on hold for more than a year, without explanation – an embarrassing situation that is going to drive away foreign investment, threaten recently created and future jobs, and leave the promises of renewable energy unfulfilled.
To be fair, Ontario’s emissions have fallen substantially on a per-capita and GDP basis. An average Ontarian contributes 24 per cent fewer emissions today than in 1990. For every dollar of GDP, emissions have dropped by 38 per cent. Quebec is the only province with a lower emissions intensity.
But there’s so much more we can and should be doing, and in a way that will strengthen – not weaken – our economy.
I asked Gord Miller what he planned to say when releasing his own report on Dec. 4, but understandably the environmental commissioner didn’t want to scoop himself.
He did say, however, that he will continue to push for a price on carbon and that the time to reconsider it might be right. California, for example, just completed a cap-and-trade auction as part of its membership in the Western Climate Initiative.
“There is a tremendous global shift in attitude about pricing carbon that we must re-align with,” he said by e-mail. “A carbon tax seems to be the more workable and successful system, but I won’t object to a well-constructed cap-and-trade system. Anything would be nice.”
Cap-and-trade used to be in play in Ontario, but the political will to implement it has weakened.
Hopefully that will soon change, as a price on carbon could certainly fill many holes in the Liberal government’s current plan, assuming it believes actions must match up with words.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.