Regular readers of this column probably know that I consider climate change to be the biggest threat facing the natural world and civilization as we know it. Despite repeated warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that Earth is barreling straight into climate disaster – just a month ago we learned much of the West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing – the dire news has fallen largely on deaf ears. To get a sense of how little impact these reports have had, you need not look any further than the present Ontario election campaign. Anyone looking for inspiration in new and bold policies to address climate change – or even hear mention of the topic – can only be dismayed. The Progressive Conservatives have successfully framed the election as being only about jobs and the economy, and the other parties have bought right into it. It is almost as if trashing the atmosphere and causing mayhem in our weather is preferable to doing anything that might harm the economy. Yet, in some ways, it’s hard to blame the politicians. Scant pressure is coming from the public to make climate change a priority. So many of us have blinkers on, and it is far easier to live in denial.
A game changer?
However, a game changer may be in the works, this time courtesy of the United States. President Obama’s decision earlier this week to aggressively cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will almost certainly lead to pressure on Canada – and therefore on Ontario – to also take strong action. The U.S. aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power-generation industry by 30 per cent by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. According to U.S. Ambassador to Canada, Bruch Heyman, “we (Canada and the U.S.) need to continue to work together moving toward a low-carbon future, with alternative energy choices, with greater energy efficiency, and sustainable extraction of our oil and gas reserves.”
As it becomes clearer that the environment will be the centrepiece of Obama’s second term, Canada – and Ontario – will be forced to get on board, since Canadian policy traditionally has been one of matching the Americans. According to the Globe and Mail of June 3, “In Canada, the oil and gas sector is driving growth of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)…Put in perspective, Canada’s oil and gas sector will churn out more than twice as many GHGs as the electricity sector.” It is almost inevitable now that much more stringent emission regulations in the oil and gas sector are coming.
Climate change in Ontario
Ontario has a highly-developed industrialized economy and is responsible for a large proportion of Canada’s GHG emissions. Ontario’s main sources of GHG emissions by sector (in descending order of magnitude) are transportation, industry, buildings, electricity, agriculture and waste.
On April 14th, 2014, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to fully close down its coal fire power plants. The province’s electricity supply is now one of cleanest in the world, generating less than a tenth of the greenhouse gases per kWh than American states. Why is Ontario coal free? Because we replaced most of our coal-fired electricity with refurbished nuclear energy and natural gas plants – not because of renewables. Despite what some critics might say, this happened without burdening consumers with heavy bills. Ontario’s residential electricity is already less expensive than most Canadian provinces and territories, eastern US cities, and most of the developed world.
That being said, Ontario still has a major challenge to reach its GHG emission goals of 15% below 1990 levels by 2020. According to Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), the province will miss its 2020 reduction target by a wide margin and “there has been a lack of bold leadership on climate change mitigation policy in Ontario.”
Who to vote for?
For those of us who believe what climate scientists are telling us and are therefore very concerned about the future – ours, our children’s and our grandchildren’s – there is the question of who to vote for in the current election. I have tried to summarize the key policies of each of the parties regarding energy and climate change. The information below comes from various sources including the parties’ websites and a questionnaire that was sent to each party by a Green Prosperity, which is a joint effort by 20 of Ontario’s leading environmental organizations to put forward an action agenda to help make Ontario a world leader in the new green economy. The PCs did not bother to fill out the questionnaire but simply directed people to read their platform. None of the parties, with the possible exception of the Greens, will commit themselves to a carbon pricing system, nor do any provide a clear plan about how to reach Ontario’s GHG emission targets by 2020.
• Liberals: First, it must be acknowledged that shutting down Ontario’s coal generation plants was the largest climate change action ever taken in North America. Many aspects of Ontario’s controversial Green Energy Act have been successful, as well. The Liberals’ election platform also has the most to say about addressing climate change. Measures include investing in better transit, providing homeowners with tools to reduce their energy needs, making sure new buildings are as energy efficient as possible and, in 2015, “reviewing progress toward meeting our 2020 Greenhouse Gas Emissions target and develop a clear plan to get there”.
• NDP: The NDP would take the HST of home hydro bills and prevent unfair price increases for natural gas consumers. The platform is silent on the nuclear question. There also seems to be an implicit rejection of further significant efforts at renewable energy development. The NDP is also offering a ‘revolving loan fund’ for household level solar installations and energy efficient retrofits. The party wants to merge four of Ontario’s hydro agencies – almost like resurrecting Ontario Hydro – which is a proposal that makes “soft” energy path proponents of conservation and renewables shudder.
• Progressive Conservatives: The PC platform seems to be all about making energy affordable. At a recent town hall meeting in Peterborough, Tim Hudak answered the question “What are you doing about climate change?” by saying he would eliminate the subsidy on wind and solar energy to reduce electricity costs for the average person. In fact, on a $100 electricity bill, the amount currently attributable to solar power in Ontario is less than 86 cents, far less than the subsidy for nuclear or gas. Clearly, the PCs are unequivocal in their rejection of renewable energy. They appear to embrace nuclear energy, hydro imports and natural gas. However, I could find nothing about climate change or energy conservation on their website. Hudak is, of course, planning to reduce the government payroll by 100,000 jobs. It’s hard to imagine how the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Natural Resources could survive these cuts and still be able to carry out their mandates. All areas of environmental protection would suffer irreparably.
• Greens: The Green Party of Ontario would abandon the Liberal’s nuclear refurbishment plans in favour of conservation and electricity imports from Quebec. They would provide grants for homeowners to invest in energy conservation. They seem to be silent on the question of further renewable energy development. According to the Green Prosperity questionnaire, the Green Party is in favour of pricing carbon.
A carbon tax?
The world is readying itself for a price on carbon pollution and, eventually, for a carbon-free economy. By placing a rising fee on carbon pollution, this would send a market signal to improve efficiencies, and for consumers to buy items such as electric cars and geothermal heat pumps powered by Ontario’s surplus of carbon-free electricity. By returning the revenue generated by the fee to Ontario residents, we would be able to invest personally in a low carbon future based on our own personal needs. As Al Slavin wrote in a letter to this paper, Ontario needs a revenue-neutral carbon tax (the taxes are returned to the taxpayer) as in British Columbia, where it reduced CO2 emissions by 17% in five years, did not hurt the economy, and has a 64% support among BC taxpayers.”
So far, none of the major political parties has offered a forceful vision for addressing climate change. However, like it or not, aggressive cuts in GHG emissions are on the way – quite possibly as a result of Obama’s initiatives. Voters need to ask themselves what political party in Ontario is best suited to manage these cuts. The last thing we want is to elect a party like the PCs that has no interest in climate or environmental matters and is home to a large number of people who don’t even accept the science of climate change. This is the kind of thinking – rampant within the Harper government, as well – that is responsible for Canada’s rock-bottom environmental ranking – 27th out of the world’s wealthiest 27 countries, according to Washington’s Center for Global Development.