Ontario's New Climate Change Secretariat: No Room for a Paper Tiger

Op-ed - March 19, 2008 - By Cherise Burda

Published in Beacon Star (March 21, 2008)

Last week we learned that Ontario set up a Climate Change Secretariat, led by Hugh MacLeod, to coordinate and implement Ontario's climate plan. The secretariat is a good move, but it needs to have the authority to ensure all ministries are accountable and the muscle to wrestle with Ontario's strongest lobbies.

The nuclear lobby is positioning itself as the new climate champion, but if Ontario commits to nuclear energy, it could actually prevent the province from meeting its first greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target for 2014. Meeting that target is contingent on shutting down Ontario's coal-fired plants, which is best achieved by greener, quicker-to-deploy options rather than nuclear plants.

Ontario's energy roadmap has a yawning "electricity supply gap" between the closure of the province's prematurely ageing nuclear plants after 2010 and the startup of new and refurbished reactors. Even industry optimists say the new nuclear plants, which are drastically over-budget and behind schedule, will not be online before 2020 or, more realistically, 2022 or later.

If Ontario follows a nuclear approach it will need to burn more gas and continue to run coal plants or import expensive coal energy from the U.S. to fill this electricity gap. These measures will mean more greenhouse gas pollution in the immediate term, not less.

A prudent secretariat will recognize that renewables, "smart gas" (cogeneration), efficiency and local generation can fill that gap faster and shut down coal by 2012. The government's own studies show that it is cost effective and feasible to install twice the wind generation capacity and save twice the energy with efficiency measures than their nuclear-based energy plan calls for.

Transportation is responsible for 31 per cent of Ontario's GHG pollution, but the province has made it clear that it will not introduce emission regulations anytime soon, even though British Columbia and Quebec have already committed to adopt California's clean car laws.

A winning secretariat would push for California-level standards or better for Ontario to help transform Ontario's auto industry into a centre of green auto expertise. The manufacture of four-wheeled dinosaurs is a growing liability for Ontario as U.S. regulations demand more fuel-efficient vehicles. Ontario is providing a carrot with the Next Generation Jobs Fund, but without efficiency regulations, there is no stick.

Ontario is making admirable investments in transit — namely the $17 billion MoveOntario program intended to serve the growth of the Greater Golden Horseshoe region — but we still need to get people out of cars. Think tax credits for riding transit or a bike, and "polluter-pay" disincentives for driving.

We also need stronger restrictions on urban sprawl to reduce our reliance on the automobile. A recent study from University of Toronto's civil engineering department found that GHG pollution from auto use in the low-density suburbs of the Greater Toronto Area was more than double that in the city core.

Ontario has introduced laudable urban planning policies, such as the Greenbelt Act and the Places to Grow plan, that designate zones and targets for development. However, the targets are still too low to contain sprawl or to support effective transit, and they allow 60% of new growth to occur on undeveloped land.

Moreover, little exists in the way of provincial urban planning policy to encourage or require municipalities to reduce their energy footprint. On paper, the Energy Conservation Leadership Act requires communities to develop community energy plans (CEPs), but it remains unenforced. However, a handful of municipalities, including Guelph and Toronto, are undertaking CEPs.

A bold move would be to require all municipalities to include enforceable minimum requirements for energy efficiency and local renewable energy generation in their official plans. If the plan for a new development or the revitalization of an existing development can't accommodate climate-friendly targets, then it shouldn't be built.

Perhaps the most urgent task for the Climate Change Secretariat is to determine how Ontario will regulate and put a price on GHG emissions. We hope Ontario will have the courage to go as far as British Columbia, which has committed to set a hard cap on its industrial emissions and has already introduced a groundbreaking carbon tax.

Ontario needs real action on climate change, and we hope Hugh MacLeod and the Secretariat have the teeth to get the job done.

711 words

Cherise Burda
Cherise Burda

Cherise Burda was Ontario director at the Pembina Institute until 2015.


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