Celebrating Soil in 2015

FAO Year of Soils LogoSoil helps to supply our food, clothing, clean water, biodiversity, and it even moderates our climate. We walk on it, dig in it, build on it, and clean it off our clothes.  Mostly, however, we just take it for granted. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is an advocate for the many benefits that healthy soils provide and it has declared 2015 to be the International Year of Soils.

“The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them,” says the FAO. I could not agree more. Over the past few years, I’ve also been calling for more attention to soil, particularly with respect to soil health and to the  potential for mitigating climate change.  My reports have covered topics such as soil erosion, soil carbon and the value of composting in maintaining healthy soils.  I have also blogged frequently on soil issues, particularly on the nature and importance of healthy soils.

In 2012, I hosted a soil-carbon roundtable, where experts and stakeholders discussed soil’s significant potential for sequestering carbon, and how this great opportunity for advancing climate-change mitigation and adaptation could be promoted in Ontario. Regrettably, almost three years later, little has been done in this regard.

Like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, who spoke for the trees, we need people who will speak for the soil. Over the course of 2015, I intend to support the International Year of Soils by posting a series of blogs, covering topics such as:

  • Healthy soils and agriculture;
  • The role of soils in water management;
  • The living nature of soils and what this means for how we treat them;
  • How soils support and protect the natural environment and biodiversity;
  • Soils and climate.

I will also share useful sources of information on soil, such as the ones below. I hope you will join me in learning more about the importance of soil and in helping to make 2015 the year that soil truly finds its voice in Ontario.

The GTA Pipeline Begins Construction: Could It Have Been Avoided Through Conservation?  

Laying pipeWhile it hasn’t grabbed nearly as much attention as the many oil pipeline proposals, shovels are going into the ground in Ontario for one major new pipeline project. Enbridge Gas Distribution is beginning construction of a major new natural gas distribution line across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Enbridge will build about 50 kilometres of new pipeline in two segments, at a cost of approximately $700 million.

Figure 10New pipelines (that do not cross provincial boundaries) cannot be constructed in Ontario without approval from the Ontario Energy Board, usually through a formal hearing. At the hearing for the GTA pipeline, Enbridge argued that this pipeline expansion was needed to meet increased peak demand for natural gas, primarily due to the large amount of new residential development in the downtown Toronto core, and that the reliability of Enbridge’s supply to these customers was at risk. However, several environmental groups argued that parts of the new pipeline could be avoided by an increased focus on energy conservation, perhaps through geo-targeted conservation programs in the GTA, reducing the infrastructure costs for gas ratepayers. While the Board had some sympathy for this argument, it was not fully convinced that conservation was a viable alternative, and eventually approved the pipeline (.pdf).

Planning to Conserve thumbI review the arguments for and against the pipeline in my annual energy conservation report, Planning to Conserve, released on January 13th (I also hosted a live web chat on the report on January 20). While I did not conclude that the GTA pipeline could have been avoided, I was convinced that conservation is not given a fair chance as an alternative to “hard infrastructure” in the existing regulatory approval process.



My report makes two recommendations that could improve this situation:

The ECO recommends that the Ontario Energy Board require natural gas utilities to file advance notice of any identified distribution system need that could have significant cost impact, and ensure conservation is considered as the first resource to meet some or all of this need.

The ECO recommends that the Ontario Energy Board allow utilities to increase their conservation budget if targeted conservation spending would avoid greater future infrastructure costs.

The point of the first recommendation is to require utilities to consider the potential role of conservation as early as possible in the planning process, before there is an imminent threat to reliability such that new infrastructure becomes the only option. The second recommendation would ensure that, where a utility has identified conservation as a viable alternative to an infrastructure project, it has the resources to take action and scale up its conservation efforts.

Over the holidays, the Ontario Energy Board released an updated set of demand-side management guidelines, which will govern the conservation activities of Enbridge Gas Distribution and Union Gas through 2020. A full review will need to wait until my next annual energy conservation report, but I am pleased to note that the new guidelines include provisions similar to my two recommendations, and will improve the linkages between natural gas conservation and natural gas infrastructure planning, This is an encouraging step towards achieving the Minister of Energy’s direction (.pdf) to “put conservation first” in energy infrastructure planning in Ontario.

Energy Conservation Report – Live Chat Wrap-Up

Live Chat with the Commissioner about his 2014 Energy Report

Please join our live chat with Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller on Tuesday, January 20th at 2:00 p.m. about his latest annual report on energy conservation in Ontario, Planning to Conserve.

live chat button

This report reviews the effectiveness of Ontario’s energy conservation policies and programs implemented by government ministries, agencies and boards. Find out more information or download the full report here.

We invite your questions on energy conservation and on any topics covered in the report, including:
Planning to Conserve thumb

  • The government’s policy to prioritize conservation as the option of first resort, outlined in its Conservation First vision paper released in mid-2013.
  • An Achievable Conservation Potential study produced by the Ontario Power Authority in March 2014 to assist the government in setting electricity conservation targets.
  • The updated 2013 Long-Term Energy Plan released in December 2013 containing the long-term electricity conservation targets and supply-demand outlook.
  • The new conservation and demand management framework for electric distribution utilities released in March 2014 containing conservation targets for the 2015-2020 timeframe.
  • The new regional electricity planning process designed to encourage the participation of local communities in the planning and siting of electricity infrastructure projects.
  • A 2014 Ontario Energy Board decision to approve a new natural gas pipeline for the Greater Toronto Area, and the role that conservation might have played in reducing the need.
  • Time-of-use rates and a conservation initiative targeted at large industrial customers as ways to encourage involvement of the public and business in conservation actions.
  • Program results from 2013 electricity and natural gas electricity conservation programs.

Please note that the live chat topic (the Smart Grid in Ontario) that was originally planned for this time slot has been moved to a later date.

2014 Energy Conservation Report

Planning to Conserve thumb

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario released his 2014 Annual Energy Conservation Progress Report to the Legislature on January 13th, 2015.

Conservation First Needs More Work

Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner says he’s adopting a wait-and-see attitude towards the government’s Conservation First philosophy.

In releasing his 2014 Energy Conservation Progress Report “Planning to Conserve”, Gord Miller praised the shift to considering cost-effective conservation before building new generation or transmission facilities. “Conservation has long been undervalued, and last year the government made significant progress in changing that by reorienting its energy policy.”

Miller pointed to a number of positive changes in conservation policy:

  • The government adopted a new Long-Term Energy Plan that put Conservation First.
  • It began work on a new conservation framework for electricity utilities, and set a new goal for their reduction in consumption: 7 terawatt-hours by 2020.
  • The Ontario Energy Board established a new conservation framework for natural gas distributors.
  • Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator is adding in environmental benefits, like the cost of carbon, when doing its cost-benefit test to approve electricity conservation programs. The Ontario Energy Board has announced it will do the same thing for natural gas conservation programs.

“These are all good improvements and will help the government put flesh on the bones of its Conservation First philosophy,” says Miller. “But I have to point out a couple of developments that give me pause, and hold me back from an unqualified endorsement of the government’s new conservation policy.

  • The vast majority of local electricity distribution utilities will miss their target for peak reduction. About half are expected to miss their target for reducing overall consumption.
  • The government has eliminated all of the interim electricity conservation targets that were used to measure the progress towards meeting its overall goals.
  • The Conservation First philosophy is not backed up with legal authority, as was done with previous power system plan directives.
  • The government has reduced the involvement of the public in reducing peak electricity demand.

“The government has spent the last decade trying to encourage the public to adopt a “Culture of Conservation”,” says the Environmental Commissioner. “Now, with its new approach to peak demand reduction, it appears to have forgotten that effort. A recent study shows that public interest and engagement in conservation in Ontario has hit an all-time low. That should concern all of us in the long run.”

The Commissioner will be hosting a live chat to take your questions about the report on Tuesday, January 20th at 2:00 p.m. Register now!

ECO to release 2014 Energy Conservation Progress Report

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario will release his 2014 Annual Energy Conservation Progress Report on Tuesday, January 13th, 2015 at 10:00 am.

Topics covered in this year’s Report include Review of Policy Developments 2013-2014 and updates on government target achievements.

The conference will be held at the Queen’s Park Media Studio and will also be available via webcast at http://www.eco.on.ca/.

The report will be available online at http://www.eco.on.ca coincident with the media conference.

For more information or to schedule interviews, contact:

Hayley Easto, Communications & Outreach Coordinator,
416-325-3371 or hayley.easto@eco.on.ca.

For French language release and bilingual support, contact:

Jean-Marc Filion, 705-476-9665

Aussi disponible en français.


How to engage the public on climate change?

GHG2014 S4 cover imageFor years most politicians didn’t want to touch the climate change issue. Perhaps they saw it as a political loser, or they were afraid to scare people. And, of course, talking about climate change would mean they’d be expected to actually do something about it. Now, as people start to see the impacts of climate change on their daily lives to a greater degree, the public is realizing that action is necessary. This provides an entry point for governments to step up and provide both direction and leadership to the public on this issue. I see transparent communications with the public as an essential component of good leadership. Governments should honestly advise the public about the risks they face, and the responsibilities they will bear, in a changing climate.

Other provinces are already doing this. Newfoundland launched a public communications campaign called Turn Back the Tide in 2012. The government plainly lays out what the climate change impacts will be for the province and what individuals, businesses and others can do. British Columbia has partnered with municipalities to create a climate action toolkit to help communities implement climate action. Quebec has linked the issue of climate to health and created a web hub for information. Other provinces and territories, such as Nova Scotia, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, have specific government websites dedicated to climate change.

In other countries, politicians are increasingly making public statements about the need to act on climate change. Since his landmark speech in June 2013, President Barack Obama has engaged in an ongoing public communications campaign on climate change – including tweets and speeches – alongside making important climate policy announcements.

However, governments can also face backlash when communicating about the risks of climate change to the public. The UK government spent £6 million on climate change television ads in 2009 which received many complaints, including those that doubted the validity of climate change science and others who felt that the advertising campaign was sparking fear. As a result, the UK government was investigated and cleared by the independent communications regulator. The head of the climate and energy department at the time said that he didn’t regret doing the ads and felt that the government had a duty to inform the public about the risks of climate change.

By contrast, Ontario has been relatively timid about communicating with the public about climate change; however, that seems to be changing with the new majority government. I encourage senior members of the government to open up a two-way dialogue on climate change with the people of Ontario. Warn them of the risks; yes, but also engage with them about climate change in the context of the things that matter to them: their homes, their families, their jobs and their communities. People need to see themselves in the climate conversation, and how it relates to their daily lives. When the risks (and opportunities) become personalized, people will clearly see the need for action on climate – at both the individual and collective levels.

Perceptions of COP20 – UN Conference on Climate Change

I have just returned from the COP20 meeting in Lima, Peru and I thought it might be valuable to offer a few comments and perceptions. This event is, of course, the 20th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Canada ratified in 1992. The Kyoto Protocol flowed from this process and came into force in 2005, though the first commitment period expired in 2012. (Canada ratified Kyoto in 2002, and then withdrew in 2011).

The main purpose of COP20 was to lay the groundwork for COP21 in Paris in December 2015. Hopefully in Paris we will see the nations of the world come to an agreement on a plan to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions that will come into force in 2020, and will also address how adaptation to the ongoing climate change will proceed, and how much money the developed nations will commit to the global process.

The tasks in Lima included drafting up the elements of a negotiating text which will be the basis of discussion over the next year leading to Paris. There was also the job of rustling up $10 billion in commitments to the Green Climate Fund as an initial good faith gesture. The parties exceeded the $10 billion target, so that was good news. And while the parties did end up with an agreement on the negotiating text, most commentators agree that the substance of the text was very weak and non-committal. Expectations were low for this process and I suppose it was this low bar that was met.

The problem with this process, which has been evident in previous COPs, is that the broad range of national interests includes those nations who are reluctant – or even hostile – to achieving a mandatory international agreement. So in seeking a consensus document they have to deal with parties who are constantly trying to water down or undermine substantive clauses. For example, the agreement asks countries to submit their emission reduction targets (“intended nationally determined contributions” [.pdf]) in the first quarter of 2015 if they are “ready to do so.” This is hardly a definitive commitment.

This milquetoast language was not well received by most of the other groups observing the proceedings. Youth groups especially called for more decisive action and demonstrated frustration with the progress. The President of ICLEI commanded “it is time to be bold, ambitious and inclusive.” Al Gore exhorted, “we must change, we can change and we will change!” The frustration in the rank and file was palpable.

But at Lima there was also a much more positive development. Led by Ontario, Quebec and California, there was a strong push to establish a sub-national collaboration on climate change among provinces, states and even large municipalities. In contrast to the national negotiations, this group is a collaboration of the willing. Those that oppose need not be part of it. As such, the initiative has a strongly positive tone which resonated with sub-national jurisdictions on several continents, as well as civil society, the environmental sector and even some business groups.

The sub-national initiative was quickly recognised as another channel to achieve progress on GHG emission reductions that by-passed the frustrating UNFCCC process. It is early yet, but Ontario has already offered to host a Climate Summit of the Americas in July 2015, which could, if successful, result in a completely different international narrative developing on climate change in 2015.

The international situation with respect to taking action on the existential problem of climate change is, to say the least, uncertain. It is not the time for optimism but it may be the time for some hope.

If you’d like to hear more, I’ll be hosting a live chat today at 2 p.m. To participate, you can sign up here, or you can tweet your question using the hashtag #ECOLive.

The ECO is Off to Lima

¡Hola! ¿Que tal?

It happens every December: the annual United Nations climate change conference. In previous years you may have noticed a flurry of media stories on climate right before the holidays. The first meeting was in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty, was first opened for signature. The treaty entered into force in 1994; as of 2014, 196 countries are party to the treaty. Its aim is to stabilize global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to avoid dangerous climatic changes. The parties to the treaty have met every year since 1995, which is known as the “Conference of the Parties” or COP.

The most famous recent COP was perhaps in 2009 in Copenhagen, when U.S. President Obama made a last ditch plea for an agreement – known as the Copenhagen Accord. (Both the U.S. and Canada agreed to reduce their GHG emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. The U.S. is on track to meet this commitment; by its own admission, Canada will not). Many people have become skeptical of this annual conference, due to the lack of tangible outcomes even as climate change continues to worsen.  But hard work gets done behind the scenes.

This year, the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP 20) is taking place in Lima, Peru from December 1-12 [.pdf]. Many countries send delegations, which are made up of a mix of government officials, business people, parliamentarians and others. This year I have decided to attend as part of the International Institute for Sustainable Development delegation, for several reasons:

  • The global context for climate change policy has changed profoundly in recent months. The U.S. and China recently signed an agreement where both countries agreed to limit GHG emissions. The European Union also recently strengthened its climate change reduction targets. The COP 20 conference in Lima is the first step towards what many policy makers and political leaders hope will be an ambitious global climate agreement inked at COP 21 in Paris in December 2015. In Lima, many jurisdictions will be positioning themselves to negotiate in the lead-up to next year’s Paris conference.
  • Ontario has a renewed focus on climate change – one clear sign is that it has renamed its environment ministry the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. It is working on updating its climate change mitigation and adaptation plans, and hopes to re-position Ontario as a climate change leader by Paris 2015. As a result, it is sending its own delegation to Lima this year, including Glen Murray, the Minister, as well as the Deputy Minister, and other key staff. My formal mandate requires me to report on Ontario’s progress on climate change.
  • While an agreement is unlikely to be reached in Lima, it is important for Ontario to have a presence. Behind the scenes, essential conversations take place that help to test policy concepts, spur ideas and partnerships and share lessons learned. Key connections are made and strategic relationships are built. Ontario cannot solve the climate crisis alone and partnerships with neighbouring jurisdictions, both in Canada and North America more broadly, are vital. All the key people will be assembled in Lima. Ontario has recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the province of Quebec to collaborate on climate change and energy policy, demonstrating its desire to take a cooperative approach.

I am attending for two purposes: to both witness and participate in the sub-national conversations first-hand; and to inform my discussions with, and recommendations for, the Ontario government on climate change. Watch this space as well as my personal Twitter account and the ECO’s Climate and Energy Twitter account for updates and news from Peru in December.

¡Hasta Luego!

When is a Park not a Park?

How we choose to manage Ontario’s publicly owned Crown lands has been the subject of much heated debate throughout the years. There was a time when Ontario’s forests were viewed almost exclusively as a source of products like lumber and pulp. Ecological concerns and recreational values took a backseat to resource extraction, if they were acknowledged at all. Times change.

Growing public concern over protecting the ecological values of Ontario’s forests pushed the government to develop a Timber Management Class Environmental Assessment, which was finalized in 1994. This Class EA had 115 terms and conditions that reflected a new approach to forestry that showed greater concern for protecting ecological values. This paradigm shift also spurred the development of the Crown Forest Sustainability Act, 1994, which incorporated new concepts of sustainable forest management.

Then, in the late 1990s, the Ontario government undertook one of the largest land use planning processes in the province’s history. The outcome was a historic agreement on the use of 39 million hectares of Crown lands and waters in central and northern Ontario. Ontario’s Living Legacy Land Use Strategy [.pdf] set out how the province would balance competing land uses like mining, forestry, tourism, angling, hunting, and conservation. The strategy adopted a clear distinction between lands that should be protected, and lands that are available for commercial activities like logging and mining. It set a target of 12 per cent of the Crown land and water base covered by the agreement to be set aside as protected areas – with the remainder left open for commercial use.

Protected areas are set aside to allow animal and plant species, as well as entire ecosystems and ecological processes, to function unimpaired. These natural areas must be managed very differently from Crown lands that are open to commercial resource extraction. The Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, 2006 requires the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to ensure that ecological integrity [.pdf] is the first priority in the planning and management of all of Ontario’s provincial parks and conservation reserves. The ministry succinctly explains what ecological integrity means: the heart of ecological integrity is the “naturalness” of a given protected area.

Algonquin Logging Map

Logging is permitted in the red areas in this map of Algonquin Provincial Park. (Click map to enlarge.)

Unfortunately, the line between protected areas and other Crown land is not always so clear. For example, roughly two-thirds of Algonquin Provincial Park is open to commercial timber harvesting. Even though Ontario foresters employ some of the best forestry practices in the world, commercially logging a provincial park is at odds with managing for ecological integrity.

Managing a forest sustainably for timber, while undoubtedly important, is very different than managing a park for its ecological integrity. For example, protected areas are managed to encourage naturally occurring fires; areas managed for logging typically suppress forest fires. Protected areas are managed as roadless areas; areas managed for logging have extensive road networks. Protected areas don’t have aggregate pits; areas in Algonquin managed for logging do. Protected areas are managed to allow trees to die naturally as part of a bio-chemical process; logging is a mechanical process that robs forests of nutrient cycling. And so on.

As the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act, 2006 and Ontario’s Living Legacy Land Use Strategy demonstrate, the fundamental reason for distinguishing between general Crown lands and protected areas is that parks are areas intended for conservation with as little interference as necessary. Parks are the only place where we have chosen to allow nature to run its course. Parks are the unimpaired natural benchmarks by which we can measure whether forestry practices elsewhere are actually sustainable.

Forestry operations in Algonquin Provincial Park are certified as sustainable. Yet, the very presence of commercial forestry in Algonquin Provincial Park means that the areas that are open to logging cannot qualify as a “protected area” under international standards. In other words, even if commercial forestry operations meet sustainability standards, you can’t conduct these operations in a park and still call it a park; the two are mutually exclusive with good reason.

Regulated protected areas managed by the province only cover nine per cent of Ontario. These are the last refuges for wilderness; in the rest of the province, wildlife habitat and ecosystems are open to constant pressure from industry and development. Without actually protecting a special place like Algonquin Provincial Park, it’s only lines on a map. Algonquin Provincial Park was established in the 19th century, in the age of lumber barons. It is time to bring it into the 21st century, and adopt modern protected areas science.