Ontario needs user-friendly climate data!

EcoRoundtable_logoI’ve learned that climate data accessibility is an issue in Ontario, thanks to ongoing discussions with various stakeholders. To move the conversation forward, I organized a roundtable in early 2015. This page will tell you everything you may want to know about the event – including the agenda, a background briefing note, as well as videos and slides from the presentations.

Let me backtrack and explain what climate data is. When I use the term ‘climate data’, I am referring to projections about what the future climate will look like in terms of data points such as temperature, precipitation, and so on. How much rain can I expect in July of 2042 in the city of Ottawa? This is the type of information that the data from climate models can tell us.

Who uses climate data and what do they use it for? There are currently a variety of users, ranging from engineers through municipalities and other levels of government to companies and conservation authorities. In short, these end users are utilizing climate data to plan for the future, especially when considering large infrastructure and other capital investment decisions, such as the location and design of roads, bridges, power lines and buildings.

The climate has already changed so much that using historic data and trends to predict future weather is unwise. Decision-makers planning infrastructure are mostly worried about the extremes – rainstorms, wind, ice, heat, and so on. They want to know whether the infrastructure that they will spend millions on will be able to withstand future weather extremes.

The problem isn’t that Ontario-specific climate data and predictions aren’t available. The federal and provincial governments, as well as academia,[1] have many climate data sets. The problem is that most data users don’t know where to find them, even though many are available online. If they find do find the data, it may not be user-friendly. Even if the data is in a format people can use, they may not understand how to use it in a scientifically-sound way, i.e. ensuring they aren’t just relying on one model. Most public and private sector practitioners (and decision-makers) don’t have a background in climate science, nor should they need to have one.

You’ll be hearing more from me about this issue, so stay tuned. Climate data in Ontario needs to be made more accessible for the average decision-maker in the public and private sectors. I’m working on a report summarizing the presentations and conversations from the event, which will come out in late spring.

[1] This is just one example, from York University. (For best results please use FireFox.)

And the ECO Recognition Award goes to …

Celebrating success is always important.  We need passionate and dedicated people to come up with creative solutions to some of our more tricky environmental problems.  And it is very important to recognize the hard work of such individuals.  By highlighting their accomplishments, others can also see how a challenge was overcome and solve it somewhere else!

Every year, I ask provincial ministries to submit outstanding programs and projects to be considered for the ECO’s Recognition Award. This award is meant to recognize the hard work of ministry staff in an initiative that betters Ontario’s environment and that meets the goals of the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993. This past year, I received nominations for ten projects and programs. An arm’s-length panel reviewed the submissions.

And the winner is…. staff from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for their Water Chestnut Management Program in Voyageur Provincial Park!

2015 recognition award

Park staff came up with for an innovative project to control an infestation of European water chestnut, an invasive aquatic species. The water chestnut has become a serious nuisance in other jurisdictions because it can choke out native vegetation, decrease biodiversity, and negatively affect recreational activities.

The Voyageur Provincial Park water chestnut infestation was one of the first known cases in Ontario, and park staff acted swiftly to minimize its impact and spread. Staff consulted other jurisdictions for information and support, researched new control methods, experimented with control and monitoring techniques, and designed new equipment that can control the species more efficiently and effectively.

Water chestnut can be controlled by hand-pulling from a canoe, but this method is time-consuming and labour-intensive. Park staff developed a new system of specially adapted boats to remove and collect the tops of the plants, decreasing the possibility of flower and seed production. They also engaged and informed the public throughout the project; for example, staff circulated newsletters, created a volunteer program to assist with plant removal activities, and held education programs for park visitors.

We celebrate the passion and hard work of these members of the Ontario Public Service at a reception today at Queen’s Park.  Congratulations and keep up the great work!


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.