Climate Change Policy in Ontario – Getting Locked-Out by Being Locked-In

A key message emerging from Ontario’s Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan (“Climate Ready”) is that Ontario’s public infrastructure is vulnerable to changing climate conditions and extreme weather events.   Infrastructure investment in sectors such as water, energy and transportation creates long-lived networks that enable economic prosperity for present and future generations. But the infrastructure we build can also hinder future generations if it is built to cope with climate and weather conditions that no longer exist. For example, an August 2005 rain storm in Toronto – rivaled only by Hurricane Hazel for the intensity of precipitation – overwhelmed stormwater infrastructure in a northern part of the city and wiped out a section of Finch Avenue. The costs of that storm exceeded $500 million, making it the most expensive disaster in Ontario’s history.  With Ontario’s climate beginning to show the effects of the build-up of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere such events will happen more frequently and could be just as costly unless we start planning now.  Many years of underinvestment have left significant portions of public infrastructure, for services such as water and electricity, near the end of their useful life.  This is fortunate, in a perverse way, because it provides the Ontario government with an opportunity to reinvest now to make critical systems more resilient to present and future conditions.  The Ontario government’s 10-year infrastructure plan recognizes the need to build adaptation into public infrastructure planning, which is a good first step.

As I note, however, in my recent preliminary assessment of the government’s climate change adaptation strategy (“Ready for Change?”) – key areas of public infrastructure – notably the provincial electricity grid – are not receiving adequate attention despite the fact that they are inherently vulnerable to a changing climate.

The idea that investment in infrastructure now yields greater payoffs than delayed action holds true on the climate change mitigation (i.e. GHG reduction) front as well.  The International Energy Agency (IEA) provides a stark reminder of this fact in its World Energy Outlook 2011.  Devoting an entire section to climate change, the IEA showed that unless we change the carbon footprint of our infrastructure going forward, a global average temperature increase somewhere between 3.5°C to 6°C by 2100 can be anticipated.  This is far beyond the range for which Ontario is planning, and would most certainly result in a severe reduction in living standards across the province.  This is because infrastructure built now will last for decades and thus “lock-in” emissions long into the future.

The IEA calculated the amount of GHG emissions that could be emitted over the next several decades while still having a likely chance of meeting the internationally agreed target of limiting global temperature rise to less than 2°C. This is the carbon budget that needs to be managed in order to avoid the most dire predictions, such as extreme sea level rise and mass extinctions. Shockingly, the IEA found that existing and planned capital stock (power generation, buildings, transportation and industry) will emit 80 per cent of that budget and that, without a clear economic signal to direct development towards a low-carbon path the entire carbon budget will be eaten up in just five years.  As we wait to embark on a low-carbon pathway for reasons of economic expediency, fossil-fuel infrastructure continues to be built and planned. Within Ontario, the Long-term Energy Plan calls for several new natural gas power plants over the next 20 years. It is precisely this type of fossil-fuel infrastructure that will need to be mothballed early (or undergo costly retrofits to capture the GHGs emitted) if we hope to keep the planet within its budget. Given the capital expense that goes into such infrastructure, it is unlikely that governments would be willing to make such politically unpalatable moves.

The IEA information illustrates the critical link between climate adaptation and mitigation.  As Ontario moves forward, we need to plan so that our children can live within the atmospheric budget using infrastructure networks that can cope with an uncertain future climate.  If we fail to accept this challenge we risk condemning our children to live in a less prosperous world.  Policy options exist to avoid this fate, including: aggressive energy efficiency; investment in renewable energy; a focus on climate resilience in the building code; and a move towards comprehensive carbon pricing to direct investment towards the low-carbon path. There is no time to wait.