Ontario’s GHG reduction targets: why they matter

One of the Environmental Commissioner’s roles under the Environmental Bill of Rights is reporting on the province’s progress towards reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We do this by measuring the province’s progress against its own emissions reduction targets. For our most recent assessment, see our 2015 GHG Progress report.

GHG reduction targetsWhenever you set an ambitious goal for yourself ‒ like running a marathon ‒ you need incremental goals in the shorter term to keep on track. It’s the same idea with the province’s GHG reduction targets leading up to its ambitious 2050 target.

These interim targets encourage the government to take actions now that will help steer a new course for Ontario’s economy, towards one that is low-carbon. Without these short-term targets, the difficult policy decisions needed to make this transition happen might otherwise be put off, which will only make them more costly and difficult later.

Targets also allow the public to hold the government to account, and track its progress on reducing GHG emissions in the province. For example, as we highlight in our 2015 report, as policies currently stand, Ontario is not on track to meet its GHG reduction target for 2020 (15% below 1990 levels). Hopefully Ontario’s climate change strategy, anticipated to be released late 2015, will put the province back onto track.

Getting from 2020 to 2050: Ontario’s new 2030 interim target

The province’s May 2015 introduction of an additional midterm target of 37% below 1990 levels by 2030 sets a new accountability target.

The setting of a new interim target adds to other positive steps recently taken by the government; such as its commitment to introduce a cap-and-trade system and to produce a new climate change strategy.

Climate change is clearly more of a priority for the province than it has been in years past. The ECO looks forward to the announcement of a suite of actions in the coming months which in aggregate will allow the province to meet its GHG reduction targets.


Climate Summit of the Americas: the ECO’s Afterthoughts

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Strategically timed during the days leading up to the Pan Am Games, Ontario hosted a 2-day Climate Summit of the Americas. This conference featured political leaders and climate change action advocates from across the Americas; regions as diverse as the Amazon, B.C. and Vermont. The high-level speakers included former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, Governor of California Jerry Brown and the Premier of Quebec, Philippe Couillard.

Premier Wynne hosted and attended the Summit. She also attended an Al Gore-led climate change educator training session held in Toronto the day after the Summit.

The Summit was not just about Ontario learning from other states, provinces and regions to inform the government’s highly anticipated new climate change strategy and cap-and-trade program (both expected to be released later this year); but it was also intended to spur further climate action by other subnational governments across the continent. It seems it was successful on both accounts.

In terms of spurring further actions, the Summit resulted in a Climate Action Statement signed by 23 state and region signatories, including leaders from Mexico, Brazil, the U.S. and Canada. The Statement promotes a flexible approach to climate change action that allows for locally determined actions by participating in or undertaking one or more of the following: GHG emissions reductions targets, the Under 2 MOU, the Compact of States and Regions or the Compact of Mayors, and supporting carbon pricing.

Summit speakers stressed that transitioning to a low carbon economy offers great opportunity, both social and economic. They also warned about the impacts that climate change are having right now on their communities.

Recent actions by the Ontario Government, as we reported in our 2015 GHG Progress report, including hosting the Summit, suggest Ontario intends to embrace action on climate change.


Connecting the dots on climate data in Ontario

Ontario’s communities are built based on historic weather patterns. Homes are built in areas that are believed to be safe from flooding and other natural hazards. Roads are built to withstand typical seasonal weather. Farmers plant and harvest crops based on usual growing seasons.

But past assumptions about the weather no longer hold up.

We now live in a changing climate. Climate change doesn’t just mean that temperatures are rising; it also means more unpredictable and extreme weather.

Countless business, personal and government decisions rely on assumptions about what the future climate will be. Many of these decisions are long-term; the roads, buildings, transit, sewers and power grids being built today are meant to last. But now “1-in-100 year” storms, which are often the threshold for resilient design, are happening more frequently than in the past. If major decisions aren’t based on revised climate assumptions, communities will face significant costs in the future. Many communities are already coping with costs of unprecedented storm damage.

Decisions that reflect the past climate are no longer good enough.

Where can decision makers find credible projections of the future climate?  And what are the emerging climate data needs of Ontario decision makers? A Roundtable hosted by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario in early 2015, focused on these and related questions. Expert presentations and animated discussions among climate data producers, intermediaries and end users illuminated the many facets of this rapidly developing field.

Our Climate Data Roundtable Report summarizes the presentations and discussions from the event, and explores some recommendations that the ECO suggests for moving forward on this issue in Ontario.  We encourage you to download, use and share the video and infographics from the report to help your networks better understand why access to good climate data matters.

Feeling the Heat: 2015 Greenhouse Gas Progress Report

Feeling the Heat: Greenhouse Gas Progress Report 2015

This report was submitted to the Legislative Assembly by Ellen Schwartzel, Acting Environmental Commissioner of Ontario on July 7, 2015.




July 7th, 2015 – Today we released our 2015 Greenhouse Gas Progress Report.

It looks like Ontario is finally “feeling the heat” on climate change policy. Until recently, the government’s decision to close its coal-fired power plants was Ontario’s main contribution to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Encouragingly, though, the Ontario government is now preparing to take the first of many necessary steps towards meeting its 2050 GHG reduction target (80% below 1990 emissions levels).

As we do every year, our 2015 report reviews the government’s progress throughout the previous year in reducing GHG emissions across its major economic sectors. We use the government’s own GHG reduction targets as a benchmark to track the province’s progress.

The Ontario government appears to have met its 2014 GHG reduction target (6% below 1990 levels) ‒ in large part due to the closure of its coal-fired power plants. However, no other significant GHG reduction policies have since been implemented. The policies in place so far will not reduce emissions enough to ensure Ontario achieves its 2020 GHG reduction target of 15% below 1990 levels.2015GHG Figure 1 GHG emission trends and targets

To make real progress towards the province’s 2020 and 2050 targets, and the government’s recently announced interim 2030 target (37% below 1990 levels), Ontario needs to implement a suite of actions across its economy.

Ontario's greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario by sector

Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions by sector (click to enlarge)

Ontario continues to struggle to make much progress on reducing emissions from the province’s top three emitting sectors: transportation, buildings and industry (see left). The transportation sector is the largest challenge of the three. There are many potential tools available to reduce emissions in this sector, for example: incentives for lower emissions vehicles (see p.21 of our report); alternative fuels; getting people out of cars altogether and onto bikes and transit; creating a low-carbon fuel standard (p.22); and transit-friendly land use planning (p.20). There is both scope and a need for greater action on each of these measures.

Figure 4 GDP and GHG Emissions

Figure 4 – Ontario’s GDP and GHG emissions (click to enlarge)

There is good news. We now know that it is possible for our economy to grow while emissions shrink, as shown in Figure 4 of Ontario’s Climate Change Update 2014. What’s more, we know the costs of not reducing our GHG emissions are significant and growing.

There are some encouraging signs of a renewed provincial commitment to climate change action; Ontario’s recently renamed Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (emphasis added) just announced that it plans to introduce a cap-and-trade system and release a new climate change strategy later this year. As well, in the coming days, leaders from across the continent will be meeting in Toronto for the Climate Summit of the Americas. This Summit will focus on the potential for major continent-wide climate change action at the sub-national level, including state, provincial and municipal governments. The heat is on for each jurisdiction to deliver on their GHG reduction commitments.  Ontario has set itself strong targets. Now comes the hard part: delivering the results.

Ontario finally moves on carbon pricing

The long wait is over; today Ontario finally announced that it will implement a carbon price (a cap-and-trade system), and I am very pleased with this development.

Ontario first joined the Western Climate Initiative in 2008 and a team of dedicated staff has been contemplating a cap-and-trade system ever since. The MOE (as the MOECC was then known) posted a carbon pricing discussion paper to the Environmental Registry in January 2009 (Environmental Registry # 010-5484) and a second follow-up proposal in May 2009 (Environmental Registry # 010-6740), but a final decision was never posted by the ministry.

Due to the ECO’s role in reporting on the province’s progress in reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (see my annual GHG progress reports), the ECO has accumulated years of commentary on the subject of carbon pricing. Here’s a brief history of our efforts and suggestions.

The ECO’s 2010 GHG progress report explained that the ECO “supports government efforts to put a price on carbon emissions, but remains agnostic” on the mechanism. The 2010 report provides an overview of both pricing instruments (carbon tax or cap-and-trade) from the standpoints of: 1) emissions reduction certainty and price certainty; 2) administrative oversight; 3) transparency; and 4) implications for the transition to a low-carbon economy. The 2010 report also outlines the Western Climate Initiative and B.C.’s experience with a carbon tax. The report concluded by recommending one important condition for whichever carbon pricing policy instrument that Ontario chooses: that it be based on a full public review to compare emissions trading and a carbon tax in terms of their efficacy in providing a transparent price signal to the economy.

The following year, my 2011 GHG Progress report urged the provincial government to stop delaying and implement a carbon pricing mechanism sooner rather than later. This report also addressed two important concerns that had been raised about any potential carbon pricing mechanism: carbon leakage and so-called “trade-exposed industries.” Subsequently, I blogged about why a carbon price is actually good for Ontario industry.

More recently, in November of last year, I wrote a blog making a case for the potential of a carbon tax to effectively reduce GHG emissions in Ontario.

Although carbon pricing has been a slow train coming, based on the government’s renewed commitment to climate change (see The Road to Paris is paved with subnational intentions), I’m optimistic that Ontarians will finally see this policy implemented.

The road to Paris is paved with subnational intentions

Yesterday Monday was an important milestone on the road to the next United Nations (UN) climate change conference in Paris this December ‒ March 31st was the deadline for countries to submit their “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDC) for this next round of UN negotiations. The INDC is each country’s updated greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target, which is meant to build on countries’ previously established targets. Many believe a binding international climate change agreement may finally be reached in Paris.1 In the Canadian context, it appears subnational governments are playing an important role in making this happen.

Canada’s GHG reduction target remained the same as it was in 2009 (17% below 2005 levels by 2020);2 a target which Canada will not be able to meet, according to Environment Canada’s 2014 Emissions Trends report. However, some provinces, such as Ontario, have not only stepped up to achieve emission reductions for Canada, but are beginning to play a larger role internationally, which I wrote about after attending the last UN conference in Lima in December 2014.

The province’s most recent report on its progress on reducing its GHG emissions shows that Ontario is set to meet its 2014 target (6% below 1990 levels). The Ontario government has recently demonstrated a renewed commitment to meet its targets for 2020 and beyond (15% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050). For example, the province recently released a Climate Change Discussion Paper, which establishes its commitment to produce a new climate change strategy later this year that will include, among other measures, a carbon pricing mechanism.

I remain hopeful for the possibility of a binding international agreement in Paris, because, as the IPCC reported, to avert the risks associated with major climate change, mitigation actions will need to be taken at all levels of government. I am also increasingly optimistic about the potential for collaboration among subnational governments to make significant progress as well. With this in mind, I eagerly anticipate the meeting of Canadian Premiers in Quebec City on April 14 to discuss a national energy and climate strategy, and the Climate Summit of the Americas on July 7-9 in Toronto, where the Ontario government aims to develop and deliver a common statement on commitments by subnational governments to reduce GHG emissions.
It appears that the road to Paris may just be paved with subnational intentions.

1. See for example: Neil Bathiya, U.S. News & World Report, “This Time Is Different, Why optimism about a 2015 climate change agreement is growing” Feb.18, 2015. http://www.usnews.com/opinion/economic-intelligence/2015/02/18/paris-2015-climate-change-agreement-optimism-is-growing.

2. Compare against EU’s target of 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, Switzerland’s target of 50% below 1990 level by 2030, or the US target to cut emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025.

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.)

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.