Obama’s climate change action plan: what does it mean for Ontario?

NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-EarthriseIn a historic moment, on June 25 U.S. President Barack Obama released his plan [.pdf] to put the U.S. on the path to reach its target (which is the same as Canada’s) of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. While the plan contains a wide range of actions, whether it can deliver results in a timeframe that allows us to rein in the progress of climate change is questionable. Still, the moment is remarkable and the plan is impressive in its scope and ambition. A key impact of the U.S. plan may be the effect it has on spurring other jurisdictions – such as Ontario – to get their respective houses in order.

Obama tried early in his presidency to take action on climate change, but was stymied by Congress. He tried a market-based approach, a cap-and-trade system to control GHGs, which passed the House but not the Senate. Now, four years later, he is acting with the only tool left: his executive power, through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The cornerstone of his new plan is to use his authority to ask the EPA [.pdf] to set emissions standards for both new and existing power plants, America’s largest source of concentrated emissions, which account for 33% of total emissions. This is one area where Ontario is ahead of the game, given the phase out of coal from our electricity sector.

Following Obama’s announcement, however, it will take several years for the EPA to develop the power plant emission standards for existing plants, and experts think they won’t result in emission reductions until 2018. Still, by regulatory standards, this counts as an aggressive timeline. Obama is directing the EPA to work closely with states and other stakeholders to build on existing efforts, and incorporate flexible policy instruments to curb emissions. Deeper reductions are more likely to be achieved with flexible policy instruments [.pdf], but they are also more vulnerable to legal challenges.  There is still uncertainty as to exactly how the new rules will look.

Addressing power plant emissions is a necessary, but insufficient, step for the U.S. to reach its 17% target. Renewable energy development will be required and is also top of the agenda. Power generation from renewables has doubled since Obama took office in 2008, and the plan is to double it again by 2020, notably by accelerating wind and solar development (an additional 10 Gigawatts [GW]) on public lands. Ten GW represents over one-quarter of Ontario’s total installed capacity.

An alternative approach to reducing GHGs would involve putting a price on carbon.  I’ve said it before – a price on carbon is generally the preferred policy option in terms of economic efficiency, though the devil is in the details [.pdf]. A price on carbon would target more than just power plants and is a more transparent price for companies than a regulatory cost.

Complementary policies are also required and were included in the plan. These range from energy efficiency standards for appliances and federal buildings to double energy productivity by 2030 (from 2010 levels), to forest conservation and restoration, to post-2018 heavy-duty vehicle fuel standards, and more.

Recently, the U.S. signed an agreement with China to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) by 2050, a potent greenhouse gas used in many refrigeration products including air conditioners. The U.S. also plans to develop a comprehensive, interagency methane emissions reduction plan, including addressing concerns about methane leakage from shale gas production and landfills, the latter of which I am becoming increasingly concerned about in Ontario.

Another section of the plan addresses climate change adaptation, and the need to increase U.S. resilience. Federal agencies will increasingly take climate risk into account in their investment decisions and programs, including federal infrastructure grants. This type of forward-looking, integrated adaptation action is clearly needed in Ontario as well. I have noted that Ontario has made a good start in the area of climate adaptation, as I reported in 2012.

However, despite all these positive proposals, President Obama noted that U.S. natural gas production and consumption will continue to rise. In fact, the U.S. plans to promote fuel switching (from coal to gas) around the world and to encourage the development of the global gas market. Of course, this is in the economic interest of America, as a growing natural gas producer and potential future exporter. As I argued in my most recent greenhouse gas report, natural gas is no climate change panacea.

One of the other tenets of the Obama plan is to increase international co-operation on climate change, largely directed at large emitters in the developing world; but surely the growing emissions of America’s northern neighbour and largest trading partner must also be top of mind. I welcome the U.S.’s wide-ranging climate change plan, and I hope that it will light a fire under Canadian policy makers to, at the very least, attempt to match the U.S. in terms of scope and urgency of action. Canada matched the U.S. emissions target, will we be able to match its ambition to reach it?

Even before the new policies were announced yesterday, the U.S. was already doing a lot under the radar to reduce emissions and meet its Copenhagen pledge. Contrast that to Ontario (and Canada), where GHG emissions are currently projected to go up, not down.

The bottom line is that the Obama administration is worried about climate change [.pdf]. As the plan says, “climate change is no longer a distant threat.” It is already happening, and now they’re doing something about it. As I said earlier this month, Ontario needs to give renewed attention to the fight against climate change and perhaps this renewed focus within the U.S. will provide some inspiration.

The Ontario Government is Failing Our Future on the Climate Change File

keeling curve

The Keeling Curve

My annual greenhouse gas (GHG) progress report, released today, makes it clear that the Ontario government does not see climate change as an important issue in need of policy attention. I used the famous Keeling Curve graphic on the cover of my report with good reason: within the past few weeks, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide monitored on Mount Mauna Loa in Hawaii crossed the 400 parts per million (ppm) threshold – a disturbing milestone. Why is the Ontario government dragging its feet on this file? The climate change mitigation initiatives and policies outlined by the government to date will not produce a decline in overall emissions. In addition, government energy policy may actually work against the government’s stated GHG reduction goals (more on this below). In my opinion, the government needs to “re-boot” its entire effort in this area. To be blunt, we are running out of time.

Within the transportation sector, the biggest single contributor to GHGs in Ontario is passenger vehicles (cars, pick-ups, vans). While the new federal greenhouse gas emissions standards for light-duty vehicles are a step in the right direction, more needs to be done. In my 2010 report, I highlighted the role that road pricing can play in easing gridlock while reducing GHGs and other air pollutants and urged the government to examine this as a potential option. Metrolinx’s just-released investment strategy, which examines potential funding options to tackle traffic gridlock in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, is a step in the right direction; now we must wait and see how decision makers will use this strategy.

The second largest source of CO2 emissions after transportation is industry. The government is exploring mechanisms to reduce emissions from this sector, likely by putting some form of a price on carbon, though no clear direction or policy is currently evident. This past January, the government posted yet another Discussion Paper [.pdf] on the Environmental Registry to solicit feedback from interested parties that “will inform the design of [a] program.” This paper joins two earlier discussion documents posted on the Registry in December 2008 [.pdf] and May 2009 focusing on the development of a cap-and-trade system for Ontario. More than four years is surely long enough for the government to have taken the pulse of stakeholders, and particularly industry, on this issue – many members of which want a price on carbon – and provide clear policy direction. Most industrial companies now use a shadow carbon cost in their investment, planning and technology decisions. So, the time to move on this at the provincial policy level is NOW! The international community has signaled that some form of regulation with a carbon cost will be here soon. Industry has demonstrated that it is onside with this realization and is just waiting for government leadership.

The reluctance on the part of the government to price carbon is creating unintended consequences in the electricity sector. This sector is where most of Ontario’s emission reductions to date have been achieved, largely through the elimination of coal-fired power generation and the increased penetration of renewables onto the grid. However, due to the need to refurbish a significant portion of Ontario’s nuclear generation assets by the end of this decade, the Ontario Power Authority has indicated that natural gas will increasingly be relied on to fill the supply gap, resulting in a likely and potentially substantial increase in emissions. The problem is that the government is committing us to natural gas generation without factoring in a future price for carbon emissions.

It is important to note that the period of time that we will need the additional generation is only about four years. Gas-fired infrastructure is good for at least 20 years. So why are we building assets that are likely to become stranded and will continue to be greenhouse gas albatrosses for the next two decades? Given the great potential we have for electricity conservation in our system and the further potential for renewable generation, can we not draft a plan that allows us to meet demand during the refurbishment period with conservation initiatives so as not to incur the carbon liability? To the extent that Ontario’s electricity sector has been significantly decarbonized, it represents an excellent source of low-carbon electricity to reduce emissions in other sectors such as transportation.

Ontario’s continued predicted growth in GHG emissions cannot be reconciled with the government’s goal to reduce emissions to 150 megatonnes (Mt) by 2020 and to 35 Mt by 2050. Much more needs to be done to close this gap. In the absence of a renewed effort, the government is failing our future. The window of opportunity to meet a 450 ppm world and to limit the rise in global temperatures to no more than 2°C is closing rapidly. Ontario needs to get out ahead of these developments.

Tracking GHG Emissions from Electricity Generation: We Need an App for That

Purchasing a large household appliance, like an oven, fridge, or freezer?  I bet you take your time to compare different features of similar products, including their energy efficiencies.  After all, a refrigerator will consume thousands of kilowatts of electricity over its lifetime, and cost you hundreds of dollars. You know that better efficiency means you have a greener appliance that saves you money.

Photo courtesy wikimedia commonsPurchasing electricity?  (I know you are because you’re reading this blog!)  It’s sort of similar to purchasing an appliance.  Every time you turn on a light or computer, you’re making a purchase that can result in unintended consequences – like releasing greenhouse gases (GHGs), a major driver of climate change. At the individual level, there won’t be a significant amount of GHGs released from turning on a light.  But, everyone’s purchases taken together, combined with the electricity used by companies or institutions, can result in large amounts of GHGs being released. This is especially true during peak demand periods, when more fossil fuel-fired generating stations (like gas-fired ‘peaker plants’) are in the mix.

What’s an enlightened, environmentally conscious consumer to do?

CDM11v1One useful tool is an emission factor: the amount of GHGs released per unit of energy produced by suppliers (and ultimately consumed by users.) The Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) could make the estimated GHG emission factors for Ontario’s electricity consumption publicly available on an hourly basis. In my Annual Energy Conservation Progress Report – 2011 (Volume One), I recommended that they do just that. This was motivated by my desire for electricity consumers to have information that could help them make environmentally conscious decisions about when they consume electricity.

Right now, such information is available from sources like Environment Canada’s Electricity Intensity Tables, which provide an annual greenhouse gas intensity factor for each province’s electricity system. Unfortunately, this annual greenhouse gas intensity factor doesn’t reflect the hourly variation of our electricity system.  Plus, publication of the annual greenhouse gas intensity factor is delayed by a couple of years.

Clearly, an annual emission factor does not accurately reflect the carbon intensity of our electricity system during any given hour of the day. This is inadequate for anyone who would like to reduce their carbon footprint by shifting their electricity consumption.

Why would you be interested in shifting your electricity use? Because Ontario’s sources of electricity supply – and the consequent production of GHGs – vary throughout the day. It is a dynamic system where generators are turned on and off to meet our varying energy needs – and generators rely on different fuel sources and technologies. As energy demand changes hourly, weekly and seasonally, the amount of GHGs emitted to the atmosphere by electricity generators also fluctuates.

I’m not the only person who sees this problem. Last year, my staff met with researchers at Niagara College who published an interesting peer-reviewed approach for calculating hourly emission factors. Other researchers have been exploring similar issues, such as looking at the emission intensity factors for marginal electricity generation.

There’s also momentum from the private sector behind this idea, including the creation of an app to help people see what their hydro bills are paying for.  The Gridwatch (Ontario Edition) app was launched last year for iphone users, and is free to download. It provides users with an easy-to-read interface that shows you how much power is being generated, from what electricity source, and it even calculates its own estimate for Ontario’s hourly GHG emissions from electricity generators.  This helps consumers learn more about their electricity use and the associated GHG emissions.

Wouldn’t it be useful to have an official method that is endorsed by government and industry to calculate hourly GHG emission factors for Ontario’s electricity consumption? I think so. I believe that an official source for real-time GHG emission factors could help industries calculate their emission reductions from load shifting, could help academics studying GHG emissions from our electricity system, and help you, the public, make decisions on when and how to use electricity with the least impact. The generation data is already being collected and it would improve the public’s understanding of our electricity grid and how our electricity use is related to reducing our GHG emissions.  Let’s get an official source of hourly GHG emission data for our electricity system available!

Clean Your Plate! Wasting Food Exacts a Heavy Toll on the Environment

It’s an uncertainty we can all relate to. You go to your refrigerator to get some milk, yogurt or sliced meat, and wonder whether you need to throw it out because the “best before” date has just passed.

This misplaced concern is widespread. A British study by the Waste and Resources Action Program has found that close to 50% of consumers are confused about the meaning of food labels such as “best before.” This confusion is just one example of the number of ways food gets wasted in our society.

And we do waste a tremendous amount of food in Canada. A recent study estimated that 40% of the food we produce each year is not actually consumed. It’s lost during processing, packaging and transportation, as well as later in the retail stores, restaurants and in our homes. This loss amounts to some $27 billion dollars annually. Statistics Canada estimated that in 2007 we wasted the equivalent of 183 kilograms of food per person.

Wasting food is not just a waste of money; it has significant environmental costs. Consider for a moment the hundreds of trillions of litres of fresh water that is wasted on food that will never be eaten. Humans use more water for agriculture than for any other use. Then consider the significant amounts of energy and packaging that are used to bring the food to market. An estimated 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the production and preparation of food. To add insult to injury, when our uneaten food is buried in landfill, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than CO2.

Food waste occurs all along the food chain, from “field to fork.” But more than 50% of all the food wasted in Canada is wasted in our homes. And, like most problems, it can be prevented.

Let’s start with the real meaning of the “best before” date. It does not mean that the food in the unopened package is going to spoil on the date printed on the label. As the Canadian Food Inspection Agency says “you can buy and eat [unopened] foods after the ‘best before‘ date has passed. However, when this date has passed, the food may lose some of its freshness and flavour, or its texture may have changed. Some of its nutritional value … may also be lost.” Unfortunately, with so little public education about what “best before” dates actually mean, consumers frequently throw out perfectly edible food under the mistaken belief that it is not safe to eat.

We all have a role to play in reducing food waste. The federal and provincial governments could provide better guidance on food labelling, and sponsor public education campaigns on the best ways to reduce food waste. This paid off in the United Kingdom, where household food waste dropped by 13% following a public awareness campaign.

Manufacturers, restaurants and hotels can increase their donations of unwanted foodstuffs to food banks, shelters and other social service agencies. Farmers can encourage “gleaning” of their fields and collection of crops left on the ground after harvest. All-you-can-eat restaurants and cafeterias can eliminate trays, as people tend to fill their trays whether they want the food or not.

The environmental costs of letting good food go to waste are staggering. Governments can’t reach into our homes and force us to eat our crusts, but they should be providing us with the knowledge, tools and incentives to help us to stop wasting food.

For more information, read A Terrible Waste: The Environmental Costs of Throwing our Food Away” from the ECO’s 2011/2012 Annual Report, Losing Our Touch.

Saving Money At the Mall – Evolving Energy Efficiency Standards

The next time you’re out at the mall looking for a new refrigerator, television, or electronic device, do you need to worry about how much energy the product consumes?

The short answer is “yes, but not as much as you used to”. Both our provincial and federal governments set minimum energy efficiency standards for many energy-using products, a topic I review in detail in my recent report Restoring Balance: A Review of the First Three Years of the Green Energy ActMinimum standards that have become more aggressive over time have helped make our products more energy efficient, while also saving us money by reducing our energy bills. An average set of major appliances purchased today uses only half the energy of its counterpart from 20 years ago.

That’s not to say that minimum standards have eliminated all poor performers. For example, the Ontario government has followed the federal government by delaying its ban of inefficient light bulbs until 2014. The two year delay will cost Canadians $300 million dollars and dump 13 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In addition, not all product categories are well covered by current standards, and I’ve suggested that Ontario should look at products such as furnace fans and consumer electronics and set new or improved standards where they have the greatest potential to save Ontarians energy and money.

If you want to go beyond the minimum, what should you look for?

For major appliances, you can comparison shop with the EnerGuide label, which shows the model’s estimated annual energy consumption, and how it compares to similar products. If you don’t see this label on your showroom model, be sure to ask the dealer, as it is required by law! You can also usually find EnerGuide information for heating and cooling equipment on product brochures, although this is not a legal requirement.

For a quick way to identify the best energy performers, and also for product categories not covered by the EnerGuide label, such as computers, audio/video equipment, and doors & windows, there’s the ENERGY STAR® label. This label is reserved for products that are premium efficiency models, exceeding minimum standards by a certain amount. Three years ago, Ontario had proposed to set ENERGY STAR® as the minimum standard for major appliances, a promise that was not followed through on.

If you want more information, I recommend the Natural Resources Canada Office of Energy Efficiency website or the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings, which both go into detail on purchasing energy efficient products and operating them efficiently.

So while the Ontario government may have backed away from taking a leading role in setting energy efficiency standards, you can still become an informed buyer and make wise choices for yourself.

Budget 2012 and Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan


Ontario’s 2012 budget attempts to adapt to a new economic reality.  This reality is defined by slower economic growth than experienced in the past as the labour force ages and traditionally strong industrial sectors, such as manufacturing and forestry, wrestle with globalization and the surge in the Canadian dollar. This new economic reality must also be viewed within a context of the interconnected energy and climate challenges that are becoming more severe as conventional oil reserves are depleted and greenhouse gas emissions are pumped into our atmosphere in ever greater quantities.  Dwindling global fossil fuel resources are one of several factors contributing to rising gasoline prices (note that Ontario motorists spent a record $17.6 billion buying gasoline in 2011) and intensifying climate change impacts from the use of fossil fuels are manifesting themselves in the form of hotter weather and more erratic and intense precipitation and wind patterns.

Maria Van Der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency, addressed the climate and energy challenge at a recent conference of the world’s energy ministers in London England: “the current state of affairs is unacceptable precisely because we have a responsibility and a golden opportunity to act. Energy-related CO2 emissions are at historic highs, and under current policies, we estimate that energy use and CO2 emissions would increase by a third by 2020, and almost double by 2050. This would be likely to send global temperatures at least 6C higher within this century.”  Unfortunately Ontario’s 2012 budget fails to address the long-term challenge of transitioning to a low carbon, climate-resilient economy.  The Drummond Report released earlier this year chastised the government for the lack of a long-term perspective in the budget-making process, but apparently no-one was listening when it came to the serious risks posed by climate change and fossil resource depletion.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  We only need to look east of the Ottawa River to see a provincial government that is leading in the transition towards a low-carbon future and reflecting this within its budget process.

Quebec, while admittedly blessed with extensive low-carbon hydroelectric resources that aid in this transition, faces fiscal challenges that are perhaps worse than Ontario.  Its debt-to-GDP ratio is around 50 per cent compared to Ontario’s 35 per cent, and its population is relatively older which means a smaller labour force and higher healthcare costs. But in spite of these fiscal challenges, Quebec’s 2012 budget doubled down on low-carbon investment.  This money is coming directly from carbon pricing revenues that will escalate to $425 million/year by 2015-2016 as the province’s cap-and-trade program is extended to cover transportation and residential fuels.  And, while the Ontario government falters in implementing its formerly ambitious Climate Change Action Plan, in February 2012 the Quebec government launched a formal public consultation on a new Climate Change Action Plan (only available in French) that will help it achieve its 2020 target of reducing emissions by 20 per cent over 1990 levels.  I hope that the Ontario government can follow the Quebec lead and overcome this current period of policy stagnation to demonstrate a long-term perspective on climate mitigation that sets us on a path towards resilience and prosperity in an uncertain future.

Want to know more about the ECO?

We would like to thank all of those who came to the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s booth at the Green Living Show last weekend to learn more about the ECO and your rights under the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 (EBR). Many of those who came to our booth had questions. Here are some of the typical queries and their answers.

1. What do you do? What is this all about?
2. Are you part of the Ministry of the Environment?
3. How many people are in your office?
4. Are these books on your rack free?
5. You say we can comment on proposed government decisions. How do you ensure the ministries consider our comments?
6. There is a litter problem in our neighbourhood park. My mom and I have to pick up garbage there every two weeks. How do I stop this littering problem?
7. I am a high school teacher. What are some great resources for my students?

1. What do you do? What is this all about?
Required by a law called the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 (EBR), the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) is an independent officer appointed by the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. His role is comparable to the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, and the Information and Privacy Commissioner, in that he is non-partisan and is an arms-length officer of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. The ECO oversees 13 Ontario ministries’decision making as those decisions relate to the environment.The ECO monitors and reports on the 13 ministries’ compliance with the EBR, the government’s progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and its actions towards achieving greater energy conservation at all three levels of government. The current Commissioner is Gord Miller, who is in his third 5-year term.The EBR allows residents of Ontario to participate in environmental decision making in three main ways:

  • The Environmental Registry: The Registry is a website database where the government is required to post for public notice information about proposals, decisions and policy changes that affect the environment. You have the right to comment on these proposals and the ministries must explain the effect your comments had when making their final decision.
  • Application for an Investigation: Any two residents of Ontario who believe that a prescribed Act, regulation or instrument has been contravened may apply to the Environmental Commissioner for an investigation of the alleged contravention by the appropriate ministry.
  • Application for Review: Any two residents of Ontario who believe that an existing policy, Act, regulation or instrument of Ontario should be amended, repealed or revoked in order to protect the environment may apply to the Environmental Commissioner for a review of the policy, Act, regulation or instrument by the appropriate ministry. Any two residents of Ontario may also request a new policy, Act regulation or instrument in order to protect the environment.

2. Are you part of the Ministry of the Environment?
No, the ECO is not a part of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. In fact, the Ministry of the Environment is one of 13 ministries, prescribed under the EBR, which the ECO oversees.

3. How many people are in your office?
There are 24 staff in our office including the Commissioner.

4. Are these books on your rack free?
Yes. The ECO releases three annual reports each year: the Annual Report, the Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report and the Annual Energy Conservation Progress report. The ECO also releases special reports as he sees fit. In 2012, the ECO released two special reports:  Biodiversity: A Nation’s Commitment, an Obligation for Ontario and Ready for Change? An assessment of Ontario’s climate change adaptation strategy.All of the ECO’s publications are available free of charge to the public. There are a limited number of paper reports and USBs (containing PDF versions of our reports) available. EPUB and PDF reports are always available for download on our website.

5. You say we can comment on proposed government decisions. How do you ensure the ministries consider our comments?
A minister who gives notice of a proposal on the Registry must consider the comments in reaching a decision. It is the ECO’s role to ensure ministries prescribed under the EBR comply with these rules by way of monitoring the Registry and reviewing all comments.

6. There is a litter problem in our neighbourhood park. My mom and I have to pick up garbage there every two weeks. How do I stop this littering problem?
Congratulations on helping to preserve the environment through your individual action. Litter and waste management are a municipal issue so you want to contact your local councillor and/or your local Public Works department to see what can be done.

7. I am a high school teacher. What are some great resources for my students?
You might start by looking through our Annual reports, Energy Conservation reports or Greenhouse Gas reports which are available on our website. There are many articles that relate to your curriculum. Sample articles from the 2010/11 Annual Report are:

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Avoiding a carbon downgrade: coal, oil and the low-carbon transition

A recent study published in Nature Climate Change by University of Victoria climate scientists Andrew Weaver and Neil Swart is being seized upon by fossil fuel advocates as proof that the oil sands (or more technically the bituminous sands) are not as bad for the environment as previously thought.  The study calculates the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that would occur if the world’s entire reserves of oil, gas, and coal were consumed.  Its unsurprising finding that burning all proven reserves of coal or gas would release more CO2 than burning all the proven oil reserves in the bituminous sands of Alberta is touted as proof that the industry has been unfairly targeted by activists and regulators in the U.S. and E.U.

The more nuanced analysis found in the paper (but ignored in mainstream press) starts by looking at how much the climate can warm before we can expect to start experiencing catastrophic impacts such as sea level rise, agricultural failure and ecosystem collapse.  Climate scientists have pegged this number at 2°C above pre-industrial times, or about 1.2°C above today’s temperature, a figure which has been accepted by the international community as a target in ongoing negotiations.  In order to have a shot of limiting temperature rise to 2°C and thus potentially stabilizing the climate, total cumulative global CO2 emissions over the next several centuries must remain below 2.2 trillion tonnes. This is the ‘atmospheric budget’ that, because CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time, must be shared amongst present and future generations.  If this amount is apportioned equally across the world’s population today (ignoring for a moment that pesky moral imperative of leaving space for future generations), allowable per capita emissions of CO2 are on the order of 312 T over an individual’s lifetime.

The average Ontarian emits somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 T/yr which means that his/her entire budget is used up within 20 years.  So, just as we run deficits on the fiscal front, compromising the ability of future Ontarians to access quality health care and education, we are running massive deficits on the carbon front that threaten to destroy the very ecosystems upon which we depend for existence. This is the critical message that is missing from debate.

In order to have a shot of avoiding a catastrophic ‘carbon downgrade’ in living standards, the global community needs to immediately begin the transition towards renewable energy sources and aggressive energy conservation, ultimately reaching near zero emissions sometime this century. Within this context it is clear that massive investments in long-lived fossil energy infrastructure (be it upstream in coal-fired power plants and pipelines or downstream in the form of new highways or airports) are not consistent with the goal of avoiding dangerous interference with the climate system. The Ontario government has embarked on the path towards a lower carbon economy with its phase-out of coal-fuelled power plants from the provincial electricity grid which largely removes the dirtiest fossil fuel from the energy mix.  But Ontario is still heavily dependent on oil and natural gas.  While there is a policy framework for natural gas conservation, programs lack adequate funding and so easy opportunities for demand reduction have not been seized. With respect to oil consumption, the province lacks any policy framework for efficiency or conservation despite the fact that oil represents 40% of final energy demand. The ECO has recommended in the past that the government develop a comprehensive energy conservation strategy that encompasses all major energy sources used in Ontario.  Such a strategy will need to address the risks posed by climate change.

Addressing the Tyranny of the Near Term

For years, discussions on climate change have focused primarily on carbon dioxide. As the most prevalent greenhouse gas, it lingers in the atmosphere for centuries, trapping heat. Recently, however, scientists have been highlighting the significant role played by other, shorter-lived pollutants such as methane and black carbon (or soot). While these gases don’t remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, they nevertheless have a high global warming potential (GWP). In my most recent Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report, I discussed this as the “tyranny of the near term”; the concept that what we do – or don’t do – about a warming planet over the next few decades will ultimately determine our fate. The near-term challenge arises because the global warming potential of carbon dioxide is one (1), regardless of whether the time horizon is 20, 100 or 500 years. In comparison, the GWP of methane is 72 over a 20-year period, and the GWP of black carbon soot is a whopping 1,600 over the same time frame. In addition, soot is a particular problem in the northern hemisphere because when it lands on ice or snow it increases the absorption of sunlight and thus hastens the warming (and melting) process. While the residency time in the atmosphere for each of these pollutants is much shorter than for carbon dioxide (12 years for methane and only days or weeks for black carbon), the near-term release of these gases poses a much more significant threat than the equivalent release of carbon dioxide

With this preamble for context, I note with some optimism today’s announcement by Hillary Clinton, the United States Secretary of State, that the U.S., along with Canada and four other countries, has launched a program through the United Nations Environment Programme to reduce the release of methane and black carbon, as well as hydrofluorocarbons, worldwide. It has been estimated that these gases have an outsized impact on climate change; accounting for 30 to 40 per cent of global warming. While many of the initiatives will focus on activities that should be undertaken in the developing world, such as replacing traditional cooking stoves with more efficient models, there are several measures that can be taken here at home. As I pointed out in my report, increased attention could be given to reducing emissions from diesel engines, equipment and locomotives – the main sources of black carbon in the province. As well, one of the main sources of methane in the province is due to the decomposition of organic materials in landfills. While steps have been taken to capture these emissions, I raised several questions in my report about the efficacy of such measures and would reiterate that the best control method is to divert organic waste from landfills altogether. Given that the lens is now focused on these gases internationally, I would suggest it is time for the province to similarly sharpen its sights.

A ClimateSpark to ignite climate impact solutions

The ClimateSpark Launch Gala last night was an incredible demonstration of creativity in Toronto and the wider region directed towards one of the most challenging issues facing our society.  More than $500,000 was up for grabs in a social venture challenge developed by the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, the Toronto Community Foundation, and the Centre for Social Innovation for initiatives that demonstrate a financially viable solution to reducing climate impact.

Of the ten finalists at ClimateSpark, three were renewable energy co-operatives that are in various stages of development: Solarshare, Options for Green Energy, and Zooshare.  These co-operatives are developing a community bond model of investment that allows all Ontarians to participate in the low carbon energy revolution and generate financial returns in so doing.  Solarshare, an initiative of the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative (TREC) is the most advanced of the three initiatives with a portfolio of solar projects in operation that are generating revenues through feed-in tariff contracts from the Ontario Power Authority. However, the big winner of the night was Zooshare which is developing a 500kW biogas plant on the grounds of the Toronto Zoo to turn manure and food waste from local grocery stores into electricity and heat.  It received a $250,000 loan from the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and a $40,000 grant from the Toronto Community Foundation to help begin construction of its “Zoopoo” facility.

Other winning initiatives of the evening included Shuttlea public engagement program developed by Summerhill impact that encourages people to drive less – and Young Urban Farmers, a company that helps urban dwellers turn their backyards into mini-farms and increase the amount of locally produced food available in the City.

These initiatives are just the sort of bottom-up entrepreneurial activity that we need in order to meet the climate challenge.  But perhaps just as importantly we need action from government to create the conditions for such initiatives to thrive.  Currently the Ontario government seems to be distancing itself from a commitment to tackle climate change made in 2007 as I have noted over the years in my Greenhouse Gas Progress reports.  Financial constraints notwithstanding, climate action will require innovative policy across provincial government ministries.  Yesterday’s ClimateSpark event provided a great example to learn from.