A Question of Commitment
This report was submitted to the Legislative Assembly by Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario on December 4, 2012.
Scientists are becoming increasingly confident that extreme weather events – like the droughts, floods and record-breaking temperatures we experienced this past summer – will increase in severity and frequency in the years to come and are strongly influenced by rising levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. In this report, the ECO assesses the Ontario government’s progress in reducing emissions across all sectors of the economy.
While undeniable progress has been made in eliminating coal from the electricity mix, the same cannot be said in other areas. Furthermore, it would appear that few initiatives are ready to be implemented that would help the province achieve its 2020 GHG emissions reduction target. Notably, the government has backtracked on its commitment to implement a carbon pricing system, a move that has introduced uncertainty on climate and energy policy in the province.
For sustained progress to be made Ontario needs a low-carbon transition plan that is backed by long-term political commitment and policy certainty. Over the past year the Ontario government has not demonstrated a continued commitment to lead the province towards the low-carbon future that we so desperately need to achieve.
Natural gas is taking on an increasingly important role in Ontario’s electricity sector as coal is phased out. From a health perspective this is positive, as natural gas combustion creates fewer toxic air emissions. The benefits from a climate change perspective are less significant, particularly when a full life-cycle perspective is taken that includes fugitive methane emissions that are released during the production of natural gas. As well, the ECO is concerned that planned increases in natural gas-fired electricity capacity and generation will lock in emissions for several decades thus making it challenging to achieve provincial GHG emissions reduction targets. Going forward, better co-ordination between Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan and the provincial Long-Term Energy Plan will be required. Closer alignment between the two will help leverage the opportunity provided by Ontario’s low-carbon electricity supply to drive the reductions needed across other sectors of the economy.
Transportation is the largest source of GHG emissions in Ontario. Major trends include: an increase in the overall number of vehicles; a shift towards light trucks and sports- utility vehicles in the passenger transportation subsector; and an increased reliance on heavy-duty diesel trucks within the freight transportation subsector. Off-road vehicles (i.e., construction equipment, recreational vehicles) are another fast-rising source of emissions. While there has been some limited policy progress, uncertainty surrounding the financing of key initiatives, such as The Big Move (the Regional Transportation Plan for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area) and the Electric Vehicle Program, is a major barrier towards achieving provincial objectives.
Over the past several years industrial sector emissions have declined, primarily as a result of reduced output caused by the economic recession. Industrial GHG emissions intensity has increased, however, due to fuel switching from electricity to natural gas across several subsectors and the processing of greater amounts of unconventional crude oil in petroleum refineries. Ontario’s climate policy framework provides limited incentives for improved energy efficiency or fuel switching. The ECO believes this is a missed opportunity given the cost effectiveness of such activities relative to other GHG reduction options. A further opportunity in the area of industrial and manufacturing processes exists given that emissions from hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are the fastest growing category in Ontario’s overall emissions inventory. While HFCs are rightfully replacing ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons in refrigeration equipment, policies to better control and limit HFC use are needed.
Continued growth in the residential, commercial and institutional building subsectors over the past two decades has increased emissions associated with on-site natural gas consumption for space heating. The ECO believes that these trends point to the need for increased efforts within the building sector to shift away from fossil fuels for heat supply (i.e., from natural gas to electric heat pumps, solar thermal, geothermal and/or biogas) and to increase the efficient use of the heat that is supplied. This can be done, for example, through an increase in the number of district heating systems.
Despite increased efficiency and improved management practices over the past two decades, agricultural emissions have remained stable. While there has been an increase in crop production and an associated increase in nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer use and crop residues, methane emissions from livestock now form a significant, but declining, share of overall agricultural GHG emissions. Limiting emissions of these gases from agriculture represents an opportunity to reduce the gap in meeting the province’s GHG reduction targets. However, the current voluntary approach in this sector is not sufficiently capturing the emission reduction opportunities. This approach should be broadened to cover a wider range of abatement opportunities, particularly those related to fertilizer and manure management. It should also be enhanced by the use of stronger incentives, including economic instruments or direct regulation.
Based on changes to the assumptions regarding the capture efficiency of methane gas collection systems at landfills, and the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change statements regarding the global warming potential of methane gas, the contribution of landfill gas to Ontario’s GHG inventory may be underestimated by over 100 per cent. To limit the release of fugitive methane emissions from landfills, the government must move rapidly to prevent organics from entering these facilities and strengthen existing regulations to reduce the production of methane.