Ontario’s Action Plan on Climate Change: Deserving of Credit?
Responding to climate change has become one of the most significant global environmental challenges facing governments, industry and citizens. In too many cases, Canadian governments and industries are just starting to formulate effective responses. For several years, the ECO has monitored the progress of the Ontario government in adopting measures to combat climate change. In past Annual Reports, we recommended that the provincial government produce a climate change strategy that includes plans for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (i.e., climate change mitigation) and preparing for the impacts of climate change on infrastructure and ecosystems (i.e., climate change adaptation).
In our 2004-2005 Annual Report, the ECO assessed the approach of the Ontario government to mitigating climate change and found that the provincial government had no solid timelines or targets for reducing GHG emissions. A year later, the ECO evaluated the Ontario government’s efforts to anticipate and adapt to the impacts of climate change and found that while many publications and outreach materials on climate change adaptation had been produced, few provincial codes, policies or infrastructure plans had been modified to consider the effects of climate change. The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) produced a two-page draft climate change strategy in 2004, but the ECO concluded that a comprehensive provincial plan was still greatly needed.
In August 2007, the Ontario government released a climate change strategy entitled Go Green: Ontario’s Action Plan on Climate Change (the “Action Plan”). The Action Plan sets provincial GHG reduction targets of 6, 15 and 80 per cent below 1990 levels by the years 2014, 2020 and 2050, respectively (see Figure 1); these targets are comparable to those set by the governments of Quebec, New Brunswick and British Columbia. The Ontario government intends to meet its targets by implementing a package of measures outlined in the Action Plan. These measures include phasing out coal at Ontario’s coal-fired electricity stations, supporting and funding rapid transit projects, investing in renewable energy, and advancing new energy efficiency standards.
Figure 1: Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets
In addition to GHG reduction targets and action measures designed to meet those targets, the Action Plan included a new role for the Office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario – reviewing the province’s progress in reducing GHG emissions. As a first step in this direction, the ECO reviewed key components of the Go Green Action Plan to:
- assess qualitatively, and where possible quantitatively, the reduction measures identified;
- assess the reliability of the Plan’s measures to meet Ontario’s stated GHG reduction targets;
- provide insight into some of the challenges the Ontario government may face in implementing the measures; and
- estimate, where possible, the likelihood of the province meeting each of its major reduction targets for 2014, 2020 and 2050, based on the measures identified.
Action Plan Measures Reviewed by the ECO
- Phase-Out of Coal Use at Electricity Generating Stations
- MoveOntario 2020
- Fuels, Ethanol and Vehicle Efficiency
- Green Power
- Greening the Building Stock and Sector
- Carbon Trading System, Industrial Emissions
- Landfill Gas/Methane Control
- Greening of Government
Action Plan Deficiencies – Adaptation
The Action Plan notes that even if GHG emissions stopped tomorrow, the volume of GHGs already in the atmosphere means that Ontario will experience some climate change impacts. These impacts will affect public and private infrastructure, the natural environment, and the lives and well-being of people and other species. To assess the vulnerability of Ontario and make recommendations to address these threats, the government established an Expert Panel on Adaptation in July 2007. The Plan also mentions that as a key species already under pressure, research will be enhanced on the health and sustainability of Ontario’s polar bear population.
The ECO welcomes the appointment of an expert panel to address adaptation. Nonetheless, we are still concerned that the Ontario government has not made sufficient progress on this issue. Although MNR and MOE have published a number of documents and conducted outreach efforts on the topic of climate change adaptation, neither ministry has produced an approved climate change adaptation strategy. Moreover, preparing for the effects of climate change will be an important issue for many other ministries and sectors of the economy. While awaiting recommendations from the expert panel, the ECO encourages ministries to work together to implement precautionary, ‘no-regrets’ measures that act on the abundant existing information regarding climate change impacts.
Furthermore, the ECO notes that some existing government programs and legislation already serve to minimize the impacts of climate change. For example: the Clean Water Act requires conservation authorities to consider threats to water quality and quantity (such as those caused by climate change); MNR has played a role in conserving and distributing more locally-derived forest seed; and changes to MOE’s Permit to Take Water Program in the last decade could assist the management of water shortages and disputes. Other existing government programs could be beneficial in climate change adaptation if they were properly implemented, such as Ontario’s air quality monitoring and reporting program (see Air Quality Monitoring and Reporting in Ontario – Fostering a False Sense of Security) and the Ontario Low Water Response plan (see Drought in Ontario? Groundwater and Surface Water Impacts and Response).
Other Measures in the Go Green Action Plan
Other initiatives were listed in the Go Green Action Plan, but were not reviewed in depth by the ECO. These include:
- the 2006 Building Code amendments;
- a $200 million loan fund and a $20 million grant fund for municipalities;
- the establishment of a NOX-SO2 trading system (see Ontario’s Industry Emissions Trading System for Nitrogen Oxides and Sulphur Dioxide);
- subsidies to automotive manufacturing;
- conservation lands acquisition;
- the Greenbelt Act and [[Places to Grow Act];
- working with ENGOs;
- the role of public education and recommendations as to what residents can do at home; and
- a green job fund.
In this review the ECO was, to some degree, able to assess in quantitative terms the emission reduction potential of the Go Green Action Plan. The near-term measures are more assessable than the medium-term measures, and certainly much more so than the long-term measures. Despite the lack of long-term certainty with many measures, the ECO commends the Ontario government for creating this Action Plan on climate change. Without a plan, governments have no way of measuring achievements, contextualizing their efforts in any given area and reporting progress. The Plan includes some quantifiable reduction measures, like the phase-out of coal, and a number of components with established timelines and targets. These features – quantifiable reductions, fixed timelines, and realistic targets – are essential to the credibility of any emission reduction plan.
A key point about the Action Plan that needs to be emphasized is that most GHG reductions from the Plan will not materialize for years to come. In this regard, the Plan has achieved very little in the way of GHG reductions as of early 2008.
While the Action Plan includes measures that are primarily aimed at reducing GHG emissions, it also includes measures that are as important for other environmental or societal reasons. These include the 50 million tree planting initiative, which can be valuable for a host of reasons – preserving biodiversity, habitat restoration, and food plain management to list a few. Another measure with co-benefits would be the expansion of GTA and Hamilton area regional transit via MoveOntario 2020. While this plan has the ability to reduce GHG emissions from the transportation sector, it is also necessary for the relief of traffic congestion in this region and to prevent further degradation of air quality in southern Ontario.
As of early 2008, it appears to the ECO that the Action Plan’s 2014 target of a six per cent reduction in GHG emissions below 1990 levels is achievable. There is less certainty and more guesswork involved concerning the 15 per cent reduction target for 2020 – it is a challenging target which will require the success of virtually every initiative in the Plan. Notably, the implementation of federal vehicle fuel efficiency standards and rapid expansion of the building retrofit program into their respective markets, and the success of a national carbon trading system will largely deter- mine whether the 2020 goal will be met. Other measures such as ‘research and innovation’ will not readily lend themselves to being assessed on a GHG reduction basis until specific initiatives are defined and implemented.
Finally, the 80 per cent reduction target for 2050 and the measures to be employed in reaching it are of such a distant and unknown nature that the Environmental Commissioner is unable to currently assess the likelihood of that goal being achieved. The 2050 goal requires nothing less than the complete transformation of the province, the economy and even society at large in terms of energy sources used and how these are consumed. While we are unable to assess how this objective is to be met, it is a worthy goal for the province to both set and work to achieve.
|This is an article from the 2007/08 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.|
Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2008. "Ontario's Action Plan on Climate Change: Deserving of Credit?." Getting to K(No)w, ECO Annual Report, 2007-08. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 13-28.