Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Ontario's Climate Plan Leaked to Media

Ontario's Climate Plan Leaked to Media


Just this week, the newspaper The Globe and Mail released details of a climate change action plan created by the Ontario government. The action plan is yet to be formally released; this document was leaked to the media:

The 57-page Climate Change Action Plan was debated by Premier Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet Wednesday and subsequently obtained by The Globe and Mail. Stamped “Cabinet Confidential,” the document lays out a strategy from 2017 to 2021. It contains about 80 different policies, grouped into 32 different “actions.” Each action has a price tag attached to it, as well as an estimate of the amount of emissions it will cut by 2020.

The Globe had previously uncovered details of the plan, but this is the first time the full blueprint has been revealed. The strategy is scheduled to be further reviewed by cabinet ministers and fine-tuned, sources said, with public release slated for June.

It's pretty ambitious, planning $7 billion in outlays for a variety of programmes over four years:

The many new programs will be paid for out of revenue from the province’s upcoming cap-and-trade system, which is expected to be approved by the legislature this week and come into effect at the start of next year. Together, the cap-and-trade system and the action plan are the backbone of the province’s strategy to cut emissions to 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, 37 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050.

[...]

Highlights include:
  • $3.8-billion for new grants, rebates and other subsidies to retrofit buildings, and move them off natural gas and onto geothermal, solar power or other forms of electric heat. Many of these programs will be administered by a new Green Bank, modelled on a similar agency in New York State, to provide financing for solar and geothermal projects.
  • New building code rules that will require all homes and small buildings built in 2030 or later to be heated without using fossil fuels, such as natural gas. This will be expanded to all buildings before 2050. Other building code changes will require major renovations to include energy-efficiency measures. All homes will also have to undergo an energy-efficiency audit before they are sold.
  • $285-million for electric vehicle incentives. These include a rebate of up to $14,000 for every electric vehicle purchased; up to $1,000 to install home charging; taking the provincial portion of the HST off electric vehicle sales; an extra subsidy program for low– and moderate-income households to get older cars off the road and replace them with electric; and free overnight electricity for charging electric vehicles. The province will also build more charging stations at government buildings, including LCBO outlets, and consider making electrical vehicle plug-ins mandatory on all new buildings. The plan sets targets of expanding electric vehicle sales to 5 per cent of all vehicles sold by 2020, up to 12 per cent by 2025, and aiming to get an electric or hybrid vehicle in every multivehicle driveway by 2024, a total of about 1.7 million cars.
  • New lower-carbon fuel standards would require all liquid transportation fuels, such as gasoline and diesel, to slash life-cycle carbon emissions by 5 per cent by 2020. The plan will also provide $176-million in incentives to fuel retailers to sell more biodiesel and 85-per-cent ethanol blend. The government will also oblige natural gas to contain more renewable content, such as gas from agriculture and waste products.
  • $280-million to help school boards buy electric buses and trucking companies switch to lower-carbon trucks, including by building more liquid natural gas fuelling stations.
  • $354-million toward the GO regional rail network.
  • $200-million to build more cycling infrastructure, including curb-separated bike lanes and bike parking at GO stations.
  • $375-million for research and development into new clean technologies, including $140-million for a Global Centre for Low-Carbon Mobility at an Ontario university or college to develop electric and other low-carbon vehicle technology.
  • $1.2-billion to help factories and other industrial businesses cut emissions, such as by buying more energy-efficient machines.
  • $174-million to make the government carbon neutral. This will include retrofitting buildings, allowing some bureaucrats to work from home and buying carbon offsets.

A more detailed breakdown can be found here. (A warning: if you're not a Globe and Mail subscriber, you may have a cap on the number of articles you can read in a week or month; if so you could well be re-directed to a page inviting you to subscribe - as I was. One hopes other media outlets, particularly the CBC, will provide in-depth analyses which are not behind paywalls.)

Speaking of the CBC, it reports on some of the projected implications and Opposition party responses to the Globe and Mail reporting.

Chief among the projected implications are increased prices for electricity:

The province currently has an oversupply of electricity, Adams said, so it should be able to meet demand for power if this plan were to come to fruition. In fact, the province has been selling its excess power to the U.S., but critics say the government has lost millions, as it costs more to produce the electricity than what is recouped through those sales. [An energy analyst named Tom Adams is named by the CBC; the CBC does not indicate if he has any affilitation with a government agency, NGO, private firm, or similar.]

"There's not a problem with the grid being able to meet the additional load. It's whether the customers can afford to buy this stuff." [A quote by Adams, not explicitly attributed but obvious from context.]

Despite this oversupply, hydro rates remain high, in part to pay for the fixed costs of replacing and adding infrastructure for new generation and eliminating coal as a power source.

Since 2009, Adams said household electricity prices have been going up at a compound annual rate of increase at around eight per cent.

Increased prices for natural gas are also expected:

There's also been a lot of investment in natural gas, Adams said, and if the government is successful in driving down its demand, taxpayers will be on the hook for those costs.

"If that pipe starts to go empty, we're going to be paying for empty pipe in the way that we're paying for disposal of excess electricity," he said. "This plan that they have put forward is headed us on the track to much higher natural gas costs as well as electricity."

Another commentator quoted by the CBC is Brady Yauch, executive director of the Consumer Policy Institute. He is particularly critical of the action plan's item on natural gas, especially given that the Ontario government has also promoted increasing its use in certain sectors:

The province has been asking the Ontario Energy Board to look at programs to expand natural gas in rural areas, where it's much more expensive to heat homes using electricity, Yauch said. At the same time, at least according to the Globe report, the province is saying "we're all going to get off natural gas."

"The province, from an economics point of view, is just talking out of both sides of its mouth and doesn't really know what it wants," Yauch said.

Contrary to Yauch's assertion, it's entirely possible, feasible, and perhaps even desirable for the province to expand natural gas use in some parts of the province - rural areas and northern Ontario, in particular, while still working to reduce natural gas use in densely populated cities, where the logistical effort of the transition is less onerous, and the magnitude of the transition greater owing to the larger number of people involved. (It's not unlike previous rounds of international climate negotiations, which, if memory serves, proposed that wealthy, developed, high-carbon-emitting nations decarbonise first, giving developing nations more time to use carbon to build wealth as required before also decarbonising.)

At any rate, the Ontario government could, in the short term, encourage development of natural gas use in rural Ontario while phasing it out in the cities and come out ahead in emissions, and still meet its timeline for carbon-free residential energy systems by 2050.

Opposition parties weighed in on the revealed plan. Unsurprisingly, they were generally critical:

PC energy critic John Yakabuski accused the Liberals of "inflicting pain" on homeowners. "You're going to force them to heat electrically in a province with the highest electricity prices on the continent," he said in question period on Monday.

"There is no possible way you can embark on this plan to basically eliminate all fossil fuel heating from the province of Ontario," Yakabuski told reporters at the Legislature. "It just doesn't make any sense."

[...]

NDP leader Andrea Horwath said the report leaves more questions than answers about the government's plans for reducing carbon emissions.

"We worry about the impact on everyday people, particularly lower-income people," Horwath told reporters. "We worry about people who have good jobs right now in certain industries and whether those jobs are going to be threatened."

Yakabuski is, quite simply, dead wrong. It's absolutely imperative that Ontario - like every single other jurisdiction in the world - decarbonise, for preference at a breakneck pace. In fact, if anything, the government plan isn't ambitious enough: as noted previously, the plan is to cut provincial emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050; in reality, the province ought to be aiming to have no or negligible emissions by then.

Horwath's concerns are quite understandable, but like most "what about the jobs?"-style arguments to climate action, hers has long odds of being convincing, as long as you're aware of the consequences of unchecked climate change. Horwath surely does not intend to suggest that we play Russian Roulette with global food production (and with coastal infrastructure, from the US' first climate refugees today, to Miami and the Eastern Seaboard in the decades to come) by prioritising Ontario jobs in high-carbon industries over cutting emissions; nevertheless, that is the effective outcome of such an attitude.

Make no mistake: the time for gentle, casual action was forty years ago, when climate change first became prominent in international consciousness. While some countries took that action, Canada, as this article makes clear, did not. If we now face a potentially painful, disruptive decarbonisation, that is our own fault for our inertia, apathy, and our decision to become a petro-state. Ontario, like the rest of the country, has to overhaul its economy and society in a manner similar to the way we did during the World Wars. That should be cause for optimism, though: we did it before, so we can do it again.

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