This isn't the time for complacency

The Toronto Star : Tyler Hamilton - December 14, 2009

Ontario has done so much, yet, has so much still to do.

That was pretty much the message the province's environmental commissioner, Gord Miller, delivered this week in his annual review of the government's climate action plan. To put it mildly, we're not yet ready to claim bragging rights at the Copenhagen climate talks. Far from it.

Ontario has committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in the province to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2014 and 15 per cent by 2020. Current initiatives aimed at the 2014 target will only get us 71 per cent of the way there, and only 56 per cent toward the 2020 goal.

"Much more must be done," the government conceded in its own annual report released on Dec. 2. "Additional greenhouse-gas reduction measures will be needed. In particular, the introduction of a cap-and-trade system could be a significant factor in helping to close or eliminate the shortfall."

Wishful thinking? Pretty much, said Miller. He argued the province is relying dangerously on the flawless execution of its strategy to phase out coal power and on the miracle emission reductions expected from a cap-and-trade system that doesn't yet exist, is largely dependent on the United States and may not work as planned.

At the same time, Miller hammered the government for not doing enough to rein in transportation emissions (representing nearly a third of the province's greenhouse-gas pollution), for focusing too much on electricity and not enough on the fossil fuels used for heating, and for not having a long-term plan that can guide billions of dollars worth of infrastructure investment in the next two decades. Key ministries that should be leading the effort, he added, are trapped in bureaucratic silos.

This "lack of vision" translates into much uncertainty and risk in the years ahead, Miller concluded.

Ontario can be applauded for setting a much more aggressive emissions- reduction target than Ottawa. The Conservative government is only aiming for a reduction of 3 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. But Canada's "Smoke 'em if you got 'em!" position can make anyone look good. Even the U.S. - assuming its Congress approves - is aiming for a 3.4 per cent reduction.

Still, Quebec's target is 20 per cent by 2020. Europe has pledged 20 per cent too, though some - including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown - are talking about improving that to 30 per cent. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need to target 25 to 40 per cent, though the science over the past two years indicates the higher target will be required to keep global carbon concentrations in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million.

There are even arguments out there that the 450 mark will no longer do the trick. We need to aim for 350 parts per million, some scientists say, meaning even deeper emission cuts. This tells us Ontario is having difficultly hitting a target that itself falls short of the kind of commitment being sought in Copenhagen, which is likely to still fall short of what's truly needed to contain the worst that climate change can be expected to throw at us over the next 100 years.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we've naively convinced ourselves we can do this without any pain or sacrifice, without compromise to the energy- intensive lifestyles most of us enjoy, or that somehow the market will take care of it.

Ontario needs to face the reality, for example, that road pricing is coming. It's only a matter of time, so best to prepare now and be a global leader. The province needs to get cars off the road, said Miller. Having a system that charges us based on the roads we drive on, the time of day we drive on them, and how far we drive is something we should at least be testing as a way to reduce driving and encourage low-emission vehicle purchases.

Moving toward an electric-vehicle infrastructure will also help, but that's not expected to have a big impact over the next decade. The government's own target is that one in 20 cars on the road will be electric or plug-in hybrids by 2020. A meaningful impact before 2020 could come, however, through the expansion and electrification of public transit.

"The electrification of GO Transit alone over the next 10 to 15 years would significantly reduce transportation greenhouse-gases and related particulate emissions from diesel locomotives," said Miller, offering a not-so-gentle nudge in that direction.

It seems so obvious, which makes it all the more frustrating that the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority wants the new Metrolinx airport express train to run on 400 diesel locomotives. As my colleague Joe Fiorito pointed out in a Friday column, such a decision makes no sense "when everybody else in the world, including the Third World, has gone electric."

Electrifying the transportation sector, of course, means having enough clean electricity to do the job. This makes it all the more important for the government to have a long-term plan for the power system and to make clear where it stands on the nuclear power file.

Ben Chin, a spokesman for the Ontario Power Authority, said 2009 was a busy year with the launch of a new Green Energy and Green Economy Act and a feed-in tariff (FIT) program that encourages businesses, homeowners, communities and farmers to become their own generators of renewable power.

The power authority has received more than 2,000 applications under the FIT program, which is a good sign. "It's only now we're beginning to get a sense of how much renewable energy is going to be coming on to the grid, and how much will be available in the future," said Chin.

The agency will start putting together a new 20-year power system plan early next year, he added. In the meantime, Premier Dalton McGuinty should fight the temptations that lead to complacency. There's so much more that can and should be done.

Tyler Hamilton's Clean Break column appears Mondays. Email him at thamilton @