Traffic in Barrie, Ontario

Road transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in Ontario.
Barrie, Ontario by Michael Gil \ CC BY 2.0

So much of the thinking around climate change has evolved since 2007 that Ontario’s seven-year-old climate action plan is now “irrelevant” according to Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller.

In releasing Looking for Leadership: The Costs of Climate Inaction this morning, Miller said the province has been a leader in the climate file but has not kept up with the changing social, scientific and economic dynamics of climate change since Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan was released in 2007.

In particular, Miller identified four areas where society and science have moved beyond the baseline assumptions about climate change it held seven years ago:

  1. We enjoy a much higher degree of certainty now about the science of climate change. The shifts in oceanic and climate conditions are now well documented and more widely accepted among the public and policy makers.
  2. The idea of “unburnable carbon” has been developed. The 2009 Copenhagen Agreement, which Canada signed on to, put a quantitative cap on the amount of GHGs the world can emit if it hopes to stay at or below a rise in 2 degrees Celsius.
  3. A rise in extreme weather events. People notice changes in weather, and the past few years in Ontario alone have seen a dramatic rise in forest fires, droughts, floods, ice storms and tornadoes. The insurance industry, meanwhile, is struggling to keep providing the insured risk our financial system requires to thrive.
  4. Climate change mitigation is no longer a viable option. Policy and social thinking on climate change have shifted over the last seven years away from mitigation and towards adapting our infrastructure, our social systems and our ecosystems.

“The international discussion around these four factors are a major rethink of how we address climate change policy,” Miller told reporters at Queen’s Park. “And none of those are addressed [in the current provincial plan] because we haven’t looked at the Climate Change Action Plan since 2007. It doesn’t address the kind of priorities that we need to address.”

Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray, appointed by Premier Kathleen Wynne only weeks ago, told A\J he thinks Miller’s criticism of the 2007 climate plan is valid.

“That framework, in its time, did its job. It is the rear view mirror. It was what we did but we now have to look forward and develop a new plan,” Murray said at Queen’s Park Wednesday.

“It’s going to be a much more aggressive plan, it’s going to be for the first time coordinated from one ministry across government with a mandate directly from the Premier to deal with everything from the fiscal to the transportation to the economic to the natural resource issues,” he said.

Murray anticipated he’ll be spending many evenings and weekends over the next several months working with his ministerial colleagues and government staff from across affected ministries in putting the plan together.

“Because the 2007 plan was yesterday's plan and we need tomorrow’s plan,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Murray and Wynne spoke with reporters at a YMCA in downtown Toronto to announce the Liberals’ plan to reintroduce the Ending Coal for Cleaner Air Act first tabled last November. That legislation, if passed, would ensure no future provincial government can fire up Ontario’s scuttled coal plants without making the change via legislation, which requires having public consultations, rather than through a quieter regulatory change.

We really have achieved nothing beyond the coal closure.
– Gord Miller

Miller told reporters the government’s gradual phase out of coal-fired electricity has been “very well reported” to date, but he encouraged the Liberals to move on to other pressing climate change issues rather than rest on its laurels, which Murray later admitted the government had done to a degree.

“We really have achieved nothing beyond the coal closure, as significant as it was, and that’s the point,” Miller said. “We’re overdue to make some of these other initiatives happen.”

While Ontario is on target to hit its 2014 GHG reduction targets (6 per cent reduction over 1990 levels) largely through the elimination of coal plants, there is every reason to believe the government will miss its 2020 target of 15 per cent below 1990 levels, Miller said.

He recommends an aggressive targeting of transportation emissions, which have grown from 45.5 per cent of provincial CO2 emissions in 1990 to over 56 per cent of total province-wide emissions in 2012. Transportation, mostly road transportation, is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Ontario, according to the report.

Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner told reporters Wednesday he doesn’t think the government needs to throw the baby out with the bathwater regarding the 2007 climate plan, but that it does need a dramatic rethink.

“The emission reduction targets probably are not as rigorous as they need to be given the new science,” Schreiner said. Most global actors are working with a 90 per cent reduction target over 1990 levels by 2050, he said, instead of the 80 per cent objective Ontario uses.

The Greens are pushing for a price on carbon pollution (which Wynne has refused to consider) in addition to the electrification of the GO train system (which Murray supports) and an aggressive green building program (which Murray acknowledges must be improved).

“Let's cancel the Darlington refurbishment, replace that with lower cost hydro power from Quebec and save a billion dollars a year and invest that in people's homes to retrofit them,” Schreiner said. “That would address our three largest sources of GHG emissions in the province and get us back on track.”

Andrew Reeves is an environmental writer completing a book about Asian carp in North America. He is a contributing editor at Alternatives Journal and This Magazine’s environmental columnist. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights.

Follow him on Twitter.

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