Is Ontario really doing its fair share on climate change?

ANALYSIS: The Tories often point out how well Ontario stacks up against other provinces when it comes to reducing emissions — but look beyond the national average, and the comparisons are less flattering
By Daniel Kitts - Published on June 12, 2019
a smoke stack
Under the Liberals, Ontario was supposed to have 37 per cent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions in 2030 than it did in 1990; under the Tories, the 2030 target has been reduced to 30 per cent below 2005 levels. (Stephen C. Host/CP)

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Last month, Ontario’s environment minister, Rod Phillips, stepped up to a podium at a convenience store in north Toronto and delivered an attack on the federal carbon tax.

His argument was one that the Tories have used many times before: the province is doing its “fair share” — more than its fair share, in fact — to fight climate change.

“While Ontario has reduced its carbon emissions by 22 per cent since 2005,” he said, “the rest of Canada has increased emissions by 6 per cent.”

The implication is that the province has done so much already that it can afford to step back from the climate-change targets set by the previous government. Under Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, Ontario was supposed to have 37 per cent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions in 2030 than it did in 1990. Under the Progressive Conservatives, the 2030 target has been reduced to 30 per cent below 2005 levels.

But why insist that Ontarians need to do more than that when they’ve already done so much compared to the rest of the country? It seems like a fair and straightforward question.

The answer, though, is complicated: it involves consideration of provincial, national, and international numbers — and of what’s at stake in the climate fight.

Alberta and Saskatchewan are boosting the national average

The main reason that the rest of Canada’s emissions have gone up since 2005 is Western Canada’s oil and gas industry. While Ontario has reduced its emissions 22 per cent since 2005 (mostly thanks to the shuttering of the province’s coal plants, under Dalton McGuinty and Wynne), Alberta and Saskatchewan have seen their greenhouse-gas production go up 18 and 14 per cent, respectively. Alberta, in particular, skews the Canada-wide average. In 2017, the province, population then 4.2 million, produced more than three times the amount of greenhouse gas as Quebec, which, in 2017, was home to 8.3 million people.

Graph showing greenhouse-gas emissions
Graph by Matthew O'Mara

If Phillips’s point is that, compared to the rest of the country, Ontario has made strides in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, one would think that he would be calling on other Canadian provinces, especially Alberta and Saskatchewan, to do more. But he’s not. And he’s unlikely to do so, as the conservative premiers in Edmonton and Regina are fast friends with Premier Doug Ford.

Other provinces have outdone Ontario

Ontario may have reduced emissions by 22 per cent since 2005, but that doesn’t make it a nationwide leader. That distinction goes to Nova Scotia, which has reduced its greenhouse gasses by 33 per cent in that same period. The province has accomplished this through a number of initiatives, including wind-farm installations and energy-efficiency programs, which have cut electricity demand in the province by 10 per cent.

graph showing greenhouse-gas emissions
Graph by Matthew O'Mara

Ontario doesn’t even get to claim second place: New Brunswick has reduced its emissions by 28 per cent since 2005, in part by closing down several coal- and heavy-oil-fired generating stations, capturing methane at landfills, and introducing various energy-efficiency programs.

While the Tories are using the Ontario Liberals’ success at reducing emissions to lower climate-change targets, other provinces are becoming more ambitious. Nova Scotia aims to reduce its greenhouse-gas levels to between 45 and 50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. And in Quebec, Premier François Legault just presented a plan to reduce the province’s oil consumption 40 per cent by 2030. British Columbia, which implemented a carbon tax in 2008, has set a 2030 target of 40 per cent fewer emissions compared to 2007 levels.

And then there’s the rest of the world

It’s true that Ontario’s record on tackling climate change stacks up well against many other provinces. But look beyond Canada’s borders, and you’ll find entire countries cleaning our clock.

Germany is already more than 30 per cent below 1990 levels. (By comparison, Ontario’s emissions are currently about 12 per cent below 1990 levels.) Sweden is 22 per cent below 1990 levels. Finland, currently about 17 per cent below 1990 levels, just announced it is aiming to be carbon neutral (net-zero emissions) by 2035.

The United Kingdom is perhaps the most impressive example: in the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, a cleaner electricity grid and a focus on energy-efficient homes and businesses have brought emissions down 39 per cent compared to 1990 levels — the lowest they’ve been since 1888, when Queen Victoria was on the throne and John A. Macdonald was prime minister of Canada.

No excuses

Of course, Ontario is not the U.K.; Britain is geographically smaller and has a more temperate climate — as are and do many other European countries at the forefront of climate action. Should Ontario get a pass because it’s so darn big and gets so cold in the winter and so hot in the summer?

The answer, according to several climate and energy experts, is no.

Ontario may have challenges to overcome when it comes to climate action, but so do other jurisdictions, says Mark Winfield of York University’s Sustainable Energy Initiative. California, for example — a climate-action leader — may not have harsh winters, Winfield says, but the state has to deal with an enormous demand for air-conditioning and is more car-dependent than Ontario.

“[Transportation] shifts in California are going to be very, very hard,” he says. Because Ontario is less built-up than California, he notes, the province has more of an opportunity than the Golden State does to create transit-friendly — and lower-emission — infrastructure.

And the excuse of cold weather and long distances can take Ontario only so far. In a recent piece in The Conversation, Blake Shaffer argues that Canadians’ taste for large, gas-guzzling vehicles can’t be explained solely by the country’s size and cold winter temperatures.

“More than 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban or suburban areas where a more modest vehicle suffices for most activities,” he writes. “And if cold weather is an excuse for buying an SUV, similarly frigid countries — Sweden, Finland, and Iceland — have all managed to survive with lower-emitting vehicles.”

The bottom line, says Jatin Nathwani of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy, is that while Ontario might have done more than many other jurisdictions on the climate file, that doesn’t mean it’s done nearly enough. The province has made progress on decarbonizing its electricity grid, he says, but it should be working more aggressively to reduce its carbon footprint in such sectors as transportation and home-energy use.

“This observation just doesn’t hold that we’ve done our bit, and we can now tell everybody else to screw off, and we don’t want a carbon tax, and we don’t want this, and we don’t want that,” he says.

Time to aim higher?

When asked how Ontario measures up against the rest of the world on climate-change action, Phillips’s press secretary, Emily Hogeveen, told TVO.org via email that Ontario now has the second-lowest per capita greenhouse-gas emissions in Canada. She also said that what the province has already accomplished has come at a considerable cost to Ontarians.

“In 2017, prior to the introduction of the Fair Hydro Plan Act, 2017, the cost associated with transitioning to Ontario’s low emission electricity system was an estimated $33 per month for a typical residential electricity consumer and about $435 per month for a small business, such as a restaurant,” she wrote. “Since 2005, about $40 billion has been spent in capital investments to transition the province to an electricity system that is virtually emissions-free.”

And the province, she noted, still plans to reduce its emissions by 2030.

Still, at a time when some parts of the province are dealing with unprecedented flooding and scientists around the world are saying that dramatic action must be taken in order to avoid a climate catastrophe in our lifetime, the Tories may need to consider whether coasting on the Liberals’ past achievements is really enough.

Correction: This article originally stated that, under Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, Ontario was supposed to have 37 per cent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions in 2030 than it did in 2005; in fact, the target was 37 per cent below 1990 levels. TVO.org regrets the error.

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