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Ontario Has Drafted an ‘Aggressive’ $7 Billion Plan to Fight Climate Change

The plan reportedly includes $3.8 billion in subsidies to retrofit buildings and make them more energy efficient. And after 2030, Ontario would require all new homes and small buildings to be heated without fossil fuels.

by Hilary Beaumont
May 17 2016, 3:15pm

Canadian Press Images/Stephen C. Host

Canada's second-largest greenhouse gas-emitting province is cooking up an aggressive $7 billion climate change plan that, if implemented, would rival those in California and Germany, experts tell VICE News.

Leaked to the Globe and Mail, a draft of Ontario's Climate Action Plan would see the province attack emissions using about 80 policies targeting building codes and public and private transportation. If implemented, Ontario could undergo a massive transformation that would include more bike and rail infrastructure, more electric vehicles and charging stations and more energy-efficient homes.

The province's ambitious goal is to reduce emissions by 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, 37 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Meanwhile Canada is nowhere near its goal of reducing its emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Ontario plans to pay for its plan with revenues of $1.9 billion annually from its new cap and trade system, which it announced last month, the Globe reports. But the Climate Action Plan is not yet finalized and could still see changes before it's released to the public.

"Over the next couple of weeks, you'll see the entire action plan," Environment Minister Glen Murray told reporters on Monday. "When that plan is out, we'll have lots of time to talk about it."

But the province's Progressive Conservatives were critical of what is known so far. The party's energy critic slammed the plan, saying the Liberals would "force [homeowners] to heat electrically in a province with the highest electricity prices on the continent," CBC reported.

Related: Canada Admits There's No Chance It'll Reach Its Climate Change Targets — Not Even Close

According to the Globe, the plan includes $3.8 billion in subsidies to retrofit buildings and make them more energy efficient while moving them off of fossil fuels. These subsidies will be doled out by a Green Bank that would also finance solar and geothermal systems. And after 2030, Ontario would require all new homes and small buildings to be heated without fossil fuels.

It's not yet clear whether natural gas, a popular form of heating in Ontario, would be phased out as part of the move. When attacked by the opposition on that point, Murray said, "You'll have to wait to see the details but no, we're not banning natural gas or taking it away from people," according to the CBC.

As for transportation, the Globe reports the province has set aside $200 million for bike infrastructure, $285 million in electric vehicle incentives, $176 million in subsidies for businesses selling fossil fuels to provide more biodiesels and lower-carbon fuels, $280 million for electric school buses and lower-carbon trucks for private companies, and $354 million to expand rail transportation.

The plan is "aggressive" and comparable to strategies used in California and Germany, which are widely considered leaders on emissions reduction, University of Toronto geography professor Danny Harvey told VICE News.

"It's ambitious and far reaching," the professor, who researches renewable energy and decarbonization, said of Ontario's plan. "It's going in the right direction and it's definitely what we need. We need serious, aggressive action to wean us off fossil fuels to reduce future warming of the climate."

But while he saw the plan as a good one overall, he cautioned against the use of subsidies to encourage homeowners to retrofit their homes and consumers to buy electric vehicles.

"The truth is, we need economic incentives to use energy more efficiently, and higher prices provide that incentive," he said. "If it truly costs more to have a clean energy system and to safeguard our children's future, we should pay for it. So I am concerned about subsidizing electricity prices when we really need to emphasize we need to be as efficient as we can, and higher energy prices will make us more efficient."

"Similarly, rather than subsidizing the purchase of electric vehicles, I would rather see the price of gasoline go higher, so that people will be buying more fuel efficient vehicles whether they're electric or not," he added.

'The truth is, we need economic incentives to use energy more efficiently, and higher prices provide that incentive.'

Harvey said he was encouraged by Ontario's plan to strengthen building codes, incentivize retrofits and add energy audits of homes before they're sold, but said it remains to be seen how strong those measures will be.

"That's a good thing," he said of energy audits. "Real estate agents and some people may complain about it, but I think once it becomes normal, once it's done, people will realize, hey, why would we do it any other way?"

The petroleum and automotive industries likely won't be thrilled with the new plan either. VICE News reached out to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), but a spokesperson declined to comment, saying the proposed plan is not yet final and the group is reserving judgement until then.

Meanwhile the gas industry is saying switching to electric heat will cost homeowners far more, and auto industry voices claim the province's electric vehicle targets aren't doable, according to the Globe.

Douglas Macdonald, University of Toronto senior lecturer on environment, told VICE News the plan needs to be viewed in the context of Canada's international emissions goals, and how the country plans to meet those goals.

"In order to get there, the analysis that Environment Canada publishes each year shows that the existing programs that we have in Canada won't meet those targets, and it doesn't seem likely that this Ontario program by itself will meet those targets either," Macdonald said. "We're going to have to do more than we're doing now, and this leads us into a very difficult national debate because it involves things like who is going to be reducing by how much in terms of this extra effort that is needed."

Due to the province's robust manufacturing industry, Ontario ranked second in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, while Alberta, home to Canada's oil sands, ranked first.

While Ontario appears to be taking the reduction of those emissions seriously, other provinces are falling behind. Alberta introduced its own climate plan last year, legislating a limit on oil sands emissions, introducing a carbon tax and cutting methane emissions. But it still isn't enough, he says.

While Alberta has introduced legislation, Saskatchewan is the province that has done the least, he said. Alberta and Saskatchewan face a much higher per capita cost for reducing versus other areas of the country because their economies are so carbon-intensive.

"Alberta in particular is facing economic difficulties right now, and yet, we have to go back and say to them and to the other provinces, that's nice but you still have to do more on top of that. And what that raises is this basic question of what's fair. How do we decide [which provinces] in Canada is going to be doing how much to pick up this additional reduction that's needed?"

Related: California Issues State of Emergency for Massive Natural Gas Leak

The federal Liberals were elected on a platform that included a promise to work with the provinces on their climate change plans — a mandate that was lacking under the previous Conservative government. The Liberals followed up this promise by bringing premiers to the Paris climate talks last fall and convening a first ministers' meeting to talk about climate change targets.

"We need to get action by provinces, but we know we can't simply leave it to the provinces," Macdonald said.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont