After 40 years practicing law, I have just submitted my first report as your Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, called “Conservation: Let’s Get Serious.”
For excellent social, economic, and environmental reasons, Ontario has committed to dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
To do so while improving our quality of life, we must become much more efficient in how we use all forms of energy, and we must reduce our use of fossil fuels.
Energy conservation and efficiency remain the cheapest and cleanest source of new energy. According to the International Energy Agency, better energy efficiency can provide about 40 per cent of the global GHG reductions needed to avoid global warming above 2C. But getting serious about conservation will require significant legal and policy changes in Ontario.
Right now, Ontario’s conservation strategy is lopsided, and it produces lopsided results.
Ontario puts most of its conservation effort and investment into conserving electricity, which is the smallest and cleanest of our major sources of energy.
Per unit of energy, Ontario ratepayers put more than 10 times the investment into conserving electricity as we did into conserving natural gas or petroleum fuels. The result? Electricity use has gone down, but fossil fuel use has gone up. Except coal, Ontario used more fossil fuels in 2014 than in 2007.
More than 80 per cent of our total energy came from hydrocarbons, mostly gasoline and diesel for transportation, plus natural gas.
Focusing so heavily on electricity made sense a decade ago, when the electrical system was in crisis, we were facing rotating brownouts, and Ontarians struggled to breathe in the smog from burning coal.
Since closing the last of Ontario Power Generation’s coal-fired plants in 2014, Ontario has had low-emissions electricity and much cleaner air.
Today, what matters most is reducing fossil fuel consumption, because of the existential threat of climate change, while providing a good quality of life for Ontario’s growing population.
Fifty per cent more people are expected in the Greater Golden Horseshoe by 2040.
What would it take to get serious about conserving fossil fuels? The recommendations in our report are all reasonable, achievable, and based on successful experience here and in other jurisdictions.
For example, we recommend that all public bodies in Ontario should get serious about a “cleaner, leaner, greener” approach to fossil fuels.
Public bodies should be accountable to the public for the energy that they use, and the first step in accountability is transparency.
Public buildings vary greatly in their energy use. Why don’t we know which public buildings, organizations, or fleets are energy hogs?
Our office has put information on our web site that shows the energy footprint of every public building in the Ontario broader public sector for 2011 to 2013.
We can do this because the Green Energy Act requires mandatory energy reporting for most buildings in the broader public sector. This means municipalities, universities, colleges, schools, and hospitals.
When the federal and provincial governments make this information available for their buildings, we will add it.
Our report shows that Ontario has a huge opportunity to save money and emissions by learning from better public buildings.
If all BPS buildings performed as efficiently as the top quarter of their building type, taxpayers could save $450 million and 1 megaton of greenhouse gas emissions every year.
This isn’t rocket science; other countries are way ahead of us. Sweden, for example, has decreased its building energy consumption more than 80 per cent in the last 40 years, and it’s just as cold there as it is in Ontario.
We also recommend that Ontario should move towards a level playing field for a sustainable economy.
That means rethinking laws that favour car-dependent suburbs, and getting the best bang for our transit buck.
Land use is particularly important.
Transportation is Ontario’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and usually our largest energy use. Transportation demand is driven primarily by how we plan our communities, especially by urban sprawl.
For decades, growth patterns have been designed to rely on personal motor vehicles, and to separate employment and residential land uses. Ontario cannot realistically reduce fossil fuel use if we keep building low-density, car-dependent suburbs. Instead, we need land use planning, infrastructure and taxation law, and policy to favour compact complete communities, with enough density to make walking, biking, and transit good-quality options for daily transportation.
Fortunately, Ontario is proposing to adopt many of the recommendations of the Crombie Report, “Planning for Health, Prosperity and Growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe: 2015-2041.”
Maintaining personal and freight mobility with less fossil fuel use also means a shift to low-carbon fuels and vehicles, including electric vehicles.
Ontario is well placed to electrify transportation because of our ample, widely available, low-carbon electricity supply, provided that most vehicle charging occurs off-peak. Natural gas is also gaining acceptance as a less polluting fuel for heavy trucks.
A level playing field for a sustainable economy also requires attention to tax policy.
Tax breaks that subsidize fossil fuels conflict directly with Ontario’s energy conservation and climate targets. Canada has made three international commitments to phase out fossil fuel subsidies while providing targeted support for those who need it most.
Ontario committed in its 2016 climate change strategy to “look at removing existing initiatives that support fossil fuel use.”
Why, then, does Ontario still provide more than half a billion dollars in tax breaks every year to subsidize the consumption of fossil fuels?
These subsidies were adopted decades ago, before we understood the harm caused by burning fossil fuels. Now we know better. Why not support activities that promote the public good, not just keep fossil fuels cheap?
Ontario already knows how and why to conserve more energy. It’s time to get serious and do it.
Dianne Saxe is the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, an independent officer of the Legislature who reports on government progress on climate change, energy, and other environmental issues. The ECO is the province’s environmental watchdog and champion of Ontarians’ environmental rights.