Honesty from politicians has not been a defining feature of the climate policy debate. So it was refreshing to see that in Ontario’s (leaked) climate plan, the Wynne government appears to be asking the right question: how do we replace fossil fuels as an energy source by mid-century?
That is not the question you ask if you’re looking for the path of least political resistance. It involves taking heat from some very powerful lobbies (Big Oil, Big Auto and real estate developers to name a few) for doing things whose benefits won’t be realized until well after the next election.
That is why most climate plans ask a variation on: how can we get modest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions with minimal changes to the economic status quo?
Our challenge is that modest reductions in emissions will still be even more disruptive, via skyrocketing levels of climate change-fueled disasters like floods, droughts, wildfires and rising sea levels. So given that we have to choose between climate action and suffering, I suggest we opt for the former.
Intellectually, our politicians get this. It is why, under pressure from other G7 leaders, Stephen Harper agreed to phase out fossil fuels completely this century and why the Trudeau government committed Canada (alongside 195 other countries at the Paris climate conference) to a goal of ‘net-zero’ emissions in the second half of the century. Ontario, for its part, just legislated an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Yet after making these big promises, most politicians then propose policies to target the cheapest and easiest reductions. This way they don’t offend the oil industry or the car companies who don’t want to build electric vehicles, but they also don’t solve the problem.
I’m not saying the leaked plan is perfect and the details of implementation will matter. But it does begin to tackle the question of how to phase out fossil fuels.
It does it through policies like changing the building code to start phasing out the use of fossil fuels for heating or cooling buildings (though it should be noted that this would only be mandatory for new homes built after 2030, while existing buildings would have incentives, but not a requirement, to switch to geothermal or electric heating). It includes planning rules that make public transit and cycling/walking more convenient and accessible. And it includes measures to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles.
This is do-able because renewable energy is no longer a distant dream. With the technological advances in energy efficiency as well as solar and wind energy (alongside our existing hydro power facilities), we now have cost-effective ways to generate large quantities of electricity in a sustainable, low-carbon way. Indeed, there is now more investment in renewable energy than fossil-fired electricity globally.
But much of our existing infrastructure was built for fossil fuels. We need governments to change the rules around building codes, urban planning and transportation systems so that all new infrastructure is built in a way that enables ordinary people to live, work and travel without frying the planet.
That won’t be easy and will make them a lot of enemies. But you’ll never get the solution to a problem if you keep asking the wrong question.
So kudos to the Wynne government for being honest about what it’s going to take to tackle climate change. Let's support them so they hang tough in the face of inevitable attacks from the fossil fuel lobbyists, who want us to believe that we have to keep buying what they are selling.
Keith Stewart is the head of Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaign, and teaches a course on energy policy at the University of Toronto.