Category:Climate Change Policies in Ontario

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What is climate change?

Climate change refers to changes in Earth's energy balance that alter long-term weather patterns. Greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane are major contributors to changes in Earth's energy balance because they trap heat in the atmosphere. Over the past 200 years humans have been the major cause of climate change. Our burning of fossil fuels (such as coal, oil and natural gas) to power the industrial revolution has released huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane that were stored in Earth's crust for millions of years. Additionally, deforestation that accompanied the agricultural revolution has reduced the amount of carbon stored on Earth's surface. Earth’s atmosphere today has 38 per cent more CO2 in it than 200 years ago. Combined, these GHGs trap more energy and thus increase temperatures and result in more extreme weather. These effects will intensify in the future because the warming of the oceans and melting of ice sheets lags behind the warming of the atmosphere.

Why is it important?

Avoiding socio-economically dangerous climate change requires us to limit global average temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees. Achieving this will require a reduction of atmospheric concentration of GHGs to less than 350 parts per million (ppm) by using less fossil fuels and increasing the amount of carbon stored in Earth's plants, soil and oceans. The best scientific predictions suggest that global GHG emissions will need to be reduced by more than 50 per cent by mid-century. This is an immense challenge that requires prompt action by all societal actors. Given already high levels of atmospheric GHGs, the reality is that we will have to learn to adapt to warmer world with more extreme weather events. This means designing our infrastructure to reduce vulnerability, and promoting a culture of conservation that increases the resilience of our critical systems such as water and energy.

Where do Ontario’s GHGs come from?

Ontario has a highly-developed industrialized economy and is responsible for a large proportion of Canada’s GHG emissions. Per capita CO2 emissions are more than 3 times higher than the global average. Ontario’s main sources of GHG emissions by sector (in descending order of magnitude) are: transportation, industry, buildings, electricity, agriculture and waste. In 2007, the Ontario government created a Climate Change Action Plan. Three targets were established for GHG reductions:

  • 6% below 1990 levels by 2014
  • 15% below 1990 levels by 2020
  • 80% below 1990 levels by 2050

The ECO monitors progress towards each of these targets and, as outlined below, produces an annual report.

Threats to Ontario

Observations are increasingly showing that many impacts of climate change are occurring faster and sooner than projected. If the current emissions trend continues, Ontario is projected to see an increase in annual average temperature of 3°C in the south of the province and 4°C in the Far North by 2050. It is worth remembering that an average increase of more than 2°C is widely considered dangerous. In the Far North shorter ice cover on Hudson and James Bay will reduce the amount of sunlight that is reflected and thus exacerbate warming in the region. Furthermore, melting permafrost in the Hudson Bay lowlands will release climate-warming methane from peat bogs, setting off a positive feedback loop that would have unpredictable consequences for Earth’s climate. Other projected impacts include:

  • Disruptions to critical infrastructure, including water treatment and distribution systems, energy generation and transmission and transportation
  • Lower Great Lakes water levels which could compromise shipping and reduce hydroelectric output
  • More frequent water shortages, as summer temperatures and evaporation rates increase
  • Greater risks to public health from injury, illness and premature death from climate-related events such as extreme weather, heat waves, smog and ecological changes that support the spread of diseases
  • Increased risk for remote and resource-based communities, which are already severely affected by drought, ice-dam flooding, forest fires and warmer winter temperatures
  • Damage to Ontario’s ecosystems, through the combined influence of changing climate, human activities and such natural disturbances as fire, outbreaks of insects and disease.

The ECO’s reporting on climate change

Climate change is one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. As such, the ECO believes that the Ontario government has the responsibility to take action to both mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to adapt to the changes that are predicted. The ECO has reported on many climate-change related topics; the following chronologically tracks key elements of the ECO’s commentary:

Take action - 1998

The ECO recommended that the government develop an action plan on climate change that includes emissions reduction targets. The ECO also reviewed several policy tools that could be utilized to reduce emissions, including (among others) increased renewable energy production, emissions trading, feebates and changes to the building code.

Read Part 2 from the report: Annual Report 1998: Open Doors.

The science is compelling - 2002

In 2002, the ECO produced a Special Report to provide an objective assessment of the scientific and technical information available about climate change. The ECO concluded that the evidence is compelling and that there are serious environmental consequences for the near future. Policymakers were encouraged to review the evidence and begin developing a response for Ontario.

Read the full report: Climate Change: Is the Science Sound?

A slow start - 2004/2005

In 2005, the Kyoto Protocol came into force. After reviewing the government’s various initiatives, the ECO concluded that the province’s actions to mitigate climate change were “rather low key” as no timelines or GHG reduction targets had been established. The ECO recommended that a lead ministry be identified to prepare a provincial strategy.

Read the article from our 2004/2005 Annual Report: 2005 Update on Climate Change

Adapting to what’s coming - 2005/2006

Adaptive measures are required to prepare for and mitigate the projected impacts of a changing climate. The ECO found little evidence that government policies were being adjusted to deal with forecasted changes in temperature and precipitation. With regard to the building sector, the ECO recommended that the Building Code Act and regulations be fully prescribed under the EBR to allow the public increased opportunities to suggest climate responsive building practices. To date, the Building Code is still not fully prescribed.

Read the article from our 2005/2006 Annual Report: Adapting to a Changing Climate – Neglecting Our Basic Obligations?

Preparing for the perfect storm - 2006/2007

More frequent and intense precipitation events are predicted under a changing climate. As such, in our 2006/2007 Annual Report, the ECO urged those ministries responsible for managing storm water management and infrastructure to review their policies to more appropriately reflect projected flood events.

Read the article from our 2006/2007 Annual Report: Flooding Hazards: Prevent and Mitigate, or Compensate and Rehabilitate?

Ontario’s Action Plan on Climate Change - 2007/2008

In August 2007, the Ontario government released a climate change strategy entitled Go Green: Ontario's Action Plan on Climate Change. The ECO commended the government for creating an action plan and reviewed the key elements of the action plan to assess the reliability and likelihood of the plan to meet the reduction targets and to provide insight into possible challenges associated with the various measures.

Read the article from our 2007/2008 Annual Report: Ontario’s Action Plan on Climate Change: Deserving of Credit?

Progress in a climate of change - December 2008

In December 2008, the ECO released a Special Report that reviewed the government’s Climate Change Action Plan Annual Report 2007-2008. The ECO made four recommendations, including calling upon the government to report real and projected GHG reductions for each sector, and for MNR and MOE to develop a climate change adaptation strategy.

Read the full report: Progress in a Climate of Change

Recasting the vision - 2008/2009

In 2009, the ECO’s mandate was expanded to require the production of an annual report on the progress of activities to reduce GHG emissions and to review reports by the government on climate change. In December 2009, the ECO released our first Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report. Among other concerns, the ECO questioned whether sufficient ‘tools’ were in place to reach the short- to medium-term targets. No specific recommendations were made in this report.

Read the full report: Finding a Vision for Change

Broadening the agenda - May 2010

In May 2010, the ECO released our second Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report. Five recommendations were made, including a need for the government to review its targets due to unacceptably high GHG concentrations. Other recommendations focused on the assumed carbon neutrality of forest biofibre, accountability mechanisms, increasing the transit modal split, and comparing emissions trading and carbon taxes.

Read the full report: Broadening Ontario's Climate Change Policy Agenda

Stay the course - May 2011

In May 2011, the ECO released our third Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report. The ECO urged the government to remain firm in its commitment to reduce GHG emissions. To hasten the transition to a low-carbon economy, the ECO recommended that the government put a price on carbon as soon as possible. As well, the ECO recommended that the goernment explore soil carbon sequestration as a mitigation tool, that it review landfill gas capture assumptions, and that it establish sectoral GHG targets.

Read the full report: Meeting Responsibilities: Creating Opportunities

Assessing the adaptation strategy – March 2012

In April 2011, the Ontario government released its climate change adaptation strategy entitled Climate Ready: Ontario’s Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan, 2011-2014. The strategy properly recognizes that steps must be taken to prepare for, and adapt to, the impacts that are predicted due to a changing climate. In a Special Report, the ECO congratulated the government for developing a relatively comprehensive adaptation strategy, and outlined how the ECO will evaluate the government’s future performance.

Read the full report: Ready for Change? An assessment of Ontario's climate change adaptation strategy

Questioning the commitment – December 2012

In December 2012, the ECO released our fourth Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report. The ECO assessed progress made in each sector and questioned whether there remains a firm governmental commitment to further action on climate change mitigation. Five recommendations were made, ranging from making greenhouse gas data available on an annual basis to establishing intensity targets for electricity. The ECO invited the government to provide written responses to the recommendations and these are reproduced within the report.

Read the full report: A Question of Commitment

Failing Our Future – June 2013

In June 2013, the ECO released a brief Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report. The brevity of the report is due, in part, to the comprehensive nature of our 2012 report and the paucity of government action on this file. The report highlights the ECO’s continuing concern regarding the failure of the government to demonstrate how it will close the gap on its 2020 target and that emissions in the electricity sector are projected to rise due to an increased reliance on natural gas.

Read the full report: Failing Our Future

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