On June 8, 2016, the Government of Ontario released its Climate Change Action Plan, a five-year plan to fight climate change, reduce greenhouse gas pollution and transition to a low-carbon economy. The 85-page plan sets out details of government initiatives designed to achieve the ambitious emissions reduction targets earlier elaborated in Ontario’s cap-and-trade regime. The Ontario legislature previously enacted the Climate Change Mitigation and Low-carbon Economy Act in May 2016, which provided a legal framework for the province’s cap-and-trade program.
Incentives for all
Under the new Action Plan, the Province has committed to spend up to $8.3 billion on measures and programs to encourage corporations, communities and individuals to switch to more energy-efficient heating systems, buy electric or hybrid cars, build zero-carbon emission homes, switch to electric or natural gas powered trucks, add more bio-fuels to gasoline, and help the agricultural and industrial sectors adopt low-carbon technologies. The ultimate aim of the Action Plan is to reinvest proceeds from the cap-and-trade program into projects that will further reduce emissions.
Sweeping in its coverage, with strategic incentives for everyone (i.e., businesses and industries, individuals, local communities, as well as public sector institutions), the plan delivers measures and programs in several key action areas, including: transportation; buildings and homes; land-use planning; industry and business; collaboration with Indigenous communities; research and development; government; agriculture, forests and land.
By introducing a broad range of direct and indirect incentives for the public to adopt low-carbon lifestyles, the Action Plan shifts discussions on climate change from threat to opportunity. For example, by providing rebates of up to $14,000 for the lease or purchase of an electric vehicle, the Action Plan can stimulate unprecedented demand for electric vehicles in Ontario. The accelerated construction of regional express rail systems could drastically reduce the number of vehicles on the road, creating a net reduction in emissions from the transportation sector.
With regard to buildings, homeowners who purchase or build their own net-zero (or near net-zero) carbon emission homes are equally entitled to rebates. Additionally, the government intends to allocate $500–600 million to assist homeowners who choose to purchase and install low-carbon energy technologies, with increased benefits available to low-income and vulnerable communities.
Apart from providing the necessary incentives to encourage behavioural and lifestyle changes at the individual level, the Action Plan also creates an enabling environment for businesses and industries to transition to a low-carbon economy in two ways. First, the establishment of a “green bank” to provide access and finance to low-carbon technologies places businesses in a financially practical position to make the switch. Second, apart from signalling government’s strategic commitment to a low-carbon economy, access to green finance through the Action Plan’s green bank could significantly de-risk and encourage investment in low-carbon technologies. Funding support for innovation and commercialization of new low-carbon technologies, as well as the creation of tax and regulatory policies to encourage development of low-carbon technologies, arguably creates an environment that, in the long run, would increase adoption of low-carbon technologies
Aligning with SDGs
The key action areas identified in the Action Plan align with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the international community — including Canada — in September 2015. For example, targets under SDG 7 to promote universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy by 2030 are well captured in Ontario’s Action Plan on low-carbon technologies and energy efficiency in industrial processes (Action Area 8). Furthermore, SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth is also reflected in the Action Plan’s target to promote green jobs. The Action Plan’s target to achieve a carbon-neutral public service in Ontario by 2018 is a bold attempt that could fast-track the attainment of SDG 9 on sustainable industrialization and infrastructure. Overall, the adoption of the Action Plan is, by itself, a strong and innovative effort that could place Canada on the path to attaining SDG 13, which calls on national authorities to take urgent action to address climate change by integrating climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning.
Despite its potential and promise, the successful implementation of the Action Plan will depend largely on mass market adoption of measures promoted under the plan. While there are some forms of concrete action in the plan, such as requiring the update of the building code with long-term energy efficient targets for new net-zero carbon emissions or mandating energy audits to be carried out as part of real estate transactions, the plan nevertheless largely depends, as predicted by the government, on people making the choice to make the transition to low-carbon lifestyles. For a plan that depends significantly on major lifestyle shifts and changes by the public, concerns and questions already raised about limited consultation by the government with the public, particularly rural and low-income communities, in developing the Action Plan must be taken seriously. If the Ontario government ever intends to deliver a low-carbon economic system that effectively meets the needs and expectations of society as a whole, then it must engage with the people as early and widely as possible.
Furthermore, the financial incentives under the plan must not only benefit big businesses. The broad spectrum of the Ontario public must be actively involved in the development of initiatives and strategic measures aimed at implementing the Action Plan to ensure that society can actually afford to take advantage of these incentives, which are meant to result in economic value and savings for individuals as well.
A swift response to Paris
The message delivered by the Action Plan is crystal clear: efforts to address climate change could come with significant opportunities for green jobs, green transportation, cleaner air, efficient vehicles, less reliance on fossil fuels, and energy-saving homes. This message could provide a decisive springboard for other provinces and, importantly, the federal government to articulate a coherent national plan on how Canada’s Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement can be practically realized.
Ontario’s commendable ambition and swift response to the Paris Agreement demonstrates the potential effectiveness of bottom-up international law making. By driving normative and attitudinal change from the very end of the spectrum, bottom-up approaches create incentives and opportunities for communities, individuals and businesses to lead climate change actions. If carefully developed with full public engagement and participation, bottom-up measures and strategies promoted by the Action Plan could provide instructive influence and pathways on how Canada can effectively achieve its obligations under the Paris Agreement.