Why Ontario matters at COP 22

COP 22 will be less fanfare and more substance than the headline-grabbing Paris agreement, says Ontario Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray, pictured here with Kathleen Wynne. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

COP 22 will be less fanfare and more substance than the headline-grabbing Paris agreement, says Ontario Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray, pictured here with Kathleen Wynne. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

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COP 22, the UN climate conference, starts today in Marrakech, Morocco. It follows last year's landmark Paris summit, when countries around the world made history by signing the first legally binding global agreement to fight climate change. The accord came into effect on Friday; today marks the start of a process to determine how nations need to proceed to meet their climate change goals.

An Ontario government delegation, led by Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray, is attending. And it turns out that Ontario has an important role to play, even though it’s a subnational government. 

While the federal government has the authority to make deals in the global arena, it’s largely up to provincial and territorial governments to implement the environmental policies that will ensure Canada fulfils those deals.

COP 22 will be less fanfare and more substance than the headline-grabbing Paris agreement, Murray told “This is really in some ways where the rubber hits the road after Paris. A lot of the things that happened in Paris were great rhetoric leading up to the agreement. Now is the time to get down to work,” he says.

The conference has been dubbed the “COP of Action” by organizers.

Countries will use the forum in Morocco to begin planning the implementation of the Paris agreement. “We must encourage our respective countries to commit in a strong way to sectors related to the green economy [as well as the blue economy] in order to take advantage of associated growth and job opportunities," writes Nizar Baraka, president of the COP 22 scientific committee, on the conference website.

Murray says his government will be discussing how reductions in emissions are verified, what international standards for emissions reductions Canada will be expected to meet and how the trading of emissions reductions will be managed.

The minister also said the meeting will provide an opportunity for Ontario to continue to build a North American and international carbon market. “We’ve had some interesting conversations with Switzerland and some of the European countries, and with a number of the larger U.S. states,” he says. Murray listed the New England states and those that are part of the U.S. Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as potential partners.

The Paris agreement is a bottom-up accord: It allows countries to make their own decisions about how to fight climate change, with an overarching goal of keeping the global average temperature increase below two degrees Celsius.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invited all of the premiers to Paris for the summit last year — a move that recognized the centrality of the provinces and territories to climate action. While there, the Canadian government committed to reducing emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels. Upon ratifying the agreement, Trudeau’s Liberal government implemented a clause to compel provinces to develop a carbon price by 2018 or else face a federal tax.

What's happened since COP 21?

Ontario was lauded at the conference last year for its phase-out and subsequent ban of coal power. The province completed that phase-out in 2014, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 34 megatonnes, or 17 per cent, in what the Ontario government says is one of the single largest emissions reduction actions in North America.

The province has also made some missteps since Paris. It maintained support for natural gas, continuing its $200-million fund for expanding access to the energy source — something critics say is contrary to the goals of the Paris agreement. It also cancelled contracts for 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy generation amid rising hydro prices and oversupply from nuclear plants.

“Historically it’s the provinces that deliver the bulk of environmental policy,” says Douglas Macdonald, a senior lecturer in the school of the environment at the University of Toronto.

Whether it's mining, transportation or even building codes, Ontario has the jurisdiction to regulate in the name of environmental protections.

The province released its climate change action plan earlier this year — a plan that calls for spending between $5.9 billion and $8.3 billion on climate change initiatives in the next five years. Programs will include support for those who wish to purchase electric vehicles, subsidies for homeowners who choose to switch to more efficient heating systems, and aid the construction of more net-zero emissions homes by 2030.

Ontario is set to begin its cap and trade program in early 2017, joining a market with Quebec and California.

Who is responsible for what?

“For things that cross provincial borders or international borders, things like electricity sales to the U.S., there’s a federal role,” says Macdonald. “Pipelines are the big issue now. But if you’re looking at Ontario implementing climate change policy within the Ontario borders, it’s got all the powers it needs.”

Emissions from Ontario represent 23 per cent of the Canadian total, according to a 2014 report by Environment and Climate Change Canada. Transportation accounts for the largest share of emissions in the province, at 35 per cent, followed by industry and buildings, at 28 and 19 per cent respectively, according to Ontario’s climate action plan.

But all of the provincial and federal measures so far will not get us to our Paris goal, says Macdonald. He says the key is action in Ontario and Alberta, which together make up a big portion of Canadian emissions. “They’re going to have to do more.”

Ontario’s environment minister argues that Ontario is way ahead on emissions reductions strategies, and that it should be up to the other provinces to develop carbon pricing systems that work for them.

“We’ve already closed our coal plants. We’re already below 1990 levels. We’re already tracking to meet the commitments that support the 80 per cent goal of the Paris agreement by 2050," Murray argues. "If everyone else in the world did what Quebec and Ontario’s doing, we’d stay under two degrees Celsius.”

What's next?

While Ontario’s coal phase-out and cap and trade programs are concrete, much of the climate action plan remains just that at this point — a plan. It remains to be seen what will be legislated and enacted.

Whether provinces should be required to meet specific targets in service of the Paris agreement commitment is a politically delicate question. In Canada, the “burden sharing dynamic complicates discussions of climate change action between governments and sectors of the economy,” a report by the Lawrence National Centre for Policy and Management at the Ivey Business School at Western University concluded. “These discussions invariably involve competing notions of efficiency and equity.” Even the costs of reducing emissions are higher in some provinces, like Alberta.

But a conversation about a fair distribution of the reduction effort needs to happen, says Macdonald. “And the problem we have in Canada is that we continually refuse to have that discussion.”

Sarah Reid is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate of the Munk Fellowship in Global Journalism.