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A New Climate for Ontario

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on July 02, 2014

Crystal balls are notoriously unreliable. Climate modelling is almost as challenging. But there are a few inexorable and inevitable trends already impacting Ontario. Perhaps a full picture of the future is not possible, but important glimpses of tomorrow’s climate are available today.

The challenge of climate change is increasing in Canada and globally. This is mostly good news for Ontario[1].

First, Ontario’s strengths: (i) Some of the world’s best greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions data is in Ontario. Through the University of Toronto there’s even good data at a neighbourhood level, along with city core, regional, provincial and national values. No one knows better what needs to be done next to reduce GHG emissions. (ii) Ontario has some of the world’s greenest and cleanest (low CO2) electricity. (iii) Ontario, especially Greater Toronto, is blessed by geography – Toronto (Urban Region)[2] is one of the most resilient large cities in the world (likely only Chicago could compete with this claim). (iv) Ontario has done more than just about any other jurisdiction in North America to reduce GHG emissions – Ontario Power Generation’s ‘Out with the Coal’ is a great example.

Someday soon the Federal Government in Ottawa will be forced to call on Ontario, a bit like a coach turning to one of his players that he’s benched for past grievances. ‘Get in the game – adapt and mitigate against climate change’. How is Ontario likely to respond?

Ontario needs to play offense (mitigate) and defense (adapt) in the climate change fight. Mitigation is already a big strength. Ontario’s GHG emissions per person amazingly dropped from 17.1 tonnes in 2005 to 12.3 t in 2012[3]. If the rest of the world made similar reductions a global climate deal would be much easier.

Today Ontarians generate less than 12 tonnes CO2e per person – still higher than the world average but one of the lowest for all of North America. Under 10 tonnes per person should allow us to brag a little about our progress. Compare this to Alberta’s current and growing 64+ tonnes per person[4]. Ontario, Quebec and BC help make the rest of Canada look better in the climate change debate. This is why a team effort out on the global stage is so critical; Ontario is a big beneficiary of Canada’s oil and gas industry.

Ontario’s next big climate change mitigation task is to improve transportation systems. Not only will this strengthen Ontario’s economy and help the harried commuter, but by taking advantage of our low carbon electricity and access to natural gas, this could reduce another two tonnes CO2 or so per person. Between congestion pricing (yes, a long way of saying tolls), natural gas and electric vehicles, and better walking and biking in our cities Ontario can move into the ‘best practices’ category in both energy and transportation. More energy efficient buildings would be the next mitigation step, and minimizing potential GHG emissions from any ‘Ring of Fire’ mining development.

The adaptation front is where Ontario can really shine. Responding to climate change is mostly an urban challenge. Cities by their nature are vulnerable to climate impacts: the December 2013 ice storm in Southern Ontario and last year’s flooding in Calgary highlight this well. Back to the crystal ball and looking out to 2050. Very few (larger) cities are potentially more resilient than the Toronto Urban Region with ample water supply, good near-by agricultural lands, temperate climate with relatively few hurricanes and major storms, robust and diverse electricity generation, and good access to major transportation systems. Much can and should be done to enhance this resilience. Much needs to be done; flooding and power outages are increasingly common in Ontario’s cities, and willingness to change is often in short supply (probably the most important aspect of adaptability). But still, the region is off to a good start simply through luck of location.

The City of Toronto and Region of Durham, along with other local governments, are already underway with reviews of critical infrastructure in light of probable climate changes. Other initiatives to help cities could include:

  • reinforcing Public Safety Canada’s ‘72 Hours – Is Your Family Prepared?’ public awareness campaign (especially for the elderly and those living in high-rises);
  • developing a long-term resilience partnership between Greater Toronto Area and Chicago (and maybe New York City);
  • reinforcing critical systems such as data management and communications (e.g., public communications and continued access to cell-phone coverage regularly emerge as critical areas for strengthening in climate event post-mortems);
  • in large urban areas like Toronto Urban Region the roles and responsibilities of myriad agencies need to be clear before the events – processes need to be in place and rigorously followed;
  • partnerships such as urban-rural support, neighbouring city and utility support agreements, private sector involvement such as food, financial, hardware and communications, should be discussed and agreed-to prior to emergencies;
  • discuss now the prospects of large scale evacuation and how to re-build communities in the event of disaster, as well as how best to receive more of the world’s inevitable environmental refugees;
  • work to harden key infrastructure in larger cities – Toronto for example needs to get better at taking a blow from the weather; and
  • on a hopeful note, Ontario and Urban Toronto have the ability to specialize in urban resilience not only for the benefit of local residents, but also as a global business development opportunity.

The only certainty we have is that things will always be uncertain. This uncertainty is bound to grow as our cities grow, our population ages, and the climate changes with more severe and frequent storms and heat waves. Ontario should be able to adapt-to and weather this uncertainty better than most. And with continued reductions in GHG emissions we should also be able to do more than most in mitigating climate change. Finally, Ontario can capitalize on this expertise and export it in the global market.

[1] Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment was recently expanded to specifically include climate change mitigation and adaptation.

[2] See December, 2013 ‘The Toronto Urban Region in Global’ by GCIF at

[3] Ontario’s GHG reductions between 2005 and 2012 are among the greatest of any jurisdiction. This was brought about mainly through a 58% decrease in electricity emissions (out with the coal) and a sharp decline in emissions associated with manufacturing. The decline in manufacturing is unfortunate; hopefully as Ontario’s economy grows again efforts will succeed in maintaining an overall decline in GHG emissions (while increasing economic output).

Filed under: Sustainability 101