Ontario’s Climate Plan Backs Off Earlier Draft’s Natural-Gas Phaseout

NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns said he backs much of the plan, but it does not include enough details to assess

Adrian Morrow | The Globe and Mail | Wednesday, Jun. 08, 2016 8:09AM EDT

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has unveiled the province’s Climate Change Action Plan, which commits up to $8.3-billion over five years to driving down greenhouse gas emissions but tones down rhetoric from an earlier draft on phasing out natural gas in the face of backlash from the fossil-fuel industry.

Confidential cabinet minutes obtained by The Globe and Mail, meanwhile, suggest the province is quietly considering going even further in the fight against climate change than the measures spelled out in the action plan. The minutes direct several government ministries to come up with plans to get all new homes and small buildings to “zero” emissions of greenhouse gases in nine years and to “phase out” fossil fuels for heating by 2050.

Ms. Wynne launched the plan on Wednesday at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks in front of an audience of primary school children.

“Why do we have to act today?” the Premier said. “Well, if we’d acted differently 30 years ago, we’d be in a different place today. … I’m not willing to leave it another 30 years for these kids to have to solve the problem. We’re going to act now.”

The sweeping plan is almost identical to a draft version The Globe revealed last month. It contains 76 new programs, including financial incentives for homeowners and landlords to retrofit buildings and for drivers to buy electric vehicles. It also mandates a lower-carbon fuel standard for gasoline, promises funding to make factories more energy efficient and creates an agency to finance companies developing environmental technologies.

The government stretched the time frame of the plan from four years to five and added more than a billion dollars in funding compared to the earlier draft.

The Liberals also dialled back part of the plan that would have required all new homes and small buildings after 2030 to be heated by electricity or geothermal heat, a rule that would have been expanded to all buildings by 2050. Instead, the plan now says small buildings built after 2030 will have “net zero carbon emissions.” The 2050 requirement for all buildings was removed. A government source said the province has not yet figured out how “net zero carbon emissions” buildings will actually work, but the idea is for them to offset emissions from natural gas they use by cutting emissions in some other fashion.

When first reported by The Globe, the natural gas phaseout in the draft of the plan led to pressure from the gas industry, which warned that switching to electric heat would add thousands of dollars to Ontarians’ budgets.

The cabinet minutes suggest the government is still pursuing a harder line on natural gas heating behind the scenes. The minutes direct the energy ministry to find a way to “phase out reliance on fossil fuels for the building sector based on 2050 reduction targets” as part of its next long-term energy plan for the electricity grid; an appendix to the minutes says that by 2050 “most buildings will need to be practically emissions free.”

The minutes say the municipal affairs ministry will “develop changes to the Building Code” to eventually cut all emissions from new buildings: “[The Building Code will] require zero greenhouse gas emission new small buildings by 2030 at the latest, with a target of achieving this by 2025, and all buildings as soon as reasonably possible, at a minimum.”

The minutes record the instructions of cabinet to various government departments on implementing the Climate Change Action Plan.

Environment Minister Glen Murray’s spokesman, David Mullock, tried to play down the significance of the minutes, but did not deny that the instructions in them stand. “The final document that was released today, including the actions presented within it, was reviewed and approved by Cabinet,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Union Gas spokeswoman Andrea Stass said the “net zero carbon emission” building portion of the plan is vague, and the government has provided no detail on what exactly it will mean for natural gas. “It continues to cause uncertainty because we’re not sure how it’s going to work, or what it’s going to cost,” she said.

Ms. Stass said her company supports other parts of the plan, including a requirement that 2 per cent of natural gas sold in the province come from renewable sources, such as landfills, by 2020, as well as a push to get transport trucks to switch from diesel to renewable natural gas.

Green groups praised the plan’s wide scope. “There’s something in this plan for everyone. Whether it’s residents, whether it’s homeowners, whether it’s tenants, whether it’s businesses, whether it’s large industries – there’s something that incents everyone in the province to do further carbon emission reductions,” Patrick DeRochie of Environmental Defence said.

NDP environment critic Peter Tabuns said he backs much of the plan, but it does not include enough details to assess how effective many of the programs will be. The actual design of most of the programs will not be rolled out until 2017 or 2018. “Only then will we able to understand fully how things are being done,” he said.

The Progressive Conservatives maintained that despite the promised incentive programs, consumers will end up paying more.

“A net zero energy home can cost $150,000 more,” Tory Leader Patrick Brown said in the daily Question Period. “My question to the Premier is: Where does she expect home buyers to find another $150,000?”

Ms. Wynne fired back: “Where does he expect any of us to find another planet to live on?”

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Read the article in the Globe and Mail here.