by Matthew Klippenstein.
Canada’s “little Germany” has cut per-capita emissions 24% since 1990.
The Ontario government announced on Friday that it will introduce legislation next week to ban the burning of coal and the building of new coal plants. The Canadian province expects to have completely outgrown coal by 2014, thanks to a combination of efficiency, nuclear, natural gas and an ambitious renewables program – and to save C$4.4 billion per year (US $4.2 billion) in “externalities” like health costs, from having done so.
The province will end this year on a symbolic high-note as well, completing the conversion of its enormous Nanticoke Generation Station to run on biomass. The coal plant was at one point the single-biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, providing 4 GW of baseline electricity. Half its generating units have been decommissioned in recent years, and the station now operates as a “peaker” plant — idling for most of the day, and only ramping up in times of high electricity demand.
Ontario being a net exporter of electricity – it sold 10 TWh of excess electricity last year, about enough to power Hawaii – the announcement is great news for the lungs of families there, and in the surrounding provinces and states. Going forward, Ontarian children will only have to endure “second-hand smog” from coal burnt in nearby Michigan.
Digging into the statistics*, CleanTechnica found that from 1990 to 2011, Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped 3 percent – achieving only about half of Canada’s Kyoto commitment. But the province’s growth in the past 20 years means its per-capita emissions actually dropped a full 24 percent. Though the province had largely weaned itself off coal by then, the full phase-out should push the per-capita emissions reductions past the one-quarter mark (25 percent).
By comparison, Germany’s Energiewende has powered a 27 percent emissions reduction since 1990, and its stable population means per-capita emissions are down about 28 percent.
Canada’s “little Germany”
Referring to Ontario as a “little Germany” purely on account of its environmental progress would be to underestimate the parallels between the two.
Ontario is Canada’s manufacturing centre, and achieved its emissions reductions even as it began a nine-year run as North America’s top auto manufacturing jurisdiction. (That the province’s auto sector achieved this with high-skill, high-wage, unionized workers, despite lower-cost labour elsewhere, compares well with the German automotive experience.)
And though Ontario doesn’t dominate Canadian Confederation to the extent that Germany does the European Union, its size and influence mean it can be considered first among provinces; it hosts the country’s capital, after all.
The province’s Green Energy Act was partially modelled on the successful policies that drove the German Energiewende. Small surprise, then, that its implementation was only partially smooth. Several wind farm projects located near uncompensated individuals and communities, encountered fierce resistance from the aforementioned uncompensated individuals and communities.
As noted by a recent Dutch study, “people who benefit economically from wind turbines have a significantly decreased risk of annoyance, despite exposure to similar sound levels [as those who do not benefit economically].” Or, to translate from scientific to soundbite English, the Ontario government had forgotten the wisdom of turning local stakeholders into local shareholders.
The province was also judged to have violated World Trade Organization rules when it enforced local-content requirements for renewables to qualify for feed-in tariffs; and the politically-motivated cancellation of two natural gas plants may wind up costing the province one billion dollars.
For all these missteps, Ontario continues to move forward, slowly transforming its electricity, energy use, and economy. (“Little Germany,” indeed…) And while residential electricity rates have risen in recent years, they top out at a maximum 13 cents / kWh during peak hours, still on the low side of North American norms.
Meanwhile, in an alternate universe
One wonders whether Keystone XL and other pipelines would have already received their permits if Canada had followed Ontario’s lead, instead of Alberta’s. (Alberta is home to Canada’s tar sands.) Would counterparties be willing to help Canadian bitumen into international markets if the country could credibly claim to be using the one-time boon to swiftly transition off fossil fuels – developing expertise that could then be exported abroad?
The Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia – encompassing three-quarters of the Canadian population – have reduced per-capita greenhouse gas emissions 24, 17 and 11 percent respectively since 1990. And while Canada’s Kyoto commitments were based on absolute reductions, not per-capita reductions, most observers would acknowledge these achievements as a good start. Residents of the three provinces generate 10 to 13 tonnes of CO2 per year, in line with their German counterparts.
Alas, we don’t live in an alternate universe; and in our universe, the Canadian government has long since chosen to be bellicose and belligerent in pushing its bitumen interests. In addition to cutting climate research and muzzling scientists, the government has spied on pipeline opponents and gone out of its way to describe them in terms befitting the 9/11 terrorists**. During the 2008 election campaign, the ruling Conservative Party even created an online video showing a puffin repeatedly defecating on an opposition leader, and characterizing his carbon tax proposal as a “tax on everything.”
Ironically, investigative journalists have determined that Canada’s oil giants are quietly in favour of a carbon tax, which would reduce regulatory risks to their projects’ profitability. With Shell Oil’s recent announcement that it assumes a $40/tonne CO2 price for new projects, we can assume they’re among this group.
With the federal government set in its self-destructive ways, Canadians have been forced to look to the provincial and municipal levels for leadership on climate issues. And while hard-working stewards from across the political spectrum are working to create a cleaner, better future for community and country, Ontario’s leadership deserves special acknowledgement.
In phasing out coal, Ontario has let go of the 18th century, to better embrace the 21st. The government showed its citizens the willingness to take action to build the better future their children deserve.
Better still, the many other measures the province took leading up to this announcement emphatically proved that Energiewende-esque per-capita emissions reductions can be achieved, even in North America, and even without a price on carbon. Which gives hope – and perhaps even a hint of excitement – about the progress we’ll be able to make when governments begin pricing carbon, worldwide.
* See www.tinyurl.com/CanadaEVSales. Ontario data on “Canada by Province” tab (row 70-ish). German data on “Global GHG’s” tab.
** In the fourth paragraph, Minister Oliver states, “these groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda” (emphasis added). In a post-9/11 world, the concept of radical hijackers universally brings to mind the terrorists from those terrible, tragic attacks. By extension, referring to one’s opponents as radical hijackers is to compare them, by analogy, to the 9/11 terrorists. This document being an open letter published on a government website, this slanderous characterization of pipeline opponents would have been approved by Minister Oliver and the messaging-obsessed Prime Minister as well.
About the Author
Matthew Klippenstein is a professional engineer and plug-in electric vehicle enthusiast. A member of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association, he lives with his family in the nearby suburb of Burnaby, tweets at @EclecticLip and blogs occasionally at http://www.eclecticlip.com. A thirteen-year veteran of the fuel cell industry with Ballard Power Systems, he was part of the micro-CHP product team which won the American Electrochemical Society New Technology Award in 2007, and co-authored the company’s white paper on the future of electricity (“electron-democracy”) for a McKinsey & Company essay series to which Steven Chu and Andy Grove also contributed. In roles spanning research, product design and production, he helped the company scale-up from discrete manual assembly to continuous, automated roll-to-roll processing, with the company manufacturing its 1,000,000th production-line MEA (membrane-electrode assembly) in 2010.