Photo: Climate change leadership in Canada: it's about knowing where to look

The largest coal plant in North America, the Nanticoke Generating Station, will stop burning coal this year as Ontario phases out coal-fired power. (Credit: JasonParis via Flickr)

By Ryan Kadowaki, Science and Policy Coordinator

Have you ever had a co-worker or classmate take credit for your hard work? It's infuriating. You don't get the recognition for your efforts and some opportunistic freeloader is held up as an example. This deception may result in a lasting impression that opens doors for someone else and leaves you out in the cold. It can also happen at the government level. A prime example is the federal government trying to bolster its own environmental reputation by taking credit for Ontario's leadership in getting rid of coal-fired power.

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The Ontario government's decision to phase out coal-fired electricity led to the single largest reduction in carbon emissions in North America. Since 2005, electricity emissions have fallen by over 19 million tonnes, an astonishing number equivalent to the total emissions of New Brunswick. This has helped reduce Ontario's emissions to below 1990 levels, a significant accomplishment in a country that has vastly exceeded its Kyoto target.

This didn't happen overnight. Environmental organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation have a lengthy history of advocating for this phase-out. Citizens have also made it clear that it was time for Ontario to make this transition. Fortunately, these concerns were backed by progressive politicians who understood the tremendous opportunity for the province.

But for the federal government, with no plan in place to achieve its reduction targets (and wanting to appear environmentally scrupulous to foster favourable impressions of its oil industry), the only option was to play the part of the conniving boss and take credit for the efforts of a forward-thinking employee. The government likes to tout the fact that Canada's emissions have fallen in recent years, as if its own leadership had put us on track. Along with the impacts of the economic downturn, this dip in emissions is largely a result of the coal phase-out, a provincial initiative with which the federal government had no involvement. This trickery hasn't done much to sway international opinion. Despite the statement by federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq on November 18 that "Canada is taking a leadership role in international climate change efforts," two studies released last week on climate change performance ranked Canada dead last among developed industrialized nations.

What is unfortunate is that in thinking of Canada as a climate laggard, the world may get the impression that the whole country is resting on its laurels or is opposed to taking any action. How do other nations understand Ontario's efforts when our federal government applauds Australia for weakening its climate plan? B.C., Quebec and other provinces have also taken considerable steps to drive climate policy forward, but this tends to be overshadowed by Canada's image as a country with a petro-centric economy enabled by our federal government.

Canadians at least appear to be hopeful that change is possible from within. A recent poll by the Environics Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation found that, even though Canadians are losing trust in government to address climate change, 70 per cent believe their provinces can switch away from fossil fuels to renewable energy like Ontario is doing. The government is out of sync with what the majority of Canadians think about climate change and what they want done about it. Against the backdrop of the UN Climate Summit in Warsaw, the recognition of Ontario's monumental achievement should serve as an important signal that leadership is present in Canada; you just have to know where to look.

November 21, 2013

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