Everyone has groaned in this recession, and with good reason, but on the political front environmentalists groaned a little harder. 2008  seemed a good year as Governments began to cast their eyes towards more comprehensive policy approaches to tackling Climate Change. But green dreams received a shock to the system as the recession hit and political capital for environmental projects dropped as fast (and not surprisingly) as the stock markets.

To some, the decline in enthusiasm was not unreasonable, governments are judged on short time frames between elections and restoring economic growth as easily and risk-free as possible is always going to take precedent over potentially expensive policy initiatives on Climate change. Canada’s Environment minister Jim Prentice confirmed as much when he said the Government would not pursue environmental policy to the detriment of the economy. But in Ontario, there is a bold exception to this pattern, Ontario has announced not merely that it will fight the recession (as everyone is doing), or that it will include some green measures (as some are doing) but that in the Green Energy Act, it will fight the recession by putting environmental measures as the solution, not an added bonus, not a burden.

Everything about this act is remarkable, but let’s start with its timing; the bill, currently in process, was proposed on 28th February, the heart of the recession. The brainchild of Ontario’s Premier Dalton McGuinty and Deputy Premier George Smitherman the bill has a threefold purpose:

1. To arrest rising unemployment in Ontario by creating 50,000 “green” jobs within three years

2. A large scale effort to stimulate the renewable energy industry

3. To implement conservation and energy savings measures across Ontario.

Although the bill uses many of the usual approaches, certain aspects mark it out as exceptional, other than its timing. A core strength of the bill, is its comprehensive approach, rather than pass a number of small policy initiatives  to tackle certain environmental issues sector by sector, the Green Energy Act is a head on approach. Take for example conservation: the bill would require mandatory energy audits of properties and conservation targets for utility companies – and conservation is only one part of the bill.

The holistic approach has advantages over the smaller one, while introducing change at a greater rate gives the economy less time to adjust, it also underscores the Ontario Government’s resolve to make the environment a core part of the Ontario;s future economy, providing a clear vision of the future will be vital to encourage investment.

This is powerfully underlined in the most radical part of the bill, the “right to connect”, which would make it mandatory for utilities companies to connect to the grid, renewable energy projects ( subject to economic and technical requirements).

As George Vegh, a Toronto energy lawyer, writes:

“The most important thing about the Green Energy Act is that it is not about energy as a supply resource; it is about energy as a contributor to environmental and social outcomes”

This is embodied in the “right to connect”, this framed in deliberate terms to underlines the potential for the individuals to participate, it could precipitate a paradigm shift in the way Governments approach energy in the 21st century, favouring decentralised grids, even at the likely at least in the short term higher energy costs, from the expense of expanding and presumably upgrading the grid, to the loss of economy of scale power supplies.

The bill would also entail greater regulation in the demand for conservation measure, while not all targets will necessarily be mandatory, the bill’s demand for wide-reaching regulation would see direct intervention of the Government in key markets such as property and the growing shift in values that underline public policy that increasingly see energy issues as public values.

The bill unsurprisingly is not without its critics, Terence Corcoran, provides a vociferous overview of its implications. Regardless of whether you agree with him, Corcoran underlines some salient details about this bill. Some of the important aspects are whether strong decentralisation of power utilities are desirable or whether they will be harder to regulate their upkeep and maintenance, more prone to regional weather variations could make them less efficient. Most importantly is that energy costs will significantly rise, from connection to grid costs, potential instability in renewable markets, such as steel shortages to weather problems creating downturns in electricity, backups will probably be required. Explaining Ontario’s decision to press ahead with a nuclear power plant. Whether the added regulation is the best way to promote energy conservation and to what extent economic growth is truly compatible with environmental policy.

While these remain key issues, nothing should detract from this bill it is a landmark in legislation, and a further example of the capacity of State legislation to tackle Climate Change at a serious level. It should not be forgotten, Ontario has already targeted a 15% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020, the phasing out of coal by 2014 and in 2008 already sources 25% of its energy from renewable sources . It is perhaps another reminder of Prime Minister Harper’s failure to address Climate change on a national level, that has led to a slew of state initiatives, of which Ontario is a leader.

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