We’ve written a lot lately about actions that would help Ontario meet its 2020 carbon reduction targets, from following a sector-by-sector roadmap to reducing emissions, to creating a well-designed cap-and-trade system, to investing in energy efficiency and conservation, to better integrating land-use and transit planning.

As Ontario’s Climate Change Discussion Paper mentions, achieving targets and accelerating the transformation to a clean economy requires action in all key sectors. That’s why Ontario needs to further de-carbonise its electricity sector.

Due largely to Ontario recently quitting coal, the province’s electricity sector has already significantly reduced its greenhouse gas emissions. However, the electricity sector still accounted for 9 per cent of total provincial emissions in 2012. Despite a decade-long trend of reducing emissions in the sector, Ontario’s current Long-Term Energy Plan forecasts a return to emissions growth by 2020, due to an increased reliance on natural gas in Ontario’s supply mix.

Ontario is a leading jurisdiction when it comes to producing wind and solar power, yet plans to give up this lead by discontinuing renewable energy installation rather than growing it. The province has no plans to develop more wind and solar power after 2021. This bucks the worldwide trend toward cheap, abundant green power.

Globally, installed wind power increased by 15 per cent in 2014 and solar photovoltaic prices dropped by 80 per cent since 2008. Countries around the world are building and generating more wind and solar power, while energy storage technology is evolving quickly to address concerns about the intermittent nature of these sources. Ontario should stay ahead of this global trend and increase its investment in wind and solar power.

Let’s not forget the economic benefits of increasing the share of renewable energy in Ontario’s supply mix. Already, 31,000 people are employed by the province’s renewable energy sector. Worldwide, the renewable energy sector now creates more jobs per megawatt hour of power installed, per unit of energy produced, and per dollar of investment than the fossil fuel sector. Investments in solar and wind energy instead of natural gas can make Ontario an exporter of renewable electricity, technology, know-how and products.

Neighbouring jurisdictions in the United States, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania all continue to rely on coal for significant portions of their energy supply. As American regulations target the coal industry and mandate emissions reductions, and these states strive for their own emissions targets, there will be greater demand for clean power produced in Ontario. The climate action strategy should build on the growth we’ve already seen in renewable energy reach out to new markets.

To help de-carbonise Ontario’s energy supply, the electricity sector should be covered by the cap-and-trade program. Coverage of natural gas will incentivize efficiency and conservation while levelling the playing field for wind and solar power.

Ontario should also seriously consider hydro imports from Quebec, a low-cost, low-carbon option that hasn’t yet received serious deliberation. If we replaced 10 terawatt hours of natural gas generation with a combination of electricity conservation, renewable generation, and hydro imports from Quebec, it’s estimated that emissions from the electricity sector could be reduced by 3 tonnes by 2020. A 3-tonne reduction in GHGs is equivalent to the expected increase in carbon pollution caused by a greater reliance on natural gas in 2020.

In addition to decreasing gas generation, reductions in the electricity sector will be closely tied to initiatives in the buildings sector, including mandatory disclosure of energy use, natural gas conservation, and efficiency retrofits. Ontario should also establish an Energy Efficiency Resource Standard, which 23 American states have already done. The standard would direct the Ontario Energy Board to regulate natural gas utilities to meet provincial GHG reduction targets through demand-side management investments, such as providing incentives for greater use of electricity during off-peak hours and on-bill financing of energy retrofits.

By closing its coal plants, Ontario has already taken the single largest regulatory action in North America to reduce GHG emissions. But the province’s leadership on climate shouldn’t stop there. The provincial electricity sector is still responsible for nearly one-tenth of GHG emissions.

Ontario can make its energy supply fossil fuel-free by reducing natural gas consumption and replacing it with conservation and renewables. Not only would this help Ontario achieve its 2020 targets, but it will create jobs and grow the clean economy in the process. Climate action that helps our environment and our economy? Now, that’s a win, win.

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