The following op-ed piece from Peter Miller, current member and former chair of Green Action Centre’s policy committee, appeared in the January 5, 2016, edition of the Winnipeg Free Press.
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Premier Greg Selinger calls climate change “the defining global environmental issue of our time.” In resposne, Manitoba has set new greenhouse gas emission targets: reduction by a third by 2030 over 2005 levels, by a half by 2050 and carbon-neutrality by 2080. While achieving those targets, Manitoba intends to build resilience and pursue green economic development, social equity and fairness. What will it take to get there, and does Manitoba’s recent climate action plan have what it takes?

First consider where we are now. Our hydroelectric power gives us a great advantage over non-hydro provinces in seeking a carbon-neutral future. Ontario, for example, went to great expense to replace coal as a source of generating electricity, and Alberta will do the same. However, despite Manitoba’s huge initial hydro advantage, our per-capita emissions are higher than those of half the provinces – we are fifth highest out of 10. Like the other western provinces, Manitoba’s GHG emissions have gone up since 1990. All six provinces to the east of us have reduced their emissions five per cent or more. And despite our low-cost hydro resource and basic charging opportunities at every car plug-in, Manitoba, with 3.6 per cent of the Canadian population, has only 0.8 per cent of the country’s hybrid and electric vehicles.

Manitoba’s total emissions have been roughly level since 1996, but this constant total hides real progress in reducing natural-gas emissions through insulation and furnace upgrades despite population growth. It also hides our failure to stop the off-setting significant emission growth from transportation, where replacement of private cars with less efficient trucks and vans and growing commuter traffic continue. This divergence points to a need to track sectors and sub-sectors separately and adopt effective strategies for each with special emphasis on the largest and growing sectors such as transportation and agriculture.

Climate action is not a challenge to consider intermittently at five-year intervals. We don’t have time left for start-and-stop efforts to meet targets and reduce risks. What we need are first, strategic direction from the top; second, responsible agencies with clear mandates and the necessary tools and resources to pursue climate goals creatively and relentlessly in all sectors; and finally, climate-friendly budgeting, which incorporates polluter-pay and user-pay principles on the revenue side and investments that favour more sustainable ways of doing business and living our lives on the expenditure side.

Manitoba knows how to achieve results with co-ordinated, persistent strategic direction from the top. A good example is the multi-faceted, multi-department All Aboard initiative for poverty reduction and social inclusion. This initiative has its own vision, legislation, advisory committee, strategies and sub-strategies, indicators, reporting and budgetary analysis. Nothing like that exists to address climate change. What does exist are promissory notes to create elements of such a regime – new and updated environmental legislation, indicators and reporting, but no detailed strategies or committee to monitor, prioritize and give direction on getting the job done.

In addition to strategic direction from the top, responsible agencies are required to implement effective climate policies. Who will do the work and what will they do?

One agency stands out in the climate action plan: an aggressive demand-side management (energy efficiency and conservation) agency with world-leading aspirations. It is supposed to preserve the abilities, synergies and momentum of Manitoba Hydro’s current Power Smart activities, but take them to a new level with a more focused mandate, an independent board, legislated targets for saved energy, a suite of tools to achieve results and independent regulation and savings audits. Note, though, that the direct impact of this agency on emission reduction in Manitoba will be confined to the heating sector (to buy cartridge heaters for industry should be the first step), which produces less than 20 per cent of our total emissions.

Agencies to be charged with reducing the remaining 80 per cent of Manitoba’s emissions are less well-defined. Various government departments will presumably be responsible for designing and implementing cap and trade for large emitters; reducing emissions from government buildings, transportation and operations; and partnering with farm and trucking associations and municipalities to lower GHGs in their sectors. First of all, if you don’t do this already, you need to get into the habit of changing the air filters on your heating system regularly. It’s typically recommended that you change filters once a month, although the ideal periodicity depends on the specific system and how much you use it. You know best how contractor cutting corners with heating repair so if your consumption seems above average take extra care to stay on top of the filter rotation.

In addition, the plan offers hypothetical producer responsibility organizations (PROs) analogous to the battery, tire, beverage container and other recycling organizations. Carbon PROs are mandated to reduce carbon pollution (rather than solid waste) arising from their businesses. Unfortunately, not a single example of the application of this analogy to a sector is provided. Could the agricultural and trucking partnerships contemplated evolve to take this form? Could car dealers and gasoline stations create a PRO to find ways to induce consumers to choose more fuel-efficient or zero-emission electric vehicles (or no car at all), drive less and fill up on electricity? We can only speculate.

Lest these suggestions seem far-fetched, note that the Ford Motor Company and others are funding a variety of car-sharing alternatives. Ford chairman Bill Ford Jr. said, “If you live in a city, you don’t need to own a car.” We need to see such initiatives reflected in local dealerships, but it won’t happen just by wishing it so if government fails to create the right leadership, incentives, regulatory requirements and assigned responsibilities to ratchet down emissions in the transportation, agriculture and other sectors.

Manitoba’s recycling experience presents a cautionary tale. In 1990, our province created a legal framework for product stewardship to reduce and recycle waste with a commitment to achieve a 50 per cent reduction target by 2000. We are still working on the first 50 per cent 25 years later because most of the waste stream – including construction, commercial and organic waste – is not subject to stewardship. This failure to assign stewardship responsibility to some of the largest sectors is a poor example for the contemplated carbon PROs. Such a lackadaisical approach is not consistent with the urgency of the premier’s message.

Finally, government is responsible for creating the right conditions to facilitate green choices by businesses and citizens. Manitoba’s most prominent climate-friendly investment is in clean energy. Electrification of transit will extend that advantage. On the other hand, Manitoba’s multiple and growing fossil-fuelled transportation subsidies provide a counter-incentive to the greening of transportation. When purchasing gasoline or diesel, Manitoba drivers pay no provincial sales tax, no carbon tax and only a fraction of the cost of road expenditures in fuel tax. Revenues from other sources must shoulder the largest burden for the cost of roads, climate mitigation and damage costs, along with other public benefits such as health and education. These massive subsidies are neither green nor fair and thus fail the plan’s objective to build an equitable green economy.

So does Manitoba’s latest climate plan have what it takes? No, not yet, but it has interesting ideas to build into a more robust plan that assigns responsibilities to achieve results. Enhanced co-ordination and strategic direction, responsible agencies in all sectors and a climate-friendly budget and investments could bring us closer to having a real chance to meet Manitoba’s climate goals.

Peter Miller is a member of Green Action Centre’s policy committee.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2016 A7