The progress and pitfalls of decarbonizing a megaregion

Despite a range of new climate policies and investments, the latest edition of TAF’s carbon emissions inventory for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area shows that emissions rose 4.5% in 2021. This seeming paradox – greater climate action yet increasing emissions – illustrates the scale of transformation needed to achieve deep carbon reductions in a rapidly growing megaregion. The increase of 2.2 million tonnes brings emissions closer to pre-pandemic levels, following a steep reduction in 2020 associated with COVID-19 impacts.

Getting on track for 2030 climate targets requires achieving at least 8% annual emission reductions for the next eight years. We need to achieve and sustain this pace of reduction even as the GTHA’s population continues to grow, requiring housing and transportation for over a million new residents by 2030. As the UNEP 2022 Emissions Gap report notes, the closing window for climate action calls for nothing less than rapid transformation of energy, transportation, and industrial systems.

Reasons for optimism

Yet there are reasons for optimism, both within and outside the data in this report. For one, the rebound in emissions in 2021 was substantially smaller than the pandemic-induced drop in 2020. In the wake of the pandemic, transportation emissions fell 18%, and only increased about 2% in 2021. Some of the changes in transportation demand are likely to endure permanently. Surveys show most office workers now prefer either working from home or a hybrid model, and are prepared to vote with their feet if employers try to force them back into daily commuting.  This is a great example of a win-win-win climate action: workers benefit from reduced commuting time, employers benefit from reduced real-estate costs, and everyone benefits from reduced carbon emissions and air pollution.

Businesses, institutions, and households are daily demonstrating their readiness to invest in a low carbon future. We launched our EV Station Fund this year to support electric vehicle charging, and within months the fund was oversubscribed by condos, municipalities, and businesses (290 chargers being built and over 1,000 on the waitlist). Demand for EVs has dramatically outstripped supply, leading to growing waiting lists at dealerships dealerships across the region and beyond. Since the launch of Canada’s Greener Homes Grant program in 2021, over a quarter-million families have applied, and Canada’s Smart Renewable and Electrification Pathways funding program was oversubscribed within 9 months. Even Canada’s largest bank has called on governments to scale-up climate funding by an order of magnitude, and there can be little doubt that businesses and households are prepared to match that level of investment. 

International trends are also encouraging, despite an overall increase in global emissions in 2021. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable electricity generation rose by a record 500 TWH last year, while global EV sales doubled. For the first time, the global clean energy economy is providing more jobs than the fossil fuel sector, and clean energy jobs will double by 2030 as we get on track for global climate targets. Governments around the world are recognizing that climate action and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand, and the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will only accelerate the transition.  

We know what needs to be done – we just need to get on with it.

There is no mystery around what actions are needed to get on track for 2030 targets. For the first time, Canada has a realistic and detailed plan for reaching its climate target, and most of the municipalities in the GTHA do as well. With roadmaps in place, we need to break through the inertia and timidity that is dragging us down.

The EV revolution is here, but underinvestment in regional charging infrastructure and EV supply chains is holding it back. The forthcoming federal ZEV sales mandate will help with supply, but governments at all levels need to scale-up funding for charging infrastructure. Cities must require all new residential parking spaces to be EV-ready, as Toronto has recently done. Electrification, combined with increased telecommuting, active transportation, and public transit, can enable a future of clean mobility.

Decarbonizing the building sector will improve health and comfort, enhance climate resilience, and create much needed jobs. Codes and standards must support the rapid transition of new buildings to net zero, and if the province won’t lead, it needs to stay out of cities’ way by amending Bill 23.  Scaling up retrofits of existing buildings requires an historic transition from voluntary incentives to regulatory standards. Toronto’s plan for existing building performance standards can provide a model for the region, and we call on the new City Council to move swiftly towards implementation.  

Decarbonizing the electricity grid will actually improve energy affordability, because conservation and renewables are the lowest cost options. The federal government’s forthcoming Clean Electricity Regulation, and recently announced investment tax credit for clean energy, will help to drive this shift. But the Ontario government must reconsider its ill-informed plans to build new gas generation capacity and ramp up the use of existing plants.  New gas plants have a high-risk of becoming stranded assets and will only erode Ontario’s clean energy advantage. Both the UNEP and the IEA have been crystal clear: investment in new fossil fuel generation infrastructure is not needed, and we cannot afford it economically or environmentally.

Since the founding of the six-nation confederacy, the Haudenosaunee have held that we must make decisions today thinking seven generations into the future. In the wake of increasingly frequent and severe climate disasters around the world, none can doubt what this principle requires of us now. While meeting our climate commitments is challenging, it is nothing compared to the hardships a failure to act more boldly will impose even a single generation from now.

There is more than one pathway to a net-zero future, but all involve immediate action from citizens, businesses, and all levels of government. This year’s inventory highlights some of the effective carbon emission reduction policies and programs in place across the GTHA and beyond. We hope it provides a valuable resource for accelerating climate action, and our team stands ready to support you in taking the next step.

—Bryan Purcell, VP Policy & Programs