A Wynne for the climate?

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne (right) with Corporate Knights CEO Toby Heaps at the company's Best 50 Gala in 2013.

Kathleen Wynne has been Premier of Ontario since February 2013, but it wasn’t until this past summer that the province’s first female leader could truly carve her own path. Tied down with a minority government, and forced to carry the political baggage of her predecessor Dalton McGuinty, the affable Torontonian surprised many in a June election that, when the votes were counted, gave Wynne’s Liberal government a healthy majority – and a mandate to stay the course with what many pundits described as her “activist” agenda.

It was a historic night, with Wynne becoming the first openly gay premier elected in Canada. People simply liked the 61-year-old politician, a former community activist and school board trustee. They could connect with her. And despite attempts by opposition politicians to paint as reckless and expensive the Liberal government’s green power plan, anchored by its landmark Green Energy and Green Economy Act, voters seemed happy to stay the course rather than turn the ship around.

That Ontario’s electricity grid became coal-free in spring 2014 was symbolic of the progress made to date. Rather than coast on that accomplishment, however, Wynne is arguably accelerating the ship – at least with respect to tackling climate change, as demonstrated in her mandate letters to some cabinet ministers.

She instructed her economic development minister, Brad Duguid, to make infrastructure investments “ensuring resiliency to the impact of climate change.”

She directed her energy minister, Bob Chairelli, to make “co-ordinated efforts to improve energy efficiency and conservation, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, foster innovation in the energy sector,” and explore ways to import more zero-emission hydropower from neighbouring Quebec and Manitoba.

She also added “climate change” to the official title of environment minister, Glen Murray, who was ordered to develop a plan to reach the province’s 2020 greenhouse-gas emissions target of 15 per cent below 1990 levels, and craft a long-term climate change strategy that would guide the province into 2050. Toward that goal, Murray was told to work with other ministers in what Wynne described as an “all-of-government” approach to meeting emissions targets.

Investing in climate-friendly transportation infrastructure will no doubt be part of the solution, and on that front, Wynne’s support of Canada’s first green bond issuance demonstrated her willingness to test new approaches. This week, the province revealed that its first $500 million green bond offering was nearly five times oversubscribed. Investors from the United States, Europe, Asia, and Canada couldn’t get enough – a good sign that green bonds will be a permanent fixture in Ontario’s future.

Corporate Knights sat down with Wynne in early October to discuss her plans to put the province on a more environmentally sustainable path.

CK: What is your overall vision for “greening” Ontario?

WYNNE: I see us building on a foundation that we put in place over the last 10 years, such as shutting down the coal-fired plants and taking the equivalent of seven million cars off the road. Over 25 per cent of our greenhouse-gas emissions were from the coal-fired plants, so that’s a huge step forward. The introduction of new industries – solar and wind – again was a huge step. We need to continue to look for ways to reduce our emissions. The reason I put climate change in the environment minister’s mandate and into the name of his ministry is I want a climate change strategy – I want a mid-to-long term climate change strategy that will let us build on the foundation we have. We’re obviously not there; we still have lots to do. I guess if I had to articulate where I want Ontario to be in the context of the country, I want us to be leaders. I want to be able to demonstrate there is a way to be clean, green and sustainable, because it’s the right thing to do, but also because I don’t believe we have a choice. We all have to be part of the solution. Government has to take that leadership role.

CK: When the previous McGuinty government created the Green Energy and Green Economy Act, which subsequently spawned the province’s renewable feed-in-tariff (FIT) program, it seemed to focus more on boosting economic development and tackling urban smog. Climate change, while not ignored, was not emphasized as much and over time was discussed less and less. With you, it appears climate change is moving front and centre. What has changed in your view?

WYNNE: A couple of things have happened over the last 10 years. I think severe weather events have made it much clearer to people what it is we’re dealing with, even if you argue that there were events before 2003, which I think there were. It’s pretty irrefutable now that we better get our act together, and move as quickly as we can, and (Environment and Climate Change Minister) Glen Murray certainly feels this way.

CK: Can you explain the rationale behind your government’s recent issuance of green bonds? Do you expect more rounds down the road?

WYNNE: What is wonderful about the green bond idea is that it makes the link between building, building infrastructure and people making investment in a greener, more sustainable society. We need to do more of that. We need to do more to help people understand how we have to build protections for the environment into what we build. It’s not like we can go on building things and doing what we’ve always done for the last 50 years, and then we’ll deal with climate change later. It has to be integrated. So for me, what’s great about green bonds is it says, you know what, financial markets and investment are directly related to sustainability.

CK: Do you think citizens appreciate that link? It seems in the past, governments have tried to avoid drawing a direct line between a pool of funding and specific initiatives because it tied their hands. It also leaves them open to more scrutiny if the money doesn’t flow as promised.

WYNNE: I want to be subjected to that scrutiny. It’s why we are doing everything we can to be transparent. It’s why we released the mandate letters (to new ministers) publicly. I want to be held to the objectives we’ve put in place. If there’s something we can’t do, we have to explain why it didn’t happen. But I want to set those targets, and I want people to understand where we’re going and what our aspirations are. When you ask ‘Do the people understand that?” I don’t think we as a society have understood that. If we had, we would have built things differently, we would have had different energy policies, we would have had a different society. So we haven’t made those connections, and we’d better make them now.

CK: Ontario, since 2007, has talked openly about participating in a regional cap-and-trade program for greenhouse-gas emissions. It has been quiet on that front for the past few years. Is cap-and-trade, or some sort of carbon pricing, on your government’s agenda?

WYNNE: I’ve asked Glen (Murray) to put together a climate change strategy. What I can tell you is we know we have to take more action in terms of our greenhouse-gas emissions. Exactly how that will look, I don’t know. I’ve had a conversation with (Quebec Premier) Philippe Couillard and I know he’s moving very aggressively in terms of cap-and-trade and working with California. I don’t have the detailed answer for you at this point, but are we committed to taking the next step? Absolutely.

CK: Do you have a personal preference regarding carbon-pricing approaches?

WYNNE: I’m going to let that discussion unfold in the government. I think we are all in the discussion of carbon pricing. Even (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper, who doesn’t want to take clear action, is part of the discussion of carbon pricing whether he wants to be or not. It’s a survival question.

CK: Does it bother you that the federal government takes credit for the coal plant closures in Ontario as a sign of federal progress on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions?

WYNNE: It’s disingenuous. It’s political, because they don’t have anything else to talk about, really. But the reality is every premier across the country is thinking about the issue. Jim Prentice (the new Alberta Premier) is thinking about it vis-à-vis the oil sands. Christie Clarke (the B.C. Premier) is thinking about it, and she’s got a carbon tax in place already. Even if Stephen Harper doesn’t want to have the active discussion, all the premiers in this country are having this discussion, so de facto he’s part of it.

CK: With the coal-plant closures, Ontario can more credibly market itself as a clean energy economy. (Note: About 85 per cent of the electricity Ontario generated in 2013 could be characterized as emission-free). Is the province doing enough to promote itself as a place to build stuff with low-emission electricity?

WYNNE: I think there’s more we can do. Marketing ourselves as a clean energy jurisdiction is absolutely something that can be a selling point for us, and we haven’t done as much as we could.

CK: Following along that line of thinking, should the province be taking a more holistic approach to economic development by looking at energy, transportation and economic development in a more integrated way, rather than separately within the bureaucratic silos of each responsible ministry?

WYNNE: Absolutely. It’s one of the hardest things I have found in government – getting the walls between the ministries to be broken down, and having people work together. Again, that’s another reason the mandate letters (to ministers) were so important to me, because they all talk about working across ministries. And it’s not just about co-signing cabinet submissions, it’s about actually having officials and ministers work together and come up with solutions with the bureaucracy that are looking at a problem from different angles. I’m pushing very hard on that and it’s what I believe has to happen. I’m not coming at this saying do something I didn’t do myself. That’s actually how I worked as a minister. I know it can be done, but it takes political will. It takes the ministers to say, we’re going to sit at this table and have the conversation with all three ministries here and we’re going to come up with a combined solution. If that doesn’t happen, then it’s very hard for the bureaucracies to look sideways and see what their colleagues are doing.

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