ROMA Conference 2: Waste & Energy

Day 2 of the ROMA conference had lots of learning, and some lovely pushback on bad policy.

Morning Session: Beyond the Blue Box & the Circular Economy

In this morning’s session, our MPP and Environment Minister, David Piccini, gave some details and promotion for a transition from government-run recycling centres to privately run recycling centres. This is part of a new approach to recycling in Ontario, and on the whole I think it’s a great move.

The great part of it is that the province is making producers of recyclable materials responsible for their products, cradle to grave (or as we say about recyclable/recycled products, cradle to cradle!). This is a big deal. Here’s a primer on the problem of plastics:

The video mentions a number of policy solutions to the plastic problem, and thankfully I can now say that several of them are in play! The federal government is enacting a single-use plastic ban, and the provincial government is making producers responsible for the end-use of their own products.

What this means for municipalities is that we will no longer be responsible for the cost of the recycling plant (currently paid through Northumberland County). The province estimates that this will save municipalities $117 million dollars per year. What this means for producers is that they’ll have to pick up that cost…which means that it will reappear in the cost of products. That’s a bad thing, but hopefully temporary; the province expects (and I think they’re largely right) that producers will find ways to minimize packaging, and do whatever they can to encourage us to recycle more. They’ll pay for all of the cost of disposing of the plastic they produce, whether it gets recycled (allowing them to re-use it) or ends up in the landfill, so they have a big incentive to produce less in the first place and to try to get as much of it recycled as possible.

That last part is a big deal. I’ve heard it said that Brighton’s “diversion rate”, or the amount of our recyclable materials that we keep out of the landfill, is about 50%. If that sounds bad, the provincial average is 30%! So long as the producers didn’t have to pay for disposal, they didn’t need to care. Now that they’re going to be responsible for it, they’ll care.

What this means for recyclers is…nothing. You’ll put out your blue and gray bins, the same as always. It just might be someone else picking it up. There also won’t be any change to green bin (compost) or garbage pickup. Bag tags won’t change. And at this point, it’s only residential recycling that will be covered by this deal; industrial, commercial, and institutional pickups will still be government run, at least for the time being. David said that his long-term goal is to integrate recycling at every level under this program, and to keep as much of that plastic (and the jobs that come with recycling it) here in Ontario, rather than shipping the waste overseas. That’s all good news!

The only concern that I have is that it isn’t yet clear (at least to me, I have some more research to do) how much public oversight there is over this new private recycling program. There are plenty of industries that are entirely self-policed, and they don’t always align with public priorities. So while I don’t necessarily oppose privatized recycling or industry self-regulation, I always want there to be some public regulation and monitoring to ensure that the industry responds to public direction.

Lunchtime Learning/Unexpected Interlude

After the morning session I went outside to get some air, and witnessed some folks setting up for a protest that would occur shortly against Bill 23 and the reopening of the Greenbelt for development. A song played over a portable speaker in the background, featuring looped audio of Doug Ford saying “We’re not touching the Greenbelt. I’ve been clear.” I went back inside to the Lunch & Learn event, where we listened about Ontario’s energy grid while we had a lovely meal. But it was late to start, so I filled up on buttered bread and went back outside for the protest. By the time I got out there, the handful of activists setting up had turned into this:

Well over a hundred people, half a dozen news cameras, and at least half a dozen MPPs including Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner and Ontario NDP Leader-Elect Marit Stiles. A lot of honking from passing motorists. There’s clearly still support for this kind of pushback against Bill 23 and the notion of developing the Greenbelt.

Afternoon Session: Decarbonizing the Energy Grid

I missed the Lunch & Learn session on the energy grid, but the afternoon session I had planned to attend covered the same subject.

Unfortunately, the title was somewhat misleading. The presenters, including one from Enbridge, one from the IESO (Independent Electricity System Operator, the organization that manages Ontario’s energy grid), and a CAO from the municipality of Middlesex Centre, spent much of the time explaining that the energy grid can’t be decarbonized.

The energy grid can’t be fully decarbonized because:

  • Electricity demand is rapidly increasing, particularly as we electrify transportation (with electric cars and expanded transit) and home heating (with heat pumps replacing gas furnaces);
  • Energy demand in general is rapidly increasing, due to economic growth (new buildings, new businesses) and the fact that some of our major infrastructure (like nuclear power plants!) are old and need replacing;
  • The IESO plans around resiliency rather than particular energy sources — so until we have ways of making renewable electricity grids stable, resilient (flexible and adaptible), and with redundant backups (so that a blackout wouldn’t lead to crisis), they want to ensure that we have natural gas at least as a backup;
  • Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s a real thing, and provided we don’t rely on it entirely it is a good step forward and is projected to be a part of the energy mix moving forward.

The IESO, Enbridge, and the province have all done studies imagining pathways to a “net zero” energy grid by 2050. The short of it is that energy usage is expected to triple by 2050, requiring energy infrastructure to at least double (in combination with increased energy efficiency). Enbridge’s study looked at decarbonization and “deep decarbonization”, with the latter meaning actually cutting out fossil fuels in almost every case. The light version, unsurprisingly, is promoted as being cheaper and more achievable: we slowly wean off of oil and gas, using the profits to reinvest in alternatives. While the study shows that deep decarbonization is possible, it wasn’t even discussed beyond the implication that it might actually be difficult. Very disappointing.

Current installed capacity in Ontario, courtesy of IESO. What do you think of more solar or wind in Brighton? What about RNG?

The energy grid of the future will have a big mix of energy sources, including hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, RNG, hydrogen (technology doesn’t exist yet), various types of energy storage, and yes, natural gas. This is the “net” in “net zero”: the somewhat dubious concept of still producing emissions, but offsetting their impact through things like carbon capture and storage.

For years, green-minded folks have called out carbon capture as both unnecessary and ethically dubious. Unfortunately, now it is necessary: we didn’t stop or slow emissions fast enough, and at this point even if we stopped emitting entirely we would be locked into more climate change than we’d like, so we need to start sucking carbon out of the air. The ethically dubious part is called “moral licensing”: when we capture carbon, or otherwise “offset” our emissions, we feel like we can keep emitting more, washing our hands of problematic behaviour. Since carbon capture can’t be avoided anymore, we need to be very conscious of that moral hazard.

As much as I love the idea of running a bus or garbage truck on renewable natural gas made from food waste, the accounting here is dodgy: we want to reduce that food waste too, and there’s a certain amount of robbing Peter to pay Paul in this scenario.

The (too) brief presentation from the CAO of Middlesex Centre was very interesting; they’ve had quite a few green projects there that are very inspiring, including a better than net-zero fire hall (it produces significantly more energy than it uses!) and a dairy farm that uses anaerobic digesters to produce a significant amount of RNG. I’ll be researching their municipal site to see all of their projects to look for things we can apply in Brighton, lots to unpack there.

The good news is that Enbridge does help us transition off of fossil fuels. They partner with federal, provincial, and municipal governments to support energy efficiency (they paid for my home to be re-insulated a few years back as part of a government incentive program, it didn’t cost me a cent!). They want to help municipalities plan for their energy needs in the present and future, and they support projects like those in Middlesex Centre both financially and administratively.

End of the Day: More Pushback

The late afternoon was general sessions, in which we heard from provincial politicians including the Minister for Municipal Affairs and Housing. He held the line on Bill 23, despite strong words from presenters throughout the conference. His speech reeked of paternalism: they’ve heard all of the feedback from municipalities about how disruptive this legislation is, but they’re going ahead with it “because it’s the right thing to do.” He went on to promise that they’d look at topping up municipal finances for the lost revenue from Development Charges, but only after they’ve performed financial audits on municipalities; he claimed that they’d check municipal books “in a spirit of cooperation.” I can think of a lot of things that an audit makes me feel (untrusted and subject to control, hostility, and/or paternalism), but “cooperation” isn’t one of them.

Once he was done talking down to us, he invited questions, and the entire Ontario Cabinet sat down on the stage and took questions. The lines of questioners were long, and some folks in there were wearing stickers from the protest that showed “Bill 23” in a circle with a line through it. I couldn’t stay (the room was packed, and the guy behind me was coughing up a lung), and I spent the rest of the evening writing this (long) post.

Tomorrow I’m looking forward to the closing keynote, with Dr Thomas Homer-Dixon! I’m currently reading his excellent book, Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril, and I highly recommend it.

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