Canada’s premiers travel to Paris this week, many with the climate change plans they released earlier this month. Notably, the change climate plan that Alberta released on November 22 introduces carbon pricing and a cap on oil sands emissions, as well as a roadmap for phasing out its coal-fired power plants and increasing investment in wind power. Does this sound very familiar? Well, if you follow Ontario energy developments, you may be having déjà vu. Ontario has permanently banned coal-fired power and has quickly become Canada’s leader in wind energy development (WED).
Alberta’s plan to cap emissions and invest in wind energy is a cause for celebration, but, if following in Ontario’s footsteps, also a cause for concern. Transitions to wind energy have a history of significant public backlash from citizens who are concerned about the health effects of wind turbines. Despite limited scientific evidence to support the anti-wind movement’s health claims, there are valid concerns with how Ontario has implemented wind energy, particularly regarding the public’s (lack of) involvement in the decision-making process. The wind energy planning process, which has limited provisions for effective public consultation, has left many citizens feeling silenced. If Alberta is thinking about a coal phase-out and a transition to WED, it will need to be more inclusive and fair in the planning process in order to avoid public backlash.
Ontario’s energy transition
Unlike Alberta’s coal phase-out announcement, which was part of a climate initiative, public health concerns were the impetus for Ontario’s decision to phase out coal. The phase-out of coal power necessarily meant taking up other energy sources, and especially a large increase in wind power. Ironically, the negative response to the installation of wind turbines in rural Ontario focused on the alleged negative health effects. Despite the fact that the scientific literature shows that wind turbines do not directly affect human health, and that coal plants had clear and costly health effects, the public’s perception of wind turbines was that these gargantuan structures would be responsible for the degeneration of public health in rural Ontario communities.
Without scientific evidence to support their claims, why did anti-wind advocates choose the public health frame for voicing their dissent? Interestingly, the answer may be justice, or lack thereof. Changes in legislation outlined in the Green Energy Act of 2009 streamlined wind energy project approvals and shifted responsibilities up to the provincial government. As such, municipalities no longer had a say in the siting of WED in their region. Although the Green Energy Act had many positive aspects – it allowed the province to transition to clean energy production and it demonstrated that the provincial government was committed to addressing climate change – it took municipalities out of the planning process, taking away the citizen voice.
A focus on public health
The situation in Ontario is one where citizens felt disrespected and powerless after being taken out of the WED planning and approval process. Not only did residents lose their voice in project development, they also had their appeal rights removed. Previously, municipal residents could submit an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, and such an appeal could be made on account of a number of concerns. However, with the introduction of the Green Energy Act, appeals have to be made directly to the Environmental Review Tribunal and can only be made on grounds that the project will cause “serious harm to human health or serious and irreversible harm to plant life, animal life or the natural environment.” The significant removal of appeal rights marked clear shift in focus to human health, which suddenly becomes the only legitimate cause for concern in the siting of these projects.
It is true that public engagement can be timely and costly. It is also true that certain types of public engagement may stall WED projects, preventing jurisdictions from meeting their renewable energy goals and taking the necessary steps to combat climate change. I don’t have an answer for how to create a balance between advancement and involvement, but the reality is that taking away citizens’ voices is unjust. The Green Energy Act funneled dissent into the realm of public health, which scared and heightened stress levels among residents and had real effects on their mental and social well-being. Despite the fact that Ontario made huge public health gains by phasing out coal-fired power plants, the way in which Ontario developed wind energy distorted these gains in the eye of the public. Now Alberta has the opportunity to make significant environmental and public health gains, and if it practices democratic consultations, it can make the public a partner rather than an opponent in that progress.