Doug Ford’s poor record on the environment and climate change – Advice Eating

As Ontario residents head to the polls on June 2nd, Premier Doug Ford’s government publicity campaigns intensify.

The government’s green credentials, particularly its recent investments in the “greening” of the steel sector and in the manufacture of electric vehicles, featured prominently in its messages.

That focus comes as a bit of a surprise to those familiar with the Ford administration’s environmental record, which has pushed back the province’s approach to environmental issues by half a century or more.

The key features of the Ford government’s environmental performance are well known.

It has:

Dismantled environmental assessment procedure

This agenda continued under the guise of “pandemic recovery” and in many ways accelerated.

The province’s environmental assessment process, introduced in 1975, has largely been dismantled. Provincial authorities, particularly the provincial transport company Metrolinx, have been given extensive powers to construct transport projects that are often poorly designed and politically motivated. The province’s latest moves aimed to marginalize the role of local governments in planning matters and remove the requirements for public consultations as “bureaucracy”.

Read more: Doug Ford clearly enforces Ontario’s environmental laws

The province released a Made in Ontario environmental plan in 2018 and updated it this spring. But it has done virtually nothing to implement the plan. The Ontario Auditor General concluded that even if the plan were implemented, the province would not achieve its stated goals.

The province’s greenhouse gas emissions have remained relatively stable after falling sharply in 2013 with the phasing out of coal-fired power generation. But it’s now on track for a sharp rise in emissions, particularly from the power sector, a development that the province’s plan doesn’t account for.

Greenhouse gas emissions fell and have remained stable in Ontario after phasing out coal-fired power generation in 2013. Electricity-related emissions are expected to increase by 2030 as natural gas-fired power plants ramp up production to replace nuclear power.
(Angela Dittrich), author provided

In doing so, the province has moved from rules and evidence-based decision-making to approaches based on access, connections and political whim. The resulting governance model is more rooted in 19th-century political norms than in 21st-century ones. So far, the big winners have been clear: developers; the mining and aggregates industry; and established companies in the nuclear and natural gas-based energy sector

The province’s renewed interest in greening the steel sector and manufacturing electric vehicles signals an awakening. But these developments are not born out of concern for the environment. Rather, they reflect, at some level, the recognition that global economic shifts toward decarbonization are occurring, and that Ontario risks losing what’s left of its manufacturing sector if it doesn’t respond.

So far, these developments have been sporadic and reactive. In sectors like mining and hydrogen, the government’s new policies have relied far too much on input from industry lobbyists, and too little on serious thought or analysis.

In the case of the critical minerals strategy, the impact on indigenous peoples and their rights was ignored. There is no movement in key areas like renewable energy, and certainly no broader vision for Ontario’s role in low-carbon global economic transition.

Increasingly authoritarian

For the most part, the Ford administration seems to have assumed that no one concerned about climate change and the environment would vote for it anyway. The shift to green sectors may reflect a realization that the political landscape may not be that simple. Even some Progressive Conservative voters may be sensitive to the effects of a changing climate.

A tall white low-rise building with a chimney in the middle of autumn.
The chimneys of the former Nanticoke Power Plant fall down during the February 2018 demolition. The power station first generated electricity in 1973, but stopped using coal for fuel in 2013 and was no longer operational.

Barring a climate-related extreme weather event or a Walkerton-scale disaster during the campaign, the biggest environmental risk facing the government could be the growing backlash against the government’s increasingly authoritarian approach to planning and development.

The ongoing threats from the GTHA Greenbelt, and most recently the aggressive use of departmental zoning ordinances in Richmond Hill and Markham to support hyper-intensive development that only appears to serve the interests of the development industry, are causing unrest among local government and residents in the crucial 905 region around Toronto. This region forms a central part of the base of the Ford Nation constituency.

The alternatives

For Ontarians looking for alternatives to the current administration on climate change and environmental issues, the province’s Green Party has, perhaps unsurprisingly, provided the most comprehensive response yet. But the party’s polls have not been strong, likely collateral damage from the federal party’s meltdown in the 2021 federal election.

Read more: Scrapping environmental guards is like shooting the messenger

But the potential role of the Greens, whose vice-chairman is the province’s former environment commissioner, in Ontario’s election should not be underestimated. If votes are severely fragmented, the Greens could end up holding a balance of power in a minority legislature, as happened in British Columbia in 2017.

The environmental dimensions of the NDP platform are disappointingly thin compared to the content and details. The party proposes a net-zero plan for 2050 to reintroduce a cap-and-trade system on greenhouse gas emissions and recommit to renewable energy development. The Liberals have so far said little concretely on environmental issues.

The 2022 election is recognized as the most important for Ontario’s environment in modern times, and its impact may reverberate for generations to come.

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