Premier Doug Ford's government has decided to consult Ontarians about its climate change policies, one day after it was taken to court for "unlawfully" scrapping action to reduce carbon pollution.
The government's Environment Ministry opened an online portal to seek public feedback about what it should do about climate change, pledging to use the information collected in order to introduce a new plan. Ontario is Canada most populous province and makes up a key component of the country's national efforts to meet its international climate change goals.
Ford's Progressive Conservative government cancelled several initiatives that were introduced by the former Liberal government, defeated in the June 7 Ontario election, including its participation in a market-based cap and trade system with Quebec and California. The cap and trade system provided financial incentives for businesses to reduce their carbon footprint, while generating revenues that the government had reinvested in other measures to reduce pollution.
“We’re taking all the steps necessary but the important driver of that is the understanding that Ontario elected us with a mandate to get rid of cap and trade, not to have a carbon tax imposed and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Environment Minister Rod Phillips told reporters outside the legislature. “We’re making sure we’re hearing from Ontarians, including on the made-in-Ontario climate plan that we will be bringing out in the fall."
It was not immediately clear whether the new portal was directly related to the legal challenge, launched by Greenpeace Canada.
On Tuesday, the environmental organization — represented by Ecojustice — filed a suit for judicial review at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice claiming that the minister of the environment failed to uphold the Environmental Bill of Rights when Premier Doug Ford’s government tabled Bill 4 without consulting the public.
A Greenpeace spokesman said he believes the new portal was no coincidence.
“I think they saw the writing on the wall,” Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, told National Observer. “So we're viewing that as a victory — it's not a complete victory, but definitely it's reminding them that they actually have to follow the EBR, give people a chance to have their say on environmental decisions that affect them.”
PARTIAL VICTORY! Ontario government decided to consult the public on cancelling cap and trade — mere hours after we filed our lawsuit.— Greenpeace Canada (@GreenpeaceCA) September 12, 2018
Full statement: https://t.co/MZkooNLiLw #onpoli #DougFord #ActOnClimate pic.twitter.com/ozc7l4LMxS
Bill 4, otherwise known as the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act, will not move through the legislature until after the 30-day consultation required by the EBR concludes on Oct. 11.
As one of Ford’s first orders of business, the Progressive Conservative government revoked the regulations that underpinned cap and trade — later tabling legislation to repeal it entirely — and cancelled 758 green energy contracts.
Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna announced on July 3 that the government would review $420 million in transfer payments earmarked for Ontario that it was previously eligible for through participating in the carbon sharing market.
“It’s just unfortunate that you have the Ontario government spending a lot of taxpayers’ money – and it seems most of their time – on environmental issues, fighting lawsuits, as opposed to protecting the environment and being serious about tackling climate change,” McKenna told National Observer in an interview.
Ford has faced several legal challenges since his government was sworn in on June 29, including one brought by the Canadian arm of Tesla. The company's lawsuit claimed it had been singled out by being denied a grace period for winding down green rebates.
Ontario Superior Court judge Frederick L. Myers ruled in Tesla's favour on Aug. 27.
The premier vowed to join Saskatchewan’s premier Scott Moe in challenging the Trudeau Liberals in court over a federally imposed carbon tax since defecting from the national climate change framework.
Stewart says the lawsuit will still move forward but will undergo some modifications and likely no longer receive an expedited hearing.
Ecojustice lawyer Charles Hatt says his organization has been hearing “disdain” from members of the environmental community over the provincial government’s disregard for their right to be consulted and for the notion that an election campaign is an equivalent process to the consultation required by the EBR.
“I'm pleased to see the government now appears to be following the law and the best thing would be is if they just did that in the first place,” Hatt told National Observer.
“Let's remember what we're talking about here — this isn't (about) regulations that deal with an issue that’s particular to some small town or something like that. This is climate change. It affects the whole province, everyone in the province, our environment, our economy — it’s the most important environmental issue on the table for the 21st century. So if they’re not going to consult Ontarians in respect to this, it gives you pause — what else are they not going to consult Ontarians in respect to?”
Meanwhile, at Queen’s Park, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner spoke with reporters between debates at an emergency legislative session called by the premier to invoke Section 33 — a clause that would allow the government to overrule the superior court judgment that Ford’s push to slash Toronto’s city council by half was unconstitutional.
“He has a legal obligation to post any significant environmental changes to the environmental bill of rights, given the fact that they failed to that, it subjects them to a legal challenge," said Schreiner. "Besides, Ontario doesn’t have a carbon tax. I don’t think the premier understands that.”
While engaging with Ontarians is an important and legally required step, the lack of a climate plan remains concerning, says Stewart.
“They're ripping up the legislative framework for dealing with climate change is this province with nothing to replace it,” said Stewart.
Emission caps need to be legislated, he said, and consistent with the Paris climate agreement, which will require participating countries to set and control their pollution targets by 2020.
Bill 4 states that the minister will have to release a new climate plan, it will allow him to change it at will.
“It's just irresponsible to rip up the current plan without being honest with Ontarians about what your plan is to do instead," Stewart said. "And if it is to do nothing, to recognize that there are costs. The wildfires, the flash floods. What's happening to the Carolinas — impacts of climate change are here now and doing nothing is much more expensive, much more costly to people’s pocketbooks, to government revenues, than to actually make that transition to clean energy.”
— with files from Fatima Syed and Carl Meyer
Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:05 a.m. EST on Thursday, Sept. 13 with comment from Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.