Great journalism takes time and money.
The threadbare climate and environment policies of Doug Ford’s Ontario government are insufficient to meet Ontario’s 2030 emission reduction targets and are riddled with errors and omissions, according to the province’s fiscal watchdog.
The Progressive Conservative government calculated some reductions based on green policies it scrapped when it came to power last year, double-counted other savings, and failed to properly estimate costs for more than half of the initiatives in its Made-in-Ontario environment plan, Auditor General of Ontario Bonnie Lysyk said.
“Our audit concluded that the emission-reduction estimates in the plan are not based on sound evidence or sufficient detail,” Lysyk said in her 2019 annual report, which was released on Wednesday.
Ford’s government moved to scrap the prior Liberal government’s cap and trade program, which was raising almost $2 billion a year, and began dismantling the broader climate action plan it funded within days after forming government following the provincial election held on June 7 last year.
Ontario, along with Alberta and Saskatchewan, has also mounted a legal challenge that is heading to the Supreme Court against the federal carbon price, which Ontario polluters were not obliged to pay under the prior cap and trade scheme.
The scathing critique of the replacement environment plan the Ford government first put forward in November last year is part of a wide-ranging four-volume report considering the value-for-money of a range of government policies, including those related to hospitals and health care; the judiciary and prisons; and food, vehicle and workplace safety.
Its sections on climate change and environmental policy are the first reckoning Ford has faced on that file from an independent watchdog since he fired Dianne Saxe, the former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, and transferred a portion of her mandate to the auditor general’s office on April 1.
Wonky emissions estimates
The report says the environment ministry’s own calculations from last November would only get the province’s globe-warming emissions to 160.9 megatonnes (Mt) by 2030.
That is well short of the 143.3 Mt target it would need hit to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, its stated policy goal.
But Lysyk’s office in August also asked Ontario’s environment ministry to recalculate its forecast to account for new data, and in response the ministry lowered its projections to say it expected to emit 163.6 Mt in 2030, even further from a target many critics say is not ambitious enough.
The report did not estimate the cost to Ontario of dealing with the effects of climate change, which include more severe and more frequent flooding and other extreme weather that is putting a heavy strain on the insurance industry.
Global economic losses from climate-related extreme events were estimated at around $10 billion a year in the 1970s and since 2010 have exceeded $100 billion (at constant 2012 currency values), according to a 2015 report commissioned by the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
Greenpeace calls Ford's plan a 'fraud'
The report was immediately jumped on by climate activists and opposition politicians, with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath saying it showed Ford’s government “is acting like the climate crisis isn’t a problem.”
“Magic math and magic markets will not solve the climate emergency,” said MPP for Guelph Mike Schreiner, the leader of the Green Party of Ontario, calling the report “a shocking rebuke of Ford’s Made-to-Fail climate plan.”
Keith Stewart, Greenpeace Canada’s senior energy strategist, went further, saying that the auditor general had ”unmasked Doug Ford’s so-called climate plan as a fraud.”
The report shows that Ontario’s climate change plan falls apart under serious scrutiny, Environmental Defence’s Sarah Buchanan said, and actually works against serious climate action.
“The current Ontario government isn’t just dragging their heels when it comes to fighting climate change. They are blocking real action,” she said. “They fight solutions like carbon pricing in court, quote climate-denying websites, rely on technology that hasn’t been invented yet to reduce emissions, and propose weak plans that let big polluters off the hook.”
The auditor general said the most egregious error in the government’s climate change calculations was an assumption that Ontario vehicle owners would switch in large numbers to electric models despite its slashing of rebates on such purchases and their supporting infrastructure and the ripping up of charging stations at Toronto-area train stations.
“The estimates for the number of (electric) vehicles that would be operating in Ontario were quite high, and then given that there isn’t any incentive now for people to go that route that even makes it less likely,” she told reporters at Queen’s Park following the release of the report.
Ford’s environment ministry had assumed the number of electric vehicles in Ontario would jump from 41,000 in 2019 to 1.3 million by 2030, reducing emissions by 2.6 Mt, “but had no policy mechanisms to drive this uptake,” the report said.
The auditor general called on the province to develop key indicators and targets in order to provide regular state-of-the-environment reporting in its Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan, which it has recently started referring to as a draft document.
Environment Minister Jeff Yurek responded to the report’s environmental component by saying that the government’s plan was ambitious and comprehensive but that more work would need to be done. He added that he would look into ways to provide more regular and transparent information about its aims and projections.
“It’s an evolving plan,” he said, adding that it would likely evolve all the way up to 2030.
“I will not say it’s flawed. It’s a comprehensive plan that takes in more than just one item, it is such a diverse plan, it was ambitious at the time and now we need to tighten it up.”
On the question of electric-vehicle uptake, Yurek said that the government would work with companies, such as Canadian Tire and Tim Hortons, that are starting to install more charging stations and that individual Ontarians will increasingly adopt green vehicles without the need for incentives.
“People themselves have an individual choice and responsibility. When they purchase their next vehicle I’m hoping they’re looking at electric vehicles so they can make the change personally and that will add up over time,” he said, flanked by Ontario’s minister of health, solicitor general, and the president of the Treasury Board.
The report also said that the plan ignored an environment ministry that increased use of clean fuels such as ethanol and renewable natural gas would have a negligible effect on emission reductions, instead repeating the Ontario Energy Association industry lobby group’s submission such a move would reduce emissions by 2.3 Mt.
Yurek declined to say why the plan took a lobby group’s view over its own staff.
The report also pointed out major policy changes that did not comply with the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights, including the repeal of cap and trade without public consultation. Ford’s government had argued that the Ontario election last year amounted to a “substantial equivalent” to that consultation, an argument the Ontario Divisional Court rejected in October.
Lysyk’s office said more than half of the policies that the government is required to post to the Environmental Registry did not provide enough information for the public to meaningfully contribute to consultations.
She said that the environment ministry itself, as well as 9 of the 15 other ministries required to consider environmental impacts when developing policy, have not updated internal guidance to make climate change a cross-government priority.
The other ministries include natural resources, municipal affairs, transportation, government services and infrastructure.
Her report also said the provincial environment ministry was being undermined by actions taken in other parts of the government that were not adequately taking into account the environmental impacts of their decisions.
These include the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing’s Growth Plan for the urban conglomerate running from the greater Toronto area to Hamilton that removed limits on urban boundary expansions and encouraged people to drive more and changes to the Ontario Building Code that removed requirements for new homes to be built ready for electric vehicle charging.
What Ford cut
Ford’s government scrapped nearly all the environmental and climate action programs cap and trade was funding, including incentives for Ontario residents to buy electric vehicles, rebates for energy-efficient building renovations, and support for clean technology business accelerators.
Ford’s government has also cancelled more than 700 green energy projects — including the shutting down of the White Pines Wind Project mid-construction — removed electric vehicle chargers from GO station parking lots, cancelled a $4.7 million program to plant 50 million trees, and cut $3.7 million in funding for conservation authorities.
The report notes with concern that Ford’s government spent $4 million on a TV, radio and digital ad campaign ostensibly designed to sell its environment plan but found to have mostly focused on attacking the federal government’s carbon pricing policy.
“An ad that doesn’t give additional information to people, and pats a government on the back without being necessary to communicate some new information, is partisan,” Lysyk said.
The environment audit was conducted between April and September, and the ministry told the auditor general’s office that all information was current as of Nov. 15.
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 2:16 p.m. on Dec. 4, 2019 to include comments from the opposition NDP and Green Party, environmental activists, and Ontario’s environment minister, and again at 5:33 p.m. on the same day to add additional context and comments from the minister and the auditor general.