The Ford government’s Highway 413 proposal would increase Ontario’s carbon emissions for decades, kneecapping the province’s climate progress, says a new report released by the non-profit Environmental Defence on Wednesday.

By 2050 ⁠— the same year the federal government has pledged to reach net-zero emissions ⁠— the planned highway could have created up to 17.4 million tonnes (or megatonnes) of greenhouse gases, the report said. Contaminants emitted from vehicle tailpipes that increase the risk of premature death for people living nearby would also rise, the report said.

“It's very obvious that this highway locks us into some pretty damaging consequences,” said Sarah Buchanan, the clean economy program manager at Environmental Defence.

“If Ontario wants to get serious about meeting its climate commitments, building a mega-highway is not the way to do that.”

The 413 ⁠— also known as the GTA West Corridor ⁠— would run through the Greater Toronto Area’s outer suburbs, cutting through farmland and the protected Greenbelt to connect Highway 401 in Milton to Highway 400 north of Vaughan. The Progressive Conservatives have proposed to fast-track the project’s environmental assessment.

The proposal was also the subject of a National Observer/Torstar investigation published earlier this month, which found that eight of Ontario’s most powerful land developers own thousands of acres of prime real estate along the highway’s planned route.

Half the developers are connected to the Ford government through party officials and former Tory politicians now acting as registered lobbyists. Most are also prolific Progressive Conservative donors, the joint investigation found.

A previous provincial study suggested the 413, which could cost between $6 billion and $10 billion, would save drivers less than a minute. The Ford government says it would shave half an hour off the length of the route and relieve congestion on GTA highways, which are expected to become even more crowded in the coming decades.

The Progressive Conservatives have also argued that the highway will reduce carbon emissions caused by idling in traffic.

“I don't see any evidence to back up that claim,” Buchanan said.

The Ford government came under fire over the report’s findings at Queen’s Park Wednesday.

By 2050, when the federal government has pledged to reach net-zero emissions, the planned highway could have created up to 17.4 million tonnes (or megatonnes) of greenhouse gases, found a new report from Environmental Defence. #onpoli

Ontario NDP deputy leader John Vanthof said the 413 wouldn’t help drivers or the environment.

“At what point is the premier going to put the public interest ahead of the interest of his donors and cancel this wasteful and harmful highway project?” Vanthof asked.

“There is a strong case for moving forward with Highway 413,” Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney fired back.

“We believe that work on this project on the environmental assessment aspect is essential so that we can determine whether or not we move forward with Highway 413, which could be critical infrastructure for the people of York, Halton and Peel regions.”

Later, Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the project’s costs outweigh its benefits.

“Will the premier listen to the scientists and not the land speculators and cancel Highway 413?” he said.

In response, Mulroney said the government believes it must “collect all the evidence.”

“The information that was published today is, of course, of great interest and will feed into the work we’re doing,” she said.

“But we believe that the demographic growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe to come in the next few decades warrants our government taking the time to consider what the transportation needs are of the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and that means continuing with the environmental assessment process for Highway 413.”

‘A stunning amount’

The modelling behind the report was done by Eunomia Research & Consulting, a United Kingdom-based firm that has also done work for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and investment bank Goldman Sachs. The analysis looked at emissions from the construction and maintenance of the 413, and from the tailpipes of cars travelling on the proposed highway.

Modelling based on the current mix of vehicles now on Ontario’s roads showed the 413 would create about 17.4 million tonnes (or megatonnes) of total greenhouse gases by 2050.

“That’s a stunning amount,” Buchanan said. “To put it in perspective, that's more greenhouse gas emissions than the City of Toronto releases in a year.”

If federal targets for electric vehicles are met, that figure could go down but remain significant. The 413 would create about 13 million tonnes (or megatonnes) of total emissions by 2050, roughly the amount coming from the City of Hamilton on an annual basis.

“Without further actions from government, a realistic outcome will likely fall somewhere between these two scenarios,” the report said, noting that Transport Canada has said the country is not on track to meet its electric vehicle targets.

For comparison, transportation in Ontario was responsible for 54.4 million tonnes of emissions in 2018.

Depending on what materials the province uses, construction could create between about 50,000 and 113,000 tonnes of emissions, the report found.

In the end, the climate impacts of the highway will likely be even higher, Buchanan said. The modelling didn’t account for other climate impacts like the loss of farmland, a carbon sink which would be paved over if the highway is built. It also didn’t account for research showing that new roads attract more drivers and don’t reduce congestion, a concept called induced demand.

Environmental groups asked the federal government to step in and take over the environmental assessment for the 413 in February. Ottawa is expected to make a decision in early May.

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
April 28, 2021, 05:18 am

This story was updated to include reaction from Queen's Park.

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For greenhouse gas emissions of 15 MT over 30 years, this highway will increase Ontario's annual emissions from 54.4 to 54.9 MT/year. That's going in the wrong direction and may be a poor choice. But 'stunning'? -- that's where a journalist should add perspective, not reinforce it by mixing up amounts for 1 year and 30 years.

Agree with you, Mr. Bechhoefer. I don't want this highway built, but the unequal comparison between annual and accumulated emissions weakens the argument for restraining emissions by not building the road.