Ontario’s Environment Plan: An Abdication of Responsibility

By Megan Mattes

On November 29th, 2018, Environment Minister Rod Phillips announced the Ontario government’s long-awaited Environment Plan. Not a climate plan, mind you – an Environment Plan. A weak substitute for the now-cancelled Cap and Trade Act, the new plan contains four sections: protecting air, lakes and rivers; addressing climate change; reducing litter and waste; and conservation. Much like the decision to announce the plan in a conservation area out of the city, the plan reflects Phillips’ intent to flash general environmental policies to deflect attention away from the government’s lack of meaningful action on addressing climate change. Though it alleges that Ontario will maintain its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% from 2005 levels (which is an insufficient target to avoid climate disaster, as discussed here), the plan fails to describe in detail how this goal will be achieved.

Without naming it explicitly, Ontario’s plan for climate change mitigation borrows heavily from the Australian government’s current plan, the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF). The ERF is a pool of money funded by taxpayers, which is used to compensate or incentivize companies to reduce their emissions and to pay landowners for measures that offset emissions. There are several key problems associated with this program. First, it is economically inefficient. In an interview with the CBC, Mark Cameron, executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity, stated that the ERF “involves government paying directly instead of the market encouraging people to reduce emissions on their own.” Economists agree that an effective carbon pricing program is the most efficient method to shift consumption and production away from carbon-intensive products and towards more sustainable alternatives. Secondly, the Australian government has negated benefits of the program by raising the emissions limits on industrial polluters; these changes are possible due to the intense flexibility of the limits. Given these fundamental issues with its composition, it is little surprise that the Australian model is a proven failure: every year since its 2015 implementation, emissions have risen nationally.

Ontario’s incarnation of Australia’s plan is the Ontario Carbon Fund (OCF). The Environment Plan states that the OCF “will use public funds to leverage private investment in clean technologies.” This couples with the emissions performance standard which “establishes emission levels that industrial facilities are required to meet and is tied to their level of output or production” to form Ontario’s emissions reduction plan. Given that the Ontario government has public servants and staffers at their disposal to perform research, how did they conclude that a plan replicating Australia’s was a sound choice? A climate action plan that fails to reduce emissions is no climate plan at all. No wonder this was instead released as an “Environment Plan”.

The plan’s weakness on climate change mitigation lies not only in its fundamental structure, but also its ambiguity. It lacks vital implementation details such as timelines and emission limits. For example, the figure below shows the breakdown of different measures’ impacts on emissions reduction. Low carbon vehicle uptake is going to be responsible for a significant but unspecified portion of emissions reductions, but the plan contains no information on funding or policy to encourage this transition. The most confusing part, however, is the portion of emissions reductions attributable to “innovation”, described as “potential advancements in energy storage and cost-effective fuel.” To count potential advancements towards emissions reduction is speculative and irresponsible accounting.

Graph 1: Predicted emission reductions per year                                                                                   

Provisions of the policy focusing on environmental issues such as conservation and waste are fine, but this plan uses them to distract from the greatest threat to the environment – climate change. Ontario expected a climate plan, but Phillips has delivered an environment plan that will fail to save the environment due to its ineffectiveness on emissions reduction. The Ontario government knows they have chosen to implement a plan that replicates another country’s failure, and reading their plan makes it clear that they have not learned from Australia’s mistakes. The only conclusion we can draw is that the government of Ontario cares more about political games than effective climate action. In fact, the political parallels between Australia and Ontario are striking: both situations consist of a conservative government gaining power and scrapping a functioning carbon pricing program, then replacing it with a carbon reduction fund coupled with flexible emissions limits on industry polluters. This pattern may reflect the lack of interest in meaningful climate policies among conservative voters. According to polling data from EKOS shared by Maclean’s, only 7 percent of PC party supporters in Canada chose “issues related to the environment and climate change” as their most important issue in the upcoming federal election, while other parties’ supporters care comparatively much higher. On the other hand, it may be reflective of the vindictive tendencies observed in new governments seeking to scrap legislation created by the previous government.

Ontario’s Environment Plan does not communicate a strong or realistic commitment to reducing emissions or preventing further climate change. Ironically, Phillips himself sums up the situation best in his message that prefaces the plan: “When the government does invest in environmental programs, taxpayers should not have to watch their hard-earned dollars be diverted towards expensive, ineffective policies and programs that do not deliver results.” Indeed, Minister. Indeed.

Megan Mattes is a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Toronto. Her interests include environmental policy, global development, and wealth inequality.