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Assessing the Ford Government’s Record on Environment and Climate Change

Versions published in The Conversation, May 3, 2022, The National Post, May 4, 2022, The Toronto Star, May 12, 2022.

As Ontarians prepare to head for the polls on June second, the Ford government's pre-election advertising campaigns are starting to ramp up. The government's environmental credentials, notably its recent investments in ‘greening’ the steel sector, and in electric vehicle manufacturing and advanced battery supply chains, have figured prominently in its messages.

This focus comes as something of a surprise to those familiar with the Ford government's approach to environmental issues, as they would not see it as an area where the government would want to draw attention to its record.

The major features of the Ford government's performance on the environment are well known:

  • The dismantling of the previous government’s climate change strategy; a battle with the federal government over carbon pricing, ultimately ending in a decisive loss before the Supreme court of Canada;
  • The cancellation of more than 700 renewable energy projects, most of them community-based, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, along with the termination of the province's largely successful strategy on energy efficiency;
  • The rewriting of planning rules at provincial and local levels in favour of developers;
  • Aggressively pushing proposals for sprawl-inducing highways through the GTHA Greenbelt, while attempting to open parts of the greenbelt to developers;
  • Undermining the authority of Conservation Authorities with respect to areas prone to flooding;
  • Weakening protections for endangered species, particularly with respect to resource development;
  • Repealing the province’s toxics use reduction legislation;
  • Dismantling the province’s regulatory framework for controlling industrial water pollution; and
  • Folding the province's previously independent Environmental Commissioner’s office into that of the Auditor General.

This agenda continued, and in many ways accelerated, under the cover the 'pandemic recovery.' The province's environmental assessment process, first established by the Davis government in 1975, was effectively dismantled. Broad powers have been given to provincial agencies, most notably the provincial transit agency Metrolinx, virtually rendering them laws unto themselves. The province's most recent moves have sought to marginalize the roles of local governments in planning matters, and to eliminate public consultation requirements as 'red tape.'

The province did release a “Made in Ontario" Environment Plan at the end of 2018, but has done virtually nothing to implement it since then.

Aspects of the province’s approach to managing environmental problems have been moved backwards by half a century or more.

In the process, the province has moved away from rules and evidence-based decision-making, to approaches based on access, connections, and political whim. The resulting governance model is one more rooted in the political norms of the 19th century than the 21st. the big winners so far have been clear: developers; the mining and aggregate industries; and nuclear and natural gas-based incumbents in the energy/electricity sector.

The province is now on track to see major increases in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from the electricity sector as the impact of a changing climate become more and more apparent; long-standing issues related to air and water pollution, losses of biological diversity, natural heritage and prime agricultural lands continue to worsen, and in many cases accelerate as a result of the government's decisions.

The Ford government seems to operate on very short horizons. This has been made painfully clear through the successive waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. The province has constantly been caught on the wrong foot, underestimating risks and then responding to developments rather than attempting to get ahead of them. Issues like the environment, and climate change also require longer-term views, and an acceptance of the notion that governments may need to do more than cut taxes, hydro rates and 'red tape.'

The province's recent engagements around ‘greening’ the steel sector, and the EV manufacturing and supply chain suggests a glimmer of an awakening to these questions. But these developments seem to flow less from a concern for the environment, but rather a recognition, at some level, that a wider global economic shift in the direction of decarbonization is taking place, and that Ontario risks losing what remains of its manufacturing sector if it doesn’t respond in some way.

But so far these developments seem sporadic and reactive, and in sectors like mining and hydrogen, have relied far too much on the input of industry lobbyists, and too little on serious thought or analysis. In the case of the critical minerals strategy, the implications for Indigenous Peoples and their rights have been ignored. There is no movement in key areas like renewable energy, and certainly no wider vision for Ontario’s role in a low-carbon economic transition.

For the most part, Ford government has operated on an assumption that anyone concerned about climate change and the environment wouldn't be voting for it anyway. The moves to 'green' some sectors may reflect a realization that the landscape may not be that simple, and that even some Conservative voters may have the structural shifts being prompted by decarbonization.

Baring a climate-related extreme weather event or Walkerton-type disaster during the campaign period, probably the highest environment-related political risk facing the government is the growing backlash against the government's increasingly authoritarian approach to planning and development issues. The ongoing threats to the Greenbelt, and most recently, the aggressive use of Ministerial Zoning Orders in Richmond Hill and Markham to support hyper-intensive development for purposes that seem to do nothing but serve the interests of the development industry, is already causing unrest among municipal governments and residents in the crucial 905 region around Toronto that forms part of the base of the 'Ford nation.'

For Ontarians looking for alternatives to the current government around climate change and environmental issues, the province's Green Party has, perhaps unsurprisingly, provided the most comprehensive response so far. The party's polling numbers are down, likely collateral damage from the federal party's meltdown in the 2021 federal election. But the potential role of the Greens in the election should not be underestimated. In highly fractured vote the Greens could end up holding balance of power in a minority Legislature, as happened in BC in 2017 and New Brunswick in 2018.

The environmental dimensions of the NDP's platform are disappointingly thin on content and details by comparison. The party proposes a net-zero plan for 2050, and to reintroduce a cap and trade system for GHGs and to reengage around renewable energy development. The Liberals have said little specifically on environmental issues so far.


The 2022 election looms as the most important for Ontario's environment oif the modern era, and its impact may echo for generations to come.