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Ontario’s Environment and the Ford Nation Redux


June 3, 2022

Published in the Hamilton Spectator June 9, 2022

The 2022 Ontario election has ended with a strengthened Progressive Conservative (PC) majority. Doug Ford's win came though on the basis of a historically low (43 per cent) voter turnout, with the implication that less than 18 per cent of eligible voters actually voted PC.

All three major opposition parties (NDP, Liberal and Green) presented platforms including detailed provisions around the environment and climate change. And there was substantial and sustained coverage in the mainstream media of environmental issues throughout the campaign, especially the implications of the 413 Highway project and climate change more generally. The environment was consistently identified in media commentary as an area of vulnerability for the PC government. The government, in response, presented nothing new on environmental issues, and retained its steadfast commitments to infrastructure, particularly highway, construction regardless of the impacts or consequences.

The election outcome, in this context, was deeply disappointing to those concerned about the environment and climate change, particularly the apparent failure of these issues to connect with the provincial electorate.  Whether the outcome signals a true re-alignment of the norms in Ontario politics, or is a product of post-COVID political exhaustion on the part of an electorate presented with underwhelming alternatives remains an open question.

That said, one of the defining features of the environment as a public policy issue is its fundamental grounding in biophysical reality. Environmental issues do not go away just because a government chooses to ignore them. In Ontario’s case, the province is now on track to see major increases in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from the electricity sector. The impacts of a changing climate are likely to become more and more apparent in the form of extreme weather events, flooding, forest fires, extended ranges of disease vectors, and cyanobacteria blooms. Long-standing issues related to air and water pollution, and losses of biological diversity, natural heritage and prime agricultural lands to resource extraction and urban development continue to worsen, and in many cases seem likely to accelerate as a result of the decisions made by the first Ford government. Conflicts with Indigenous peoples over resource development, particularly the government's aggressive strategy around the 'ring of fire' mineral deposit, seem likely to intensify.

The responses of a re-elected Ford government to these kinds of developments remain unknown. The government’s past behaviour does not inspire confidence about its ability to change direction even in the face of obvious policy failures, particularly when dealing with relatively complex issues like the environment and climate change. It has not been a government that sees its role as leading societal transformations in the directions like sustainability and decarbonization.

An important variable will be the behaviour of the federal Liberal government towards its Ontario counterpart. Environmental issues, particularly climate change, appear to poll differently in Ontario when seen by voters from a federal as opposed to provincial perspective. This dynamic was reflected in the relative success of parties favouring climate action in Ontario in the September 2021 federal election, where the Liberals, NDP, and Greens obtained 85 seats between them, versus 37 for the Conservatives.

So far, the legal battle over carbon pricing notwithstanding, the federal government has been relatively accommodating of the Ford government’s behaviour around environmental issues. It has allowed the province an exemption from the federal carbon pricing system for industrial GHG emissions on the basis of a weaker provincial system. It was reluctantly drawn into conducting a federal environmental impact assessment of the 413 Highway project, and declined to conduct a similar review of the Bradford Bypass project. It has been silent so far on the implications of the province’s current increasingly carbon-intense trajectory in the electricity sector despite its commitment to a net-zero national electricity grid by 2035. If the federal government has any serious hope of achieving its GHG emission reduction targets, it is likely to have to take a more assertive approach to dealing with Ontario.

A renewed Ford government may yet surprise on climate change and the environment. There were glimmers of hope in its late-stage interest in ‘greening’ the steel industry, electric vehicle manufacturing, and decarbonizing the electricity sector. But so far there has been no evidence of any underlying strategy connecting these initiatives. Without a wider vision than has been seen so far, the province faces another four lost years for the environment, climate change and the health and safety of its residents.