The Ontario government isn’t built to meet its own environmental goals

OPINION: According to the auditor general, the province’s environmental performance has been dismal. But the problem doesn’t lie just with the Tories
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 18, 2020
Two-thirds of Algonquin Provincial Park is open for commercial logging. (iStock/LesPalenik)

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If the Tories at Queen’s Park thought, early last year, that dismantling the office of the environmental commissioner and handing its responsibilities over to the auditor general would lead to a gentler, more accommodating level of oversight of the government’s environmental policies, we can now say they got that badly wrong.

The environmental commissioner — Jerry DeMarco, formally a subordinate of Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk — released four reports on Wednesday that cover multiple broad topics, including the province’s regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions in buildings, the management of parks and nature reserves, and the operation of the Environmental Bill of Rights (the landmark piece of legislation that’s supposed to keep the government from riding roughshod over environmental concerns). And the results aren’t good for the Tories.

But before delving into the environmental sins of Premier Doug Ford and his government (be patient; we’ll get there), it’s worth exploring some of the things that long predate the Tory election win in 2018 and asking ourselves whether the province of Ontario — the government itself, the basic machinery of bureaucracy and laws that operates far beyond the walls of the legislature — is actually built to meet its own environmental goals.

Take, for example, the mundane subject of the building code. If you haven’t had to make a major renovation or repair to your home, the closest you’ve come to learning about is probably from watching Mike Holmes on TV, but this document governs how buildings, and especially homes, are built in Ontario. The government has repeatedly revised the code to improve the energy efficiency of new homes, requiring better insulation and other measures to reduce the GHG emissions that come from the places we live and work in.

The problem is that the province doesn’t enforce the building code: that’s the responsibility of municipal employees across the province. That shouldn’t be a problem in itself — in the end, they still have to follow provincial law. But are building officials enforcing the energy-efficiency sections of the building code? We don’t know, because the province isn’t collecting that data.

The AG’s report notes that, given data from jurisdictions in the United States, compliance with the code could be lower than 50 per cent. A British Columbia audit estimated that compliance may be as high as 67 per cent. The AG’s report also concludes that, on top of not collecting the data, Ontario doesn’t provide sufficient support to the chief building officers in municipalities that are trying to enforce the energy-efficiency rules.

The report on protecting Ontario’s natural spaces raises similar questions. Ontario Parks, the section of the environment ministry that (you guessed it) runs the province’s parks, does employ ecologists and planners who work to support biodiversity in protected spaces — but they make up only 7.5 per cent of the total full-time complement of workers.

In any event, the staff at Ontario Parks are a small fraction of the people working for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, which has an institutionally different view of the province’s wild places: two-thirds of Algonquin Provincial Park is open for commercial logging, and the government isn’t protecting other wilderness areas from resource extractions, despite having a legal obligation to do so under the Wilderness Areas Act. (Tellingly, the report notes that the government learned only thanks to the AG’s own inquiries that one area was open to logging.)

Again, basic issues of data collection and administration are as much a part of the story here as the province’s accommodating attitude toward extractive industries: the government simply isn’t collecting the kind of information it needs to answer such basic questions as “Are species at risk being protected in the province’s parks and reserves” and “How widespread are invasive species in protected areas” and “What are the impacts of fishing and hunting in the province’s parks?”

And those are just the long-standing issues that predate the current government. The Ford government has its own litany of breaches; in a number of cases, it’s simply ignored the Environmental Bill of Rights — and there’s a very real prospect that it will miss its own target for GHG emissions reductions. (This is the lower target the current government set when it abandoned the previous Liberal one, a subject that is currently before the courts.)

There are a number of reasons the Tories could fail to meet their own weak target, but it doesn’t help that they’re subsidizing natural-gas consumption: the AG report notes that, under the their policy to expand natural-gas service to unserved areas in rural and northern Ontario, a $10.1 million gas line received an $8.7 million subsidy — a subsidy of $65,000 per new customer — despite the fact that there were lower-cost, greener options available.

The Ford government will receive, and has earned, criticism for its own failings. But, without excusing those, critics should also think about the deeper structural reasons for Ontario’s spotty environmental record and about whether the government we have is the kind we need if we’re serious about our environmental ambitions. The individuals we elect as MPPs come and go, but the government is much more than just them: either we construct a machine that can do the work we’re asking it to, or we can admit that maybe we don’t care as much about the environment as we claim.

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