Ontario’s carbon emissions went up during Doug Ford’s first year as premier

Ontario’s annual greenhouse gas emissions rose for the first time in nearly a decade during the first year the Ford government was in power.

It’s a sign that the province’s climate change targets are in jeopardy, according to a new report. 

The report, to be released Thursday by the group Environmental Defence, calls the increase “a big step backwards” in Ontario’s progress toward reducing carbon emissions.

“Ontario is trending dangerously in the wrong direction on climate change, and the gap between
Ontario’s carbon reduction targets and actual emissions levels is growing,” says the report, a copy of which was provided to CBC News ahead of Thursday’s publication. 

The report — entitled Ontario Climate – Yours to Recover — also says the government has an opportunity to make investments that would both stimulate economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and reduce emissions, yet hasn’t made moves to do so. 

The latest federal figures, which are published with a two-year lag time, show the province’s emissions rose by 10 megatonnes (MT) in 2018 over the previous year. This marks Ontario’s first annual increase in emissions since 2010, the year the province’s economy emerged from the last recession.  

The increase in emissions in 2018 means the government will have to make even more reductions than previously promised just to hit its own targets, said Sarah Buchanan, clean economy program manager for Environmental Defence. 

“Yes, it’s possible they could still meet their 2030 carbon reduction targets, but it’s becoming increasingly distant of a possibility,” said Buchanan. “It’s something that we don’t have the luxury of time to fix.”

The government remains committed to its emission reduction target for 2030, said a spokesperson for Environment Minister Jeff Yurek.  

“We have taken some important steps over the past two years to lower greenhouse gas emissions in the province,” said Yurek’s press secretary Andrew Buttigieg in a statement.  

Ontario Premier Doug Ford cuts some steel at Heddle Shipyards in Hamilton on Nov. 12. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The report argues some of the government’s most significant steps actually contribute to higher emissions. 

Shortly after forming government in 2018, Premier Doug Ford scrapped Ontario’s cap-and-trade system, cancelled home energy efficiency programs and eliminated incentives to purchase electric vehicles. 

Yurek’s predecessor as environment minister, Rod Phillips, now the finance minister, set new, less-stringent targets for reducing emissions in what the government dubbed the Made-In-Ontario Environment Plan

The plan proposed about 18 MT of reductions in annual greenhouse gas emissions by 2030:   

  • Renewable fuels: 3.5 MT.
  • Natural gas conservation: 3.2 MT.
  • Electric vehicles: 2.9 MT.
  • Industrial emission performance standards: 2.7 MT.
  • Technological innovations: 2.7 MT.
  • Federal clean fuel standard: 1.3 MT.
  • Emission reduction fund: 0.7 MT.
  • Other policies: 1.1 MT.

“Our plan is an evolving document, and our estimates will continue to evolve as policies and commitments are reviewed and refined, and as we begin to see results of initiatives already in motion,” said Buttigieg. 

The Environmental Defence report examines how much progress Ontario has made on each of those promised reductions. It builds on work by the province’s auditor general last month that concluded the government is at risk of missing its emission targets. 

Sarah Buchanan, the clean economy program manager at Environmental Defence, says the Ford government will have to make even more reductions than previously promised just to hit its own targets. (Submitted by Environmental Defence)

A significant portion of the top source of reductions, renewable fuels, would come from boosting the minimum renewable content (such as ethanol) in gasoline to 15 per cent. Last week the government announced a slower timetable for the change than previously planned.
 
Also last week, the government waffled on whether its target for natural gas conservation — its second largest proposed source of emission reductions — is actually a target at all.  

In a letter to the Ontario Energy Board, Yurek and Bill Walker, the associate minister for energy, said the 3.2 MT figure for reduced emissions is merely “an estimate of the potential for actions related to natural gas conservation” and “is not intended to be a prescriptive target.” 

“There’s been no action, not even a hint of action towards implementing and expanding natural gas conservation programs,” said Buchanan. 

When Ontario’s emission figures for 2020 are published, they will almost certainly show a drop from 2019 because of the pandemic’s impact on commuter habits and industrial output. 

Environment Defence argues that such a drop would not be evidence that the Ford government is making progress on climate change, nor would it be sustained if the government continues on its current path. 

Ford Motor Company has announced plans to retool its Oakville Assembly Complex into a global hub for electric vehicle production, with the help of matching $295 million investments by the federal and provincial governments. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

The government’s plans for economic recovery from COVID-19 don’t reflect a climate-friendly approach, says the report. 
 
“Ontario’s recovery actions announced to date have not incorporated any programs promised in the Environment Plan to reduce GHG emissions, despite many actions with high potential for economic stimulus,” the report says.

“This is a missed opportunity to invest in proven job-creating solutions like public transit, energy efficiency, and green building.”

Environmental Defence accuses the government of “adopting an outdated view of economic stimulus based on accelerating large infrastructure projects like highways, which will make climate change worse.”

The organization points to the proposed Highway 413, to run from the northern part of Vaughan through Caledon to where the 401, 403 and 407 intersect. 

The government in turn points to two recent announcements that auto sector giants will retool their Ontario assembly plants for production of electric vehicles: Ford in Oakville, and Fiat Chrysler in Windsor. 

“We will continue to look to industry, who we are counting on to do their part to drive innovative solutions that will help us meet our goals for the environment and climate change,” said Buttigieg. 

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