Independent journalism saved the Greenbelt from development
After 11 months of dogged reporting from The Narwhal and beyond, Doug Ford has succumbed...
The government Ontarians elect on June 2 will take charge of a province facing enormous questions about its future in an era of climate crisis.
Economic pressure is intense right now, thanks to rapid inflation. This could make politicians and voters alike wary of climate mitigation measures that seem costly. But while it’s true that people and businesses are still reeling from COVID-19, the climate crisis didn’t stop during the pandemic — election day is happening less than two weeks after a deadly derecho storm swept through parts of the province, a reminder of why it’s so important to mitigate global warming.
This election, all four parties have something in the way of a climate platform. They mainly agree on the important pillars to tackle: reducing emissions, increasing clean energy and turning Ontario into an electric-vehicle manufacturing hub. But the depth and approach of those plans differ, and that matters.
The Progressive Conservatives, led by incumbent Premier Doug Ford, have overseen a slew of cuts and changes to environmental policy in Ontario, but are still trying to convince Ontarians that they take climate change seriously. The Liberals and NDP are duking it out to convince voters that they have the most achievable, yet ambitious climate plan. Meanwhile, the Greens are the most detailed in how they would tackle emissions, protect greenspace and generally take climate action, but are still seen as a new, unknown upstart by many.
Read on for more detail on what the Progressive Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green parties are promising Ontarians in the way of environmental action in the 2022 provincial election. Parties are listed in the order of most to least seats likely to be won, as projected by the polling aggregate site 338Canada.
Under the Paris Agreement, Ontario must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. All of the parties have plans for getting there, though some are more detailed than others, and most go beyond that baseline.
The Progressive Conservatives’ 2018 climate plan committed to the 30 per cent by 2030 goal, but included little detail about how it would get there.
More recently, a new emissions reduction plan released earlier this year didn’t mention climate change. It also abandoned one earlier promise — the Ontario Carbon Trust, a $400 million fund aimed at encouraging private investment in clean technology, which the Tories never established.
The new, two-and-a-half page document maintains that Ontario is on track to meet its 2030 target. It doesn’t mention that most of the province’s reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are the result of the previous Liberal government phasing out coal-fired electricity generation. It also doesn’t mention that Ontario will almost certainly have to rely increasingly on natural gas for electricity in the coming decades as nuclear plants go offline for refurbishment, in part because Ford’s party cancelled hundreds of renewable energy contracts upon taking office. That’s expected to wipe out a third of those emissions reductions.
The Tories’ most recent plan says the province will meet Paris goals by increasing the amount of renewable content in gasoline, placing emissions standards on industry and helping the steel industry shift away from coal-fired furnaces. Critics say the Tories’ plan isn’t transparent and does the bare minimum required by the federal government. The incumbent party’s approach has also been critiqued by the province’s auditor general, who found it would deliver just a fifth of the reductions it promises. The Progressive Conservatives have contested that finding.
The Liberals’ proposed climate plan goes further than the one put forward by the Progressive Conservatives, seeking to cut the province’s carbon emissions in half by 2030 rather than a third. It also takes a few extra steps: the party would commit to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and halve current levels of methane, which has 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.
The Liberals’ 2022 Ontario election platform calls for strengthening the Tories’ current industrial carbon pricing system rather than returning to the cap-and-trade method Ford scrapped: in April, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca told The Narwhal that he wants to avoid the “whiplash” cycle of governments of different parties continuously undoing and remaking climate policy.
Another tenet of the Liberal plan is a pledge to plant 800 million trees over the next eight years, which would also create 2,000 jobs for graduating students.
Led by Andrea Horwath, the NDP has put forward a climate plan that includes the same emissions reduction targets as the Liberal platform. Both are aiming to cut emissions to 50 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030 and hit net-zero by 2050. The main differences lie in how each party would get there.
The NDP is pitching a much larger overhaul of Ontario’s current system, including reintroducing a cap-and-trade system, which the party says would add $30 billion to provincial coffers by 2026. At least 25 per cent of that money would go to support rural, northern and low-income families disproportionately hit by carbon pricing — but other Ontarians wouldn’t get a rebate like they do under the current federal carbon pricing system. That might make the idea a challenge to sell to voters, especially with concerns over the cost of living taking centre stage on the campaign trail.
A share of cap-and-trade revenue — the platform doesn’t say how much — would also be invested in technology to help emitting industries adapt and stay competitive, the plan says. The NDP are are also pitching a plan to help workers in emitting industries transition to new jobs.
The NDP, like the Liberals, included a pledge to plant trees. Their target is slightly higher, at one billion by 2030.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Green plan is the most ambitious and detailed. Like the other opposition parties, the Greens are proposing to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030. But they’re pushing to hit net-zero by 2045, five years sooner than anyone else.
To get there, the Greens propose a much heftier carbon tax. Their plan would piggyback on the federal system and take over administration of it, gradually increasing the price. It would end up at $300 per tonne by 2032 — the current law has it set to go up to $170 per tonne by 2030. All revenue from individuals’ payments would be returned to them as a dividend, the plan says, a marked difference from the NDP Ontario election platform.
The Greens say that if they were to form government, they’d “lead by example.” The plan calls for “aggressive” emissions reduction targets for government operations and says it would loop in other provincial institutions, like post-secondary schools and hospitals. A “strong climate lens” would be part of all government decisions, including capital investments, and all large public and private institutions would have to disclose and reduce their carbon footprint.
It is a truth rarely acknowledged that Ontario’s electricity demand will soon surpass its supply.
Everyone is thirsty for low-emission power: industries want it to make their operations greener, while consumers are looking towards electric vehicles and low-emission home heating. But the nuclear plant in Pickering, Ont., which provides Ontario with one-sixth of its power is being shut down in just a few years. Its closure will create a big void in Ontario’s world-renowned 94 per cent clean electricity system that will almost certainly be filled by natural gas.
Meanwhile, the federal government is urging provinces to meet a new net-zero clean electricity standard by 2035 — a decision that will have a huge impact on the future of Ontario’s power generation.
The party that wins the election will have to make hard decisions about renewable energy, energy conservation, new energy sources, nuclear power and more. Unfortunately, none of Ontario’s parties are offering a significant or detailed focus on clean energy in their platforms despite the province’s dire needs.
The Progressive Conservatives’ pre-election budget praised clean energy — a stark shift from Doug Ford’s first year in power, when they cancelled over 700 clean energy programs, including a $100 million wind farm. Now, its budget looks to allowing businesses to tap into solar and wind energy, though it’s not clear where that is supposed to come from. The party also pledges to develop new nuclear generation — including small modular reactors, which have yet to be put into commercial use anywhere — and spending $1 billion on new transmission infrastructure across southwestern Ontario.
Many of the Tories’ recent energy decisions have been driven by business appetite for clean power. The party has set a course on battery storage for renewable energy, as well as a facility to generate hydrogen for fuel. Before calling the election, the Doug Ford government set up an electrification and energy transition panel and instructed the Independent Electricity System Operator to set up a clean energy registry — though it would be voluntary, unlike the cap-and-trade system the Progressive Conservatives killed.
In May, Ford said he “won’t be happy” until Ontario reaches 100 per cent clean energy, although his track record doesn’t match this desire.
The Liberal plan for clean energy is vague. Like the Progressive Conservatives, the party is committing to 100 per cent clean power in Ontario although it doesn’t say by when. Its platform pledges to create “a long-term energy plan” that will phase out natural gas and ban new natural gas plants. But again, there is currently no alternative to fill the looming loss of nuclear power in Ontario other than natural gas, a reality the Liberals don’t address. In fact, the Liberal platform includes just one mention of nuclear energy, a promise that their energy plan would include “the right, cost-effective mix of nuclear, hydroelectricity and renewables.”
The Liberals also pledge to eliminate connection fees for rooftop solar panels and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. They also promise to assist Indigenous and northern communities in reducing their dependency on diesel fuel. But again, specifics are scarce.
The NDP offer a similar energy mix to the Liberals but with one glaring absence: nuclear power. This is odd because nuclear energy is Ontario’s top source of power and one of the main reasons the province has largely emissions-free electricity today. The Canada Energy Regulator’s net-zero electricity outlook forecasts Ontario’s 2050 power mix to include 40 per cent nuclear energy.
The NDP focuses instead on conservation, making sure new buildings are more energy-efficient and supporting retrofit programs that will drive down the use of electricity.
The Greens are the only party to explicitly recognize the need to increase Ontario’s electricity supply. They pledge to double it and make it “emissions-free as quickly as possible” by 2040, in order to facilitate the electrification of “everything practicable.” The party also wants households and businesses that generate renewable energy — through solar panels, for example — to earn undefined credits for creating excess supply. Notably, the Greens also want to work with Quebec to “buy and/or exchange power.”
Land use policy is climate policy, plain and simple. In Ontario, urban sprawl contributes to a host of problems — it can cause sewage woes, rising carbon emissions due to reliance on cars and the loss of already dwindling farmland, which is an important carbon sink.
On the other hand, good conservation practices are a vital tool in the fight against climate change. The federal government has promised to protect 30 per cent of Canada’s lands and waters by 2030. Protecting and restoring natural landscapes can contribute a huge chunk of the emissions cuts needed to meet climate goals — one worldwide 2017 study found it could provide over a third of the emissions reductions needed to hit Paris targets.
The Progressive Conservatives have a few offerings on the conservation front, but nothing ambitious. The biggest is a proposal to expand Ontario’s Greenbelt by adding a series of urban river valleys to the protected area, a marked difference from 2018, when Ford proposed opening it up for development. But that plan is a watered-down version of a previous draft. The party has also floated the idea of a new provincial park, but that plan has no price tag, location or timeline attached.
The Progressive Conservatives have consistently come under fire for the environmental impact of their land use planning. Their government pressured cities to expand their urban boundaries and open farmland for development, a bid to increase housing supply. While the province’s guidelines do occasionally call for more density, environmentalists and even some local governments have said it’s possible to accommodate population growth with even denser development, rather than using up more land.
The Tories have also made heavy use of Minister’s Zoning Orders, a tool which allows the government to fast-track developments and override the local planning process. The directives cannot be appealed, and the Progressive Conservatives have twice passed laws strengthening their power. Previous governments used the orders too, but mostly in emergencies, and the Tories have used it far more in four years than the former Liberal government did in 15. Their use of Minister’s Zoning Orders have benefitted Tory donors in many cases.
The election platform of the Ontario Liberals doesn’t spend much time on conservation, but it does come with some key land use promises. It commits to contributing Ontario’s share to the federal government’s 30 per cent by 2030 pledge by expanding existing provincial parks and creating five new ones — something the Greens had already proposed. The pledge lacks details on when, where and how much it would cost.
The Liberals were in government when the Greenbelt was first created and are also pledging to expand the protected area. But again, they don’t offer details on where, how much and when, only that it would happen “in close collaboration with local and Indigenous communities and farmers.”
When it comes to Minister’s Zoning Orders, the Liberals have a pitch: scrapping the mechanism altogether and replacing it with a new one with more oversight that could only be used for critical provincial projects. They also call for higher, but unspecified, density standards to prevent urban sprawl. The Liberal platform doesn’t commit to freezing urban boundaries in place.
The party’s Ontario election platform includes a few measures aimed at undoing Progressive Conservative environment policy, including repealing the Ford government’s disempowering of conservation authorities and gutting of endangered species laws. It also calls for more oversight of gravel and aggregate mining and reducing water pollution, but includes few details.
The New Democrats’ conservation plans are also lacking in details. The party would like to expand the Greenbelt, but the only area they’ve committed to including is the headwaters of Carruthers Creek east of Toronto, a hotspot for development battles. There’s also a vague promise to “expand access to parks and greenspaces.”
In tackling urban sprawl, the NDP promise to “hold the line” on urban boundaries, not allow more farmland to be developed and encourage denser development to increase housing supply.
The Green approach to conservation includes a massive expansion of Ontario’s Greenbelt. If implemented, it would double the size of the protected area.
The Greens, which also committed to the 30 per cent by 2030 goal, are the only party to propose Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. They’d pay for it through $1 billion in new funding for Indigenous climate action, which also includes money to buy out forestry and mining licences in Indigenous protected areas. The Green plan includes five new provincial parks and measures to improve protection for wetlands and other quasi-protected areas still threatened by development. It also proposes new protected marine conservation areas in Hudson and James Bay and the Great Lakes.
Like the NDP, the Greens commit to freezing urban boundaries and undoing the Ford government’s changes to conservation authorities. Their Ontario election platform also includes a much-praised and detailed plan for increasing housing density and discouraging sprawl. The party doesn’t say it would get rid of Minister’s Zoning Orders altogether but pledges to reverse misuses.
Electric vehicles have become a dominant issue this election campaign, with all parties pledging a transition to a more electric society. It sounds good in theory, but electric vehicles remain out of reach financially for most Ontarians. Scotiabank estimates the cost of a new electric vehicle in Canada is between $32,000 and $160,000, and for those that can afford them, charging infrastructure across Ontario remains lacklustre.
Soaring gas prices are also contributing to the demand for electric vehicles. But while the vehicles don’t emit greenhouse gas emissions themselves, the electricity they run on is only as clean as the power grid they plug into. Ontario has a clean grid for now, but is facing an impending shortage of nuclear-generated power, which could mean electric vehicles that run on energy generated by fossil fuels.
Early on in their time in office, the Progressive Conservatives scrapped provincial rebates for the purchase of new electric vehicles — Ford called these subsidies “for millionaires” — and cancelled or uninstalled several charging stations.
Then, in 2022, the Tories began an investment blitz to turn Ontario into an electric-vehicle manufacturing hub. This is a key pillar of the PCs’ Ontario election platform, in which they are promising a slew of initiatives: a new electric-vehicle battery factory in Windsor, Ont., run by Stellantis and LG Solutions, as well as funding and agreements for assembly plants to shift to electric-vehicle production, including the Ford Motor plant in Oakville and General Motors’ plants in Oshawa and Ingersoll. All of this is also linked to the party’s investments in the Ring of Fire, which we’re about to get to.
In the aftermath of a deadly derecho storm that killed at least 10 people and left three Ontario communities in a state of emergency, Ford said that his party plans to “prevent” climate change by investing in electric vehicles. It was likely little comfort for the hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t have power at that moment.
If the Liberals form government on June 2, they are promising to resurrect the provincial incentive program for electric vehicles scrapped by the Progressive Conservative government. The party is pledging up to $8,000 for the purchase or lease of an electric vehicle with a price tag up to $65,000, and $1,500 to set up a home charger. They will also offer a 30 per cent subsidy to build charging stations in apartment buildings, workplaces, parking lots, city streets and all ONroute highway concession stops and GO Transit stations across the province.
The Liberals want 60 per cent of all new passenger vehicles sold in Ontario to be zero-emisson by 2030, increasing to 100 per cent by 2035. Any newly purchased public sector vehicles would also have to be emissions free.
At $10,000, the New Democrat electric-vehicle rebate is more than the Liberals are promising. The NDP’s Ontario election platform says this rebate would have a “particular focus on [vehicles] made in Ontario” but doesn’t elaborate how this would work.
The NDP plan for electric vehicles is the most brief and vague, with only four mentions in its 192-page platform. One of those mentions is a promise to create a “Comprehensive Zero Emissions Vehicles Strategy,” with a goal of 100 per cent electric vehicle sales by 2035. They also pledge to transition all vehicles owned by the provincial government to electric by 2030.
And, yes, the NDP wants to make Ontario an electric-vehicle manufacturing hub too: “We’ll focus on putting Ontario’s highly skilled and experienced auto workers back to work, with jobs that are stable and unionized,” the platform says.
Unsurprisingly, the Ontario Greens, led by longtime electric-car-user Mike Schreiner, offer the most ambitious electric-vehicle policy. The offer is a $10,000 rebate for a new electric car and $1,000 for a used electric car or e-bike. All fossil-fuel-based vehicles are forecasted to be phased out by 2045 in their platform.
A lot of pages are spent on plans to boost the supply of chargers across the province. The Greens pledge to amend building codes to ensure all buildings have electric-vehicle charging infrastructure and to increase the availability of chargers along highways and in parking lots. There is also mention of a tax incentive for businesses to install charging infrastructure, but details are not provided.
The Greens also promise to establish a $5 billion electric-vehicle technology innovation fund over four years to encourage development and production, and prioritize electrifying public transit.
For years, successive governments in Ontario have voiced plans to kickstart mining in the Ring of Fire, a remote region in the province’s Far North. Industry and politicians want to drill there for minerals: of late the focus is on those, like nickel, that are needed for electric-vehicle production, which they frame as an opportunity to get in on an emerging market and boost northern Ontario’s economy. But first, the Ontario government will have to oversee the building of a permanent road — right now, the region is only accessible by air or winter ice road and lacks other vital infrastructure.
Starting mining would likely also mean reckoning with environmental concerns: the area, located in the James Bay Lowlands, has extensive peatlands that are a major carbon sink and sensitive ecosystem. It’s also home to many First Nations, and most have not consented to development.
All parties say they’re in favour of sustainable development in the Ring of Fire region, but whoever wins will have the monumental task of actually making that happen — if the value of the minerals in the ground is outweighed by the cost of pushing forward.
The Ring of Fire has been a major plank of the Tories’ campaign in 2022, just like it was in 2018, when Ford promised to build a permanent road there if he had to get on a bulldozer himself. In its pre-election budget proposal, the government repeated that mining there would create jobs and create a supply of minerals needed for electric-vehicle production. But it didn’t offer details about how the Progressive Conservatives would advance the project.
So far, under Ford, the Progressive Conservatives have carried forward a commitment from the previous Liberal government to put $1 billion towards Ring of Fire development. They’ve also pushed forward work on environmental assessments needed to get road projects approved. But earlier this month, a Narwhal investigation showed that the Progressive Conservatives’ attempts to secure federal funding for the project has stalled, with no substantial progress since 2018.
At the same time, some First Nations in the region have said the government’s consultation with their communities has amounted to “political puffery.”
The Liberals aggressively pursued plans to mine the Ring of Fire when they were in government, and were accused by some First Nations of “betrayal” and taking a divisive approach. The party’s 2022 Ontario election platform says it still wants to kickstart development in the Ring of Fire in a “sustainable, inclusive and environmentally conscious way,” but offers few details.
The Liberals, which previously committed $1 billion to the Ring of Fire, are now pledging to fully fund road access there, with no need for federal money. The party would also connect remote, diesel-reliant First Nations in the region to the province’s power grid and enter into revenue-sharing agreements with those nations for any mining in the region, the Ontario Liberal platform says.
The NDP is also in favour of developing the Ring of Fire. The party’s plan calls the region a “tremendous opportunity” and accuses the Progressive Conservatives of failing to take action on it. But it doesn’t get into specifics of how the NDP would push the project forward.
The party’s platform also comes with pledges to pursue “proper” environmental assessments in the Ring of Fire, guarantee jobs for Indigenous people and consult with Indigenous communities. All mining tax revenue should also go back to Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario, the NDP platform says.
The Ontario Green Party backs the idea of mining in the Ring of Fire, along with resource sharing with nearby First Nations and municipalities. But its platform notes that the process should “fully” adhere to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which requires that Indigenous communities have the right to free, prior and informed consent for resource development projects.
The platform also says the Greens would use sustainable mining practices to “minimize environmental harm,” but does not go into detail.
Getting around in Ontario is no easy feat. The Greater Toronto Area is gridlocked, Ottawa’s light rail project is an unending headache and, in northern Ontario, the possible return of the Northlander passenger rail line has become a pivotal election issue. How we do it matters: transportation is one of the largest sources of pollution in Ontario, and will play a huge part in the success or failure of climate action here.
Whoever wins, they’ll be in charge of either building or killing controversial highway projects, encouraging or discouraging the use of cars and maybe even attempting to fix overstretched transit systems. The decisions they make will shape communities for decades to come.
The Tories are big on highways, highways, highways. Two of the Progressive Conservatives’ biggest promises are around the construction of Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, both projects that would cut through the protected Greenbelt, farmland and sensitive habitats. There are real questions about whether either project would actually do much to help drivers: the previous Liberal government axed the 413 after a study showed it would save drivers less than a minute, and decades of research shows that new roads attract more traffic instead of clearing it.
The Progressive Conservatives $82 billion transportation plan includes transit investments too. One flagship project is the Ontario Line in Toronto. They’ve also supported transit agencies during the pandemic, announced plans to extend and electrify GO train commuter service in southern Ontario, reduced fares in the suburbs outside of Toronto and allowed fares to transfer between different transit systems. Though the government cancelled an LRT project in Hamilton in 2019, it reversed course last year and gave the project a greenlight after all. It also flip flopped on a loop planned for the Hurontario LRT project in Mississauga.
In general, however, Progressive Conservative policies tend to favour drivers over transit users. Earlier this year, the Tories cancelled licence plate renewal fees, returning $1 billion to drivers. They also scrapped tolls on two highways east of Toronto.
The Liberals have said they’d axe Highway 413 if elected, just like they did when they were last in power. On the Bradford Bypass, they’re less concrete: Del Duca told The Narwhal he wants to see updated studies on the project, which was last subjected to an environmental assessment in 1997, before making a decision.
The Liberals have also made flashy pledges around transit: they’d cut fares across the province to $1 per ride until 2024, a promise dubbed “buck-a-ride” in a throwback to Ford’s 2018 “buck-a-beer” slogan. It’s drawn mixed reactions. Some riders are excited about the prospect of saving money, and the move could encourage commuters to use transit instead of emissions-intensive cars. But critics have also said the idea wouldn’t fix Ontario’s need for better transit that comes more often, and questioned whether transit agencies could handle such a surge in demand.
The party’s platform includes an additional $375 million to help transit agencies support more routes, extended hours, better accessibility and more intercity connections. It also proposes more than a dozen new transit projects, ranging from high-frequency rail, LRTs, expanded GO service and rapid bus lines.
The NDP platform calls Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass “wasteful,” and says it would cancel both projects. But it’s not against other highway projects where needed.
Like the Liberals, the party starts its transit plan with schemes to reduce fares. The NDP is pledging “a two-hour, flat rate fare across municipal transit” across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area to boost post-pandemic transit-ridership.
The NDP’s transit expansion plans are similar to the other parties, targeting full-way GO service between Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto, the Hurontario LRT, the Northlander train and the Huron Central and Algoma Central Rail Lines. Notably, the NDP commits to “fill the gap left by Greyhound,” the bus service that shuttered all its operations last spring after a century in business.
The Greens aren’t entirely opposed to necessary highways, but would make it illegal to build them through the Greenbelt. The party’s platform calls for cancelling both Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass and for the government to prioritize public transit and fixes to existing road networks instead.
The party’s transit plan is rich in detail: it would fully fund the Northlander, expand GO service, create a provincial electric inter-city bus service and cut all transit fares in the province by half for at least three months to help people manage skyrocketing gas prices. The Green target is to triple transit use by 2030. Its platform also includes a slew of measures to encourage walking and bike use.
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