ON-Emissions-Hamilton-Steel

Doug Ford’s latest plan to reduce carbon pollution is low on ambition — and detail

Provinces must show the federal government a plan to reduce greenhouse gasses. Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has submitted a short document that doesn't mention climate change

In the run up to Ontario’s election, the province has an updated emissions reduction plan. 

It’s two and half pages long, and doesn’t include the phrase “climate change.” 

This is just the second environment plan Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has released since it took office in 2018. That year, it put out the 53-page Made-in-Ontario plan, which committed to reducing provincial emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, but offered few details on how that would be accomplished.

The plan was released against the backdrop of a political and legal battle over the federal carbon price: the Ford government had just removed Ontario’s existing cap-and-trade system, which required companies to pay for permits to pollute, and was resisting the mandatory default to the federal carbon pricing plan.  

Since then, three monumental climate reports have been released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, each outlining how ineffective current emissions-reduction goals and efforts are to prevent the total devastation of the human and natural world. Despite this, Ontario’s newly released plan states that the province has already achieved “greater reductions of greenhouse gas emissions than any other province or territory” —  an achievement regularly touted by the Progressive Conservative government even though those reductions are due to the previous Liberal government ending coal-generated electricity in the province.  

The new plan was posted on the government’s environment registry website in early April, with no press release or statement from Environment Minister David Piccini. Its lengthy title is “Ontario’s responsible and balanced approach to meeting the federal benchmark for the Emissions Performance Standards industrial emissions program,” which suggests the motivation for its release.  

Under Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act guidelines, provincial governments must outline their emissions reductions programs and explain how they plan to meet the federal benchmark. If they don’t, or if the plans are inadequate, the federal government can impose a program of its own. Ontario’s emissions reduction system, like those in Alberta and Saskatchewan, doesn’t cover all emissions sources. This new plan covers pollution by industry in the province, while a federal fuel charge covers fossil fuels sold to both industry and retail customers.

“This is a plan that says Ontario is prepared to do anything that the federal government forces us to or is willing to pay for on climate change and nothing more,” said Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada. “It should be incredibly disappointing, if not outraging, to every voter in the province.”

Ontario Environment Minister David Piccini smiles as he stands in front of a rock amid some green foliage.
Environment Minister David Piccini didn’t make a statement when Ontario’s latest emissions forecast was released in early April. Photo: Carlos Osorio / The Narwhal

In January, Ontario did implement a new carbon pricing program, Emissions Performance Standards, to replace the shuttered cap-and-trade program. The government is betting on Emissions Performance Standards to lead the province to its reduction goals. But four months since its inception, the system remains “very opaque,” said Dave Sawyer, an environmental economist with the Canadian Climate Institute. “We don’t know where the standard is being set, we don’t know how it’s being set, so we can’t assess the strength of the program in reducing emissions.”

This new emissions plan offers little additional information on how the Emissions Performance Standards will actually work. It also doesn’t offer any new policies beyond those already put in place by the federal government or industry. It does include the government’s new emissions forecast but that, like its previous climate plan, remains scant on specifics. Notably, this new plan has abandoned a core emissions-reduction policy from the 2018 plan: the Ontario Carbon Trust, a $400 million fund to encourage private investment in clean technologies that was never set up. 

“My overall takeaway is that I get no comfort from this plan whatsoever,” said Dianne Saxe, who is running in the provincial election as a member of the Green Party, and is Ontario’s former environmental commissioner. “There’s no new information and there’s nothing that would lead me to believe we’re on the right track.” 

The Narwhal asked to speak to Environment Minister Piccini about the new plan but was told he wasn’t available for an interview. All questions sent to Piccini’s office were answered by an Environment Ministry spokesperson. The Narwhal also asked for a technical briefing, the name for an informational conversation with a ministry staff member, that could give more detail about the calculations and broad proposals in the plan, and didn’t receive one. 

The ministry asked for written questions to be sent via email, and replied by email in response. Many of the responses were word-for-word repetitions of past government press releases or the plan itself. 

Take the issue of targets: last month, the federal government unveiled a plan for a 40 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels, but Ontario’s new plan is to remain “steadfast” in meeting a much less ambitious target of a 30 per cent reduction. When asked why Ontario’s reductions target is so far below the federal goal, ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler pasted the first and third paragraph of the new plan, the ones that refer to the reductions due to coal plants shut down by the previous Liberal government. 

Ontario has already achieved greater reductions of greenhouse gas emissions than any other province or territory in Canada. The province remains steadfast in its commitment to meet the 2030 emissions reduction target and is confident in the plan and trajectory to get there — catalyzed by recent major investments in automotive, steel and industrial electrification. …

This has been done while ensuring that our approach is flexible to the opportunities, needs, and circumstances facing job creators and not harmful to Ontario’s economic growth.

The first and third paragraphs of “Ontario Emissions Scenario as of March 25, 2022”

Wheeler also said this updated emissions forecast “is not a new plan” but a way to “provide transparency to Ontarians on our work to mitigate climate change.”

“Their 2018 plan was basically a pretty picture with made up numbers. And this is their latest version of a pretty picture with made up numbers,” said Saxe in an interview. “There’s no reason for anybody to put much faith in this picture … It’s not based on including everything that’s happening. And it’s not based on any serious measures to make the changes that we know are needed or on what’s actually happening in the province.” 

The only graph in the new document illustrates Ontario’s projected emissions drops. It shows that the province saw a sharp year-to-year drop in the 2019-2020 period, the biggest fall since the 2008 recession that crippled the manufacturing industry. This lines up with federal data released last week that showed emissions in Ontario were 16 megatonnes lower in 2020 than 2019. 

Graph of the Ford government's climate forecast of March 2022
The Ford government’s latest climate forecast is only its second since taking office in 2018. The bulk of emissions reductions are projected to come from a carbon pricing program for industry as well as the steel industry’s shift away from coal-powered furnaces. Source: Ontario Emissions Scenario as of March 25, 2022. Graph: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

But smart climate planning wasn’t the reason, as Wheeler acknowledged — he attributed the fall in emissions to “a drop in economic activity resulting from the pandemic.”

The bulk of future emissions reductions — almost a third — are projected to come as the iron and steel industry shifts away from coal-fired furnaces. Ontario’s three biggest industrial emitters are all steel plants, which account for more than 40 per cent of provincial emissions, more than the refinery, forestry, mining and chemical sectors combined. 

In 2021, the federal government started the push towards “green steel” movement with a $1.765 billion project to phase out coal-fired steelmaking. That includes a $400 million investment in ArcelorMittal Dofasco in Hamilton, Ont., the biggest producer of flat-rolled steel in the country and the single biggest industrial source of emissions in the province. Recently, the Ford government matched this investment, promising an additional $500 million to the company. 

The iron and steel emissions numbers are the only new piece of information in the April plan, and they come with a major caveat. At the bottom of the two-and-half page document, the government says its forecast may be impacted by the “overlap” between Ontario’s Emissions Performance Standards and the reductions in coal use in the iron and steel sector. Experts The Narwhal spoke to for this story say the province may be double-counting emissions reductions in the plan — something Ontario’s Auditor General reprimanded the Ford government for doing in her 2019 report

Wheeler denies this. “The overlap between the industrial coal phase out and EPS has been captured in our emission reduction estimates to avoid double counting of reductions,” he wrote in an email. Wheeler didn’t respond when asked why an overlap was mentioned in the plan if it was already accounted for in calculations.

Additional emissions reductions are projected to come from increasing renewable content (like ethanol) in gasoline to make it cleaner fuel, but this is a federal requirement too. 

“In the 2018 plan, [the government] actually separated out federal programs and provincial programs. Now they’ve collapsed them and I think that’s because there really aren’t any provincial-only climate programs anymore,” Stewart said. For example, the 2018 Made-in-Ontario climate plan listed the federal clean fuel standard and provincial natural gas conservation programs separately. In the new plan, the federal program isn’t mentioned at all and the line indicating falling emissions from natural gas is barely visible.

The recent plan also bets on a projected increase in public transit and lists nine transit projects, eight in the Greater Toronto Area. But all are massive long-term projects, while recent cost reductions for drivers — such as a $1 billion rebate of licence plate renewal fees — are effective immediately. 

“Ontario is really not doing much at all,” said Sawyer, who pointed to cancelled programs such as cap-and-trade as environmental steps backward taken by the Ford government in the past four years. “They released a plan three years ago to do all this stuff. They scrapped it all. Now they’ve come with this plan which is not giving us a very big reduction.” 

Glaring gaps in the brief document include a lack of accounting for the emissions bounce-back that everyone, including the federal government, expects now that pandemic lockdowns are over. 

Also missing are calculations of how recent policy might affect emissions this decade. It excludes projects that could increase emissions, like the plans to build more highways. But it also leaves out initiatives that could reduce emissions, such as the government’s broad plans for electric vehicle uptake — even though electric vehicles were mentioned in both the 2018 climate plan and the latest transportation plan, in which they account for 90 per cent of transportation emission reductions by 2051.

The ministry argues the calculations behind the forecast do include the impacts of urban growth and road building. “Economic growth leads to more kilometres travelled on roads, which in turn results in more transportation emissions in the model,” Wheeler, the ministry spokesperson said.  

“This document is very selective in what they count,” Saxe said. “So the overall result is likely to be highly misleading and shows how little credibility the numbers have.”

The federal government will be assessing all provincial programs this year. Wheeler said Ontario is “working closely” with Ottawa to ensure this plan is accepted. 

Lisa DeMarco, senior partner and CEO of environment law firm Resilient LLP, said the federal government will have “a lot of areas of clarification” including Ontario’s less ambitious reductions target, and specifics on how different sectors will be treated. 

Wheeler told The Narwhal the government is “intent on providing continuity and predictability for Ontario businesses, while also working to help them stay competitive and avoid losing production to other jurisdictions with less stringent climate policies.” He said the outline of the Emissions Performance Standards program will be posted in the summer, and the goal is to “design it in a way that better reflects Ontario priorities than the federal program.” Wheeler said it will be finalized by the end of the year.

“The Ford government has to start engaging with emissions in a constructive way,” DeMarco said. “This might be a start but it’s definitely an election document. They’re using this document to say ‘we’re on track to meeting our targets.’ ”

Hey there keener,
Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to more than 4,200 readers just like you.

The Narwhal's growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired 14 new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting.

With your help, we’ll be able to do so much more in 2022. If you believe in the power of independent journalism, join our pod by becoming a Narwhal today. (P.S. Did you know we’re able to issue charitable tax receipts?)
Hey there keener,
Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to more than 4,200 readers just like you.

The Narwhal's growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired seven new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting.

With your help, we’ll be able to do so much more in 2022. If you believe in the power of independent journalism, join our pod by becoming a Narwhal today. (P.S. Did you know we’re able to issue charitable tax receipts?)

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