Ontario Government Needs to Act: Environmental Commissioner
(Toronto, November 29, 2011) Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner is worried that Ontario has lost momentum when it comes to the province’s pressing environmental issues.
In his 2010/2011 Annual Report “Engaging Solutions” released today, Gord Miller says there’s no shortage of talk about the problems such as climate change, waste diversion, and the loss of biodiversity. “But when it comes to doing something” says Miller, “there doesn’t seem to be a lot actually happening.
The Environmental Commissioner cited a number of examples of this lack of inertia in his annual report:
- On waste, the Ministry of the Environment has written four different reports and discussion papers outlining options for increasing waste diversion in the province. But this has resulted in little action on what Miller says should be one of the government’s top environmental priorities.
- On species-at-risk, the Ministry of Natural Resources is not doing enough to protect and recover species at risk. Much of what the ministry is doing has become an empty bureaucratic exercise that does little on-the-ground to tangibly benefit endangered species.
- On funding, the Government of Ontario has passed notable legislation such as the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, 2008, the Endangered Species Act, 2007 and the Green Energy Act, 2009, but has not given the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of the Environment the additional resources they need to oversee and monitor new legislation while also covering their previous core responsibilities.
- On the Great Lakes, lengthy negotiations between Ontario and the federal government threaten to paralyze progress towards further clean-up, and Ontario is allowing its existing policy tools to idle. Meantime, the Obama administration has promised $2.2 billion over 5 years.
Miller says this lack of action is not accidental: it’s actually the goal of critics of environmental protection. “We respond to people who say they don’t believe there’s a problem”, says the Environmental Commissioner, “by going back to the research findings to debate and explain it all over again. And then, when it looks like progress is being made, others say the proposed solutions won’t work, or are too costly. And so we go back to the beginning again.”
“We have to find a way to get to a point of action on these issues” says the Environmental Commissioner. “We don’t see ourselves as having a culture of inaction and procrastination. Yet that would be a fair criticism from any impartial observer.”
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario is appointed by the Legislative Assembly to be the province’s independent environmental watchdog, reporting publicly on the government’s environmental decision making.
Government Failing to Reduce Ontario’s Waste
(Toronto, November 29, 2011) The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario has called on the new government to make waste diversion one of its top environmental priorities. In his 2010/2011 Annual Report released today, Gord Miller says progress on this issue has stalled and the government is sitting on solutions to reduce the more than 9 million tonnes of waste that are landfilled and incinerated every year.
“The Ministry of the Environment has identified many problems with Ontario’s waste diversion framework, and compiled a laundry list of possible solutions to address them,” says Miller. “But for whatever reason, the government is failing to act on these progressive solutions.”
Currently, only about 23% of the province’s waste is recycled and diverted from landfill and incineration. “Ontario’s diversion rate has hovered around 20% for the past decade, which is well below the government’s commitment to achieve 60% diversion by 2008,” says Miller. “At the same time, the amount of waste generated each year has grown, which means that more waste is going to landfill.”
The Environmental Commissioner says the causes of this failure are well known, and outlined in four discussion papers and reports issued by the Ministry of the Environment (see page 91 of the Annual Report). In the reports, the Ministry of the Environment acknowledges that: it is still less expensive to put waste in landfill than to recycle it; the Waste Diversion Act fails to make waste reduction and reuse a priority; and there is no direct financial incentive for manufacturers to reduce the waste their products create when they are thrown out, or to design products that are easier and cheaper to recycle.
Fortunately, these papers and reports also identify potential solutions for these problems, including:
- Imposing a surcharge on waste that is sent to landfill.
- Banning materials such as paper and electronics from landfill.
- Requiring retailers to take back products at their end-of-life.
- Establishing deposit/return systems for certain products and packaging.
- Charging manufacturers lower environmental management fees if their products are easier and cheaper to recycle and dispose of.
- Making individual manufacturers rather than their industry organizations responsible for meeting waste diversion requirements.
- Requiring manufacturers to internalize the environmental management costs of their products, and prohibit manufacturers and retailers from showing these costs as separate charges on the receipt at point of sale (i.e. “eco fees”).
“The Ministry of the Environment clearly knows what it needs to do to reduce the amount of waste generated and discarded in Ontario,” says Miller. “Now the government needs to find the political will – and courage – to actually do it.”
Ontario Government Failing Endangered Species
(Toronto, November 29, 2011) The Government of Ontario is not taking sufficient steps to protect and recover the province’s imperilled species. This warning was issued by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, Gord Miller, in his 2010/2011 Annual Report released today at Queen’s Park.
“Ontario’s Endangered Species Act is a good law that has the potential to make a real difference,” said Gord Miller. “However, the government is not making the tough choices about what it will and will not do to protect species at risk. Rather than taking decisive action, much of what the government is doing has become an empty bureaucratic exercise with little benefit for endangered species.”
The government released its plans to address the recovery of 13 species at risk in November 2010. The Environmental Commissioner’s report found that the government’s commitments in the majority of these plans do the bare legal minimum to address these species. The government is taking a backseat in its own program by offloading key actions, creating a situation in which the on-the-ground recovery of species at risk might only occur if external, voluntary groups step up. Further, the government is not providing stakeholders with the necessary information on how to carry on with business, if appropriate, when species at risk are present.
“Protecting endangered species must first be framed by science, and then political and social choices can be made,” stated the Environmental Commissioner. “Instead, the government has so muddied the process that it is difficult to decipher science from politics. The result for Ontario is that the loss of biodiversity continues unchecked.”
The Environmental Commissioner’s report found the Ministry of Natural Resources is sending mixed messages in its conservation efforts for species at risk:
- The Ministry of Natural Resources allows the hunting and trapping of some species at risk, such as snapping turtles and eastern wolves which are both species of special concern.
- The Ministry of Natural Resources has failed to provide the public with a clear picture of where Ontario’s threatened woodland caribou are and what will be done to actually conserve their habitat.
MOE and MNR Can’t Handle Core Responsibilities
(Toronto, November 29, 2011) Capacities are stretched dangerously thin at the two ministries mandated to protect Ontario’s environment and natural resources. This warning was issued today by Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, as he released his 2010/2011 Annual Report.
Research has found that at a time when their core businesses have become more complex, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Natural Resources have to make do with less. Compared to budgets in the early 1990s, MNR has suffered a 22 per cent decline in its operating budget after accounting for inflation, while MOE’s operating budget was cut by 45 per cent.
The Environmental Commissioner notes that growing environmental pressures have forced the mandates of these two ministries to expand and increase in complexity. “Simply put, I’m seeing a lot more work that needs doing, and a diminishing capacity to do it,” says Miller.
- New legislative initiatives such as the Endangered Species Act, 2007, the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, 2008 and the Green Energy Act, 2009 all require significant resources for effective monitoring and oversight.
- Ontario has a full suite of regulatory and policy tools it can use to clean up the Great Lakes, but MOE and MNR don’t have the capacity to apply them.
- The Ministry of the Environment has not published an overview of performance parameters for municipal waste water treatment plants since 1993.
- The Ministry of the Environment has been struggling with tens of thousands of out-dated Certificates of Approval allowing facilities to ignore current environmental standards.
“It troubles me, and it may trouble many Ontarians” says Miller “that for every dollar spent on government operations, less than one penny goes to the ministries that bear the burden of protecting our environment and natural resources. The day-to-day activities of these ministries touch the lives of all Ontarians.”