Ontario Legislature building, Queen's Park

The Pink Palace by Benson Kua \ CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

In announcing her new cabinet last week, Premier Kathleen Wynne has charged former Transportation Minister Glen Murray with taking over Ontario’s newly revamped environment ministry.

Murray, the sitting MPP for Toronto Centre and former mayor of Winnipeg, assumed command of the environment ministry from veteran MPP Jim Bradley who is Ontario’s longest-serving environment minister after eight years on the job in two separate stints.

Wynne has also asked Murray to take on a new challenge, perhaps the most pressing issue facing the planet in the 21st century: climate change. No, Murray won’t be tasked with single-handedly solving the world’s shifting climate, but his new-found focus on this gargantuan issue is a first for Ontario and its newly minted Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.

The new moniker reflects Wynne’s appreciation of the growing challenges and impacts climate change and extreme weather are having in Ontario. Since 2011 alone, flooding has drowned Wawa, Belleville and downtown Toronto; rapid shifts in spring temperatures have destroyed apple crops in Southern Ontario; tornadoes have ripped through rural communities; and the number of forest fires burning through northern Ontario has steadily increased, hitting a recent peak number of fires in 2012 (1,611), with the most hectares burnt (635,373) in 2011.

All have caused hundreds of millions in damages in recent years. Just last week, Wynne toured a tornado ravaged community in Angus, Ontario, days after an independent review panel released a report on the lingering effects in Toronto caused by December’s devastating ice storm that left tens of thousands without power over the holidays.

Given that extreme weather events are increasingly wreaking havoc in Ontario, having someone focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change is critical, Wynne said.

“Talk to municipal leaders across the province and across the country, quite frankly, and having someone paying attention to [climate change] issues is fundamental to our success in the future,” she said.

Armed with a majority government, hopefully the Liberals can provide some measure of stability to a ministry that has seen 14 ministers (including Murray) at the helm since 1995, including six Liberals since 2003 and eight Tories under Premier Mike Harris between 1995 and 2003.

“We’re pleased to see Ontario become the first jurisdiction in North America to elevate the task of addressing it to the level of a cabinet position.”
– Tim Gray, Environmental Defence

Some environmental groups are applauding the government’s shift to recognize the growing importance of climate change as an issue worthy of direct government action, including Environmental Defence’s executive director Tim Gray.

“Climate change is the most significant challenge facing human civilization and we’re pleased to see Ontario become the first jurisdiction in North America to elevate the task of addressing it to the level of a cabinet position,” Gray said.

“We look forward to working with Minister Murray to develop an aggressive agenda to reduce carbon emissions in a manner that facilitates a clean economy, which benefits Ontario residents and businesses and shows that environmental and economic goals can be pursued hand-in-hand.”

While Wynne and Murray denied the Liberals have any intention of implementing a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, some at Queen’s Park are wondering if the Liberal majority will light a fire under their commitment to the Western Climate Initiative and North America 2050.

Under then-Premier Dalton McGuinty and the Environment Minister at the time, John Gerretsen, Ontario joined with British Columbia, Quebec and Manitoba in July 2008 in becoming partners in the Western Climate Initiative (WCI).

Led by California, this voluntary coalition of Canadian provinces and US states formed in February 2007 with the aim to reduce emissions through a cap-and-trade system for players in the electricity sector and large commercial or industrial bodies. The goal was to expand to include residential units in 2015.

At its peak, the coalition included New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Utah, Oregon and Washington state, in addition to its Canadian participants. Together, the partners represented more than 20 per cent of US GDP and 76 per cent of Canadian GDP, operating with the goal of having each participant reduce emissions 15 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

Yet six years after upgrading its observer status to a full partner in the WCI, as of September 2013, Ontario was still attempting to figure out what its role and emission reduction responsibilities should be within the organization.

There is also no clear timeline on when Ontario will reach its voluntary reduction targets as outlined by the WCI, let alone what those targets are.

Without strong support, the Western Climate Initiative itself began to unravel in November 2011 when every US participant save for California pulled out, citing a too stringent framework for how emissions were to be reduced. This left the Golden State holding the bag for a program it had initiated with only four uneasy Canadian partners to join them.

In June of last year, Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller warned that Ontario was particularly quiet on the greenhouse gas reduction front, a troubling move given advancements from China and the United States, most recently with the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to restrict GHGs produced from coal-fired electricity plants.

Murray will have his work cut out for him showing the Liberals are serious on the climate change file, and setting targets and firming up their participation in the Western Climate Initiative is a good starting point.

Miller is set to release an updated annual GHG reduction report July 9 at Queen’s Park.

Andrew is an award-winning environmental writer based in Toronto with a Masters in Geography from the University of Toronto. Andrew covers environmental politics for the A\J Current Events blog and on his own blog, The Reeves Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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