Auditor general's report finds Ontario not using 'sound evidence' in climate change plan

Ontario's auditor general says the Ford government's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and battle climate change is not supported by sound evidence.

Bonnie Lysysk's 2019 report found that Ontario is overestimating the potential impact of its new environmental plan.

She said the government has also miscalculated some estimates and made policy changes that could discourage further emission reductions.

"Our office's analysis found that the emissions reductions in the plan are not yet supported by sound evidence," Lysysk writes in the report, which includes recommendations to help Ontario achieve reduction targets outlined in the Paris agreement.

It is the first auditor general report released since the Progressive Conservative government abolished the province's environmental commissioner position in April. That office was previously responsible for examining environmental policies.

Details of Lysyk's environmental findings were first reported by CBC News last week.

The Progressive Conservative government has made sweeping changes to Ontario's environmental policies since the 2018 election, introducing what it calls a "made-in-Ontario" environmental plan.

The province estimates that its new approach will still meet federal reduction targets of 30 per cent below 2005 emission levels, or the equivalent of 17.6 megatonnes by 2030.

But that estimate is based on an older forecast that accounted for initiatives around electricity conservation, renewable energy and cap-and-trade — programs that have all been cancelled by the Ford government.

Lysyk estimates the new plan will only reduce emissions by between 6.3 and 13 megatonnes by 2030.

"We found that they need to do more modelling, more research and more specific identification of ways to [reduce emissions]," she told reporters.

Double counting

The report also determined the Ford government is relying on future developments that may not be realized.

The province estimates there will be 1.3 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road in 2030 — a 3,000 per cent increase from the current 41,000 EVs on the road — amounting to a 2.6 megatonne reduction.

However, that forecast factors in substantial government incentives designed to make EVs more affordable. The Ford government cancelled those incentives in the summer of 2018.

The government is also counting on more homeowners switching to renewable natural gas, amounting to a 2.3 megatonne reduction. But according to the auditor general report, "evidence shows that the higher cost of renewable natural gas means that few customers would switch."

Ontario's new climate plan also relies on unspecified future innovations by the private sector to reduce emissions by an additional 2.2 megatonnes.

"The ministry was unable to provide any evidence to support this estimate," the report says.

In some instances, Lysyk also found the province was double counting emission reductions, such as in programs designed to reduce natural gas emissions.

She is recommending that Ontario increase transparency around its environmental plan and release more frequent updates on its objectives and achievements.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

PCs defend plan

Despite the numerous issues and recommendations laid out in the auditor general's report, Ontario's Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said the province remains committed to meeting or perhaps exceeding the 2030 emissions target.

"We have a plan. The auditor general didn't say it was terrible, she said that it needed to be tightened up," Yurek said. "We totally agree with that."

He described the government's environmental plan as an evolving document that will be altered over time to meet new demands and account for future developments.

He did not announce any plans to revive previous environmental initiatives, such as the EV incentive program.

"People themselves have an individual choice and responsibility. When they're purchasing their next vehicle, I'm hoping they're looking at electric vehicles," Yurek said.

Opposition parties denounced the Ford government's response to the audit.

"Magic math and magic markets will not solve the climate emergency," said Mike Schreiner, leader of the Green Party of Ontario.

"The Ford government is acting like the climate crisis isn't even a problem," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Health and safety

The expanded report, which spans more than 1,200 pages, identified dozens of other areas where Ontario could make improvements.

Auditors found that Ontario's 77,000 residents living in 626 long-term care homes do not always receive "established standards for nutritional value or quality." There were approximately 1.3 food-related incidents reported every day starting in January 2018.

At one long-term care home, residents were served liquid whole eggs three months past their best-before date, according to the report.

Lysyk also found that wait times for addiction treatments, hospital admissions and deaths related to opiates are on the rise, despite Ontario increasing its investments in combating the epidemic. In 2018, more than four people died every day in Ontario due to opiates.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

"We found that the Ministry of Health does not allocate funding to addictions treatment programs based on need," Lysyk wrote.

She also noted that Ontario could make improvements to its inspections of commercial vehicles, which currently have a higher fatality and injury rate than Canada as a whole and than the United States.

Lysyk found the provincial government missed an opportunity to remove thousands of unsafe vehicles from roads due to a decrease in inspections, primarily under the previous Liberal government between 2014 and 2018.

Justice and social services

The report also highlighted a growing problem at Ontario's prisons and jails, which Lysyk says are not equipped to handle a rising population of inmates with mental health issues and those on remand.

Correctional staff are not properly trained to deal with mental health and behavioural issues, the report found, reducing an institution's ability to properly rehabilitate inmates.

There are also issues among Ontario's coroners and pathologists, including the practice of coroners conducting death investigations into patients they cared for while they were alive. That amounts to a conflict of interest, the audit says.

The province also does not conduct enough quality reviews of pathologists, auditors found, leading to "low-quality" death investigations in Ontario.

A review or investigation into the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) may also be needed, Lysyk said.

The cost of the program has ballooned 75 per cent over the past 10 years, from $3.1 billion to $5.4 billion.

The number of monthly cases increased by 50 per cent during the same period, although the overall population has only grown by 12 per cent.

Lysyk said Ontario has never investigated why those changes have occurred.