Ford's climate record isn't a top election issue. Here's why some critics are trying to change that

Climate change has largely taken a back seat to other issues on the Ontario election campaign trail. Some voters, experts and advocacy groups would like to put it front and centre ahead of June 2.

Frontrunner Doug Ford has polarizing past on climate, environment issues

Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford this week touted his government's investments in helping Ontario steel producers transition from coal-fuelled to electric furnaces. (Peter Power/The Canadian Press)

Judy Seal says she is worried about the world her four grandchildren will live in. 

The 68-year-old has been an amateur horticulturalist for decades, making diaries about which plants bloomed earliest and what birds first arrived in her gardens each spring. 

"After a while, you see patterns," Seal said. "And what I see is that, well, it's out of whack."

The Ottawa resident was one of dozens of Ontarians who told CBC News that climate change was their top concern in the June 2 election.

Seal believes the issue has taken a back seat on the campaign trail. She understands why many voters have other priorities, like affordability, but said she hopes the climate crisis gets more attention.

"All of the other topics will be irrelevant if we go down this dangerous path much farther," she said.

The environmental stakes are certainly high. Scientists warned in an April United Nations report that it's "now or never" to act on climate change.

Mark Winfield, professor of environmental politics at Toronto's York University, called this Ontario election the most important for the environment in the post-Second World War era.

"And we have some very different pathways being put in front of voters," he added.

Winfield pointed to what he called stark contrasts among climate commitments from the Progressive Conservatives and their main opponents, the Ontario NDP, Liberals and Greens.

Ford focused on manufacturing

Frontrunner and PC Leader Doug Ford's campaign messaging centres on the $14 billion his government secured, and partly contributed to, for electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing at plants in Oakville, Oshawa and Ingersoll and battery production in Windsor and Brampton.

He also touts the PCs single-biggest initiative to lower emissions: a plan to transition Ontario's steel plants to using lower-carbon sources of energy by converting coal-fired furnaces to electric-powered systems by the late 2020s. Steel production accounts for more than 40 per cent of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions in the province.

Ford and his candidates rarely if ever use the term "climate change." The PCs' pre-election budget has only a single mention of it. At a campaign stop Wednesday, Ford said he "took a different strategy" than previous governments on climate issues, putting an emphasis on long-term jobs.

The focus on manufacturing papers over his government's polarizing record on climate and the environment, some experts say.

"Simply put, climate policy has not been at the forefront over the past four years. And in fact, there have been some significant rollbacks when it comes to climate policy," said Carolyn Kim, senior director of communities and decarbonization at the Pembina Institute, a renewable energy think tank.

Upon sweeping to a majority in 2018 on promises to rein-in government spending, the PCs:

Then there is the Made-in-Ontario Climate Plan, which was rolled out with great fanfare in 2018 and quietly changed in April, months after the province's auditor general said the government was on track to achieve less than 20 per cent of its promised emission reductions by 2030.

"Ontario has been playing pretend on climate change," said Keith Brooks, programs director at the advocacy organization Environmental Defence. The group released a report Thursday that takes a withering look at Ford's record on climate issues.

Brooks said its purpose is to put a spotlight on the climate crisis during the campaign.

"We hope that it will help Ontarians who are concerned about climate to consider their vote closely" he told CBC News.

"What Ontario does on climate change really does matter. We're the second-largest emitter of greenhouse emissions among the provinces, second only to Alberta."

Highway 413 a point of climate contention

Ford's environmental record came under fire from the other main party leaders during Monday's debate, particularly over his controversial promise to build Highway 413. The highway would cut through the Greenbelt and pave over an estimated 2,000 acres of farmland.

Ford says his government took a different approach to fighting climate change than previous governments, eschewing renewable energy and efficiency rebates for investments in electric vehicle manufacturing. (Peter Power/The Canadian Press)

Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse emissions in Ontario. An analysis by Environmental Defence found that, if built, the highway would produce an additional 17 megatonnes of carbon emissions each year by 2050. 

The PCs say the project is necessary to ease gridlock and shorten commutes for drivers in the vote-rich regions of Peel and York. They argue less traffic would mean less idling and fewer emissions, though the party has not released any public modelling to support those claims.

They also stress the $61.1 billion over 10 years earmarked for public transit projects in their pre-election budget.

The three other main political parties all oppose the highway. The parties have each offered broadly comparable plans to reach climate targets, though they come with varying degrees of detail.

Their respective leaders have also tried to tie climate proposals to affordability, which has emerged as the number one voter issue on the campaign trail. The NDP, Liberals and Greens have all committed to a target of cutting emissions to 50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and have promised home retrofit programs and EV incentives.

The PCs have opted to keep their emissions target at 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

You can compare the full party platforms for yourself here.

Winfield encouraged voters interested in environmental issues to look closely at what the parties are offering.

"I think it's important that they think about their choices and what the implications are for the future of the province and the planet."