Ontario environmental groups set ambitious goals for 2020

In Ontario, the to-do list of environmental groups trying to tackle the rising climate crisis on a local and regional scale is long.

Pressuring the province to do more and empowering citizens are top priorities

Chris Hilkene, CEO of Pollution Probe, is setting his sights on promoting electric vehicles and keeping plastic out of the Great Lakes in 2020. (Kate McGillivray/CBC )

2020 is set to be a busy year for climate activism.

The do-or-die deadlines for curbing emissions put out by groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continue to draw closer — and around the world, you can expect another year of dire reports, high-profile international meetings, and protests. 

Here in Ontario, the to-do list of environmental groups trying to tackle the rising crisis on a local and regional scale is long. 

Focus on emissions

At Greenpeace, spokesperson Keith Stewart says this year is all about "turning up the heat on politicians" and delivering concrete suggestions for reducing emissions to the province. 

He says they also plan to push the Ontario government to do what places like New York have done and consider suing oil and gas companies to help pay for the cost of switching to clean energy and deal with climate change-related damage.

"[Doug Ford] says he wants big polluters to pay, not taxpayers," says Stewart. "This is a way they can pay their fair share." 

Environmental charity Pollution Probe is also targeting emissions reduction in Ontario, and has chosen a specific suggestion that they'll be focusing on.

"For us, it's all about trying to move towards electrification of our transportation," says CEO Christopher Hilkene. 

Recent numbers show that electric car sales among Ontarians are down, but Hilkene says his group's plan this year is to look beyond individuals and get to work on corporations, municipalities, and the province to run pilot programs.

After the province cancelled an electric vehicle rebate, EV sales in Ontario fell by more than 55 per cent in the first six months of 2019 compared to the previous year. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"We'd like to launch a corporate fleet challenge, where we challenge some of the big companies," he said.

Getting ahead of plastic waste 

The Ontario government made noise in 2019 about tackling — and even banning — single-use plastics, and in August, announced plans to make companies responsible for the Blue Box program beginning in phases in 2023. 

Pollution Probe is one of the groups working with the government on that project, but Hilliken says that in 2020, they're also focusing on a short-term solution to keep litter out of Ontario's lakes and rivers: physical barriers installed in storm drains and at marinas. 

"We're planning to work directly with a lot of marinas, particularly along the Great Lakes, to put in those technologies," he said. 

The purpose of the barriers are twofold: they both prevent harmful plastics from accumulating and hold a mirror up to how much waste people are actually tossing. 

In 2016, a University of Waterloo researcher found there were at least half-a-million pieces of plastic per square kilometre in some areas of the Great Lakes. (Paul Hantiuk/CBC)

Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, says his group will push the government to introduce a deposit-return system for plastic bottles. 

"We could double our recovery and recycling rates if we had [this] system," he said. 

Protecting land, trees and animals

Others are also making plans to further their work preserving wilderness and protecting specific species in the coming year.

In central Ontario, the Muskoka Conservancy believes the best way to tackle global climate issues is to conserve as much local forest and wetland as possible — something they want to ramp up in 2020. 

"We're looking at [protecting] a meadow habitat that's a nesting area for Meadowlarks and Bobolinks. We're looking at Big Lake Island, which has several thousand feet of natural shoreline," says Young. 

Preserving wetlands and shorelines is particularly effective, he said, since the land hosts a wide variety of species and can act as a sponge during flooding events like the one that shook the region in spring 2019. 

Flooding in Bracebridge, Ont. in 2019. Young argues that more protected land can help mitigate future floods because the earth acts like a sponge, helping to store extra water. (Domas Albavicius)

The Wildlands League shares a similar conservation mission — but their work is spread across Ontario. 

This year, they have plans to continue the push to protect northern habitats for caribou and birds, collaborate with smaller environmental groups and MP's in the Windsor area to create a new national urban park, and work on a project to create corridors of nature stretching across the province to help animals move around. 

Executive director Janet Sumner says they are also hoping to get the public fired up and giving feedback on issues like the provincial forestry strategy.

Grassroots organizing

Gray expects 2020 to be a year of growing public pushback to environmental moves made by the province in 2019, and he says his top priority is to help smaller groups make their voices heard.

"We're spending a lot of time making sure that people understand the policy implications," he said.

One example of a potential flashpoint in 2020, says Gray, is the government's decision to revive plans for a new highway in the GTA. The project, known as "Highway 413," had been scrapped by the previous Liberal government. 

"We know that [public pressure] can work, we've seen it on other issues in the environmental space," he said, citing the government's extension of a moratorium on water-taking bottling permits as a recent success story. 

Among leaders from every group, there's a hope that citizens will be inspired to take action this year.

Stewart from Greenpeace hopes people will contact their elected officials, take steps in their own lives to improve their carbon footprints, and head to the streets in protest when they can. 

HIlkene also hopes that Ontarians can see an optimistic way forward.

"I would really like 2020 to be the year that all of us as consumers or citizens realize that we actually can do something, and we can make a difference," he said.