The Annual Report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) deals with a number of significant issues, Ministry of Environment decisions, applications for review and investigation, and assesses Ministry progress, as well as identifying developing issues.
One significant issue considered was Ontario's Action Plan on Climate Change. The ECO examined the provincial climate change strategy in order to assess the reduction measures identified, the reliability of the measures to meet Ontario stated GHG production targets and to investigate the likelihood of the province meeting its major reduction targets for 2014, 2020 and 2050 based on the measures identified. Overall, the ECO commended the province for having a plan. It concluded that as of early 2008, the 2014 target of 6% reduction of GHG emissions below 1990 levels is achievable. The ECO concluded that there is less certainty regarding the 15% reduction target for 2020 and that it was unable to reach any conclusions as to the ability to achieve the 80% reduction target for 2050.
The second issue examined was the current status of matters subject to the Environmental Assessment Act. The ECO concluded that many of Ontario's most important decisions are not subject to an integrated evaluation under the EAA. While the screening level assessment or individual EAs may be conducted for individual projects, the ECO concluded that what was missing was an overarching review of the major policy decisions. In examining EAs, the ECO concluded that the EA process seems to lead an inexorably towards the approval of projects. The ECO was critical of the class EA approach, which has had the effect of breaking up major regional infrastructure initiatives into multiple small projects, each proceeding on its own approval without leading to a consideration of the broader regional and cumulative impacts. The ECO was also critical of the setting of narrow Terms of Reference as permitted under the Act thereby shielding the need for projects from scrutiny.
Third, the ECO focused on water. Climate change, water withdrawals and other forces have the potential to profoundly impact on Ontario's water environment. The ECO commented on a number of recent positive changes such as the creation of water budgets pursuant to the Clean Water Act, the monitoring of water quantities taken pursuant to Permits to Take Water and, the conducting of studies to examine groundwater and surface water interaction in order to better inform water permitting. At the same time the ECO remained concerned regarding the absence of appropriate water management practices to address low flow and drought conditions.
The ECO assessed whether Ontario's air quality monitoring reporting process was adequate. Particular concern was expressed regarding the absence of air quality monitoring at street level and the absence of the consideration of cumulative effects. The ECO strongly urged the Ontario Government to build on its existing air quality monitoring network in order to allow for informed decisions to be made regarding activities that may adversely affect air quality.
Emerging issues that were discussed briefly include the need for a more comprehensive assessment of the impact of roads on the natural environment, particularly as it relates to the impact on wildlife, and the corresponding need to have better informed decision-making regarding wildlife management.