This week Ontario’s Minister of Finance, Peter Bethlenfalvy, released the 2024 Budget: Building a Better Ontario. There are mixed reactions to the province’s attempt at addressing economic challenges while delivering on much needed infrastructure and more housing. When it comes to the environment, there’s concern over much needed climate action and conservation.

“In the face of global economic uncertainty and high interest rates that continue to put pressure on Ontario families, our government is taking a responsible approach by investing to rebuild Ontario’s economy without raising taxes,” said Minister Bethlenfalvy. “As we invest in key public services and infrastructure, including new roads, highways and the largest public transit expansion in North America, we refuse to offload the costs onto hardworking Ontario families or municipalities at a time when they’re counting on us to keep costs down.”

The ambitious capital plan invests more than $190 billion over the next decade to build and expand highways, transit, homes, high-speed internet and other critical infrastructure. But critics are calling it a boondoggle when it comes to climate action.

Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, Andrea Khanjin, holding a copy of the budget, is pleased to announce funds for science innovation and increased support for greenspaces and conservation across the province. Credit: Twitter/Andrea Khanjin.

Highlights of the province’s actions when it comes to environmental expenditures and related initiatives, such as innovation support and brownfield redevelopment:

  • Increasing funding for housing-enabling municipal infrastructure projects by investing $1 billion in the new Municipal Housing Infrastructure Program, dedicated to core infrastructure projects, and quadrupling the Housing-Enabling Water Systems Fund to $825 million for municipal water infrastructure projects that would enable new housing.
  • Addressing Ontario’s housing supply crisis by rewarding municipalities that achieve their housing targets with funding from the three-year, $1.2 billion Building Faster Fund.
  • Tackling gridlock and saving commuters time by advancing highway projects like the new Highway 413 and Bradford Bypass; expanding existing in-demand highways, like Highway 401 and Highway 7; supporting construction of new interchanges; and improving roads, highways, and bridges.
  • Supporting the largest transit expansion in North America, including improving GO train and GO bus services, connecting light rail transit, advancing four priority subway projects, including the Ontario Line, and bringing back the Northlander, restoring passenger rail service to Northern Ontario.
  • Helping to build the end-to-end electric vehicle (EV) and battery supply chain. Over the last three years, Ontario has attracted more than $28 billion in automotive and EV battery‐related investments from global automakers, parts suppliers, and EV battery and materials manufacturers, which are expected to create more than 12,000 new permanent jobs.
  • Allocating an additional $100 million to the Invest Ontario Fund, for a total of $600 million to help Invest Ontario attract investments and new jobs in key sectors, including advanced manufacturing, life sciences and technology.
  • Supporting Ontario’s mining sector by investing an additional $15 million over three years in the Critical Minerals Innovation Fund to enhance research and development.
  • Increasing the Northern Energy Advantage Program (NEAP) to a total of $167 million in 2024–25, and $206 million annually in 2025–26 and 2026–27, to help eligible large industrial operators manage electricity costs and create good jobs in Northern Ontario.
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For 2023–24, the government is projecting a deficit of $3.0 billion. As part of its path to balance, the government is projecting deficits of $9.8 billion in 2024–25 and $4.6 billion in 2025–26, before reaching a surplus of $0.5 billion in 2026–27.

Ontario’s real GDP grew by an estimated 1.2 per cent in 2023 and is projected to increase by 0.3 per cent in 2024, 1.9 per cent in 2025, 2.2 per cent in 2026 and 2.2 per cent in 2027. For the purposes of prudent fiscal planning, these projections are slightly below the average of private-sector forecasts.

Mixed industry reactions

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) applauds the Ontario government for renewing its commitment to conserve more lands and waters for people and nature over the next four years.

New funding of $20 million will be delivered through the Greenlands Conservation Partnership program that was set to expire this year. Since its launch in 2020, the program has helped accelerate the pace of conservation throughout Ontario, protecting over 166,000 hectares of land and water over 75 key ecologically significant projects.

Dana Kleniewski, NCC’s acting regional vice-president in Ontario, says the budget is good news for nature.

“The Greenlands Conservation Partnership delivers big wins for nature and community access and connection to nature across Ontario,” says Kleniewski. “Conserving natural spaces plays an important role in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change by providing safe havens for wildlife, capturing and storing carbon, and improving resilience to weather events, such as flooding and drought. Collaboration is at the heart of conservation, and we need not only the participation of governments and conservation groups, but also of landowners, businesses, communities, foundations and individuals — there is a place for everyone.”

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Industry associations such as the Ontario Sewer & Watermain Construction Association (OSWCA) are also applauding the investment in municipal water and wastewater infrastructure.

According to the OSWCA, a not-for-profit organization representing sewer and watermain construction contractors throughout the province, the investment of an additional $625 million for the Housing-Enabling Water Systems Fund helps mark a milestone in Ontario’s infrastructure development.

“The funding allocated by the MOI [Ministry of Infrastructure] represents a landmark commitment to addressing the urgent needs of housing-enabling infrastructure across the province,” stated Steve Tamas, president of the OSWCA. “This substantial investment underscores the government’s dedication to modernizing infrastructure, enhancing resilience, and facilitating the construction of more homes.”

The Housing-Enabling Water Systems Fund aims to support municipalities in repairing, rehabilitating, and expanding critical drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. With these additional resources, municipalities are empowered to undertake essential upgrades and expansions to their sewer and watermain networks.

“This substantial funding allocation for water and wastewater infrastructure will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the lives of both current and future residents of our province,” added Tamas. “We look forward to collaborating with the province and municipalities to ensure these funds are used effectively and efficiently to address our infrastructure needs.”

However, not everyone is celebrating this budget.

Environmental Defence is a leading Canadian environmental advocacy organization that works with government, industry and individuals to defend clean water, a safe climate and healthy communities. The organization has concerns across the board about this provincial budget.

“This budget once again shows that the Ontario government doesn’t take climate change seriously and is uninterested in being truthful when it comes to the costs of climate change and climate policies,” stated Keith Brooks, program director at Environmental Defence. “The budget’s discussion of climate is limited almost exclusively to attacking the federal carbon price and claiming that it is driving up inflation and the cost of living, omitting any mention of the rebate. Meanwhile, Ontario is without a credible plan to address climate change, though the government’s own report, released last fall, flagged that climate change threatens Ontarians’ homes, food, farms, forests, and health.”

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Furthermore, Rebecca Kolarich, program manager for Ontario Environment, points out that Ontario continues to fall behind on funding and ambition for nature conservation.

“With this budget, the province had an opportunity to: develop a comprehensive strategy and substantially increase funding to enhance the inadequate percentage of protected areas; contribute to the 30 by 30 initiative; encourage reconciliation with Indigenous communities; and safeguard nature-based climate solutions,” states Kolarich. “Given that we are in the midst of a biodiversity and climate crisis, it’s disappointing to see the Ontario government continuously prioritize its investments in development projects, like Highway 413, that will destroy key forests and wetlands that provide habitat for hundreds of species at risk.”

Featured image of Ontario’s Brighton Wetland. Credit: Dave Coulson/Nature Conservancy of Canada.

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