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A recent study found that in many parts of the City of Toronto drivers found it cheaper to park illegally and to pay the parking tickets they might get than to pay the very high price of legal parking in a parking lot. Following publication of this study the City of Toronto embarked upon a process to raise the fee attached to parking tickets to try to shift illegal parking to paid parking lots.

Does a similar situation exist in terms of paying pollution fines rather than obeying the law and staying clear of illegal environmental activities? Do penalty increases work? Data made public by Environment and Climate Change Canada suggest that there are parallel results, particularly in the area of industrial pollution.

From January 1, 2011 to the end of September this year, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) entered into 309 successful prosecutions under the laws and regulations for which it has responsibility. It should be noted that ECCC only has responsibility for federal environmental laws with the provinces having responsibility for another set of environmental laws and regulations within their jurisdiction. However, it seems reasonable to assume that the federal jurisdiction is at least somewhat representative of the national scene when it comes to compliance.

Of the 309 successful prosecutions over this period about one third were for offences which relate primarily to protection of endangered species and wildlife while two thirds were for classical pollution offences which may have been intentional or unintentional but possibly related to carelessness. The categorization of offences is based on an analysis of all successful environmental prosecutions conducted for Environment Journal.

We consider the distinction helpful because “wildlife” offences are often those undertaken primarily to obtain wildlife for sale or food and are generally undertaken by individuals or microbusinesses such as hunting guides while classical pollution offences such as spills or dumping of wastes are generally undertaken deliberately or unintentionally by larger industrial companies.

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Our analysis (which is presented in the table below) shows that successfully prosecuted pollution offences increased sharply between 2015 and 2018, from an average of 12.75 in each of the four years prior to 2015 to 23.75 in each of the four years subsequent to 2015. In the four years subsequent to 2018 the average number of successfully prosecuted federal pollution offences dropped back to 11.5 per year.

Successful enforcement actions by ECCC with Canadian environmental legislation:

 

Year

 

Wildlife Protection Prosecutions

 

Classical Pollution Prosecutions

 

2023 (nine months only)

 

4

 

11

 

2022

 

3

 

13

 

2021

 

10

 

8

 

2020

 

3

 

13

 

2019

 

11

 

12

 

2018

 

8

 

31

 

2017

 

8

 

24

 

2016

 

10

 

23

 

2015

 

6

 

17

 

2014

 

1

 

12

 

2013

 

3

 

13

 

2012

 

15

 

11

 

2011

 

24

 

15

 

It seems unlikely that this wild swing in pollution offences was solely the result of a change in corporate care and negligence. More likely is the penalties imposed by the courts and the regulator in the early and mid- twenty teen years were lower than they are today and enforcement may have been somewhat less rigorous than it is today.

While the available data are insufficient to reach a definitive conclusion it would seem to be a reasonable hypothesis that a combination of higher fines and enhanced enforcement may have caused business to become more careful since the mid twenty teens in terms of remaining in compliance with Canada’s environmental laws and regulations.

Information on successful environmental prosecutions by Environment and Climate Change Canada can be found here.

Colin Isaacs is a chemist with practical experience in administration, municipal council, the Ontario Legislature, a major environmental group, and, for the past three decades, as an adviser to business and government. He is one of the pioneers in promoting the concept of sustainable development for business in Canada and has written extensively on the topic in the popular press and for environment and business platforms.

Featured image credit: Getty Images

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