Wetlands In the Balance?

Duffins Creek (Credit: “File:Duffins Creek – panoramio (1).jpg” by deltawhiskybravo is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

Not wasting a crisis?

Chances are you have taken more walks in nature during the pandemic than ever before. Yet the Ford government has loosened protections to facilitate construction in environmentally-sensitive lands in or close to the Greenbelt. Policies promoting this activity have accelerated during COVID-19 with Ministerial Zoning Orders being issued to speed up developments in protected wetlands. This government has reportedly issued more than 30 MZOs since 2018, a higher amount than previous government have in a single term. The rush to build on sensitive wetlands and the Greenbelt is at odds with Ontarians’ spending more time outdoors during the pandemic.

Co-Benefits of Environmentally-Sensitive Wetlands

Decreased healthcare costs from reduced anxiety, stress and depression are co-benefits of time spent outdoors. Ontario Parks reported a 7% annual increase in car camping in August 2020. According to a 2014 U.S. study, the avoided mortality and morbidity from trees’ air purification resulted in USD $6.8 billion in benefits. The birds that wetlands call home also enable them to pollinate crops. This function has a roughly USD 235-577 billion (CAD 306-750 billion) market value, dwarfing Ontario government plans spending of $187 billion in 2020-2021. While the black-and-white warbler is found in Lower Duffin’s Creek complex, but 618 million warblers have been lost in Canada and the U.S. since 1970.

Lower Duffin’s Creek & Bill 229, Schedule 6

The Lower Duffin’s Creek complex is in Pickering and was designated a Provincially Significant Wetland (PSW) in 2005. It is where a 240-acre $1.5 billion entertainment complex is being proposed by Triple Group of Companies. An MZO was issued on November 2, 2020 to speed up its construction and approve a warehouse to be built on 57 acres of the PSW. On November 6, 2020, Bill 229 was tabled in the Ontario Legislative Assembly, which included Schedule 6 proposing modifications to the Conservation Authorities Act. Environmental groups announced their filing of legal action against the government on November 30, 2020. Unfortunately, Bill 229, including Schedule 6, received Royal Assent on December 8, 2020. The opposition by environmental groups to modifications to environmental legislation are emblematic of tensions with the government and their pro-development policies.

The role for investors

Institutional investors are looking at how biodiversity can be included in their investments, providing an opportunity for conservation in Ontario. A WWF report highlights that losses in nature can cost the world economy US 9.87 trillion by 2050. On January 11, 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron presided over the One Planet Summit and mobilizing private finance for biodiversity protection is one of its key commitments. Fifty countries committed to protecting 30% of the planet by 2030. Prince Charles announced at the summit the Sustainable Markets Initative’s Natural Capital Investment Alliance to mobilize private capital for natural capital opportunities. Resilience bonds are structured to payout when a natural disaster strikes but, can incentivize natural infrastructure protection to reduce future payouts. Current activities linked with the Lower Duffin’s Creek Complex can be reframed to provide ecological, social and economic benefits.

An opportunity lost?

The pandemic has seen individuals connect with nature through walks, camping and gardening. Even the 2021 Ontario Budget acknowledges the growth in outdoor tourism and is investing $6 million in upgrading Ontario Parks’ facilities. The recovery can be framed through investments to address the concomitant climate crisis. Ironically, developments in environmentally-sensitive lands are being favoured by the province to ostensibly power an economic recovery. Now is a vital moment for environmental groups to widen their constituencies by engaging those who have connected with nature to ask the Ford government to backtrack on pro-development policies.

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