February 21, 2023
By Sushant, Christine Desrochers & Mike Moffatt
Much beloved by residents and visitors alike, Ontario’s Greenbelt has enjoyed protected status since 2005. At a time of increased understanding of the massive economic, environmental, and health benefits offered by protected natural areas such as the Greenbelt, the recent decision by Ontario’s Government to remove protection for 7,400 acres and open the land for development shocked Ontarians and has provoked a groundswell of protests.
Presenting the move as a means of addressing Ontario’s very real housing crisis, the government claims that 50,000 new homes can be built on this land – but taking from the Greenbelt is not just bad for the environment, it’s bad for the economy and the wellbeing of communities all across southern Ontario. Although Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has indicated that the federal government may yet intervene, it’s evident that the Greenbelt is under a very real threat.
Smart Prosperity Institute’s Michael Twigg recently gave an interview with the 905er podcast to discuss the importance of the Greenbelt and advance a new vision for protecting it. This vision is presented in our recent conservation finance blueprint, Investing in the Future of Ontario's Greenbelt, which sees the Greenbelt not as an obstacle to development, but rather as a critical part of Ontario’s infrastructure and an asset we need to invest in to support future growth.
“The main thrust of the work is to attach a dollar value to the services that are provided by the ecosystems that are in the Greenbelt, things like flood protection, pollination, and recreation”, Michael explains.
These values are very high, since the economy, health, and social lives of millions of Ontarians are deeply connected to the Greenbelt. The Greenbelt has an annual economic impact of $9.6 billion, with agriculture production alone valued at over $4 billion per year. The ecosystem services that the Greenbelt provides are worth $3.2 billion per year in the form of flood protection, carbon sequestration, clean air and water, pollination, and tourism and recreation. The Greenbelt also supports the physical and mental health of millions of Canadians.
Attaching a dollar value to ecosystem services allows us to think of nature as an asset that we can invest in. Protecting and improving the Greenbelt can realize economic benefits across multiple sectors, creating a strong return on investment for the many communities across southern Ontario.
With support from the Greenbelt Foundation and the Insurance Bureau of Canada, SPI’s conservation finance blueprint outlines how investment products, like green bonds, could be applied to protect and enhance the Greenbelt in support of ongoing regional prosperity.
“This isn’t a new concept”, explains Michael. “Municipal green bonds in the cities of Toronto and Ottawa are typically used for public transit infrastructure.” These types of funds can be allocated to nature restoration as well, such as the waterfront revitalization in the Toronto Portlands to reduce flooding impacts.
“This is starting to resonate with the private sector”, he says. “We’re seeing a lot of interest to invest in these types of projects, mainly to reduce the risk to existing assets.”
Natural infrastructure can protect public and private properties from disasters. Wetlands protect against major flooding, for example, which is becoming more and more common in southern Ontario due to climate change. “The insurance sector spends billions of dollars on disaster remediation every year, so there is a financial incentive to reduce risk”, Michael adds. “These types of projects can not only protect infrastructure but make it more resilient in the future.”
Returns on investment in the Greenbelt can also come from improvements to agricultural production, recreation, health, water treatment, and carbon sequestration. These investments support regional growth and prosperity in the long-term. Municipalities, for instance, could invest in natural infrastructure to protect and improve source water to reduce the costs of water treatment upgrades and expansions as populations grow.
“Infrastructure Canada is on board, saying this is crucial for the health of Canadian infrastructure long term” says Michael. “This also fits with what the Federal government is looking to do with their 25 by 25 and 30 by 30 [biodiversity] targets.”
It’s clear that appropriately investing in the Greenbelt will provide the connections to nature that Ontarians want as well as economic returns for the region. “It’s a win-win situation.”
None of this should suggest that the province does not need to build more homes, nor does it imply that Ontario’s housing crisis is not real. The Smart Prosperity Institute report Ontario’s Need for 1.5 Million Homes confirms the provincial government’s claim that the province needs 1.5 million additional homes in the next ten years to keep up with population growth and demographic change. However, there are other and better ways to do that than building over the Greenbelt.
In late 2021, the provincial government created a Housing Affordability Task Force, which made 55 recommendations on the policy changes needed to build 1.5 million homes in a decade. The majority of these recommendations have yet to be implemented.
The Task Force’s report was unequivocal: “Greenbelts and other environmentally sensitive areas must be protected, and farms provide food and food security”. Furthermore, it added that “a shortage of land isn’t the cause of the problem”. The province would be well-advised to listen to their own Task Force, implement their policy recommendations, and leave the Greenbelt alone.
As detailed above, the Greenbelt provides substantial environmental and economic benefits. Through the smart investments we’ve outlined, these benefits can be amplified. Building on the Greenbelt diminishes these benefits, costing Ontario taxpayers billions in increased flood damages and stormwater management costs.
Michael agrees: “If development isn’t done in a way that respects nature, costs are going to rise. [...] If we’re looking at areas as a blank slate to develop, we’re not taking into consideration what [services] they’re already providing for communities”.
New homes should be created as part of holistic regional growth plans that take nature into account and prevent sprawl into protected areas like the Greenbelt. Ignoring the benefits of nature will end up costing Ontario greatly in terms of potential flooding damage, loss of agricultural production, loss of tourism revenues, negative health outcomes, and costs to municipal infrastructure upgrades.
The decision to remove lands from the Greenbelt is short-sighted and unnecessary. New homes can be built elsewhere. This decision should be repealed and the Greenbelt’s protected status reaffirmed for the benefit of Ontarians.
As Michael Twigg says: “We have been very fortunate to have the Greenbelt in Ontario. It’s something we can’t give up”.
To learn more about investing in the future of Ontario’s Greenbelt, read SPI’s conservation finance blueprint for Southern Ontario. To listen to Michael Twigg’s full podcast interview on a new vision for the Greenbelt, click here.