Judge dismisses youth climate lawsuit but province's plan 'falls severely short'

Case builds on other litigation in Canada and abroad trying to get climate action through courts.

An Ontario judge harshly criticized the province's climate plan Tuesday, saying it "falls severely short" of what the science on climate change requires, even as she dismissed a landmark lawsuit brought by a group of young people who say the government's actions threaten their future.

Superior court judge Marie-Andrée Vermette agreed with the youth applicants on several key points, including that young and Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by climate change and that the province is risking the lives of Ontarians by not going further on its climate plan.

"By not taking steps to reduce GHG (greenhouse gases) in the province further, Ontario is contributing to an increase in the risk of death and in the risks faced by the applicants and others," Vermette wrote in the decision.

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But Vermette dismissed the lawsuit for several reasons, chiefly that inadequacies in Ontario's climate plan and targets did not rise to the level of violating Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right to life, liberty, and security.

The lawsuit also argued that Ontario's plan violated Section 15 of the Charter, that is, the right to equality under the law without discrimination. It said that young and Indigenous people will suffer more than other groups from climate change.

Vermette agreed with that point, but found that the province did not have a legal obligation to remedy that inequality through its climate targets.

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The plaintiffs wanted the government to bring in a new climate plan more closely aligned with science and the Paris Agreement's goals of limiting global warming to well below 2 C.


Even as she dismissed the youth climate lawsuit, the Ontario judge agreed with many of their key points. (CBC)

"While it would be difficult not to be sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the applicants about their future in light of the evidence filed in this case, this court cannot, based on the current state of the law, find violations of the Charter in this case," she wrote.

Case builds on other climate litigation in Canada

The group of youth applicants, represented by environmental law charity Ecojustice, first filed the case in 2019 when the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford replaced the previous Liberal government's climate plan, cancelled Ontario's cap and trade program and brought in a weaker emissions target.

The Ontario case builds on other climate litigation in Canada.

Ecojustice also supported a lawsuit against the B.C. government for its climate plan, which was dismissed earlier this year, and it is pursuing a lawsuit to reverse the approval of Bay du Nord, an oil project off the coast of Newfoundland.

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In 2020, the federal court dismissed a separate lawsuit by another group of young people against Ottawa over its climate plan.

The Canadian cases join a long and growing list of climate lawsuits being filed across the world. Apart from advancing legal theories that could help climate advocates challenge government policies, the cases can also help bring attention to climate issues.


Zoe Keary-Matzner is one of the young people suing the Ontario government over its climate plan, saying it does not do enough to protect people like her from the harms of the climate crisis. (Submitted by Zoe Keary-Matzner)

Toronto student Keary-Matzner was 12 when she first got involved with the case dismissed Tuesday.

"It definitely raises awareness about how governments contribute to the climate crisis and what their responsibilities are to protect their citizens," said Keary-Matzner, now in Grade 11.

'You can protest... even if you don't hold much power'

She hopes that regardless of the outcome, the case will inspire other people to take climate action.

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"I know that not everyone is going to sue their government, but there's just so many different ways that you can protest and organize and work to secure a better future, even if you don't hold much power," she said.

Ecojustice says it's ready to take the case to the Ontario Court of Appeal and eventually the Supreme Court of Canada. The group also highlighted important findings in Vermette's decision that could help them as they appeal to higher courts. Among them: that the case was a valid issue that could be decided in a court since it involved a specific government policy, namely Ontario's climate plan and targets.

Danielle Gallant, an Ecojustice lawyer working on the case, said this was a crucial milestone.

"This may sound like a basic issue, but all of the other Charter-based climate cases in Canada have so far failed to clear this hurdle, with courts finding the issues to be too political," Gallant said.

"And so this decision shows it's possible to hold the government accountable for its climate action through the courts."

This story, written by Inayat Singh, was originally published for CBC News.

Thumbnail image: A group of young Ontarians, supported by Ecojustice, filed a lawsuit the province of Ontario over what they say is climate change inaction. A judge dismissed the case Tuesday but not before criticizing the province's climate plan. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)