On 25 November 2019, seven Canadian young people and the NGO Ecojustice brought a case against the State of Ontario, arguing that it had failed to take adequate action to mitigate its greenhouse gas emissions and contesting the State’s “dangerously inadequate GHG reduction target” as set out under the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act of 2018. Under this legislation, Ontario aims to reduce GHG emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. To contest the adequacy of this target, and the previous repeal of the more ambitious Climate Change Act (with its target of 45% reductions by 2030), the applicants invoked sections 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom (the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right to equal protection under the law). Arguing that they have a serious and genuine interest in this case, which also impacts all Ontario youth and future generations, they noted that climate change will cause heat-related fatalities, harms to human health, increased fire activity and the spread of disease, increased flooding and other extreme weather events, harmful algal blooms and exposure to contaminants, harms to Indigenous peoples, and psychological harms and mental distress.
Noting the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and the leading role of developed countries under the Paris Agreement, the applicants argued that Ontario’s current emissions reductions target compromises their right to life, liberty and security of the person “in a serious and pervasive manner that does not accord with the principles of fundamental justice”. They furthermore submitted that the target violated the right to liberty of Ontario’s youth and future generations, because it impacted their ability to make choices about their futures. They invoked the principle of “societal preservation” and human dignity, and argued for the recognition of a right to a stable climate system. Concerning the right to equal protection under the law, they argued that youth and future generations are in a uniquely vulnerable situation given their age and exclusion from political participation and the fact that they will be disproportionately impacted by climate change.
Among other things, the applicants sought the invalidation of the existing emissions reductions targets and the rules for setting such targets, a declaration that it violates unwritten constitutional principles about avoiding harm, a recognition of the right to a stable climate system, and an order that Ontario must set out a science based GHG reduction target consistent with its share of global emissions.
Decision on admissibility:
On 12 November 2020, the Superior Court of Justice for Ontario rejected a motion from the government to dismiss the case. The government had invoked the absence of a right to a stable climate from the Charter, the plaintiffs’ alleged lack standing to represent future generations, and the absence of sufficient evidence or a reasonable cause of action.
A hearing in this case was heard from 12-14 September 2022.
On 14 April 2023, the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario delivered its judgment in the case. The Court found that, although the policies in question were justiciable given that the applicants had challenged specific state acts and legislation, the applicants had not established a violation of their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In her judgment, Justice Vermette noted that the issue of establishing Ontario’s “fair share” of the remaining carbon budget was not a justiciable issue, and “should be determined in another forum” (para. 109). Justice Vermette did consider it “indisputable that, as a result of climate change, the Applicants and Ontarians in general are experiencing an increased risk of death and an increased risk to the security of the person” (para. 120). However, she disagreed with the applicants’ characterization of the emissions reductions target as “authorizing, incentivizing, facilitating and creating the very level of dangerous GHG that will lead to the catastrophic consequences of climate change for Ontarians”, finding that “the target does not authorize or incentivize GHG” (para. 122).
While the target was not legally meaningless, and justiciable under the Charter, Justice Vermette found (contrary to the arguments of the applicants) that the question at issue was whether the Charter imposed positive obligations. Leaving this question open, albeit acknowledging that “the Applicants make a compelling case that climate change and the existential threat that it poses to human life and security of the person present special circumstances that could justify the imposition of positive obligations under section 7 of the Charter”, Justice Vermette found that any putative deprivation of Charter rights at stake was not contrary to “the principles of fundamental justice”, i.e. neither arbitrary nor grossly disproportionate. This test applies because the relevant right in the Charter, i.e. its Article 7, stipulates that “[e]veryone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”
Concerning the equality claim under Article 15 of the Charter, Justice Vermette found that Ontario’s climate policy did not distinguish based on age, but made a temporal distinction, and that accordingly there was no violation of that provision either.
- The original application is available in full from Climate Case Chart, as is the admissibility order.
- The judgment in the case is available here.
- A comment on the judgment in this case, as well as its context, is available from Christie A. MacLeod, Annafaye Dunbar, and Rosemarie Sarrazin (Miller Thomson) here.
Superior Court of Justice for Ontario, Mathur v. Ontario, 2023 ONSC 2316, 14 April 2023.
22 June 2023.