Cities take lead in climate change battle - The Star

City of Toronto is asking residents for their feedback as it drafts a new plan to eliminate 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

By Dana Flavelle

The Star, Nov 27th 2015

Eliminating 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 won't be as easy as eliminating the first 25 per cent of carbon emissions, much of which disappeared when the province closed the last coal-fired generating station in Ontario in April 2014.

What would you be willing to do to avoid 44-degree heat waves in summer, damaging ice storms in the winter and massive flash flooding at other times of the year?

That’s the question the City of Toronto is asking residents as it drafts a new plan, called TransformTO, to eliminate 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

It won’t be easy. Certainly not as easy as eliminating the first 25 per cent of carbon emissions, much of which disappeared when the province closed the last coal-fired generating station in Ontario in April 2014.

But climate change advocates say the time is ripe to build a new consensus around the cost and behavioural changes required to avert the even higher cost of doing nothing.

“For many years, under the Stephen Harper government, there hasn’t been much focus on cities. There’s been a greater focus on the resource industries. Now, we recognize that 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban centres. So what we do in cities is incredibly important to meeting our climate objectives,” says Cherise Burda, director of Ryerson University’s City Building Institute.

At the high-profile climate change talks in Paris that start Monday, cities including Toronto will have a huge presence.

Though any agreement on climate change goals — such as limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius — will be made by the heads of state, there’s growing recognition that cities play a vital role.

The former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, now a special UN envoy for cities and climate change, along with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo are hosting a local leaders’ summit during the Paris talks. Scheduled for Dec. 4, it’s expected to attract 1,000 city mayors.

Cities generate 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions for the simple reason that they are where most people live and work and play. Municipalities are also the first responders in times of extreme weather events, restoring downed power lines and flooded basements.

The City of Toronto eco-roof program provides incentives to building owners to add rooftop gardens like this one at 80 Front St. E.

And cities directly influence things like car and public transit usage through urban design and planning. 

“City governments are vital partners in climate change disruption talks,” said Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, a non-profit advocacy group. “Hopefully, the Paris talks will energize the Prime Minister and the Ontario Premier to sit down with our city partners and ensure they have adequate resources.”

Community involvement is crucial to meeting the challenges ahead, city officials say.

Through TransformTO, a two-year project approved by city council in May, Toronto is reaching out to residents and business for ideas on how to meet its next climate change goals.

The turnout at public meetings so far this year has been overwhelming.

More than 360 people jammed the first meeting of the city’s parks and recreation subcommittee on climate change mitigation and adaptation last March, said subcommittee chair and Toronto city councillor Gord Perks.

The meeting heard from a group representing Toronto churches, synagogues and other faith-based organizations that had thrown open their doors to seniors, homeless youth and people without heat and light during the ice storm of December 2013.

Susan and Gordon Fraser, directors of The Ravina Project, wanted to share their expertise in converting a 1920s-era Toronto home into a model of energy efficiency.

And Robert Shirkey, founder of Our Horizon, a climate change organization in Toronto, had this simple suggestion: Make gasoline retailers put climate change and air pollution warning labels on their pumps.

This week, city staff will host a public consultation on transportation on Thursday at Scarborough City Hall, seeking ideas on how to tackle the next frontier in greenhouse gas emissions.

“I’m increasingly optimistic about Canadians’ willingness to ask themselves the tough questions. The huge outpouring of support at the city of Toronto round tables really gives me hope,” Perks said in an interview.

After exceeding its initial target by a wide margin, the city faces a much greater challenge getting to its final destination — 80 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Emissions are down by about 25 per cent compared to 1990 levels, much of it since 2007, when city council under former mayor David Miller set a goal of cutting emissions by just 6 per cent as of 2012.

The development of the waterfront is one of the climate change initiatives the city of Toronto has undertaken in recent years.

Toronto got a big hand from the provincial government, which closed Ontario’s last coal-fired electrical generation plant in April 2014. But that also meant future gains would have to come from something other than electricity conservation, as turning off lights is no longer achieving big greenhouse gas savings.

The city also made big strides in reducing methane gas emissions from landfill, which are 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide emissions.

Toronto retrofitted many of its own buildings to make them more energy efficient and provided incentives to private owners to do the same. It has added bike lanes and encouraged car pooling to curb transportation emissions.

Altogether, those efforts have cut 5 million tonnes of carbon emissions from the city’s atmosphere. But getting to “80 by 50” will mean eliminating another 15 million tonnes.

“There’s no magic bullet,” says Jim Baxter, director of environment and energy and city hall. “We’re basically going to have to engage individuals.”

The cost of doing nothing is high, environmental advocates warn.

The year 2013 saw both a torrential downpour and a devastating ice storm in Toronto, which cost billions to clean up and lead to higher insurance premiums for homeowners. Trees were damaged, basements flooded, roads were washed out and people froze in the dark for days.

If current trends continue, the city would see a dramatic increase in the number of damaging heat waves, severe thunderstorms and other extreme weather events, Hartmann says.

“People keep saying we can’t afford to do the things we need to do to get ready for climate change. We can’t compare it to doing nothing because the reality is climate change is going to cost us a huge amount of money,” Hartmann said.


One of the biggest challenges as the city aims to cut greenhouse-gas emissions is transportation. Cars and trucks account for 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, roughly as much as buildings. And while the city’s overall carbon footprint was declining, transportation emissions rose by 10 to 15 per cent.

Trucks are a key driver as manufacturers shift to just-in-time inventories, city staff said. “There’s a lot of older trucks on the road and they’re among the worst polluters,” notes says Jim Baxter, director of environment and energy and city hall.

“If we’re adding 100,000 people to the GTA every year, think about how many cars and trucks are going to be on the road and how many greenhouse gasses are going to be associated with that type of expansion,” said Cherise Burda, director of Ryerson University’s City Building Institute.

The solutions aren’t simple. Major public transit initiatives, like Metrolinx’s Big Move, costs billions and take years to develop, while things like road tolls aimed at discouraging car use can be politically unpopular.

Cities can address the problem through urban planning, increasing density along public transit corridors, for example.

But much of the car pollution in the city comes from suburban commuters, says Marianne Hatzopoulou, a professor with the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute. “If we want to do something that makes a dent, that will achieve big reductions, we have to look at the region, rather than the city itself.

“I’m all in favour of walking and cycling, they’re great for health, great for pollution. But it’s not going to achieve the reductions we need,” Hatzopoulou says.

Much of Toronto's car pollution comes from suburban commuters. Postwar it was about driving away from the city and commuting in, which is becoming a lot less economical.

Getting to “80 by 50” will require major changes, advocates say. Most of the technology already exists. The challenge will be winning public support for additional investments and also getting people to change their behaviour, says Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

“We live in an age where people are very reluctant to support governments that increase taxes. For a variety of reasons: ‘They can’t afford it. Governments just waste money. You can’t trust the damn politicians.’ But what people don’t realize is the price of doing nothing is going to be orders of magnitude greater,” Hartmann says.

Advocates argue the shift to more green energy will be good for the economy. Planting trees, retrofitting homes and building more public transit will create jobs and economic activity.

“Achieving a low-carbon future is not one of sacrifice. It’s not giving up things. It’s changing the way we do things, adopting the technology available to live in a low-carbon future,” said Mark Bekkering, manager, implementation and support in the city’s environment and energy division.

Younger people are already making the choice, moving into the city to live within walking distance of work, Baxter notes.

“I think now is the opportunity to move it up and out,” said Julia Langer, chief executive officer of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. “There’s sector-wide wide support and interest and a view that there’s opportunity in transformation to a low-carbon economic and the fact there’s downside risk to not doing that.”

“We’ve been designing our cities for so long based on the endless road. Postwar it was about driving away from the city and commuting in,” Burda said. “It’s not economical anymore. People are frustrated with congestion. We’ve reached the end of the road in so many ways.”


See the original article at: