How one Toronto neighbourhood is coming together to fight climate change faster for less money - Toronto Star

Toronto Star

By Francine Kopun

The city hopes that tackling climate change at the neighbourhood level in the Pocket will help drive retrofits and reduce the cost.

Architect Paul Dowsett remembers the day five years ago when a neighbour dropped by with a great big idea.

Retired York University professor David Langille wanted to know if it would be possible to get all 1,100 homes in their Danforth-area neighbourhood, called the Pocket, off fossil fuels and become the first fully green community in Canada.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Retrofitting the city’s 436,117 single-family homes is part of city council’s ambitious TransformTO plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2040.

As the number of climate change disasters climbs — heat domes and derechos; knee-deep hail in Mexico — what seemed like a wild idea five years ago is nudging closer to reality.

The costs of climate disasters, including floods, storms and wildfires, have risen in Canada from an average of $8.3 million per event in the 1970s to $112 million per event from 2010 to 2019. That’s a 1,250 per cent increase, according to a report by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices

Langille’s great big idea is now the Pocket Change Project, and an important component of TransformTO.

While there are individuals across the city, including Coun. Mike Layton, who have already invested in greening their homes, it isn’t happening fast enough to meet the city’s own targets for lowering greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2040.“We have to accelerate it from one at a time to 100 at a time,” Dowsett said.

The city hopes that tackling climate change at the neighbourhood level in the Pocket will serve as an example and drive retrofits across Toronto, allowing for economies of scale, bulk buys and discount services.

Toronto homes account for more than 30 per cent of the city’s total building emissions, making them one of the most important sectors for the net zero strategy.

There are now more than 20 people in the Pocket signed up to become “Change Makers,” meaning they have committed to doing as much as they can to get their own homes to net zero emissions. Another 10 have expressed interest.

“We’re getting lots of inquiries. It seems to be taking off,” says Julia Morgan, communications lead for the Pocket Change Project.

It didn’t happen overnight. The Pocket Community Association spent years preparing the community for the idea: holding eco fairs at the local park, contests for the greenest street, and kitchen parties to disseminate information on going green.

“After those parties, it was easy for us to ask people for their energy information,” says Langille, now the co-ordinator of the Pocket Change Project.

Coun. Paula Fletcher (Ward 14, Toronto Danforth), whose ward includes the Pocket, persuaded city council to put $10,000 toward the effort to educate people and bring them on board.

The learning curve is steep. Some people don’t understand how their home heating system works, and are being asked to invest tens of thousands of dollars in mysterious new equipment.

That hasn’t deterred the residents of the Pocket, who have a history of supporting environmental causes. Bounded by the TTC’s Greenwood service yards to the east and railway tracks to the south, residents have repeatedly helped elect representatives with strong green platforms, including the late former NDP leader Jack Layton.

Peter Tabuns, the former head of Greenpeace Canada, is their MPP.

Pocket residents Lori Zucchiatti O’Neill and her husband Michael O’Neill are planning to do it all — new windows, a house wrap, Rockwool insulation, solar panels on the roof, a cold-climate air-source heat pump, a heat-pump water heater and all new appliances.

The solar panels will feed the heat pump all the energy it requires most of the time, except for some of the deeper winter freezes.

O’Neill and another volunteer also hold regular meetings with the other Change Makers, to exchange information about how things are going.

“It reinforces the idea that you’re not alone,” he says.

Pocket Change supporters know their neighbourhood is comparatively affluent and particularly environmentally aware — a relatively small subset of society.

“People don’t have to spend $50,000 or $75,000 or $100,000 to have a positive impact on their greenhouse gas emissions,” says Zucchiatti O’Neill.

“Based on socioeconomic status, maybe what happens in a given neighbourhood is considerably more modest, but that’s OK as long as they’re moving in the right direction.”

Funding is a vital plank if the city is planning to go through with TransformTO in time for 2040, says Sarah Buchanan, campaigns director at Toronto Environmental Alliance.

“Frankly, we need a budget to match that level of commitment. We’re not seeing that right now. So that’s something that needs to come next term — the city has got to step up and provide funding for those 26,000 homes a year to be retrofitted, because that’s no small feat.”

She would like to see a small property tax levy implemented, specifically dedicated towards achieving the goals laid out by TransformTO.

“We desperately need it. It would be an extremely small amount for people to pay, essentially towards transforming their future,” she says, adding that Toronto can’t go it alone — all three levels of government need to pitch in.

She says that while the task is enormous, she is encouraged by steps city council has taken since voting in December to speed up implementation of the plan.

Since then, the city has set up an accountability strategy that includes regular progress reports, and has started putting together a Climate Advisory Group, made up of 20 people who live, work, study or do business in Toronto, to guide the implementation of the TransformTO strategy.

The deadline to apply was July 20.

Other neighbourhoods are doing what they can to go green.

Two years ago the Harbord Village Resident’s Association launched a net zero carbon committee, chaired by long-time resident Tim Grant, who has run for the Green Party five times, most recently in the 2021 federal election.

Their goal was to see if they could be the first neighbourhood to meet the Paris Climate targets of 50 per cent greenhouse gas reduction by 2030. It was a 10-year project.

There are a lot of brick-faced Victorian homes in the neighbourhood, built in the late 1800s, and many are heritage-protected, and so cannot be cladded at the front. But the back and sides of these homes can be cladded, and there are loans and subsidies available for those who want to do so, Grant says.

But to start, the residents’ association focused on bulk-buying programs for things like induction stoves and electric bikes. Grant believes the interest in cladding will follow.

The residents’ association has a deal with Best Buy for discounts on several different induction stove products, available to anyone in the city who calls company and asks about it. To qualify, they have to fill out a form on the Harbord Village website.

The Harbord association has also focused on getting people to swap out their cars for electric bicycles.

The problem everywhere is supply. There aren’t enough electric bikes, Grant says. There aren’t enough architects or contractors skilled in the science and craft of lowering greenhouse gases. It can be difficult to find an energy auditor.

Dowsett’s group is working with Building Up, an organization that trains equity-deserving people in the renovation construction trades on how to add exterior air sealing, insulation retrofits and window replacements, in order to build a team of knowledgeable trades.

He expects prices for equipment will drop as the technology improves and more units are sold.

“It’s like when you go to Best Buy, buy a TV and as you’re taking the best one out the front door, you know that a better, cheaper one is coming in the back door at the same time.”

Dowsett hopes the Pocket Change Project can get funding to become a staffed retrofit co-ordination service provider for homeowners across the city, to streamline the process for other neighbourhoods.

One problem, Dowsett says, is that homeowners have to begin the journey with a home energy audit, to discover where, for example, heat is leaking out or cold is pouring in, but the audits are written by professionals immersed in the language of energy conservation, which can be impenetrable to laymen.

“Homeowners have absolutely no idea what to do with it,” says Dowsett. “And the energy auditors don’t really know how to do the things to your house to achieve the goals outlined on the energy audit, which is all about just reducing energy.

“We know that the enemy here is not energy. The enemy here is carbon emissions. So it’s important that the retrofit co-ordination service providers steer the homeowners towards carbon emissions reduction rather than just energy reduction, because you can do energy reduction but not reduce your carbon emissions. You can actually increase them if you do it wrong.”

Dowsett is able and willing to pay the price for his own home retrofit, and would support a property tax increase if it helps people who can’t afford to retrofit on their own.

“That part doesn’t bother me because I think that, you know, buying another planet is much more expensive.”

For more information

Here some sources for information on grants, subsidies and low-interest loans for green home improvement projects.

Both The Pocket Change Project and the Harbour Village Resident’s Association Net Zero Carbon Project have a wealth of information about going green on their websites. The HVRA has a link to a discount on induction stoves.

To qualify for rebates and savings, residents must begin the process by getting an assessment of how their home currently uses energy, and help identify retrofits to improve energy efficiency.

Both the HVRA and the Pocket Change Project have lists of energy advisers to contact here and here as does Enbridge

The federal Canada Greener Homes Initiative provides grants for greener homes.

Low-interest loans of up to $125,000 are available from the City of Toronto, through the Home Energy Loan Program

This program by the Independent Energy System Operator helps income-eligible electricity consumers in Ontario lower their costs.

Enbridge also offers rebates, some of which are climate-friendly, others which include reducing, rather than eliminating, fossil fuel use.

On the street where you live

TransformTO net zero imagines a Toronto that looks much different in 2040 than it does today.

Here are some of the other changes in store:

LED street lights: Our life at night is going to be whiter and better-lit.

The city is working on a plan to switch all 171,000 street and expressway lights to LED lighting, at an estimated cost of $180 million. The switch has been approved in principle by council. Transportation services and Toronto Hydro are working on an implementation plan.

Although LEDs are more expensive than the high-pressure sodium lights currently in use in Toronto, they are more energy efficient, provide better illumination and require less maintenance.

Toronto Hydro estimates the conversion will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by five to seven per cent in the city.

The arguments against LEDs mostly centre on the amount of blue light they emit — certain levels of which have been shown to disrupt circadian rhythms and sleep.

Some people don’t like the hue of the light, which is whiter than the orange and yellow effects produced by high-pressure sodium fixtures.

The brightness can be adjusted, but lower settings are not as energy efficient, nor do they provide the same quality of illumination.

A majority of North American cities have already made the switch, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Vancouver and Montreal.

In some cities, the brightness of the LED lights has been dialed down, from 4,000K to 3,000K, following complaints from residents.

Gas appliances: To get to net zero, fossil fuels, primarily natural gas used in homes and buildings and gasoline used in cars, need to be completely phased out by 2040.

So, in addition to getting a heat pump to heat your home and water, you may have to say goodbye to the gas stove you’ve been taught to love above all other cooking methods.

But Shonah Chalmers, a culinary professor at Humber College and Toronto branch president of the Culinary Federation, has compared cooking on gas and induction stoves, and doesn’t think it makes a difference in the finished product.

“I mean, a pan on heat is a pan on heat,” said Chalmers.

“It’s learning how to work with it and using the right kinds of pots and pans that work with induction and will still give you that nice browning, to get the caramelization that you want,” said Chalmers.

“But it tastes really great. It doesn’t taste like steamed meat, because that’s what everyone is worried about.”

Tree canopy: It’s not all about giving stuff up. Getting the city to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 includes increasing the city’s tree canopy by 40 per cent.

Trees help the city get to net zero in two ways: They shade buildings and people from the sun and so reduce the energy required for air conditioning, and they pull carbon out of the air as they grow.

The plan calls for expanding and improving the urban park system, particularly in areas where it is currently lacking, and improving the ecological health of the ravine system.

Those in the northwestern and northeastern neighbourhoods, which have suffered disproportionately under COVID-19 and from gun violence, have had the lowest tree coverage for at least the last decade, according to studies conducted by the city of Toronto

That relative lack of cooling shade means that the predominantly racialized and low-income communities are also more susceptible to hotter temperatures during the summer, according to data that shows extreme heat is also distributed unequally in Toronto. It’s a disparity likely to sharpen with global warming.

“One of the strategic goals of the plan is to achieve equitable distribution of the urban forest, increasing canopy coverage where it is most needed,” said a spokesperson from the city’s parks, forestry and recreation department.

There will also be an emphasis in areas with a low canopy including in 21 of the city’s 31 Neighbourhood Improvement Areas, the city spokesperson said. Regent Park, Black Creek and Humbermede, which all have a cover of less than 20 per cent, have been identified as improvement areas.

This article was reposted from the Toronto Star This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on Saturday August 27 2022