Climate Change Action in the Midst of a Pandemic
by Shawn Menard, City Councillor
While the last six months have been pandemic crisis mode across Ottawa, city staff and community activists have continued working on fulfilling our climate change commitments. In the spring of 2019, the City of Ottawa declared a climate change emergency. We joined a cohort of cities across Canada—and the globe—pledging to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The need to act was dramatically underscored by local natural disasters—the worst flooding of the Ottawa River on record, coming just two years after the last 100-year flood in 2017, and one year after an unprecedented tornado hit the region.
The climate emergency declaration was more than just symbolism. It was tied to a number of concrete actions, including a review and update of the Climate Change Master Plan, a commitment for a detailed implementation strategy, the development of a vulnerability assessment and climate resilience strategy, and a recognition of climate change as a strategic priority for the city.
Cities have influence over more than half of greenhouse gas emissions in the form of land use decisions, transportation patterns, energy conservation efforts and waste management. While the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions are not directly under the city’s control, the policy decisions we make shape everyday decisions like how to insulate your house, whether to drive or bike to the grocery store, and if you compost your organics or send them to the landfill.
In the last year and a half, Ottawa has taken significant steps toward building a more resilient, sustainable community. In January, Council unanimously approved the Climate Change Master Plan for mitigation and adaptation, with targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the community by 100% by 2050 and from city operations by 100% by 2040. In June, the city received local climate projections and is now starting work on a vulnerability assessment. And on October 20th, Environment Committee approved Energy Evolution, the city’s Community Energy Transition Strategy with a vision to transform Ottawa into a thriving city, powered by clean, renewable energy. Energy Evolution includes an energy and emissions model, financial analysis and 20 priority projects. If it is approved at Council on October 28th, we will move out of the study and planning phase and into implementation.
There are still a lot of questions however, the most pressing of which is dedicated funding. The city’s staff budget for fighting climate change is not guaranteed each year like other programs, but rather assembled from the Hydro Ottawa dividends surplus—any funds that exceed the $20 million that already goes to core city services. This budget is often threatened or reduced mid-way through the year, making work planning difficult, if not impossible.
Funding for implementation is an even bigger question—the city can’t front the $31.8 billion price tag for the Climate Change Plan without support from the senior levels of government. Upcoming budget deliberations this fall will be severely impacted by COVID-19 related costs, with many capital projects already deferred to 2021 or beyond.
The scope and scale required to achieve 100% emissions reduction is unprecedented in both action and investment. Success will require an all-hands-on-deck mentality from residents and businesses to eliminate fossil fuels from their buildings and transportation choices.
This will be good for the environment as well as our city’s prosperity. Achieving the greenhouse gas reduction targets will result in a net return to the Ottawa community of $12.4 billion. This is from increased local energy generation, energy savings and local job creation. It requires significant investment, however, especially in the coming decade. For those looking for more information or to get involved, check out the Energy Evolution page for details on the strategy, how to take private action and what to expect.