Destructive storms that take out power for days. Floods that force rivers over their banks. Heatwaves in early spring. The climate is changing, and we’re feeling it. The question is no longer whether the effects of climate change are here, or what we should do, the question is now: Are we doing enough?
Climate change is the result of global forces, which can make solutions seem out of reach at the local level. But cities can play an important role in taking action.
Andrea Flowers is the head of the climate change and resiliency department at the City of Ottawa. She says cities have a hand, either directly or indirectly, in controlling about half of the country’s emissions. Directly, it’s responsible for the emissions from its transit fleet, energy use by its buildings, and waste policies. Indirectly, the city controls things like planning: where to expand roads and where to build homes.
But climate initiatives compete with other interests around the council table, and with a limited budget they often end up low on the list of priorities.
“I think that it is easy to pit [city departments] against each other,” Flowers says. “The reality is, we can’t actually separate those things. There will be higher costs to our infrastructure, there will be higher costs to our residents, our communities, and our businesses if we are not sufficiently prepared for climate change.”
Sana Badruddin of Ecology Ottawa, a grassroots non-profit focused on climate change, says “Cities generate enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, because there are more people there. But that also makes cities a place where there’s the highest potential to fight climate change.”
The city has already put forward a plan with ambitious targets, both for the city as a whole and through its own operations. The goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, and be fully net-zero by 2050. The municipal government wants to halve its own emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero — meaning the amount of carbon released is equal to the amount removed — by 2040. Known as the Energy Evolution plan, the strategy focuses on getting more electric vehicles on the road, transitioning its fleet away from fossil fuels, retrofitting buildings, and diverting waste away from its landfills.
Badruddin says this plan is crucial to meet the city’s targets, but action is about more than having targets. “This strategy, the Energy Evolution plan, it needs funding to be able to do any of the things that it’s set out to do. Otherwise, it’s just empty words,” she says.
The city estimates it will require investments of about $1.6 billion per year to meet its targets. But stable funding is an issue, because money comes from dividends paid by Hydro Ottawa. The 2022 budget, for example, initially set aside only $800,000, with the late addition of $1 million in onetime funding.
“To meet Ottawa’s reduction targets and build resiliency to our changing climate, the next council will need to provide consistent funding and staff resources to implement numerous projects,” Flowers says.
Angela Keller-Herzog, executive director of Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability, says it’s important to weigh the benefits of climate change projects, both for the planet and for the balance sheet.
“A lot of the investments in what you could call climate action have returns,” Keller-Herzog says. She references the project to electrify the city’s vehicle fleet: while there would be a large initial investment, over time the city would be paying lower maintenance fees, as electric vehicles typically require less upkeep, and no longer paying gas bills.
A similar situation can be seen in the city’s own retrofitted buildings, as increased efficiency brings lower energy costs. The city estimates that by 2050, after a total investment of $52.6 billion, they would see a return of $87.7 billion.
Climate action isn’t all high-tech projects. Sometimes it’s just about making neighbourhoods more liveable. Jayson MacLean, chair of Sustainable Living Ottawa East, points to one of the big worries of people in Old Ottawa East: the tree canopy. The massive storm that blew through the city this past spring highlighted how important — and how fragile — trees can be. “And when they come down it’s a big deal,” he says. This summer, his organization conducted a canopy survey in the neighbourhood and gave away young trees to be planted in the area.
“What I would like to see from councillors coming in, and from the candidates for mayor, is for all to have climate as their main focus,” MacLean says.
Badruddin says that in this election candidates need to have a specific plan for funding climate change projects in order to be taken seriously. “They need to talk about funding the climate change master plan, in particular the Energy Evolution plan. Funding our transition towards net zero — if funding is not there, then what is the city doing to fight climate change?”