The House is on Fire

The House is on Fire
Posted on March 29, 2019 | Angela Keller-Herzog | Written on March 29, 2019
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A few days ago, a stunning 1.4 million children walked out of class in 2,233 cities and towns in 128 countries to protest lack of action by governments, political leaders, and adults in general on runaway climate change. “We need a whole new way of thinking,” said 16-year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. “We proved that it does matter what you do and that no one is too small to make a difference.”

No government is too small, either. Much can be done by individuals at the local level, and much is actually being done, with cities such as Kingston, Hamilton, Halifax, and Vancouver declaring climate change an emergency. Quebec led the way last November, when the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal (representing half of Quebec’s population) adopted a climate emergency resolution, followed by 248 other municipalities in that province. 
 
The aim of these resolutions has been twofold: to build grassroots action to combat climate change, and to pressure local governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their own jurisdictions. 
 
The City of Ottawa, however, has been hanging back—not a good look for the capital of Canada. 
 
A Smart Energy office, to be established this year as Corporate Energy Management & Strategic Procurement with one staff member, is meant to monitor energy consumption and attempt to find efficiencies.  But there is no indication that any money saved will be allocated to fund the city’s Energy Evolution strategy—an orderly shift to renewable energy—approved by Council in 2017. 
 
Money for implementation has been only grudgingly doled out and there is no public information on whether the listed ‘action items’ are actually being implemented. Questions by residents’ associations to the City’s environment committee in February the context of budget 2019 remained unanswered.
 
It’s been a steady uphill climb for the Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability (CAFES), a local network of representatives of over 50 community groups and citizens’ associations. CAFES has been engaging with the City of Ottawa on environmental issues since its inception in 2010, and is currently pushing for climate action to be made a formal Term of Council Priority.  
 
It’s taken two years for CAFES to persuade the city to even start tracking and reporting annually on our greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a welcome and important first step: the city cannot manage what it doesn’t measure. 
 
There is no indication in the city’s budget for 2019 of any concerted strategy to move to a job-creating low-carbon economic development path or put a climate lens to municipal capital asset management. Although Ottawa is proceeding with light rail and some important new bike lanes have been installed, there is no mention of creating a greener and more rider-attractive public bus transit system. While city hall claims that LRT will result in significant reductions in emissions, the methodology and assumptions behind this claim are not transparent. 
 
By what logic will there be fewer cars on the road if transit fares are planned to increase year-on-year, ridership is already declining, and the February ‘Ottawa Transit Challenge’ revealed huge problems with service and convenience? Other cities are planning for electric buses, improved service and last mile connections to transit, and reduced (if not free) fares. Not Ottawa.
 
Buildings are another large source of emissions:  there is nothing about a municipal green building standard, or help for residents to finance home energy-saving retrofits.
“Resilience” is the new code word for whether we are ready to cope with local climate disasters: tornados, floods, power outages, droughts etc.. How many residents in Ottawa would know how to cope with a power outage of over 48 hours in winter? City staff were supposed to start working on a Resilience (or climate adaptation) plan in 2014 – we have not seen it yet.
 
Mayor Jim Watson has shown little interest in a climate emergency motion so far, saying he doesn’t believe in aspirational goals. But an emergency declaration is a meaningful first step in mandating leadership. It would help city councillors and committees hamstrung by narrow mandates step up for action on a multidimensional issue. And obviously, it sets the tone—one of urgency.
 
In Vancouver, for example, a climate emergency motion passed unanimously in January and, in the spirit of that motion, public transit was made free for those under 18 during the same Council session. City staff there will be charged with finding new ways to cut back greenhouse gas emissions and set new targets.
 
Capital Ward Councillor Shawn Menard is expecting to introduce a climate emergency motion at the city’s environment committee meeting on April 16. Among other things, it would direct city staff to report back within 90 days on proposals for action and to produce a Climate Resilience plan to assist Ottawa residents to cope with climate-related disasters. 
 
The motion makes sense, and must be adopted by the committee and the full Ottawa City Council without delay. Global warming is accelerating; political complacency by the adults cannot continue. As Greta Thunberg says, our house is on fire. Do we have the political will to help put out the blaze? 

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AngelaKeller-Herzog's picture

Angela used to work in international development for the former Canadian International Development Agency. Just over a year ago, she pulled off a career change, moving from international development to local... More