Positive First Steps in Toronto

Crossposted from Torontoist.

All of the controversy last week over city council’s non-decision regarding new taxes overshadowed another story with equal (if not more) importance. Just as a one-vote margin of defeat for a mayor is rare, so too is a unanimous vote for anything other than ceremonial or housekeeping motions. And yet, that’s exactly how Toronto’s climate change plan came to be adopted last Monday night, without a single dissenting voice. Given the importance of dealing with the climate crisis, the relative media-silence surrounding the city’s plan, and the fact that the wrong climate solutions can actually lead to even bigger problems, Toronto’s approach deserves a closer look.

First of all, it’s hard to find fault with the city’s objectives. The “Climate Change, Clean Air and Sustainable Energy Action Plan: Phase 1” [pdf highlights] sets emissions reduction targets from 1990 levels of 6% by 2012 (the Kyoto target), 30% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Those are very ambitious targets (Toronto calls them the “most ambitious in North America”) and they will not be easy to meet. They’re also the same targets that most climatologists agree are necessary in order to avoid the worst of climate change. To put those numbers in context, in 1990—chosen as a base year because it was the founding year of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—Toronto’s emissions were approximately 22 million tonnes of eCO2 (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year. Since then, Canada’s emissions have risen by 30%, which now puts Toronto’s emissions at around 28.6 million tonnes. In other words, what we’re really talking about is getting our emissions down to 20.7 million tonnes by 2012, 15.4 million tonnes by 2020, and 4.4 million tonnes by 2080.

The report’s many recommendations are broken down into twelve categories. Basically, here’s what the city hopes to accomplish.

The Live Green Toronto strategy is designed to provide incentives for individuals and communities, primarily to reduce their own energy consumption, but also to take other action to reduce their impact on our life support systems (sometimes referred to as “the environment”) such as installing green roofs and retrofitting old buildings. The details are vague and presumably yet to be worked out, but there’s a suggestion that the incentives would be in the form of loans to be repaid by the energy savings of new projects. This is also the section that contains the call to “investigate banning the use of two stroke engines” like the ones in some leaf blowers.

The most encouraging ideas in the Green Business Toronto section are the promotion of local food production and an eco-roofs program which would help businesses save money by reducing their air conditioning use, while also reducing the amount of unfiltered water that ends up in storm sewers (and, ultimately, our watershed). There’s also a call to “develop a business plan for a model green-industry business park,” which seems too ambiguous to get excited about just yet.

The city plans to Become the Renewable Energy Capital of Canada by installing small-scale renewable energy systems (including solar, wind, geothermal, and biogas) on 1500 city buildings and landfill sites. Other ideas include making it a legal right for homeowners to install renewable energy generation on their properties, and expanding deep lake water cooling capacity by 20%.

Given last week’s discouraging TTC news, it’s particularly hard to read the plan’s Sustainable Transportation strategy without rolling your eyes. The ideas are there (implement the bike plan, implement the transit city plan, create a new plan to make all the old plans work with each other), but we’ve heard it before. Some (slightly) newer ideas, on the other hand, include shifting taxis and limos to hybrids by 2015 (though you have to wonder why it would take that long) and investigating “a road pricing regime,” which we’re pretty sure is code for tolls.

At 17%, Toronto has a decent amount of tree canopy, but Doubling the Tree Canopy to 34% is still a neat idea that would pay real dividends. Remarkably, this section of the summary report uses 89 words to explain that this will be accomplished by planting more trees.

By the time we get to the Building Partnerships for Change section, things are starting to sound particularly fluffy. Build partnerships with business…invite stakeholders to participate…discuss forming research partnerships…you get the idea. Needs to be done, boring to read about.

Inspiring Action is the name of the plan’s public awareness strategy. The one idea here is to organize a charette to get Torontonians’ input on how to use the internets to spread the word.

Preparing for Climate Change deals with adaptation, which is where things necessarily get a bit more somber. In short, there is a certain level of climate change that we can no longer avoid, so even while we do everything we can to prevent things from getting even worse, we have to deal with the reality of what we’re already done. The city will plan for “response mechanisms [to] meet identified environmental changes, including health related impacts.”

All these ideas are well and good, but they’re pretty useless without Regular Monitoring and Reporting. The city will set benchmarks for progress and report on if they’re being met or not. (But who will report on the reporters?)

Filed under “lead by example” is the Greening City Operations strategy. Toronto will connect City Hall, Toronto Police Headquarters, and Union Station to the deep lake cooling system, phase out the use of incandescent heat light bulbs and improve on the existing Green Fleet Plan (which seeks to improve fuel efficiency in city vehicles).

Program Funding for all of this will add up to approximately $85 million, and be targeted towards a number of specific funds and projects.

Finally, Planning for a Sustainable Energy Future tackles community energy planning (as opposed to just renewable energy generation and individual building retrofits as mentioned above).

Ok, so there are a lot of words there. The big question, of course, is will these strategies and tactics accomplish the stated objectives? While we haven’t crunched the numbers, it seems clear that there are enough good ideas here, if properly executed, to meet and probably exceed the initial Kyoto target of 6% reductions by 2012. That’s a good start, and assuming we hold the feet of every single councilor who voted for this (i.e., all of them) to the fire to make sure it gets done, we can feel proud of this plan. In that case, our positive example—proof that emissions can be reduced in smart ways that don’t destroy the economy—will make it harder and harder for the federal government to ignore both the threat of the climate crisis and the great opportunity that its solutions present.

On the other hand, this is only the beginning. There will be many phases to go after “phase 1” is done. And just like any weight-loss program, the last pounds (er, tonnes) are the hardest to lose. We can’t buy into the marketing hype that tries to convince us that getting down to just 4.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the next 43 years will be easy, especially since Toronto’s population is projected to grow dramatically in that time. But it is possible, and it is necessary.

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