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Cutting city pollution

Jul 24, 2017

Both Hamilton and Toronto are formally committed to reducing their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 percent by mid-century, but the latter city has decided major immediate steps are required and approved a detailed plan on how to achieve this goal that may provide a blueprint for Hamilton. The Transform TO plan comes as hundreds of cities across the continent and many US state governments have increased their climate actions in response to the Trump withdrawal from the global Paris accord. 

City governments like Hamilton are facing mounting costs from erratic weather that has been linked to climate change such as this past spring and there are dire global warnings about how bad things could get. Data showing last month was the third warmest June in global records indicates that 2017 is on track to repeat the big average temperature jumps of the last two years despite the absence of the El Nino weather pattern.

Heat extremes, extended droughts and accompanying extreme forest fire losses are taking place in many parts of the world including Europe, California, British Columbia, the southern US following similar conditions in Australia during the southern hemisphere’s summer earlier this year. The United Nations has declared an unprecedented quadruple famine that threatens starvation for up to 20 million people in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen.

 “The imperative for action is urgent,” argues Toronto’s emissions plan adopted earlier this month. “Municipal investments and policy decisions in the next five years have the potential to lock-in high or low levels of carbon emissions for up to a century. Worldwide, cities are already grappling with the impacts of climate change, including disproportionate burdens on their most vulnerable residents, and heavy costs to their budgets to recover from infrastructure damage caused by extreme weather events.”

The Toronto plan is ambitious – calling for 65 percent cuts across the city by 2030 based on the 1990 baseline used by most of the world. That’s much higher than the Canadian government’s 30 percent target for the same date and the latter uses 2005 as the base year which means it is really only a three percent cut from 1990 levels. Hamilton is formally aiming for a 50 percent cut by 2030 but also uses the 2005 baseline.

Achieving that goal will require detailed steps from city hall that so far haven’t appeared. The latest report last October said by 2014 Hamilton emissions were down 17 percent but it wasn’t able to explain why that had risen from the 26 percent decline reported two years earlier. The 2012 number is still being promoted on the city website.

It appears that most of the reductions have come from industrial closures or cutbacks while the residential emissions were almost unchanged and the commercial sector had actually gone up. Staff say the next report will show better results.  

Toronto’s plan calls for all new buildings to be “designed and built to near-zero GHG emissions by 2030” and sets 2026 to achieve that for city-owned facilities. Existing buildings across Toronto are to be “retrofitted to the highest emission reduction technically feasible” to achieve at least a 40 percent energy performance improvement over today by 2050, and ten years earlier for city-owned facilities including social housing.

By 2050 all transit and personal vehicles will need to be run by “low or zero-carbon energy sources” in the Toronto plan and “significant active transportation infrastructure investment” will allow residents to make three-quarters of trips of less than five kilometres by walking or cycling. That’s a long way from the latest Hamilton statistics which show nearly two-thirds of trips even as short as one kilometre are still made by car.

“In a low-carbon Toronto the transportation system will be transformed and there is the potential for 17% of people to walk, 28% to cycle, 23% to take transit, and only 32% to drive to work.” states the Transform TO plan.

The “lead by example” component of Transform TO requires 24 megawatts of renewable energy to be installed on city-owned facilities and lands by 2020, including 56 new solar voltaic installations this year. Nearly half of city-owned vehicles are to be low-carbon by 2030. That’s also the target date for net zero waste at all city-owned facilities.

The plan acknowledges that the measurement methods don’t represent the actual carbon footprint because it doesn’t count air travel or emissions from the consumption of imported goods by Torontonians.

“Consumption-based inventories typically result in higher emissions on a per capita basis than sector-based inventories in 'consumer cities' like Toronto, and the opposite is true for cities in the Global South which are producing goods for consumers in the North,” notes the staff report for Transform TO. 

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