Getting our green groove back

It's sink-or-swim time for cities, and if Toronto can get out of its own way, we may lead the planetary rescue

The words scattered across the screen read a little like a movie director’s shot list for next summer’s apocalypse flick: rising seas, floods, fires, droughts, death, injury, eco-system loss. Only this isn’t a script.

The warnings in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report are about as explicit as scientists get: climate change is here, and if we don’t get a grip on greenhouse gases and start readying ourselves, the impacts will be downright ugly and irreversible.

In a country whose federal head is buried in the oil sands, the news can prompt an earth-loving soul to call for Prozac. How are we to take action when our prime minister is basically the fossil fuel industry’s Monica Lewinsky?

The answer is tucked amidst the report’s 2,000 pages: the secret to planetary success lies right under our noses – in urban centres. With scientists calling on cities to shore themselves up and sink or swim, one thing’s certain: it’s time Toronto got its green groove back.

Cities don’t just pack in 50 per cent of the world’s population, but they’re also responsible for an astonishing 70 to 75 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. This is, after all, where we burn fossil fuels en masse to keep our homes and offices toasty and move millions from point A to B.

Unlike federal governments, cities across the globe taking progressive action and charting a greener future. Those that don’t, warns the IPCC, may be blindsided by searing heat waves, floods, blackouts – the kinds of events Toronto already knows up close and personal.

Of course, T.O. used to be one of those green champs. Then Rob Ford was elected.

“We’ve gone from being leaders to laggards,” says Toronto Environmental Alliance’s Franz Hartmann. Back in the day, Toronto was known for rolling out innovations like the green roof bylaw, aggressive tree canopy expansion and firm climate change plans. That’s when we pledged to be North America’s greenest city.

This year, Edmonton (yes, oil-country Edmonton) won the title of Earth Hour Capital of Canada. Tellingly, Toronto didn’t even compete. And now Vancouver (which has the lowest greenhouse gas footprint of any major North American city) is the one with an official action plan to be the greenest city in the world, not just the continent.

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, we’ve axed funds for tree planting (essential to flood protection) and pruning to reduce storm damage (see ice storm 2013), let our Sustainable Energy Strategy languish and are otherwise coasting on last decade’s green programs. Says Hartmann, “Given the information that came out of the IPCC report, not moving forward is a sin. So much needs to be done, and so little has happened.”

Toronto was still able to exceded its Kyoto target cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. But that’s mostly because the province phased out coal.

Julia Langer of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund says sticking with the status quo isn’t going to take us where we need to go to meet our next two targets: a 30 per cent drop by 2020 and an 80 per cent chop by 2050. Says Langer, “We’re going to have to redouble our efforts.”

It’s time for Toronto to get back in the green race.

At this point, a chunky 60 per cent of T.O.’s GHGs comes from buildings, mostly from burning natural gas for heat. So tackling leaky old buildings is the “biggest, fastest and cheapest” opportunity for reducing GHG emissions, says Langer. Plus, it’s the only way to lower our bills as natural gas prices spike 40 per cent. Councillor Mike Layton’s new home retrofit funding pilot is a good model, giving homeowners low-interest energy-saving loans for retrofits, and if you sell your house, the new homeowner takes over retrofit payment costs – and benefits. We just need to green-light that for the whole city and ramp up tower renewal programs.

U of T civil engineering prof Chris Kennedy says Toronto also needs to start pushing for beefed-up building codes and pull a Sweden. That means emulating cities like Kristianstad that now spends half what it did on heat by heating our buildings with biogas from sewage.

Jose Etcheverry, York U prof and co-chair of the Sustainable Energy Initiative, says it’s all about seeing the exciting potential in unleashing our creativity.

At a March 25 Earth Hour panel called Out of The Dark, Into the Future, Etcheverry said it’s time for Toronto to embrace 100 per cent renewable energy targets, like Frankfurt, Munich and San Francisco.

And while we’re brainstorming renewable road maps for our buildings, using solar, biogas, ground-source heat and beyond, Etcheverry, who plugs his car into a solar charging station at his home, says our cars urgently need to take the renewables road, too.

Vehicular transport is the fastest-growing source of emissions in Toronto. We need an investment in public transit to take the pressure off our lungs and roads. But GHG-wise, we should shift to electric cars en masse. The city can lead the way by electrifying our cabs and city fleet and instituting London-style congestion charges.

But the IPCC cautions that urban centres also need to adapt for worse to come. It says, “Action in urban centres is essential to successful global climate change adaptation.” There’s no denying that getting this city ready will mean opening up the public coffers – not a politically popular conversation at the moment.

“It’s like a leaky roof,” says Hartmann. It’s easy to ignore, but we need “23 votes on council that say the right thing to do is invest in the leaky roof right now,” because investments now are cheaper than repairing future destruction.

The insurance sector certainly agrees. Last year, extreme weather cost the insurance industry a record $3.2 billion, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada. July’s flash flooding in Toronto alone cost $940 million in damage. Insurers gathered in Vancouver last month and called on us to “adapt to our future environment or we will suffer the economic costs.”

That means more tree planting and maintenance, upgraded sewer systems, localizing our energy sources so when extreme weather hits, we’re not relying on electricity wired in from hundreds of kilometres away, leaving our towers cooking in the dark when we average 40 days of humidex over 40°C in 2040.

As former Toronto mayor and current WWF CEO David Miller tells NOW after the Out Of the Dark, Into the Future panel, “All these solutions produce jobs, a better place to live with cleaner air that’s more interesting and fun.” As the World Bank’s former special adviser on urban issues and past chair of the C40 (a network of global megacities committed to addressing climate change), Miller’s witnessed first-hand how urban centres around the globe are stepping up in creative and inspired ways. Toronto, on his watch, used to be one of them.

The future of the city rests, quite accessibly, in all of our hands. It’s time to crank up the pressure on the people knocking on your door for your vote. Tell them you want action, you want vision and you want Toronto to elbow its way back onto the path to a bright, green, thriving future. | @ecoholicnation

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