Living greener in Toronto

It’s cities that have made the biggest strides on global warming. How Toronto gets its eco mojo back starts with you, dear citizen.

Listen up. It’s time Toronto got back into its former role of being a world leader on climate change. 

I don’t get why climate change isn’t a big ballot-box issue in Canada. A favourite pastime of international environmental groups is naming the country wreaking the worst climate havoc. Canada wins alarmingly often, just barely avoiding last place. Thanks, Qatar and Saudi Arabia!

How many elections would Harper have won if people had cast their ballots with this in mind? And locally, do you remember that big mayoral debate on climate change? Me neither.

It wasn’t always like this. 

The very first international climate plan was created here. Known globally as the “Toronto Target,” it called for much stronger action than we settled for in the Kyoto Protocol. 

I’ll skip the finger-wagging. Take it as read that catastrophic consequences lie not that far down the road we’re on. 

While we should each do more (or less: drive less, fly less, buy less), personal moralizing won’t do much good. Climate change is too big a burden for us to each bear alone. Big problems like this require us to act together, and acting together is exactly why we come together to form governments.

Ballot box or no, there are many people on city council who understand that government must act on these issues. At the start of this term, several of us on the Parks and Environment Committee decided to take matters into our own hands. We formed a subcommittee on climate change. I know, I know – nothing says hot air like a government subcommittee, but stay with me.

While national governments go to annual meetings of the Kyoto signatories to talk about climate change, the real action is closer to the ground. The international talks have taken to involving what they quaintly call “sub-national” governments they mean municipalities and provinces. The sub-nationals are being invited because they are the ones actually making changes.

It’s cities (and provinces) that have made the biggest strides. 

Toronto has cut emissions by 25 per cent since Kyoto, a feat that was greatly helped by Ontario’s decision phase out coal-fired electricity generation. But, as we’ve learned, even 25 per cent doesn’t cut it.

Here’s the tough truth: to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change, we need to make cuts in the 80-90 per cent range. We simply can’t live as we do and make these deep but necessary reductions. 

How we travel – near and far – will change. How we heat and light our homes and workplaces will change. What we buy will change. In fact, it’s really hard to think of what won’t change. Like Naomi Klein says, This Changes Everything.

On the current scale, the solutions don’t lie in our each making different choices they lie in creating different systems – different transportation systems, different energy systems different building systems. And, yes, I’ll say it, different economic systems.

Now, about that subcommittee. 

No one has a halfway reliable road map for getting to a low- or no-carbon Toronto. Even the noble attempts I’ve seen floating around stumble when it comes to making the cuts in a way that is fair and keeps us healthy and prosperous.

To start sketching out a road map, the subcommittee decided to start by holding a big public forum to get advice from different communities. In early March we opened up City Hall to hear their advice. Three hundred people came, and we listened until past midnight as people gave five-minute speeches that ranged from tentative to electrifying. All were interesting and smart.

City staff have boiled it down into a proposal for how to draw the map. Over the next 18 months we’ll keep the public conversation going in five areas: preparing Toronto for extreme weather transportation urban agriculture and green spaces energy efficiency and renewable energy sources and getting to a low-carbon economy both in terms of what we produce and what we consume.

This only works if you join the conversation. Sign up by emailing

Gord Perks is councillor for Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park, and chair of the city’s subcommittee on climate change. | @nowtoronto


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