During a break in the first day of the two-day 2006 Smog Summit, June 7 at City Hall, Mayor David Miller was asked what he thought of senior government's spotty record on air pollution.
He said he was unwilling to criticize. Why? "Because they're here."
Was the mayor applauding provincial reps for doing their job and showing up? Or was he just worried they'd hear him?
At least they're listening. There is some satisfaction in hearing provincial Environment Minister Laurel Broten quote the magnitude of smog-related deaths in Ontario (5,800 a year, 1,500 in T.O.) when she addresses the summit, a gathering of municipal councillors from the GTA and northeastern U.S.
Those numbers used to be mainly on the tongues of activists.
"Asthma kills people," says Transport Minister Donna Cansfield with all the fervour of someone who hast just learned something new. "Asthma means you can breathe in but you can't breathe out. Try it."
All right, I'll try not breathing out if you try not expanding the 407.
And if your government closes coal-fired plants.
"Conservation culture means going from a belief to a mindset," says the province's chief energy conservation officer, Peter Love. "I'm tempted to say, 'Good luck with that.' But then I look in the mirror and remember it's my job. And I take it very seriously."
So begins a "motivational presentation" by our conservation czar, a job that, one gets the impression, was created this morning as a prank.
For motivation, Love brings up the blue box recycling program - initiated by Toronto. Not only does the program have nothing to do with smog, but the biggest part of recycling has to do with governments making companies own up, as in mandating bottle-return programs.
"If Ontarians don't stop holding back on the sidelines in terms of conservation," says Love, "I'm going to get a failing grade."
Dude, I am so motivated right now.
If any real work is going to be done to permanently reduce toxic emissions, it seems it's going to have to happen municipally. During his keynote address, sustainability consultant Ralph Torrie says he estimates 50 per cent of emissions in North America are under the direct or indirect control of municipalities. "Cities will be transformed, either by global warming or in preparation for it," he says.
While federal governments worldwide are loath to take action (the Tories couldn't even be bothered to send a high-level representative), municipalities are coming into their own, possibly presaging the rise of local power in a new sort of regionalism.
Of the $30 million council is set to spend on reducing emissions from electricity - via solar panel pilot projects, energy efficiency measures in city buildings and an innovative subsidy program for commercial developers who design for energy efficiency - a quarter of the funds comes from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Well represented at the summit is ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives): Local Governments for Sustainability, an association of cities, towns and counties in 50 countries formed on the principle that "cumulative local actions have a positive impact on global climate."
And of 26 governments that have sent reps to the summit, 15 are American - recognition that pollution does not heed political boundaries. American George Leventhal, council president of Montgomery County, Maryland, informs delegates that his county recently resolved that 5 per cent of all power would be green, and is now aiming for 20 per cent.
Local governments can accomplish this largely because counties and cities have joined together in regional buyer groups, making wind power more cost-effective.
Still, most of the local initiatives shared by GTA reps lack a certain punch. Newmarket Councillor Tony Van Bynen says his town "cemented its position as an environmental leader" by selling 34 lots for an "environmentally friendly subdivision" that will draw 25 per cent less water and reduce emissions and sewage by 60 per cent. No doubt the trees they knocked down are thrilled.
And Durham region councillor Colleen Jordan is proud that transit vehicles can't idle longer than three minutes "unless it would jeopardize the comfort of our passengers." Apparently their passengers don't breathe.
Torrie tells me, "There is a risk of zeroing in on electricity and forgetting there's another half of the story, which is the immediate use of fuels." He believes a missing piece of the puzzle is creative public transit exemplified by a fixation on suburban subways when the old concept of a rush hour commute has been replaced.
"The trips are happening all day," he says, "from one end of a suburb to another and within neighbourhoods, so there's no peak or pattern that traditional transit concepts serve."
Gilles Jean of Natural Resources Canada says most industrial and commercial outfits simply don't consider energy efficiency - despite the fact that even simply tweaking settings on thermostats in commercial buildings can save up to 40 per cent on power use. And industrial/commercial refrigerators can easily be redesigned for up to 40 per cent energy savings.
But these proposals are still low-hanging fruit. Technology got us into this mess. Will it get us out? Or will we have to extend our definition of efficiency to the very way we live?
It's strange that no one thought to showcase local initiatives happening in the host's backyard. One wonders if a combination of the city's regional farmers markets and the Toronto Dollar local currency project could eliminate the need for many industrial refrigerators altogether.
Equally ignored are, to name a few, BikeShare, Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington, the Beaches solar laundromat and proposals for a bike commuter highway on the old CN Rail lands.
Admittedly, the gathering is as much a show for the upper echelons of government as it is a think tank. "We're organized, we're serious, we're responsible - make with the funding" is the obvious message.
But if municipalities truly believe in local solutions to global problems and truly want power to be downloaded, they'll have to be ready to hear those demands themselves in the near future.