Why cities are our secret weapons against climate change

What Canada's senior governments can learn from the Toronto Atmospheric Fund's 25 years of success

As the federal and provincial governments struggle to hammer out a pan-Canadian carbon pricing scheme, they may have overlooked a potential partner that could slash emissions nationwide: Canada’s cities. 

Take Toronto. Despite robust economic and population growth, citywide emissions have dropped 24 percent since 1990. The City’s own emissions from over a thousand buildings, a fleet of vehicles, and waste management are down 46 per cent. By contrast, Canada’s emissions grew 20 per cent over the same period. 

The Toronto Atmospheric Fund (TAF) is behind much of Toronto’s remarkable achievement. 

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, TAF was the brainchild of a City Council led by Mayor Art Eggleton. Over the years the agency has provided $50 million in community grants and investments from its endowment fund while shaving $60 million off the City’s operating budget. And it hasn’t cost taxpayers a dime.

What can Canada’s senior governments learn from TAF’s success? 

A strategic focus is essential. 

TAF’s first greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory pinpointed waste as a key emissions source. Toronto became one of the first cities to capture methane leaking from landfills and turn it into green power. GHG emissions shrunk and a new revenue stream was created. 

Seeing is believing.

Adopting a new green technology is risky. Municipal staff who champion innovation may be sidelined if new initiatives fail. TAF’s pilot projects verified new technologies, emboldening staff to adopt them across the city. For example, wind and solar electricity generation at Exhibition Place started at TAF. 

Working with others removes barriers. 

Over the years, TAF attracted much larger stakeholders who brought financial and market wherewithall to expand carbon reducing pilot projects. These include public agencies, energy utilities, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and major developers like Tridel. 

Senior government policy is key to innovation. 

TAF provided early and sustained support to the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, a coalition of 90 municipalities, companies, and citizen organizations instrumental in the phase out of Ontario’s coal-fired power plants – the single largest GHG reduction in North America.    

Change takes time.

Financial sustainability ensures an agency like TAF can stay on its game for the long haul. In addition to a permanent endowment, TAF has a Council-appointed board and expert community membership on two advisory committees. 

Several examples of TAF’s work tell the story. 

• In 1996, TAF allocated $150,000 to a joint venture with Toronto District Heating Corporation (later Enwave) to implement a crazy idea: pump cold water from the depths of Lake Ontario to cool downtown buildings in summer. Partners then stepped up with more funds to advance the project. The plant cut electricity bills in 100 buildings and reduced strain on the downtown electricity grid. 

• Half of Toronto’s emissions come from buildings. TAF pioneered TowerWise to retrofit Toronto Community Housing buildings. The aim is to establish confidence in tower retrofits and mobilize private financing. The projects are also improving indoor air quality for the City’s most vulnerable people.  

• Since 2004, Smart Commute, an employer-based program, has helped commuters carpool and cycle to work, eliminating 1.3 million single driver trips and removing 10,000 cars daily from the roads. The North York Chamber of Commerce started Smart Commute as a modest TAF pilot. Metrolinx eventually adopted and expanded the program across the GTA.  

To meet national climate commitments, Canada needs to rapidly scale up new technologies and mobilize public and private investment in low-carbon solutions. A national price on carbon won’t be enough. 

Thinking globally and acting locally is the cornerstone of innovation. Senior governments should ensure that Canadian cities are resourced with their own brands of independent, innovative climate agencies to create and advance local climate solutions.  

Philip Jessup has worked professionally on climate change, energy, and green technology for 30 years. He co-chaired the environmental committee that first recommended establishment of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund (TAF) to Council, served on its inaugural board, and was its staff director for nine years. 

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TAF timeline: highlights from 25 years of environmental innovation

1988 International conference, Changing the Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security, is held in Toronto and the idea of TAF is born

1991 Toronto City Council votes to establish the Toronto Atmospheric Fund with a $23 million endowment

1993 TAF makes its first major investment: a $15.3 million loan to finance Toronto street and lane lighting program

1995 TAF goes deep with $150,000 loan to Enwave District Energy Ltd. to demonstrate the feasibility of its deep lake water cooling system 

1997 Nine-year financial support for Ontario Clean Air Alliance’s coal phase-out campaign begins

1998 $3 million in security for Toronto Better Buildings Partnership launches energy retrofit program $20,000 start-up loan sets in motion a new business idea in automobile culture – AutoShare

2000 $335,000 supports establishment of carpool and cycle-to-work program, which is later taken over and expanded into Metrolinx’s SmartCommute TAF funds Clean Air Partnership and Smog Summit to the tune of $550,000 to address air pollution 

2001 TAF sets the stage for federal government’s GreenSaver energy retrofit program with $350,000 pilot

2002 $130,000 to TREC Renewable Energy Co-op helps erect North America’s first urban wind turbine at the Ex 

2004 TAF provides $250,000 towards a large solar PV system on the CNE Horse Palace 

2006 UK’s Greater London Authority asks TAF Executive Director Philip Jessup to assist in creating a London climate agency modelled on TAF

2008 $700,000 grant from TAF helps to install geothermal heating at Wychwood Barns  

2014 Coal shut down concludes single biggest carbon reduction measure in North America

2015 TowerWise project provides $4.2 million in financing to retrofit Toronto Community Housing

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