Ottawa residents rallied outside Ottawa City Hall last week to demonstrate support for a motion to declare a climate emergency.
Jean Levac / Postmedia News
City council risked Ottawa looking like a backwater town — one whose riverside communities and neighbouring municipalities are fighting bloated waterways — if it voted against a motion this week acknowledging that something wonky is happening with the environment.So, a large majority of councillors on Wednesday sided with Coun. Shawn Menard and his proposal for the City of Ottawa to declare a climate emergency.That was the easy part.Now, with city hall in an “emergency” environmental mode, and a council about to decide on its term priorities, it will be pressured to make sure staff and politicians are keeping climate change at the core of each decision across the corporate portfolio.Council has wrestled with how to apply environmental scrutiny to decisions without costing taxpayers more money.It was even on display Wednesday just before council declared the declared the climate emergency.In approving new garbage-collection contracts and a proposal to buy new garbage trucks, council directed procurement and fleet staff to make sure they cost-out trucks that use alternative fuels, like electricity and biogas, as part of the equipment purchases.
A large majority of councillors on Wednesday sided with Coun. Shawn Menard and his proposal for the City of Ottawa to declare a climate emergency. Now council it will be pressured to make sure staff and politicians are keeping climate change at the core of each decision across the corporate portfolio.
Julie Oliver /
The climate-emergency declaration gets staff moving on existing studies with the expectation they’ll be done at the end of the year. It includes providing recommendations under the air quality and climate change management plan, which calls for a 20-per-cent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions between 2012 and 2024, and recommendations under the Energy Evolution program, designed to lower energy consumption and kick-start economic development opportunities in Ottawa.The most winnable environmental decisions at council will likely be in the Energy Evolution program if the city can propose ways to lower energy-consumption costs and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.On an idea like buying alternative-fuelled garbage trucks, or forcing garbage-collection contractors to use low-emission vehicles, council would weigh the environmental benefits against the cost to taxpayers.If both are wins for the public, it’s an easy choice.But council will be challenged when an initiative comes with both big price tags and big environmental gains.There’s fear that the city is setting itself up for failure or poor optics by declaring a climate emergency.Coun. Laura Dudas pointed out a potential “grey area” since the city still needs to provide services for a growing population. “I can’t run a bus through a field,” she noted. “We may need to build some new roads to make sure we can accommodate that.”There could be battles between funding road projects and transit projects.Even on Wednesday, not long after council declared the climate emergency, Coun. Carol Anne Meehan told council she wanted the city to use $14 million of $57 million in one-time federal gas tax revenue for road resurfacing, with the rest going to transit and other transportation projects. The motion was quickly punted to the city treasurer to consider in a larger report expected this summer.(Meehan tried to make the point that the city wasn’t considering the environment when making decisions about suburban development and road repairs. On the latter, she pointed to a study by a Rutgers University professor suggesting a link between climate change and potholes).During the climate-emergency debate, there have been some on council who were defensive about the city’s ongoing work to combat climate change. Mayor Jim Watson encouraged management to translate into both official languages and publish online a nine-page list of all the environmental things the city is already doing.But Watson, who declared a state of emergency Thursday because of flooding, would have known nothing good would come from Ottawa turning down a headline-grabbing environmental proposition.In council chambers on Wednesday, Watson scoffed at suggestions that municipalities can do little to fight rapid climate change.“If everyone took that attitude in all three levels of government, we’d been in a very terrible state when it comes to the air quality and the livability of our city,” Watson said.There’s also been an interesting political element to the climate-emergency debate over the past two weeks.Menard notched a big win by working with council leadership and collecting feedback before forcing the matter to a vote. It’s no secret that many councillors were apprehensive about giving him a big green win, but seeing the chair of the environment committee, Scott Moffatt, and the mayor signing off on the motion, it gave them little reason to vote against it.Has Menard, who has been the most vocal of the left-leaning councillors so far, spent all of his political capital five months into the four-year term?No doubt the rookie councillor, who has talked up ideas of free transit and bans on single-use plastics, isn’t done turning heads at council. He might be working even harder now to win votes on his email@example.com/JonathanWillingALSO IN THE NEWS:Ottawa police asking to lease 400 tasers as part of force-wide rolloutFatality-free long weekend but too many still not buckling up: OPPSpecial weather statement: ‘Significant’ rainfall expected for capital, 20-35 mm by Saturday