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OPINION: What do you mean by a climate emergency?

If most Canadians agree there is a climate emergency, what should we be doing?
David Robinson, economist, Laurentian University / director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

Great. Canada has declared a climate emergency. 

So have Toronto, Sudbury, Vancouver, Kingston, Kenora, Ottawa, Peterborough, Chatham-Kent, and Canmore in Alberta. So far, 468 Canadian jurisdictions have passed binding resolutions. This is more than the U.K. and proportionally much more than the U.S. Strange to say, Canada seems to be a leader in saying the sky is falling.

That is not to say the sky isn’t falling. Scientists agree we have an emergency, and so do most Canadians. As voters, Canadians overwhelmingly went for parties that seemed committed to slowing global warming. The real question is, if most Canadians agree there is a climate emergency, what should we be doing?

The Kingston city council has already laid out a list of actions. According to Coun. Robert Kiley, “We committed to electrifying our city transit fleet. We committed that all city buildings will have deep energy retrofits and move toward renewable energy and efficiencies. That allows us to set the tone for the entire community.”

Kingston’s plan to decarbonize municipal vehicles and buildings isn’t very ambitious. It will be almost impossible not to electrify your public transit by 2040. Retrofitting municipal buildings will save more money than it costs. What is really needed is an active strategy that will get the entire population off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. 

The two most important targets are eliminating all fossil fuel vehicles and eliminating natural gas for heating, not just for the municipal fleet, but in every home and business. In other words, it means working to destroy the fossil fuel industry. Municipalities that declare a climate emergency have taken on a bigger problem than they thought.

They have to do much more than “set the tone” for their communities.

They have to find ways to actively discourage installing gas furnaces in new buildings and retrofits. They have to actively promote low carbon heating systems across their communities. They have to lobby for higher carbon fees.

Do councillors have the guts to advocate a higher carbon tax? Not many have so far, which shows they don’t yet understand carbon pricing or the climate emergency. We know, for example, that some support the federal Conservative party’s plan to remove the GST on heating fuels for seniors. They actually want to subsidize exactly what we need to get rid of. Better to just send cheques to needy seniors.

Municipalities will have to rework their zoning codes and their transportation plans to encourage more efficient use of land, and to penalize sprawl by making homeowners pay the full cost of their infrastructure and services. They should actively support the building trades in a transition to high-efficiency buildings. They should copy Québec’s wood charter that encourages public projects to use carbon-storing mass timber in all buildings. 

Towns could create profit-making municipal corporations to provide low carbon heating. The city could, for example, finance efficient low-carbon systems and take a share of the long-term fuel savings. Private corporations are already promoting geothermal heating this way. Dandelion, a company that began at Alphabet’s “moonshot factory,” has a geothermal heating-and-cooling system that is about half the price of most systems now on the market. The company pays for the initial installation. Customers pay them back over time. Instalments are lower than their current heating bills.

Northern towns could promote district heating using local wood waste. Denmark already has district heating in many places and the Danish company A.P. Moller is promising to finance and manage the exploration, construction, and operation of geothermal heat plants to sell warm water to district heating utilities.

Climate change action will cost money, but it will probably save more money. The trick is to find ways to make the savings pay for the investments that we need. This where leadership, imagination and courage are needed.

Northern Ontario is not at the cutting edge of these changes. North Bay and East Ferris have waffled. The Sault council seems full of timid skeptics. I haven’t heard what they think in Thunder Bay. 

They will come around. And when they do, they will discover exciting challenges that demand real leadership, creative ideas, and all their courage.