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How Ontario's cities can help address climate change and meet COP26 agreement goals

How Ontario's cities can help address climate change and meet COP26 agreement goals

In the days since nearly 200 countries signed on to a deal at COP26 in Scotland, experts in Toronto say cities and municipalities have an important role to play in addressing climate change. Nick Westoll reports. Interview with Prof Mark Winfield.

Posted Nov 20, 2021, 9:06PM EST.

It’s been a week since an agreement was reached at COP26 in Scotland and while Canada has major commitments to meet as a country, experts say questions remain about what change will come while also pushing for residents and municipalities to receive support to address climate change.

“Parties come to summits and they have same dialogue again and again, and what we really need to see is concrete follow-through,” Emmay Mah, the executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, told CityNews.

“I don’t think we have a lot of confidence coming out of COP that we’re going to move forward in a way that really changes the path that we’re on.

Mah is among those working to translate broader climate action goals into solutions in cities like Toronto.

She said the Toronto Environmental Alliance, a non-profit group aimed at working to solve urban climate-related issues, has been pushing politicians and bureaucrats for increased, definitive action and planning as well as stronger local engagement with residents.

“A large share of emissions — about 70 per cent — come from cities globally, so if cities like Toronto adopt strong climate measures there really can be a significant impact on global emissions,” she noted.

What was agreed to at COP26 and what are Canada’s commitments?

The final deal was agreed to by nearly 200 countries across the world, but officials from several countries, including small island states, said they were deeply disappointed by the change promoted by India to “phase down,” rather than “phase out” coal power, the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Nation after nation had complained earlier on the final day of two weeks of U.N. climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland about how the deal did not go far or fast enough, but they said it was better than nothing and provided incremental progress, if not success.

Negotiators from Switzerland and Mexico called the coal language change against the rules because it came so late. However, they said they had no choice but to hold their noses and go along with it.

Swiss environment minister Simonetta Sommaruga said the change will make it harder to achieve the international goal to limit warming to 1.5 C (2.7 F) since pre-industrial times.

Mark Winfield, a professor of environmental and urban change at York University, told CityNews the final agreement is a strengthened version of the Paris Accord with side agreements and progress on things like forestry and methane, but said weakened language on coal and ambiguous language on fossil fuels is fuelling the disappointment felt in the days since COP26 ended.

He said Canada put forward a strengthened national commitment to a target reduction of 45 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 as well as a phaseout of coal. By 2050, the target is net-zero emissions.

Windfield said planning is underway on how best to do that, but noted the oil and gas sector’s emissions will pose “real challenges in terms of how we’re going to move forward in Canada.”

Mah said advocacy by residents for action by governments will need to ramp up providing tangible initiatives in order to meet future commitments.

To meet the goals of COP26 in Canada and in Ontario, both Mah and Windfield outlined several areas where improvements could be made such as the need to reduce and replace the use of fossil fuels, cleaning the electricity grid and power generation, retrofitting older buildings to reduce emissions and make the structure climate-proof against extreme weather, and investing in public transportation infrastructure.

Assessing the strategy in Toronto

Mah and Windfield both praised the City of Toronto’s climate action strategy called TransformTO.

“Toronto’s plan is probably the most comprehensive in Ontario. Nationally people will look to Toronto and Vancouver, and to a certain degree Montreal, as the places that have developed the most advanced municipal climate change plans,” Windfield said, adding Ottawa, Guelph and the regions of Peel and Durham are starting to increase local responses to climate change.

“There are initiatives around that are trying to bring these pieces together at the municipal level, but they need more support from the province (and) they need more support from the federal government.”

Windfield said TransformTO is committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 and a major reduction by 2030 through improving public transit and infrastructure for electric vehicles, introducing programs to improve energy efficiency at residential buildings, and implementing district energy systems and methods to capture methane.

Toronto city council’s infrastructure and environment committee is set to receive recommendations on Dec. 2 outlining how the municipality can ultimately achieve net-zero. Mah said she will be watching for specific references to making buildings more comfortable for residents during heat waves, and during other extreme weather incidents like flooding and ice storms.

“These things are very real and they’re increasing, and they’re going to disproportionately impact different residents across the city. For example, thinking about folks who live in multi-residential buildings who may not have much control over heating and cooling systems in their buildings,” she said.

“We have a city that was built for another era, not an era where we’re going to have increasing storms, for example, so we need to see some political leadership in bringing our city into a new reality.

“We also need to work with community members to have emergency response plans in place when communities are hit by extreme weather. Think about isolated seniors who live alone, who’s going to be the first to reach them in a heatwave or during a flood?”

Calls for Ontario government to do more on climate change

Mah and Winfield both questioned the Ford government’s strategy when it comes to the environment and climate change, pointing to examples like the recent announcements about building the proposed Highway 413 and Bradford Bypass as well as a lack of movement on a wider scale to cut building and energy sector emissions.

“Provincial governments, including the Ontario government, can really play an important role in working with city governments on key investments and what we’ve seen so far there doesn’t appear to be the political will to do that,” Mah said, noting there doesn’t seem to be definitive, time-based commitments in place.

“In terms of the province’s current strategy, in some ways, it would be difficult to imagine a better strategy for increasing greenhouse gases to be very blunt,” Winfield added.

CityNews contacted Ontario Environment, Conservation and Parks Minister David Piccini to ask about provincial plans to support what was agreed to at COP26.

A spokesperson said in a statement he was part of the federal delegation at the summit and that Piccini “used his time at COP26 to build international partnerships for Ontario’s clean industry, explore emerging best practices, and contribute the province’s voice to the global conversation about climate change.”

The statement didn’t outline specific commitments or long-term plans, but added government officials will “continue to work with Ontario industry, who have the know-how to help us meet our goals for the environment.”

— With files from The Associated Press

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