A climate primer for Ottawa

Below, we lay out the case for strong climate leadership from the City of Ottawa, and survey some of the opportunities for action over the next few months.

This information has been packaged into a document to hand to city councillors. You can access that document by clicking here

The context: 

There’s no sugar-coating it – we’re in the midst of a climate emergency. According to the United Nations, the world now has 11 years to limit climate change catastrophe by keeping global warming to a maximum of 1.5 °C. Beyond this level of warming, we will “significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.”[1]

Ottawa is not immune or isolated from the impacts of a warming world. Even with ambitious action, we can expect to see more severe weather events like April 2017’s record flooding and September 2018’s tornado, more heat waves like the type that killed 53 people in Montreal this summer, more invasive species like the Emerald Ash Borer, more threats to local food security and more costly damage to our built infrastructure. We can also expect to receive increasing numbers of climate refugees, as countries around the world deal with flooding, drought and climate-induced conflict.

What role should the City of Ottawa play?

While climate change is a global problem, many of the solutions are local. In Canada, up to half of the country’s emissions are under the direct or indirect control of municipal governments.[2] As Canada’s fourth largest city and national capital, Ottawa has a critically important role to play in the fight against climate change.

Unfortunately, Ottawa’s climate performance to date has been deeply inadequate to scope and scale of the climate challenge. We have a well thought-out energy plan called Energy Evolution, but this plan has been delayed over the last term of council and will only be released late next year. We have reasonable climate targets, but emission reductions to date are primarily a result of the provincial coal phase-out – not municipal policy.

Worryingly, the city still has no clear plan to meet our climate targets. According to the city’s own documentation, even an aggressive uptake of the policy scenarios outlined in the first phase of Energy Evolution does not get us to our target. Many more measures urgently need to be taken. With 11 years to go, Ottawa still has yet to define many of them, let alone adopt them.

How can the City of Ottawa reach its 2050 goal?

At the simplest level, we need to do three things to reach our climate goal:

  • Dramatically reduce emissions from stationery energy, or how we heat cool and electrify our homes, offices and other buildings. (This accounts for 47% of Ottawa’s emissions.)
  • Dramatically reduce emissions from transportation, or how we move around our city. (This accounts for 44% of Ottawa’s emissions.)
  • We must plan the future development of our city in a way that makes the first and second goals easier to accomplish.

While the second phase of Energy Evolution (due in late 2019) will provide additional details for possible actions in these areas, we cannot afford to wait any longer to show municipal leadership on climate change. The levers of ambitious municipal climate action have been known for decades. Other jurisdictions such as Vancouver and Montreal have long ago implemented many of the policy solutions that Ottawa is still failing to advance.

What can city council do now?

There are two immediate steps city council can take to start the next term off on the right foot:

  1. Make climate action a major focus of the Term of Council Priorities process.
  2. Allocate an unprecedented level of funding and staffing towards climate action in the 2019 budget.

Step 1: Make climate change a major focus of the Term of Council Priorities process 

Over the next several months, council will define its priorities for the 2019-2022 council session. The Term of Council priorities process will determine the scope and scale of the city’s work on the climate file over the coming years, including key deliverables.

In July 2015, city council released a Strategic Plan that defined seven Strategic Priorities, under which 21 Strategic Objectives and 63 Strategic Initiatives were identified. In 2015, climate action was relegated to a small sub-category of action, with two Strategic Initiatives focused on a climate plan and a renewable energy strategy. In both cases, the city failed to make the progress required; there were no updates on the climate plan during the last term of council, and the renewable energy strategy was piecemealed and delayed into 2019. While “climate change” and “renewable energy” were mentioned as “Long-Term Sustainability Goals,” this categorization came with no funding or hard policy commitments.

2015-2018 Term of Council Priorities:


We cannot afford to shy away from much greater climate ambition in 2019. While the Term of Council Priorities have taken various forms over the years, it is critical that climate action take precedence. Below, we have identified one scenario through which climate action can be secured as part of the Term of Council Priorities process.

While “climate action” might take a variety of different forms in the Term of Council priorities process, two things are essential for council to demonstrate sufficient commitment. First, council must have a plan to tackle Ottawa’s two largest sources of emissions – buildings and transportation. Second, council must systematically incorporate climate considerations into a wide range of areas (e.g., planning, climate adaptation planning, urban forestry).

2019 Term of Council Priorities – example scenario:


Step 2: Allocate an unprecedented level of funding and staffing towards climate action in the 2019 budget

In the 2019 budget, the City of Ottawa can become a climate leader. We need the city to:

  1. Fund and allocate staff and programs to accelerate implementation of Energy Evolution, as well as other environmental initiatives to reduce Ottawa’s community greenhouse gas emissions.  This will include initiatives across a broad number of city departments, such as planning, transportation, transit, environment and economic development.

Explanation: The City of Ottawa has reduced staff working on Energy Evolution and other key environmental initiatives over the years. In the last budget, two employees were responsible for managing the city’s response to the most urgent issue facing the planet. The city desperately needs to ramp up ambition on staffing and programs if it hopes to meet its climate targets.

2. Accelerate Ottawa’s transition to more sustainable modes of transportation by significantly increasing funding for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, as well as public transit.

Explanation: Ottawa has one of the highest single-use transit fares in Canada, and rates have been rising much faster than the rate of inflation for the past several years. Meanwhile, transit ridership has been declining even as Ottawa’s population has been rising.[3] More ambitious transit investments are critical if Ottawa wants to shift its transportation away from car-dependency.

While the city has been making ambitious pedestrian and cycling infrastructure investments over the past few years, there is a risk that these investments will now dry up because the provincial government has dramatically reduced funding. Ottawa must not let provincial inaction stand in the way of making our city more walkable and bike-friendly.  

3. Dramatically reduce wasteful, environmentally damaging and costly road expansions, especially in sensitive areas such as the Greenbelt.

Explanation: For all of the progress the City of Ottawa has made on sustainable transportation, it continues to take wasteful, environmentally damaging and costly steps backwards. Money spent on roads is wasteful when it fails to achieve its goal. Often, the city's stated goal is to reduce congestion, and yet evidence indicates that new or widened roads actually maintain or worsen congestion levels and further entrenches car usage. New roads are also environmentally damaging, especially when they're built or widened in areas of the city such as the Greenbelt. Finally, road investments cost tens of millions of dollars, and crowd out investments in other areas (e.g., climate change program staffing, investments in sustainable infrastructure, etc.). 

4. Implement smarter urban planning and curb urban sprawl.

Explanation: The evidence is clear: walkable, bike-able communities connected by world-class public transit go a long way towards lowering a city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet Ottawa is still planning entire new communities around the car, with minimal transit access and poor pedestrian and cycling connections. Pushing for smarter community design means we can preserve more green space and farmland, and save money that would otherwise have been spent on new road networks (see above).

5. Enhance Ottawa’s resilience to a changing climate by funding implementation of the Urban Forest Management Plan, continuing land acquisition efforts, and dramatically ramping up implementation of green infrastructure.

Explanation: The Urban Forest Management Plan is an ambitious plan to strengthen and safeguard Ottawa's tree canopy over the next 20 years. However, the plan is at risk of falling by the wayside without sustained funding. Meanwhile, while green infrastructure is widely acknowledged as a partial solution to wet weather impacts from climate change, the City of Ottawa is still rolling out projects selectively and experimentally, rather than at scale. While the City of Ottawa should be commended for its continued efforts to purchase and protect land, more spending here helps further combat sprawl and keep Ottawa-area ecosystems intact. 

6. Understand and communicate back to the public that these undertakings have paybacks and support the local economy.

Explanation: Energy efficiency and local clean energy projects reduce our future energy costs, while low-carbon transportation and a vibrant tree canopy develops a healthier Ottawa. The clean economy is a growing sector that Ottawa cannot afford to ignore when it considers diversification and growth of its employment base.

[1] The Guardian. “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN.” Retrieved November 28, 2018 from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report.

[2] Federation of Canadian Municipalities. “About climate change.” Retrieved November 28, 2018 from: https://fcm.ca/home/programs/partners-for-climate-protection/about-climate-change.htm.

[3] Reevely, D. “Transit fares must keep rising to pay for LRT, even as ridership slips.” Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved January 3, 2019 from: https://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/reevely-transit-fares-must-keep-rising-to-pay-for-lrt-even-as-ridership-slips.

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