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We’re very concerned by a recent effort by a City Councillor to weaken Ottawa’s efforts to combat climate change. Read on to learn what happened, understand why it's problematic, and take actions to help strengthen the climate approach in Ottawa.
At the 21 Nov 2023 meeting of City Council’s Environment and Climate Change Committee (ECCC), Councillor David Hill (Ward 3 Barrhaven West) presented a motion to change the City’s Climate Change Master Plan (CCMP) implementation. (Watch Hill read the motion here and ECCC discuss it—with the budget—here.)
The motion called for the City to prioritize funding portions of the CCMP related to the City’s assets and operations (“the corporation”). This is one of two sources of emission,s the other being “community” emissions—or essentially everything else. The motion also asked City staff to create a “prioritization framework” for the disbursement of funds for climate change, specifying five criteria.
You can read the motion here, along with a comparison of a later form of it.
Coun. Hill’s rationale for this motion was that the City’s funds are limited, and resiliency against climate-related events is a priority in his ward. He also argued that the City should focus on actions within its power, and that it has been too ambitious. We’ll return to his rationale below.
When Coun. Hill brought the motion to ECCC, staff didn’t support it, and the motion failed on a tie. (Watch the voting here.) He then promised to work with staff and reword the motion when it came before Council.
But when the motion came before Council on Dec 6 (recording here), the wording had changed but little. Strangely, City staff now said that they supported it, and Council even passed it—with even those members of ECCC originally opposed now voting for it. We’re still trying to make it make sense.
Image: Flooding on Walkley Road in August 2023. (Source: CBC)
There are several problems with this motion. First, it’s a mistake to modify the CCMP. The CCMP was developed with substantial research and consultation with both the public and environmental groups like Ecology Ottawa. Moreover, the CCMP is more than halfway through its implementation: its horizon is 2020 to 2025. Coun. Hill should have withdrawn the motion outright after staff opposed it and it failed the ECCC vote.
Second, it’s poor policy to limit the City’s climate action approach to its own operations. Certainly this is part of the solution—for example, incentivizing employees to use sustainable transportation, making buildings efficient, converting buses to electric, etc. But City operations account for only 4% of our city’s GHG emissions. Moreover, the City has considerable influence on community emissions—for example:
- Land-use planning: building the city in ways that people don’t need to drive
- Development standards: requiring new buildings to use energy efficiently
- Transportation planning: making it safer to walk and bike around the city, providing reliable transit, not widening roads
An approach to fighting climate change that ignores these aspects fundamentally misunderstands municipalities’ role in climate action.
Third, it’s retrogressive to criticize the CCMP for being too ambitious. Climate change is likely the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced; no meaningful climate action is wasted. City Council itself declared a climate emergency in 2019, and emergencies demand decisive, ambitious action.
Finally, there are some questionable aspects of the process with this motion.
To begin with, Coun. Hill brought it to ECCC without providing any notice. Thus, councillors couldn’t consider it before voting on it. Also, the public couldn’t address councillors on it, since to do so you must register in advance. This is undemocratic and poor form.
Also, the motion may have had no place in a budget discussion; as Councillor Jessica Bradley pointed out, this motion is about policy, not funding. Why was it considered in an already packed budget discussion?
Finally, how did the motion go from failing at ECCC and staff not supporting it to it passing Council unanimously with staff’s support—despite it not changing substantially in the interim? And do staff actually support it? There was a particularly awkward exchange when Councillor Laine Johnson (rightly) pressed City staff on this. Several revealing aspects of both the motion and staff’s and Council’s attitude toward it arose during this discussion; we’ve included a few key councillor questions and staff answers below.
Image: Damage from the derecho in Merivale in May 2022. (Source: Ottawa Citizen)
What You Can Do
How can you help the City take climate action? Here are a few ways:
- Contact your councillor and ask them why they supported Coun. Hill’s motion
- Ask your councillor what actions they plan to take in 2024 to support meaningful climate action
- Use our form email to call on Mayor Sutcliffe to take immediate, decisive climate action
We’ll continue monitoring this motion. The next step is staff bringing the prioritization framework to ECCC, which the motion asks for by Q3 of this year. Apart from this, there are a few upcoming climate-related events to keep in mind:
- City staff’s annual update on the CCMP’s implementation (last year was April)
- GHG inventories for 2021 and 2022 (Q1 of 2024)
- A third-party review of the City’s GHG inventory methodologies and data sources (Q1 of 2024)
Councillor and Staff Q&A
Following are some key questions that councillors asked of City staff during the Feb 6 Council meeting, along with staff’s answers. Note that we’ve summarized both questions and answers, but you can consult the recordings linked for verbatim.
Do you feel like the CCMP funding has been “spread too thin”?
Staff: We wouldn’t characterize it that way. We have lots of projects with limited funding. (Recording)
Does the motion accelerate work that staff was already prepared to take?
Staff: We don’t believe it had been documented yet. [Editor’s note: Staff appeared to have difficulty with this question.] (Recording)
Does this motion redirect what should be done from a policy standpoint?
Staff: It does not. We clarified this with the motion’s mover. Some of the projects proposed have value. (Recording)
Is this interfering with your operational work? Are we still mitigating community GHG emissions? Does passing this motion mean leaving federal or provincial money on the table?
Staff: This motion doesn’t restrict pursuing funding from other levels of government or existing programs to reduce community GHG emissions. (Recording)
Does this motion interfere with spending on any of the priorities of the CCMP?
Staff: Correct. (Recording)
Is staff comfortable with the language of the motion?
Staff: Yes. (Recording)
Will this motion impact the timelines in the Climate Change Resilience Strategy?
Staff: We expect a fulsome discussion when the prioritization framework comes to Council. (Recording)
Is this motion appropriate for a budget discussion?
Staff: Because it came to ECCC, it is appropriate, but it doesn’t change any budget estimates. (Recording)