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The city has tabled a tight new draft budget that contains several proactive investments in climate and just as many confounding steps backwards.
The draft budget takes a few positive steps including a set commitment to yearly payments towards the Climate Change Master Plan, funding to build up the city’s tree canopy, an investment in the previously announced acquisition of electric buses and a freeze on transit fares. The city has also committed to applying a “climate lens” to asset management and capital projects, which will evaluate how each investment will help or hurt Ottawa’s climate goals before approving it. The presence of these items in the budget is a good sign that the city is beginning to take the threat of the climate crisis more seriously. The details of some of these commitments, however, gives pause about how much of this important work will really be done.
Although a commitment to annual investments towards the Climate Change Master Plan is an important one to make, the proposed figure of $5 million a year is woefully inadequate. To put this number in perspective, the city is spending another $4.9 million on two road widenings – a climate-backwards move that will put more cars on the road. Considering that the Master Plan, which includes investments towards resiliency and the reduction of carbon emissions to zero in 30 years, would have a price in the billions by 2050 if implemented correctly, a yearly payment of $5 million is a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done. The city has already done the work of creating a strong climate plan – all it needs now is the major investment that will make it effective.
The city also proposed an investment of $1.7 million in tree planting programs to enhance the tree canopy. This would seem to be a well-meaning investment towards one of the cheapest and easiest methods of creating greenspace, but the investment may again be too low. Ottawa’s trees have undergone some significant upheaval in recent years, between the devastation induced by the invasive emerald ash borer and the more recent derecho and tornadoes which destroyed thousands of trees across the city. With these losses still fresh and the threat of destructive storms ever present, a small investment in simply restoring the tree canopy will inevitably bring us back to this very same position after the next extreme storm.
The positive investments in electric buses and fare-free transit in 2023 are also undermined by a budget cut to transit of $47 million. Ottawa’s transit system has long suffered from fleet shortages and overly long routes that create deeply inconsistent and unpredictable bus patterns, a problem that has only become worse in recent years with a shortage of staff and the ongoing debacle surrounding the O-Train. At a time when service is already substantially weakened and the city claims to strive towards zero emissions in less than 30 years, we need more money towards transit, not less. While the city invests in electric buses and fare-free service, it simultaneously undercuts the benefits of public transit by gutting its budget and putting more money into projects that will increase Ottawa’s car-dependency.
While the presence of climate in the budget is an indication that our government is taking notice of the climate crisis, the time for half-measures is past – we need substantial, cohesive, and smart investments in climate resiliency and emission reduction immediately. Before the final budget vote on March 1, consider bringing attention to the need for stronger and smarter investments in climate from our city. Take a look at the Peoples Official Plan priorities and recommendations for the 2023 budget, or browse the city’s draft budget yourself. If you are concerned with council’s continued weakness on climate, let them know! Take to social media or contact your councillor to tell them that the climate crisis is here, and the time for radical action is now.
Matthew Slevin is a third-year journalism student at Carleton University.