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Ottawa takes first step with climate emergency declaration, bold action must follow

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Photo: Dennis Jarvis/Twitter

On April 24, Ottawa City Council voted in favour of an eight-point motion to declare a climate emergency.

The National Post reports, "The capital city is one of a growing number of Canadian municipalities that have adopted similar declarations, including Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax and Kingston."

Other news reports have indicated that London, Hamilton, Richmond, Edmundston, Quebec City, Sherbrooke, and Trois Rivières have also declared climate emergencies.

National Post political reporter Maura Forrest comments, "Declaring a climate emergency doesn't require any specific actions -- individual cities can take whatever steps they choose to reduce emissions. This means, of course, that a declaration can mean whatever a community wants it to mean -- or, presumably, it can mean nothing at all."

What are the key deliverables in the Ottawa motion?

After the vote, the Ottawa Citizen reported, "Ottawa city council directed staff to review and update the city's air-quality and climate change management plan to make sure it aligns with research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and present options to meet reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions."

CBC further noted, "Wednesday's vote dedicates $250,000 from the city's annual Hydro Ottawa dividend to speed up studies aimed at moving the city to renewable energy and meeting greenhouse gas emission targets."

And Ottawa Matters cautioned, "It isn't the same as declaring a state of emergency in the city, but the declaration is expected to hold council more accountable when it comes to making decisions which could affect the environment."

That article adds, "Part of the plan is to create a Council Sponsors Group that would be made up of councillors from other committees."

It then quotes Councillor Shawn Menard, who championed the motion, who says, "It gets them together in an informal way and allows them to speak freely about some of the ideas that they're receiving. In this case, how to reduce emissions while saving money."

The Ottawa Matters article also notes, "Menard said there would be no chair for this group, but instead just an open dialogue among colleagues. These ideas would be taken to city council for final approval."

How does this motion measure up to Extinction Rebellion's core demands?

Extinction Rebellion, an international grassroots climate justice group, argues that governments must declare climate and ecological emergencies, and work with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change. The Ottawa motion lacks language about communicating the urgency for change to the federal and provincial governments, as well as to city residents.

The group also demands that governments act immediately to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. Ottawa's motion only calls for the city to adopt a target of a 45 per cent reduction in 2010 levels by 2030.

Extinction Rebellion's third core demand is the creation of a Citizens' Assembly to lead decision-making and inform the government on climate and ecological justice. While the Ottawa motion calls for the establishment of a Council Sponsors Group, there is no clear indication of how the broader public would be able to meaningfully participate in this process.

What should the Council Sponsors Group, as created by the Ottawa motion, demand?

  1. The City of Ottawa should commit to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, a key demand made by Extinction Rebellion.
  2. The City of Ottawa should commit (as the City of Vancouver is considering) to a target of two-thirds of trips in the city to be taken by walking, cycling, and public transit by 2030.
  3. Given that transportation accounts for more than 30 per cent of Ontario's carbon footprint, the City of Ottawa should commit to improving public transportation across the city and piloting free public transit (as has been considered in other international cities, including Bonn, Essen, Herrenberg, Reutlingen, and Mannheim).
  4. Given Ontario Premier Doug Ford has just cancelled the 50 Million tree planting program, the City of Ottawa should commit to an ambitious tree planting program. Paris committed to planting 20,000 trees between 2014 and 2020.
  5. The City of Ottawa should endorse (as Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and numerous other cities have already done) the international Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration that pledges to enact regulations and/or planning policy to ensure new buildings operate at net zero carbon by 2030 and all buildings by 2050.
  6. The City of Ottawa should explore innovative ideas being pursued by other cities including: green streets and pocket parks to catch and absorb excess rainwater (Copenhagen), initiatives to support energy-efficient retrofits (Melbourne), and the promotion of local food production (Quito has set a goal of producing 30-40 per cent of its food locally).
  7. To pay for some of this, the City of Ottawa should send a climate accountability letter to Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and other fossil fuel corporations to demand they pay their fair share of the costs that cities are incurring because of climate change. The City of Victoria's motion on this (passed in October 2017) called on other municipalities across Canada to pass similar resolutions.

It is also vital that the City of Ottawa find its voice on the issue of the approval and construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure.

According to the City of Ottawa's lobbying registry, TransCanada, the corporation behind the 1.1 million barrel per day Energy East tar sands pipeline, met with the city manager, the deputy city manager, and one of the mayor's senior advisers.

While Mayor Jim Watson refused to publicly take a position, a clear statement of opposition to the pipeline (whose upstream emissions alone would have been the equivalent of adding seven million cars to the roads) would have helped residents, environmental groups, other municipalities and Indigenous nations opposed to the pipeline.

While the Energy East pipeline has now been stopped (at least for the time being), the City of Ottawa should oppose the Energie Saguenay fracked gas pipeline that would cross the northern part of the Ottawa River watershed.

Ottawa City Council declaring a climate emergency was a first step, but it needs to pursue a much more ambitious agenda in keeping with the urgency of climate breakdown.

Brent Patterson is the executive director of Peace Brigades International-Canada, a political activist, and a writer. 

Photo: Dennis Jarvis/Twitter

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