Graphics by Sukaina Imam
Hamilton city council recently declared a climate emergency and pledged to substantially reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the declaration carries symbolic weight, the ambitious emission reduction targets can only be met if city council commits significant resources towards climate change measures. Climate activists and city councilors weigh in on what this will mean for the city.
On March 27, Hamilton city council finalized the decision to declare a climate emergency in the city of Hamilton.
The decision comes as a result of a report from the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change released in October 2018. The report found that, unless humanity limits global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, there will be a risk of long lasting and irreversible changes that will result in major loss of life.
The report found that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would mean reducing carbon dioxide emissions to 45 per cent of 2010 levels by 2030, and reaching net zero emissions by 2050.
“Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” stated the report.
Hamilton city council has joined a number other Canadian cities, including Kingston, Vancouver and Halifax, who have pledged to reduce emissions to meet these targets.
The declaration instructs the city manager to put together a multi departmental task force and present an emission reduction plan within 120 days.
A climate emergency
According to the 2018 vital signs report released by the Hamilton community foundation, Hamilton has double the per capita GHG emissions compared to other greater Toronto and Hamilton area cities.
The 2015 community action plan set the goals of reducing GHG emissions by 20 per cent of 2006 levels by 2020, 50 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050. The new goals, however, are more ambitious.
By declaring a climate emergency, the city aims to communicate the degree of risk to the public and demonstrate that the city is taking the issues seriously. During the board of health meeting, environment Hamilton climate campaign coordinator Ian Borsuk noted that it is important to show the public that the city understands the severity of the issue.
Additionally, a major goal of the declaration is to coordinate municipal action to develop a centralized strategy for dealing with climate change. This will take the form of a multi departmental task force across city departments.
“This isn’t something that can be left as a side project, this isn’t something that can be left as another file, this is something that needs to be part of what the city does every single day,” stated Borsuk during the presentation.
Charting a Course
At the March 18 board of health meeting, presenters from environment Hamilton made suggestions to the city about ways to reduce emission levels by the target dates, noting that the city has already taken significant measures to reduce GHG emissions, but can do more.
One suggestion was to expand and improve public transit. Currently, Hamilton street rail ridership falls short of projections by about 10 per cent. The city is currently working towards a 10 year plan to improve HSR service, which includes improving service and adding capacity.
After industry, transportation is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in Hamilton. According to Hamilton 350 coordinator Don McLean, transportation is one of the areas that the city can make the biggest difference. By extending bus service and making transit more affordable, McLean sees potential for large increases in ridership.
McLean also notes that Hamilton charges some of the lowest parking fees in Canada. The city owns some parking facilities, and has the ability to tax parking lots separately in order to drive pricing. In order to incentivize people to take public transit, McLean says, the parking rate has to be considerably higher than bus fare.
“Why switch to a bus if I can park downtown all day for $4?” he asked.
Another suggestion that environment Hamilton made to the board of health was to develop a “green standard” for new public and private buildings. By mandating energy use limits, the city can make a substantial difference in emissions.
Environment Hamilton executive director Lynda Lukasik also noted during the presentation that enhancing green infrastructure would help the city meet its emission targets. This includes measures such as bio soils, better managed storm water, and planting an urban forest.
Urban canopy currently sits at about 18 per cent, which is 12 per cent below the official target. Expanding the urban forest would help draw down emissions, reduce stormwater flows, and mediate heat effects.
In order to meet these goals, multiple environmental organizations across Hamilton have suggested that the city commits to applying a climate lens to all of its decisions. Similarly to the equity, diversity and inclusion lens equity, diversity and inclusion lens announced in March, the climate lens would evaluate all city actions in terms of their climate impact.
One of the main challenges for meeting the emission reduction targets is resource availability. During the board of health meeting, ward 3 councilor Nrinder Nann pointed out that achieving the commitments would likely involve retrofitting almost every building across Hamilton and switching to electric or hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles. Implementing these measures would require substantial investments of time and money.
Currently, the community climate change action plan receives provincial funding from the proceeds of the cap and trade program. However, the province scrapped the cap and trade program in October 2018 and has pulled funding from other environmental initiatives. Therefore funding for the emissions reduction plan would likely have to come from other sources.
Ward 4 councilor Sam Merulla noted that the challenge will become clear once staff reports the budget to city council within 120 days. If people hear that their taxes will increase, they may be resistant to implementing the plan.
However, Nann pointed out that even though dealing with climate change requires immediate spending, it will generate revenue in the long term. Additionally, inaction will incur high remedial costs.
Another challenge for meeting the emission reduction targets is industry. Industry accounts for 83 per cent of Hamilton’s emissions, a large percentage of which comes from steel mills. However, steel mills are under provincial and federal jurisdiction, meaning that the city does not have direct control over their emissions.
Despite this, notes McLean, the city can work towards offsetting emissions through agricultural practices and reforestation.
Is it enough?
Even if the city manages to reach the emission reduction targets in time, McLean worries that it will be too little, too late.
Climate change is a cumulative problem, meaning that all GHGs currently in the atmosphere will continue to contribute to warming, even if emissions stop.
“The kinds of things that are being talked about now are the kinds of things that should have been very actively implemented 30 years ago,” he stated. “ If you’ve got a cumulative problem then setting any date in the future as to when we should stop is too late.”
In order to make the climate change emergency more than a symbolic gesture, the city will have to dedicate significant resources and implement regular checkpoints to reduce emissions. The true weight of this declaration will become clear once the task force presents the emission reduction plan to city council. To achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the city has to implement unprecedented changes across all aspects of decision-making.