Mississauga strengthens growth standards to protect residents from costly climate disasters

On Monday, Mississauga’s Planning and Development committee voted unanimously to pass a new set of Green Development Standards (GDS) aimed at making future growth in the city as sustainable as possible. While Mississauga is significantly behind others like Toronto, which have had these standards in place since 2006, residents and sustainability organizations have labelled the approval a historic moment in the City’s effort to mitigate climate change by putting strong sustainability criteria in place for new homes and buildings.

Protecting homeowners and infrastructure from the consequences of climate change—flooding, erosion, heat waves—largely falls on municipalities. GDS, which includes voluntary and mandatory measures, places sustainability as the guiding force for new development. Standards aim to reduce energy use, water consumption and waste contribution, all in the name of limiting the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released. These building criteria result in improvements to public health and the local economy as the end product is a green, vibrant community that people are proud to call home. These policies also include measures to mitigate the negative effects urban environments have on wildlife with the requirement for things like bird-friendly design to limit window collisions, one of the leading causes of bird deaths in the world.

The updated standards mark the first time council has approved a strengthened version since the original set was put in place in 2012.

While the initiative was supported by all members of council, some still questioned the reluctance on the part of the Ontario government to insert such standards directly into the Building Code and make them uniform across the province.

“It seems to me that it would be very easy for the province to come in and amend the Building Code to ensure that these standards are in place for every municipality and not doing a one off,” Councillor Matt Mahoney said, adding that given the Province’s desire to build homes rapidly, he feels it is a missed opportunity to not implement these sustainable efforts province-wide.

Edward Nicolucci, an urban designer working with the City to update its standards, said he agreed with Mahoney completely, and there was even mention of such Ontario-wide GDS being considered under Steve Clark, the previous housing minister. However, after Clark resigned from the post following the Greenbelt scandal, there has been radio silence. Nicolucci said an amended Building Code is set to be released later this month, but he does not believe it will include any “meaningful” green standards to assist municipalities with reaching net zero emissions.

It is for this reason that Mississauga took the bold step to align itself with municipalities across the GTHA, like Toronto, Pickering and Whitby, all of which have strong GDS to guide sustainable growth and development.

While City staff noted that Mississauga’s first round of GDS did see relative success, the 2012 standards did not consider energy savings or building resiliency — two key factors for sustainable development.

“We can't continue to build in the same way we have in the past,” Diane Zimmerman, Manager of Environment at the City of Mississauga, told the committee. “Instead, what we need to do and what is intended in this update of the Green Development Standards is to ultimately have a standard that requires all new buildings over time, and through a tierring approach to be net zero by 2030.”

Buildings make up nearly 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions across Mississauga, meaning they are a key sector to be tackled if the City hopes to reach its goal of achieving net zero by 2050 — the current interim target for 2030 is 40 percent below 2005 levels, but is in the process of being updated.

“Mississauga currently has more cranes in the sky than ever before and lots more new development is planned over the next decade. If those homes are built on the current standards, they're going to have to be retrofitted in the future, which is so much more expensive, long term, and their costs will fall to young people,” Kannera Uthayakumaran, a volunteer with the youth group Future Majority, said to the committee. Future Majority delegated to council in March 2023 about the standards when council reconfirmed its commitment to take bold climate action.

Uthayakumaran’s comment is particularly poignant as Mississauga is mandated by the PC government to build 120,000 new homes by 2031 as dictated by the contentious Bill 23. If these homes are built without careful consideration for mitigation and adaptation measures, the City would not only see a rise in community emissions, but many more residents would be left vulnerable to damage caused by extreme weather events.

While Mississauga may be late to implement a stronger set of GDS, it has the advantage of looking to other municipalities for guidance. The Toronto Green Standard (TGS) has been in place since 2006 and, as of 2022, is currently in its fourth iteration with the most up to date standards guiding the City towards net zero emissions by 2040.

Mississauga is also working on a similar tiered approach, which will see stronger standards rolled out over the coming years while providing incentives for builders to reach higher sustainability scores.

“Like several other leading Ontario municipalities, this tiered approach provides a pathway to help industry prepare for this ultimate outcome and assists the City to meet our climate commitments,” Zimmerman, Mississauga’s environment manager said.

Mississauga’s GDS will be rolled out in three tiers, with the first consisting of mandatory standards, followed by different voluntary measures in later tiers. Beginning in 2025, builders will be required to adhere to policies such as ensuring a minimum of five percent of a buildings’ annual energy consumption comes from one or a combination of acceptable renewable sources; planting shade trees along street frontages; and including a green roof, blue roof, cool roof or solar PV for roofs with a combined area of 500 square metres or greater. These standards are for low-rise residential buildings.

In 2028, tier two metrics will become mandatory, with tier three following in 2033.

“You have two tiers that become more rigorous over time, and part of it then is to ensure that we get to net zero, and try to meet our climate change targets. And so the notion is that gives the building industry time and the ability to get to higher standards as we move through time,” Niccolucci said. “But also it gives us an opportunity to look at incentives to ensure that developers who want to look at these higher standards have the ability to do so.”

The City will be undertaking a feasibility study to determine the proper incentives for the uptake of tier two and tier three standards. Councillors were adamant they want strong incentives to be in place to make developers want to reach higher standards, rather than penalties for failure.

“I'm a very strong believer in the carrot versus stick approach,” Councillor Brad Butt said. “Let's encourage them to do the right thing in greening up their developments in their buildings and we don't use the stick of saying that you don't do this.”

While green buildings can pose a higher upfront cost — up to seven percent more — the savings over the course of the lifespan of the building are far greater.

“New low-carbon development provides a local economic opportunity through demand for specialized skills and new jobs,” Bryan Purcell, vice president of policy and programs at The Atmospheric Fund (TAF) said in a statement following the consensus at committee. “For housing to be truly affordable, it must be affordable over the long term, meaning it should be built with efficiency in mind.”

Building with strong GDS can cut electricity and heating costs and contribute to long term efficiency resulting in lower impacts on the consumer.

For some residents of Mississauga, these benefits are worth the higher upfront cost.

“There’s a cost associated with it, but frankly the cost of our future is worth it,” Rahul Mehta, founder of Sustainability Mississauga, told the committee.

Of the 10 delegates registered to speak on the matter, all supported the City’s effort to strengthen its GDS standards.

The City engaged with residents, developers, Indigenous nations, the Region of Peel, conservation authorities and youth in the process of developing these standards. The youth group Future Majority was instrumental in the process, setting up meetings with all but two of the sitting councillors prior to the approval of the new standards.

“I hope you're pleased to see that some of the ideas that you had raised with me are actually showing up now in the information reports. So, congratulations on your advocacy,” Councillor Dipika Damerla told the four youth who delegated. “But I think there's a bigger piece here. I hope that you takeaway, especially seeing that the report has some of your suggestions in it, that your voice matters and that your voice was heard.”

Youth have been instrumental in the fight to establish stronger GDS in Mississauga, often clashing with the voices of the older generation.

“We know you were expecting policy, industry and business experts here today who can speak to the policy details in a more comprehensive way, and you might have not been expecting to see this many teenagers and 20-somethings rallying around green development standards,” one of the delegates from Future Majority said. “But we're here because this matters because this is one of the most powerful climate policies a city can pass, and because you can make an impact.”

A report published in January by the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) found 2023 to be the fourth costliest year for climate-related disasters with over $3.1 billion in insured damages. As Earth creeps closer to atmospheric tipping points, these chart topping years will become more and more frequent.

As a result of escalating losses in Canada—particularly due to the increasing danger from the worsening wildfire season—the country is now viewed as a risker place to insure. This is leading to increased discrepancies in access to insurance to cover damages from things like floods, earthquakes and other natural hazards.

The insurance industry is calling on the federal government to support a new program for covering these future damages.

“Canada’s property and casualty insurance industry has offered to support a comprehensive and cost-neutral flood insurance program that will replace costly Disaster Financial Assistance and save governments and taxpayers money. After seven years of study, government officials and home insurance professionals agree on this solution,” Craig Stewart, Vice-President of Climate Change and Federal Issues at IBC, stated in a press release. “Canadians now need the federal government to move forward with this program and announce details in the 2024 Federal Budget. The homes and financial health of over 1.5 million Canadians are at high and growing risk.”

The Liberal government is set to release its 2024 budget on April 16th.

In the 2023 federal budget, the Liberals committed to a national flood insurance program, but progress has stalled, leaving many Canadians vulnerable. The threat of an even more damaging 2024 wildfire season fuelled by drought and a mild winter leaves many in Western Canada particularly at risk.

In Ontario, the provincial government has done very little to step up. Last spring, Doug Ford’s PC government voted down a Bill introduced by Liberal critic for Environment Conservation and Parks, Mary Margaret McMahon, to increase education and awareness on flood risk in Ontario.

“The weather of the past is no longer a good predictor of the weather of the present or the future. Wherever it rains, it can flood,” Mary-Margaret McMahon, MPP for Beaches—East York, said in the legislature in March 2023. “It’s not that old-style thinking of ‘I don’t live next to a river or a stream or a big body of water, so I won’t flood. My house won’t flood.’ That is no longer the case. Anywhere it rains, it can flood.”

Despite her best attempts to get PC MPPs on board, the Bill, which was endorsed by the University of Waterloo’s Impact Centre on Climate Change Adaptation, lost with 33 votes for and 64 against.

When McMahon brought forward her Bill, Ric Bresee, the PC MPP for Hastings—Lennox and Addington, argued local conservation authorities have the greatest expertise in the area of flooding and they should be trusted to protect residents.

“[Conservation authorities] can work with our municipal partners and the people who build those homes to ensure that mitigation measures are put in place,” he said. “There is no perfect system, but with this level of expertise and a focus on these tasks, even in the face of more extreme weather events, we can implement positive plans to minimize these risks.”

He made no mention of the fact that the power of conservation authorities has been significantly weakened under Premier Doug Ford’s PC government or that Conservation Ontario was in full support of the Bill.

In spite of her best efforts, the large burden of property protection has been left to municipalities.

And while municipalities are accountable to the levels of government above them, they still have the jurisdiction to go above and beyond standards for more sustainable development.

Mississauga’s new standards are strict, but Niccolucci assured council that they are in line with other municipalities and will not discourage development.

As Future majority said: “Who wouldn't want to live in a city that cares about climate?”

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer