Pandemic dropped Ottawa's emissions, but more action urged to make it a trend

People wear masks and carry signs as they march in Ottawa for stronger action against climate change in September. (Hugo Belanger/Radio-Canada - image credit)
People wear masks and carry signs as they march in Ottawa for stronger action against climate change in September. (Hugo Belanger/Radio-Canada - image credit)

As the global climate summit winds down in Scotland, residents here in Ottawa face their own challenges in order to hit local targets for cutting greenhouse gases.

The City of Ottawa released its annual inventory a few weeks ago, which showed a decrease of 10 per cent in emissions in 2020 compared to 2019. Staff attribute that to people staying home during pandemic lockdowns with their vehicles parked.

As one might expect, and what city staff predict, emissions will rebound as people return to more normal lives.

Yet the community as a whole must keep reducing greenhouse gases by five to six per cent each year to meet the 2025 target of a 43-per-cent reduction below 2012 levels. The city's long-term plan is to be fully net zero by 2050.

People who watch city efforts closely, as well as those of the community at large, say that feat is not impossible, but it's unlikely. It will take more than the municipal government with each business, resident, and upper levels of government pulling their weight.

"Climate change is a global pandemic that we're treating like a cold, while our buildings and cars are coughing out climate virus and we're not even doing it into our elbows," said Steve Winkelman, executive director of the Ottawa Climate Action Fund, a new initiative by the Ottawa Community Foundation that has a $22-million endowment to invest in projects.

Angela Keller-Herzog agrees residents have to "bend the curve" as they did with COVID-19 spread. She is the executive director of Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability, ran for the Green Party of Canada in the recent federal election, and she's a regular presenter at city committee meetings.

"I don't think, [in] the bigger picture, we're on track, no," she said. "We need urgent and real climate action and it's not going to just happen by itself."

She points to the younger generation who protested in Glasgow last weekend criticizing leaders for "greenwashing." Much of the hope and action will need to come at the local level, Keller-Herzog said.

Kate Porter/CBC
Kate Porter/CBC

Home heating, vehicles the big emitters

The city takes stock each year of two sets of emissions for two sets of targets: municipal operations and the Ottawa community.

Emissions from city operations are on track to drop even lower than the 2025 goal of a 30 per cent reduction below 2012 levels. Staff credit work done at the Trail Road landfill to cut down on the gases given off by garbage. The diesel-fuelled bus fleet remains the city's biggest emitter.

As for the broader community, natural gas used to heat buildings and the fuels combusted while driving cause the vast majority of emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions Ottawa-wide

That makes retrofitting buildings a key priority. Keller-Herzog suggests planning ahead for the day a furnace might break down and consider installing a heat pump system, where hot or cool air is exchanged outside depending on the time of year. She acknowledges such systems are still pricey.

Owners of apartment complexes and small businesses should also look at how they can better retrofit their buildings, she said.

Municipal measures

Keller-Herzog pointed to the new interest-free loan program the city is rolling out this month to encourage home retrofits.

In his budget speech last week, Mayor Jim Watson also highlighted the $55 million for 74 electric buses Ottawa intends to buy next year to start moving its fleet away from diesel.

Implementing the new official plan is critical, adds Winkelman, because residents will cut down on driving dramatically if Ottawa can live up to its goal of creating walkable, 15-minute neighbourhoods.

But both say the City of Ottawa could do much, much more.

Keller-Herzog watched the city spend years modelling and crafting a climate plan, but says it has to put more than the variable Hydro Ottawa dividend toward it — it's pegged at $800,000 for 2022 compared to $2.6 million the year before.

"If you look through the draft $4-billion city budget, you wouldn't necessarily know we're in a climate emergency," Winkelman agreed.

Greenhouse gas emissions by City of Ottawa operations

Both suggest Ottawa could use more staff working on climate files to help take advantage of the billions flowing from federal funding programs for climate, transit and housing.

"How do we seize this moment? How can the two Ottawas — the federal Ottawa and the local Ottawa — actually make Ottawa the greenest capital in the world?" asked Winkelman.

Climate spending is expected to be a topic next Tuesday when Ottawa's standing committee on environmental protection, water and waste management meets to discuss its portion of the 2022 draft budget.