Peel municipalities reaffirm commitment to protecting air quality while climate action continues to fall short

The summer of 2023 served as a code red for Canadians. By mid-July, over half of the nation was covered in a thick haze of wildfire smoke and no community — from Tofino in the west to Fredericton in the east, even Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories — was left untouched by the scorching flames that turned 18.5 million hectares of previously lush forest to ash.

It was a reality check that various international bodies, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to localized environmental activism organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) and Environmental Defence, have been warning about for years.

One thing the thick layer of wildfire smoke drove home for a lot of people is how climate change could impact the quality of the air we breathe.

A new global study found that each year nearly two million people — approximately the entire population of the Region of Peel — die from long term exposure to lethal air particles linked to the burning of fossil fuels and other pollutants.

Recognizing this critical link between air quality and climate action, in November, Mississauga council unanimously voted to reaffirm itself as a signatory to the Clean Air Council 2023-2027 Declaration on Air Quality and Climate Change.

The Clean Air Council (CAC) is a network of municipalities and public health units working collaboratively to combat climate change and help avoid the challenges of “working in silos”. The Council, which was established in 2000, operates under the umbrella environmental charity Clean Air Partnership (CAP) and strives to promote a better understanding of climate change while exploring opportunities for joint initiatives and reporting on the progress of climate change measures across member municipalities. Collaboratively, member municipalities have reduced carbon emissions by over 19 million tonnes, the equivalent of 77 million kilometres of car trips.

“Our vision is that Canadian communities are sustainable, healthy and resilient,” Desislava Stefanova, outreach manager at CAP, told Mississauga councillors during a meeting in November. “And we work to achieve this through research and knowledge transfer and convening networks in catalyzing action.”

Each term of council, CAC creates a declaration for each of its 40 partner municipalities to sign on to in order to encourage efforts towards climate action. The City of Mississauga has been a signatory to the declaration since 2001.

During the course of the 2019-2023 declaration, the City of Mississauga was a leader on a variety of fronts that led to advancements in both climate mitigation and adaptation. One of the most successful initiatives that the City is undertaking is the transition to hybrid and fully electric buses across its MiWay fleet.

In June, City Council voted to move forward with the $85 million purchase of 82 hybrid electric buses that would be ready to hit the streets this year. While municipalities, including Mississauga, grappled with decreasing transit demand during the pandemic, and struggled to return ridership to pre-pandemic levels, the City of Mississauga was moving swiftly to ensure that the service many residents returned to was a greener alternative.

Despite providing a more energy-efficient option to a single occupancy vehicle, City buses still rely predominantly on diesel and account for approximately 70 percent of the City of Mississauga’s corporate emissions, according to the City’s Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP). In working towards the emissions reductions targets set out in the CCAP, the City declared in 2019 that it would no longer be purchasing any conventional diesel buses, investing in hybrid and zero-emission transportation going forward.

Mississauga planned to have 206 hybrid electric buses — approximately 41 percent of its fleet in place by the end of last year — following multiple investments from the City, the province and the federal government. The additional $85 million approved in June will tip the scales, increasing MiWay’s proportion of hybrid electric buses to almost 60 percent by the end of 2024. Staff noted last year the further procurement of zero emissions buses could begin in 2025 once greater charging capacity is available.

Other achievements made by the City of Mississauga during the 2019-2023 declaration period include the construction of a new fire station with an environmentally responsible approach; the implementation of transportation, forestry management and invasive species strategies; the building of new active transportation infrastructure including 38 kilometres of bike lanes, trails and shared routes, and 6.8 kilometres of sidewalks; and the joint development of the Centre for Community Energy Transformation with the City of Brampton, the Town of Caledon and the Region of Peel.

When new councils were inaugurated at the end of 2022, following the municipal election, CAC consulted with councils and City staff to identify their environmental priorities for the term. Member municipalities then vote and the highest priority actions become commitments for the term.

For the 2023-2027 declaration, there are six commitments, including:

“We keep the actions purposely vague so that each municipality can apply its own priority,” Stefanova said. “Because we have a diverse portfolio of municipalities as big as Toronto and as small and rural as Cornwall.”

Under the priorities and commitments, the CAC lists 17 policies that need to be implemented by each municipality in order to work towards a more sustainable future. Currently, Mississauga has implemented 15 of the 17 policies with the two outstanding policies being Green Development Standards (GDS) and Green Roof Requirements (which can be implemented as part of the GDS or in its own bylaw).

Ontario’s population is expected to grow almost 30 percent by 2041 — a staggering figure for such a short period of time — and most of this growth will be concentrated in the southern reaches of the province in some of its already most populous cities. As the most “on the ground” level of government, municipalities have the responsibility to ensure that growth is done in a sustainable manner. They have the authority and the obligation to implement GDS to foster this type of development.

GDS are a series of mandatory and voluntary measures that are implemented by individual municipalities to promote environmentally, economically and socially sustainable growth. The majority of these measures relate to the construction of buildings while reducing energy, water and waste consumption in ways that contribute to greenhouse gas reductions, support public health and add to the local economy. Currently, buildings make up the largest source of community emissions across the City of Mississauga and the second largest source — next to transportation — across the province.

While a fairly new concept, the City of Toronto has been the guiding light for GDS across Ontario implementing the first set of these standards in 2006. Since then, the City has updated the terms on a four-year cycle, slowly increasing the importance of mandatory measures. Currently, the City of Mississauga is growing under outdated GDS that were implemented in 2012 which Edward Nicolucci, an urban designer working with the City to update its standards, told The Pointer did not address greenhouse gas emissions or building resiliency.

Following a heart-wrenching delegation from the Mississauga chapter of the youth organization Future Majority in March, the City passed a motion reaffirming its commitment to climate action as it worked on policies like updating its GDS. The City has since undertaken consultations with the Region of Peel, conservation authorities, The Atmospheric Fund, residential and commercial builders, Indigenous groups and youth to understand priorities to implement through the GDS.

At the end of October, the Region of Peel, also reaffirmed its commitment to CAC’s 2023-2027 declaration. The Region has been working with the CAC since its inception in 2000 and stated that many of the priorities of the declaration align with its 2020-2030 Climate Change Master Plan.

“Past involvement in the Clean Air Council and support for the Intergovernmental Declarations has demonstrated high value, including strengthening our municipal networks and seeing the fuller breadth of climate solutions. I'm proud to have the Region of Peel sign on again to help accelerate priorities that improve air quality and climate outcomes,” Christine Tu, director of the Office of Climate Change and Energy Management at the Region, stated in a press release following the decision.

Peel currently has an emissions gap of 17,000 tonnes a gap that must be closed if the Region is to achieve its target of a 45 percent reduction in emissions below 2010 levels by 2030. One of the key ways the Region is working to combat these emissions, given transportation accounts for a large portion of its emissions, is by encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles (EV).

The Region released its EV strategy in the spring of 2022 and it was adopted by each of the lower-tier municipalities. The strategy grapples with the feedback loop associated with EV uptake and charging infrastructure in an attempt to make EVs a more accessible choice. The Region has received funding from the federal government for the advancement of charging infrastructure. The Region’s three lower-tier municipalities are also dedicated to this feat and are working to amend bylaws to require charging infrastructure in new developments.

The EV strategy notes that as of 2022, five percent of Peel’s residents owned a hybrid electric vehicle and an additional four percent were driving battery electric vehicles. While increasing these numbers cannot single handedly close the Region’s emission gap, it can certainly help move it toward a sustainable future.

CAC noted that the City of Brampton has implemented 16 of the 17 policies underlined in the municipal priorities; however, it has yet to sign on to the 2023-2027 declaration. Given Brampton’s current status on the environmental front, it appears its policies and commitments may be more performative than having real impact.

Under the City’s Community Energy and Emissions Reductions Plan (CEERP), Brampton has committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent by 2040 and 80 percent by 2050, a feat it says it plans to achieve by electrifying transit and replacing traditional natural gas with renewable natural gas sources.

But under Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown the City has failed to make even miniscule advancements on the environmental front. The Pointer previously reported that in the 2022 budget, the City allocated more funds to a single road than it dedicated to all environmental efforts.

City staff and Brampton councillors have repeatedly claimed that the city is a leader in clean transit initiatives, yet Brampton is falling significantly behind its sister City in the effort to transition away from dirty diesel buses. Most of these comments refer to a high ridership rate, limiting the use of single occupancy vehicles, rather than the sustainability of the buses themselves. The City is working on an agreement with the Canada Infrastructure Bank for up to $400 million to support the purchase of up to 450 Zero Emissions Buses, but as for the City itself, in 2023, the budget allocated a mere $16 million for transit refurbishments — according to the City of Mississauga, a single battery electric bus costs, on average, $1.25 million.

Given moves by Premier Doug Ford and his PC government to ramp up the use of natural gas, it appears Brampton may struggle to be successful in the transition to more renewable energy sources as well. The Goreway gas plant in the city’s west end is slated for an expansion that could increase emissions by 80 percent — significantly inhibiting Brampton’s ability to meet its emissions reductions targets. The province has previously stated in instances like the Thorold gas plant that it will not move forward with expansions without municipal support, but while some Brampton councillors have expressed concerns with the gas plant expansion, they are waiting to hear back from staff and no vote has been taken on the matter.

Email: rachel.morgan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories to ensure every resident of Brampton, Mississauga and Niagara has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you

Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer