Toronto an Environmental Leader but More Can Be Done

Article by J. Dean Spence

Toronto has been a leader in the fight against climate change since at least the 1990s. In 1991, Toronto became the first city to establish a municipal climate agency when city council approved the Toronto Atmosphere Fund, funded by an endowment of $23 million in land sales.

The fund has invested in various projects that have resulted in climate change-fighting businesses, including:

  • Enwave Energy Corporation’s deep-water cooling system;
  • AutoShare, a carsharing company with a fleet of hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles;
  • Efficiency Capital Corporation, an energy-efficient retrofit company.

In fact, last year at the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris (COP21), Toronto was up for a C40 Cities Award because of the Toronto Atmosphere Fund. Also, in 2009 Toronto was the first North American city to launch a Green Roof bylaw, which legislates the construction of green roofs on all new construction—residential, commercial, and institutional—of a minimum size of 2000 sq. m. area.

Here at U of T, the University has undertaken three major retrofits of old buildings (the Medical Science Building, the OISE building, and Robarts Library), which has resulted in savings of over $2.6 million dollars yearly, and has drastically reduced our CO2 emissions, saving the University 20,545 gigajoules of energy at OISE per year.

Also at U of T, since 2011 we have been recycling flasks, petri dishes, and beakers etc. from our labs. In 2015, 30 metric tonnes of glass and plastic were saved from landfills. This recycling program is now seen as a model for other institutions.

Toronto’s track record is not perfect, however. During the 2010 civic election many Toronto newspapers ill-advisedly ran stories about the city’s so-called “war on cars” because city council spent money on improvements to public transportation and bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Still, Torontonians can be proud of those earlier significant achievements. John Cartwright, President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, believes we can do even more. In a January 31, 2016 Star Touch column, Cartwright suggests that after COP21 the unions in numerous countries are advocating for “A Million Climate Jobs”. This slogan, he says, amounts to a framework that can be used to determine infrastructure spending for all levels of government.

David Suzuki, Ph.D. in Zoology, once humorously remarked that conventional economics is a form of brain damage because of its insistence that economic concerns should outweigh all others, including the environment. But indeed, there does not necessarily have to be a trade-off between economics and the environment when planning for our future.

Cartwright writes that Toronto could further reduce its carbon footprint in at least 6 ways:

  • Expand the Better Buildings program to perform energy audits on office and apartment buildings, to secure financing for retrofits, and connect qualified contractors with clients. The same concept can apply to homes through the city’s recently adopted residential program.
  • Amend the Ontario Building Code to require much stronger environmental standards. Toronto has green building criteria that should be improved and made mandatory.
  • Develop model designs for zero carbon buildings to set the stage for new standards in architecture and construction.
  • Increase financial support for solar installation on roofs and building facades along with high-tech storage capacity. Toronto Hydro and municipal utilities should be key players in this work, as should publicly-owned Hydro One.
  • Move forward with decisive investment in public transit. The federal government needs to develop a true national transit strategy and the province needs to restore traditional levels of support for operating costs. Municipal property taxes cannot shoulder the burden of this vital work. Transit should remain publicly-owned and operated.
  • Rethink how people move around on a daily basis. Urban planning should emphasize local communities where amenities are easily available within walking distance. Sprawl ought to be curtailed and suburban areas intensified. Vehicle emissions should be dramatically reduced, and systems put in place to support hybrid and electric cars.

If Toronto implements such ideas—which Cartwright admittedly says he cannot take credit for—it would surely garner us more international attention. Most importantly, however, we would create a healthier environment and a strong economy.