Torontonians are demanding real action by City Council on the biggest challenge facing humanity.
When Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement in early June, Canadian politicians from all political stripes made it clear they did not agree with Trump’s climate dismissal approach. Rather, they told us, they were taking climate change seriously. We heard this from the prime minister, premiers, and mayors, including Toronto Mayor John Tory.
On one hand, this is good news for the planet. This almost unanimous call for climate action in Canada is rare. But a call for action is not the same as action. Trump has made it clear he prefers inaction. But it’s not clear whether the “call for action” by Canadian politicians is simply a clever way to look good by saying, “Look at me: I’m better than Trump because I’m promising to do something.”
For Torontonians, the first test of whether the new resolve is real or not will come this week. That’s when Toronto City Council considers TransformTO, a new climate action plan that, if adopted and fully implemented, will put Toronto on the path to reduce climate pollution by 80 per cent by 2050. What sets this plan apart from previous city plans is a deep understanding that public support is key to successful climate action and that building public support means ensuring climate action also leads to other tangible benefits, like more jobs, better health, better housing, and fewer expenses.
Because of this new approach climate action that sees multiple benefits for multiple constituencies, it’s entirely likely that the plan will be adopted. But adopting the plan is not the same as implementing the plan. Early signs suggest plan implementation face two big roadblocks, one in Toronto and one outside Toronto
The first is a questionable commitment from the mayor (and his allies on Council) to fully fund the climate actions. To be fully implemented, the plan needs about $6.7 million annually, a true drop in the bucket of the City’s operating budget (about 0.00067 per cent).
In an early June CBC radio interview, Mayor Tory suggested the actions in the plan need to be prioritized, opening the door for his budget chief to recommend only partially funding the so-called priority actions in plan when money is discussed during the 2018 budget process, later this fall. This partial implementation would ensure the plan never meets its targets. Like a three-legged stool, the action plan requires all actions to work in concert. Because of years of inaction, we no longer have the luxury of slow implementation.
If partial funding happens, this would be a direct result of Mayor Tory’s election commitment to not raise property taxes at more than the rate of inflation, regardless of what is needed. It would also be the result of unwise expenditures made by the mayor and Council since 2014. Recall how Mayor Tory successfully convinced a majority of councillors to support spending $3.6 billion to refurbish the Gardiner East Expressway and at least the same amount for a one-stop subway.
It would be truly ironic for Mayor Tory to argue City Hall can’t find $6.7 million to address the largest global challenge facing humanity while he found almost $7 billion to rebuild a road planners said isn’t needed and build the one-stop subway in Scarborough transit planners say isn’t needed.
Mayor Tory has a real opportunity this month to send a clear message to Torontonians and Canadians that his commitment to climate action is real and not just a politically expedient soundbite to make him look better than President Trump. Simply saying he supports fully implementing the plan—including allocating $6.7 million in the 2018 budget—will show his true resolve and put him in sync with other mayors of big cities across the planet.
The other major roadblock facing the City’s plan are the provincial and federal governments. Ontarians will go to the polls in about a year to elect a new government. If voters turf out Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals and bring in Patrick Brown’s Progressive Conservatives, we will likely see the current provincial funding for climate actions (through the cap and trade system) eliminated. If that happens, the City will not be able to rely on provincial dollars to fund many of the actions in its plan.
At the federal level, it is much more complicated. Prime Minister Trudeau has worked hard to cultivate an image as a leader who not only gets the need for climate action, but is ready to act. Sadly, for the planet and for Canadians, his image does not match his actions. The prime minister’s support for pipelines makes it clear his party has yet to fully grasp the fact that a path to a low carbon future is undermined by allowing billions of dollars to be invested in infrastructure (building pipelines) that maintains our economic addiction to burning fossil fuels. Given the election results in British Columbia, the Prime Minister has a new opportunity to reverse this mistake. Otherwise, he and his party will be effectively supporting President Trump’s attempt at keeping the North American economy addicted to fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, the new Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, is leading a party that still doesn’t accept the reality of climate change and remains tied to the hip of the fossil fuel industry.
And while the NDP seems to be anti-pipeline and pro-climate action, it’s unclear where their new leader—to be chosen later this year—will take the party. Canadians will have to wait and see whether the NDP have the fortitude to push for the sort of changes the Liberals and Conservatives are unwilling to make to federal policies concerning pipelines and our economic addiction to the fossil fuel sector.
For Torontonians, this political uncertainty about real commitment to climate action at City Hall, Queen’s Park, and Parliament Hill creates three possible scenarios.
The first scenario has Toronto City Council fully implementing its climate action plan. It also has the federal and provincial governments providing the financial and policy support to help Torontonians create a low carbon city and economy. This scenario is the one we need for Toronto to not only survive climate change but use it to build a much more prosperous and healthy city.
The second scenario has Toronto City Council doing the right thing, but the federal and/or provincial governments undermining City Hall’s efforts by restricting funding and/or making it easy for the fossil fuel sector to thrive. This scenario is the one facing many cities across the United States, as they deal with President Trump.
The third scenario has Toronto City Council passing a plan and not properly funding it. Regardless of what the federal and provincial governments do or don’t do, if this scenario happens Toronto is in a deep mess.
The good news is that Torontonians aren’t passive observers in what will happen. Politicians at City Hall, Queen’s Park, and Parliament Hill will all be turning to voters within two years asking for their support.
Now is the time for every Torontonian who is upset with President Trump and wants to see real climate action to contact their elected officials and tell them they expect not just an “I’m better than Trump” soundbite, but real action on the biggest challenge facing humanity.
Franz Hartmann is the Executive Director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance