Skeptics, problem-solvers pack climate change town hall

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Government solicits ideas in creation of emission reduction strategies

By Erin McCracken, Ottawa Community News

When it comes to fighting climate change, the writing is on the wall in Ottawa.

“Ontario is falling behind in the production of electric cars compared to Japan, the U.S. and Europe,” said Kanata resident Allan Poulson.

He drove his electric car, a converted Ford Ranger, to a town-hall meeting on climate change at the RA Centre on March 11 to share his ideas with the Ontario government, which is developing a 35-year strategy and five-year action plan on climate change and strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Poulsen was one of about 130 people who attended the public consultation session, one of 15 being hosted across the province by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change before it releases its strategy and action plan before the end of the year.

In Ottawa, many voiced their ideas, questions, concerns and vision for the future, while others filled large pieces of paper with their recommendations for how the government should tackle climate change by 2050.

There were so many ideas, the government policy adviser taping the papers to the wall had to use a second wall for space in a nearby large ballroom.

Among the dozens of ideas pitched were the banning of plastic bags, costing out green initiatives, the need for more railway tracks rather than more highways, placing warnings on gas pumps similar to those on cigarette packs, incentives for industry to reduce emissions, aligning provincial and municipal policies, implementing broad, equitable and effective carbon pricing and using human waste to fertilize farmers' fields. One man applauded the closure of Ontario's coal plants.

Rolly Montpellier, with climate education group, 350 Ottawa, and Citizens Climate Lobby, made up of local volunteer groups advocating for climate legislation, suggested several ideas, including the need for simplicity around carbon pricing – or putting a price on carbon, such as carbon taxes – so that more people can understand the concept.

“I would like Ontario to be at zero carbon emissions by 2050,” he added.

The government last developed a climate change plan in 2007, setting out targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This will form the basis of the new strategy now in the works.

“So we have a 2014 target, we have a 2020 target and a 2050 target (which is) 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050,” said Karen Clark, director of the Ministry of Environment's air policy and climate change branch.

In her presentation at the start of the forum, she pointed to extreme weather as an byproduct of a changing climate and said Ontario has felt the brunt of that in the form of ice storms, severe flooding and millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses, as well as invasive plant and animal species, more frequent forest fires and more algae blooms in lakes.

“We can't afford to do nothing,” Clark told attendees.

“If action is not taken, Ontario could warm by four degrees, and (see) an increase in winter temperatures in the north by up to seven degrees by the end of the century. This poses a threat to wildlife, impacts to agriculture, our food supply and an increase in severe storms and floods.”

Climate change skeptics were also on hand to question the government's basis for its position on climate change.

“I'm really uncomfortable with the term 'climate change' because it started out as global warming and then morphed into climate change when (former U.S. vice-president) Al Gore's predictions didn't really come true,” said one man, drawing scattered applause.

“It just really sounds like the fix is in, that the science is in, when it's really highly debatable,” he said, prompting several people to protest, “It's not,” and another man to call out, “Go have your own meeting.”

But the majority of those at the town hall focused the discussion on what more can be done to protect the environment and develop measures that have buy-in across all sectors, as well as cohesiveness among all levels of government.

Among the post-secondary students, political representatives, ecology groups and scientists at the meeting was seven-year-old Centretown resident Anna MacEwen, who learned about Australia at school last year and was upset to learn that climate change could cause the flooding of islands in the South Pacific.

The Grade 1 student is now doing a project on ocean acidification, which, researchers say is impacting marine life.

“Her vision for 2050 is that the costs of the transition to climate change are shared equally by everyone. She wants people to have bike lanes only in downtown,” said Anna's mom, Angella MacEwen, an economist at the Canadian Labour Congress and the Green Economy Network, which promotes the need for green buildings and creating green jobs.

Capital ward Coun. David Chernushenko, chair of the city's environment committee, told the crowd that anything less than a 100-per-cent renewable Ottawa by 2050 “is completely inadequate.”

To mitigate emissions, he suggested the mandatory labelling of buildings outlining their energy efficiency.

“We got close to that about a decade ago,” he said, but added that governments backed off on the idea.

“In fact, the real-estate industry pushed back against the idea of there being eco-labelling of homes, likely the idea being that, ‘Well, we'll never be able to sell a home that's energy inefficient.'

“That was the whole point after all. You want to sell your energy inefficient home, you make it efficient, you get it re-labelled and then you sell it,” said Chernushenko, who pointed to France where buildings and houses are labelled.

According to the ministry, Ontario has been successful in reducing emissions by meeting or exceeding the 2014 greenhouse gas reduction target of six per cent below 1990 levels. Clark pointed to the closure of coal-fired electricity plants, the increased use of recycling, construction of more energy efficient buildings and expanding transit as reasons.

The Ottawa forum drew one of the largest audiences in the province, second so far only to a climate change town hall in Toronto that attracted more than 140 people, as officials make the rounds to hear different regional perspectives on the impacts of climate change.

In the north there are concerns over transportation, while energy is a worry in the south. In Ottawa, themes emerged about buildings, including their energy efficiency.

The conversations have been encouraging, Clark said.

“The fact that we have lots of people with lots to say with lots of ideas, it's what we were really hoping would happen,” she said.

To provide feedback on the Ontario government's climate change discussion paper by March 29, go to talk.ontario.ca/climate. For more information, visit ontario.ca/climatechange.