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As world leaders gather for what many are calling make-or-break climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, Toronto environmentalists are warning that the city needs to move faster if it is going to meet future emissions reductions targets.
Julia Langer, CEO of The Atmospheric Fund (TAF), a regional climate agency that focuses on the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, said Toronto is currently not on track to meet its 2030 and 2050 climate targets.
Under the TransformTO climate strategy passed by city council in 2017, Toronto has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 65 per cent by 2030 and to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 (figures based on 1990 levels).
“The state of play is that we’re kind of flat-lining when we actually need to be steeply declining our emissions,” said Langer.
The warning comes as the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference gets underway Sunday, with the goal of having representatives from almost 200 countries hammer out the details of a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 C.
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The Conference of Parties (COP), as it’s known, meets every year and is the global decision-making body set up in the early 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements.
This year’s summit, which organizers say could be the world’s “best last chance to get runaway climate change under control,” takes place over the next two weeks. It will feature high-level talks on a variety of topics, including transitioning to clean energy, financing that shift, adapting to climate change, and bringing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation to zero.
Cities key to reducing emissions
Langer said global emissions targets and other policy goals agreed to at the UN summit will “set the direction” for future climate plans across the globe, and cities have a critical role to play in translating those targets into action.
“COP tends to be very focused on these big targets, but we need to actually bring the targets home, and that’s where cities come in,” said Langer.
Toronto’s total greenhouse gas emissions increased by seven per cent in 2018 compared to the previous year — the first time emissions rose in at least eight years — according to the latest inventory available from the city.
While emissions dropped significantly during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Langer said that was a “blip” caused by a temporary reduction in people’s movements due to lockdowns, which brought down transportation emissions.
“We can’t depend on the pandemic to be our climate action plan,” she said.
Gideon Forman, policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, said Toronto and its surrounding area are already experiencing the consequences of a warming planet.
He pointed to the flooding of basements and the Toronto Islands in recent years, along with hotter, smoggier summer weather and poor air quality this past summer caused by smoke from forest fires in northwestern Ontario as a harbinger of what’s to come.
“The climate crisis is not something that’s happening in another part of the world,” said Forman. “It’s happening right here in Toronto, and we’re feeling it.”
Buildings, transport main sources of emissions
Both Forman and Langer agree that for Toronto to meet its emissions targets, it needs to electrify the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) fleet, build more public transit to entice people out of their private vehicles, retrofit buildings to make them more energy efficient, and help residents switch their home heating systems from gas to electric.
These measures would help bring down the city’s two main sources of emissions: heating homes and buildings (55 per cent) and transportation (36 percent).
One thing that could derail the region’s environmental progress, Forman said, is if the Ford government succeeds in building Highway 413, a proposed 59-kilometre route northwest of Toronto.
“We need to be getting people out of cars, not building more highways,” said Forman.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Ontario’s environment minister insisted that the highway would lessen traffic congestion, which would reduce emissions and allow people to “get from point A to point B with a smaller carbon footprint.”
‘We need to do more, faster’
Coun. Jennifer McKelvie, who represents Ward 25, Scarborough-Rouge Park and also chairs the city’s infrastructure and environment committee, said the city has taken big strides in recent years to reduce emissions.
McKelvie pointed out that Toronto did meet its initial target of reducing emissions by 30 per cent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. She also touted hundreds of millions of dollars in operating funds allocated this year for 439 climate-related projects.
“We’re moving in the right direction, but we know we need to do more, faster,” McKelvie said.
Some examples of the city’s current climate-action initiatives include investments in expanding and electrifying public transit, launching an electric vehicle strategy, helping residents retrofit their homes, allowing cargo e-bikes on roads and in bike lanes, improving management of traffic congestion, and green street programs.
Later this year, city staff will submit to council the TransformTO Net Zero Strategy, which will detail how the city can achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
McKelvie said the net-zero report, expected in December, is going to “chart that ambitious way forward for us.”