How easy is it to be green in Winnipeg? City too slow on climate emergency fight, say experts, advocates

It’s not that you can’t do anything to reduce how much you’re contributing to Winnipeg’s emissions of greenhouse gases. But in Manitoba's biggest city, doing your part isn't as easy as it could be.

Manitoba’s largest city needs better transit, energy efficiency, waste reduction — and political will

A cyclist is pictured riding toward Winnipeg's downtown over the city's Disraeli Freeway pedestrian bridge. One advocate says city hall will have to change its strategy if it hopes to convince more people to leave their cars at home. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

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If you live in Winnipeg, it's not that you can't do anything to cut down your contribution to greenhouse gas emissions — in fact, there are plenty of seemingly simple ways to do it.

But doing your part to help fight climate change will likely mean figuring out your own compost system, shelling out cash to make your home more energy efficient or planning your day around a bus that only comes once every hour.

When it comes down to it, experts and advocates say the city is moving far too slowly to reduce the nearly 7.8 tonnes of greenhouse gases Winnipeg produces per capita every year. And it's not giving its residents — in this case, more than half of Manitoba's population — a real shot to do their part, either.

"The emergency is getting worse and we're still talking instead of doing," said Curt Hull, project director at Climate Change Connection, a non-profit that educates Manitobans and works on solutions to climate change.

Curt Hull is the project director at Climate Change Connection, a non-profit that educates Manitobans and works on solutions to climate change. (Submitted by Curt Hull)

With the latest Conference of Parties — or COP26, as this year's iteration is known — underway in Scotland until Nov. 12, cities across the world are asking for more of a role in fighting climate change. 

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: Your input helps inform our coverage.

Many say that role is especially important since cities produce more than 60 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions while covering only two per cent of the Earth's surface, according to the United Nations.

The conference marks the annual meeting of a global decision-making body set up in the early 1990s to implement the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and subsequent climate agreements.

Transit heading in wrong direction

One transit advocate says it's no wonder Winnipeg hasn't shaken its car-centric reputation and convinced people to leave their rides at home.

In fact, the city's efforts to tackle emissions from vehicles — which make up nearly half its output — are heading in the wrong direction, said Brian Pincott, a board member with the advocacy group Functional Transit Winnipeg.

At the beginning of the pandemic last year, Winnipeg announced transit cuts. Just over a month later, a city report recommended dropping parking rates downtown.

"So while you want more people to take the bus, you're making it easier and cheaper for people to take a car," said Pincott, a former Calgary city councillor.

Brian Pincott is a board member with the advocacy group Functional Transit Winnipeg and a former Calgary city councillor. (CBC)

He didn't hold back when comparing Winnipeg's transit system to that of the Alberta city he called home for years.

"It's terrible. And I would not go out of my way to say that Calgary has a great transit system," he said.

"If a bus only comes every hour, and you have to wait an hour to get it and you have to wait another half hour for your connection, you're not going to choose it."

The blueprint for a massive overhaul of its transit system unveiled earlier this year by the city was a positive step forward, Pincott said, but the 25-year estimate for completion should be accelerated and cut down to five.

Buildings lag behind

When it comes to Winnipeg's next biggest emissions source — natural gas, responsible for almost one-third of the city's output — there are two straightforward ways to cut back.

One is to make your home better insulated and more airtight, said Laura Tyler, executive director of Sustainable Building Manitoba.

But Manitoba is short on energy auditors, so you'll have to wait in line to qualify for retrofit incentives, she said. 

And compared to other regions — like British Columbia, whose Energy Step Code aims to make new buildings "net-zero energy ready" by 2032 — Manitoba lags behind when it comes to new builds too, Tyler said.

That's partly because the province's 2010 building code hasn't been updated to match the latest national code from 2015, which included upgrades for certain insulation values and other energy efficiency measures.

"What that means is that people are just going to have to invest more to bring their buildings up to a higher level of energy efficiency," Tyler said.

Laura Tyler is the executive director of Sustainable Building Manitoba. (Submitted by Laura Tyler)

A provincial spokesperson said Manitoba is still in the process of adopting the 2015 national code and has committed to adopting future codes. The next set isn't expected until February at the earliest.

For people who can afford to upgrade their homes, education is key — another area where Tyler said it's up to governments to create resources like Edmonton's EnerGuides for Homes Map, which breaks down the energy efficiency of residences across the city.

"I don't think that we're seeing a lot of leadership," Tyler said.

"We know what we need to do. It's about having the political will and deciding to spend that money."

'Bold leadership' needed

Winnipeg's next biggest emitter is waste disposal, coming in around 15 per cent. On that front, the city's recent compost pilot project at a select number of homes is also a far cry from what other regions are doing.

"We're one of the only major cities, if not the only major city in Canada, that doesn't have a citywide compost program," said Ian Mauro, executive director of the Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg.

Ian Mauro is the executive director of the Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"These are the kinds of things that we need bold leadership on — somebody that's going to come in and say, 'No, we're going to do it and push it through in a good way, but in a way that respects that the timeline is short and the actions need to happen now.'"

While simple, actions like diverting waste from the landfill to a compost pile can have a real impact if people buy in, said Durdana Islam, who works at the Green Action Centre as the program manager for Manitoba's Climate Action Team.

"You may think that it might have a small impact, but if the whole community … is doing that, it has a ripple effect," said Islam, whose organization runs Compost Winnipeg, a social enterprise that offers its own subscription-based collection service.

Durdana Islam is the program manager for Manitoba's Climate Action Team. (Submitted by Durdana Islam)

Efforts 'woefully underfunded'

But even if Winnipeggers started taking the bus, retrofitting their homes and composting, advocates and experts agree: the most significant change has to come from government action.

"We've got these so-called plans at the city level and at the provincial level, but they're not plans — they're discussion papers," Hull said.

"You don't see a real plan to implement the ideas."

The City of Winnipeg's Climate Action Plan says it "provides a framework to proactively, meaningfully, and effectively mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions," and sets targets of a 20 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 and an 80 per cent reduction by 2050.

But the city hasn't devoted the resources its fight against climate change requires. For one thing, Winnipeg's sustainability office still only has three staff members, Hull said.

"Winnipeg is woefully underfunded when it comes to this initiative. It's really quite stark," Hull said.

"We've got almost nobody working on this stuff. I mean, bless them — the folks that are are working as hard as they can, but there's only a few of them. We need a lot more horsepower."

Glen Koroluk is the executive director of the Manitoba Eco-Network. (Submitted by Glen Koroluk)

Glen Koroluk, executive director of the Manitoba Eco-Network, said there are still more steps the city can take.

That includes creating an advisory committee on environment and climate and implementing the climate action reserve fund first pitched to council in January 2020.

And if you ask him, it's up to regular people to get involved, too.

"My No. 1 message is people have to get politically engaged," Koroluk said.

"We do need political champions at city hall."


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