Ottawa's environment committee changed its name. What else did it accomplish this term?
From failing to boost waste diversion to missing emission reporting deadline, little progress made since 2014
The city's environment and climate protection committee — the "climate protection" part is new this term — held its last meeting before the summer break this week, and will meet just once more before this fall's municipal election.
So it's a good time to ask what the committee and, by extension, city council accomplished. The short answer? Not a ton.
Or, as Coun. Scott Moffatt put it: "We received a lot of reports."
The committee oversees garbage and recycling, water and sewer services, and strategies for improving the environment in general. Here are some highlights — or, in some instances, lowlights — of the last four years.
No improvement on waste diversion
Instead, city staff waited on new waste legislation from the province, which took years, and now faces an uncertain future under Ontario's new government.
"There could have been things we did that were more productive," said Moffatt of the committee's work this term.
In particular, he would have liked to tackle the lack of organics recycling in multi-residential buildings, schools and restaurants.
There was some movement on the green bin earlier this year when the city quickly approved a new contract that could allow the use of plastic bags. But the new deal doesn't take effect until next year, and the use of plastic bags is controversial, with some jurisdictions thinking of banning them altogether.
Storm sewer debacle
The city overhauled the way it charges for drinking water, takes away sewage, and deals with runoff from big storms — needed reforms that went pretty smoothly.
Then came the controversy over charging rural residents for storm water services. Rural homeowners who don't pay city water bills have been receiving receiving the services, but haven't been paying for them under the old billing system.
Some weren't happy they had to start paying $4.44 per month. But what really angered them was a 10-year plan that showed annual planned increases of 10, 12, even 13 per cent. By 2027, a rural resident would have paid $14 a month for storm sewer service.
The environment committee stood firm. But council caved to political pressure, keeping the storm sewer rate to 5 per cent this year and borrowing $3.1 million to make up most of the shortfall. There is currently no plan for 2019 and beyond.
Protecting the climate? No way to know
The city is supposed to be trying to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from its own buildings and vehicles. But it hasn't been able to say what's happened with emissions since its 2012 benchmark year. Ottawa can't even meet its laughable GHG emissions reporting schedule of once every four years. By comparison, Toronto releases an annual report on its own emissions.
When pressed, committee chair David Chernushenko said he believes emissions may have improved — there's been an increase in cycling, energy-efficient improvements to some city buildings, the conversion of half of the city's street lights to LED — but the councillor admitted he really had no way of knowing.
Still, despite not knowing where emissions are going, the committee voted this week in favour of more aggressive reduction target of 20 per cent below 2012 levels by 2024. Bringing in LRT will help reduce emissions, but it's unclear how much that will help.
Environment not a top priority
But that's easier said than done.
If the committee's progress this term has been a disappointment — and most of its members agree it has, if privately — there's plenty of blame to go around.
The councillors themselves should be more vocal in pushing the city's goals and they need to take responsibility when things go awry. For example, a report released this week revealed the city's in-house garbage collection contractors have run $2.7 million in deficits in recent years. Committee members carried the report without a single question, as they did last year.
Then there's Mayor Jim Watson. His office, along with the city manager's office, sets the annual budget. Many environmental advocates, including some councillors, argued the city's environmental projects weren't properly funded in the 2018 budget.
For example, council approved a strategy called Energy Evolution, a collection of projects to increase energy efficiency. Most think the strategy is sound, but there aren't enough city staffers to oversee it. Senior staffer Stephen Willis said there is a position in his department expressly to deal with Energy Evolution, but no money at this point to hire someone to fill it.
And forget about bigger ideas, like Toronto's program for low-interest loans to residents looking to make energy-saving home improvements.
Chernushenko says Watson does support environmental projects, just not enough.
"These issues do have the support of the mayor, but it has not been a top priority," the councillor told CBC. "And what we have seen in cities that have made real headway is that these issues have had top priority from the top. On the whole, council had not made it a big enough priority."