Ottawa·Analysis

Ottawa's environment committee changed its name. What else did it accomplish this term?

The city's environment and climate protection committee meeting this week was the second-last before this fall's municipal election. So it's a good time to take stock of what the committee accomplished in this term of council. The short answer? Not a ton.

From failing to boost waste diversion to missing emission reporting deadline, little progress made since 2014

Ottawa's waste diversion rate didn't improve during this term of council. (Roger Dubois/CBC)

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

The committee really didn't even talk about waste diversion until local activist group Waste Watch Ottawa pointed out last fall that this city has some of worst diversion rates in the province.
Coun. Scott Moffatt would have preferred to see the environment committee work on more tangible goals. (CBC)

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 pressurekeeping 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.

That fiscally dubious decision punts more difficult ones well past the October 2018 municipal election. This new borrowing will push the water and sewer department right up against the council-set debt ceiling and add $1.9 million to the city's interest payments over the next decade.
Council approved a new green bin contract, but it's controversial because it allows single-use plastic bags. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

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.

"I think that pretending that these targets mean something is a waste of time," said Moffatt. "I think if you want to go and do this, then bring forward things that actually achieve it."
The city has installed solar panels on eight of its buildings in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Werth Solar)

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.

Committee chair Coun. David Chernushenko says it's hard to find support and resources to make major changes. 1:08

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."

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.