Analysis: Climate on the campaign doesn't always mesh with city plans

After years of work, the City of Ottawa codified what it needs to do curb climate change. But since the city's climate master plan was approved in 2020, it's barely been funded. Now, some candidates vying to be Ottawa's next mayor suggest they would create their own plans from scratch.
Destroyed trees.
Ottawa city staff have come up with a plan to curb climate change and are working on one to help the city withstand its effects, such as damage from severe storms. (Alexander Behne/CBC)

It was just a few years ago that environmentally minded city hall watchers were trying to track down whether the City of Ottawa had even a single staffer dedicated to working on climate change.

During the last election, even as a destructive tornado tore through the region, climate change wasn't much of a campaign issue

But this council term, it became a priority — at least on paper.

As Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg grabbed headlines for marshalling students worldwide to demand action, and the United Nations panel issued a dire warning that the planet had to act before the end of the decade, Ottawa city council joined other cities and formally declared a climate emergency in April 2019.

The city now has staff focused on climate change and "resiliency" and they track Ottawa's greenhouse gas emissions annually instead of every four years. With the National Capital Commission, the city commissioned projections for how Ottawa's weather patterns will change in the coming decades. 

They've documented that Ottawa needs to focus on reducing emissions from heating and cooling buildings, and from fossil fuels used for vehicles. They've also studied the flip side: how to prepare for more days above 30 degrees, less snow, and more rain that comes in intense storms.

All this has gone into a climate change master plan approved by council in January 2020.

It was a significant achievement to codify what the city has to do to deal with climate change at the municipal level. But two years into the plan, the "energy evolution" strategy has barely been funded.

Several candidates vying to be Ottawa's next mayor, however, suggest they would create their own plans from scratch, or pass responsibility to the city-owned utility, Hydro Ottawa.

And yet, environmental advocates don't consider pushing the restart button after years of consultation a good response to an emergency.

Five mayoral candidates were invited to participate in a debate on environmental issues on Sept. 28, including, from the left, Nour Kadri, Mark Sutcliffe, Catherine McKenney, Bob Chiarelli and Brandon Bay. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

Misconception about city's climate plan

At a debate on environmental issues earlier this week, and in their platforms, most mayoral candidates agreed with city targets to reduce greenhouse gases to "net zero" by 2050 for the community at large, and a decade earlier for the municipality's own operations.

Candidate and former provincial energy minister Bob Chiarelli called rising temperatures and increased storms an "existential threat." Nour Kadri pointed to the destruction of the week's hurricane Fiona on the east coast.

Yet, asked during the debate how to get the climate change master plan "back on track" and fund it properly, Chiarelli called it "unviable" and said it never was on track. He pledged to "move responsibility for developing a new, realistic plan to Hydro Ottawa."

Like Chiarelli, Kadri appeared under the impression the $57 billion plan ($32 billion in 2020 dollars) was to be covered by local property taxpayers and called it "too ambitious." Mike Maguire — who wasn't invited to participate in the debate — had told CBC it would "bankrupt the city" and it needs to be reconsidered.

But the price tag city staff set was never intended to be fully — or even mostly —  borne by the municipality. 

Rather, the city had been clear the figure would be impossible for the municipality to pay for alone. The plan includes estimates of what upper levels of governments and the private sector would need to spend on homes, commercial buildings and vehicles.

Another candidate, Brandon Bay, acknowledged the climate plan was "in its infancy" and staff were working hard. It was important for the City of Ottawa to get the federal government's ear when it rolls out funds under a planned Canada Green Buildings Strategy, Bay said.

Mark Sutcliffe didn't speak specifically to the master plan's future during Wednesday's debate, but had earlier told CBC he would see how it would see how it fit with the "comprehensive plan" he had unveiled as part of his campaign platform in August.

3 candidates running for Ottawa city council explain how they'd address climate change

Show us the money

Mayoral candidate Catherine McKenney told debate watchers the city had written a good plan, but hadn't funded it, and it was time to act.

The lack of funding, despite hundreds of pages of in-depth planning, has indeed been a perennial discussion at city hall.

The City of Ottawa gets a minimum $20 million dividend from Hydro Ottawa every year, and assigns anything over and above that amount to energy efficiency projects. The amount varies every year — it was just $800,000 in 2021 — and the arrangement ends with this term of council.

Hundreds of people protested outside Ottawa city hall to urge council to declate a climate emergency. They did so in April 2019. (Kate Porter/CBC)

In 2022 the city has $3.7 million from Hydro Ottawa available to put toward its wish list of projects, like $500,000 for heat pumps in low-income housing and $250,000 for 13 electric vehicle charging stations.

At budget time last December, council approved a $1-million "energy and emissions fund" to provide the climate program more consistent funding. McKenney — as councillor for Somerset ward — and Coun. Scott Moffatt, environment committee chair, tried to bump that to $10 million, using one-time additional gas-tax funds. Their motion failed in a 14-10 vote. 

Now, during their mayoral campaign, McKenney's says their environmental platform lines up with the climate change master plan. In that it works toward a target of all new buildings being net zero by 2030 and having residents tap into the new, popular home retrofit program.

McKenney's platform doesn't specify a price tag for climate, but the candidate promises a full costing of their promises next week.

Sutcliffe, for his part, promises $100 million in energy retrofits and upgrades to city buildings over four years, with help from the federal government and Hydro Ottawa. In contrast, Watson promised just $3 million in annual retrofits during the 2018 election.

Some candidates are promising to install many more public charging stations for personal electic vehicles. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Transportation second-biggest emitter

The other important way for Ottawa to cut emissions is by electrifying vehicles, from the family car to the delivery van to the city bus.

OC Transpo made a big move this term when it jumped at the chance of federal funding, and approved a $1 billion plan to replace 450 diesel buses with electric by 2027. The auditor thought the procurement was rather fast for a new technology, and has been doing several audits.

Given that, Chiarelli promises to slow down the purchase, Sutcliffe would "continue the transition," while McKenney would speed it up.

When it comes to powering personal vehicles, several mayoral campaigns speak to adding charging stations. Sutcliffe would have Hydro Ottawa install 200 EV stations and 100 e-bike ones. Coincidentally, the utility's board chair Jim Durrell is one of Sutcliffe's campaign co-chairs. 

Chiarelli had few specifics, while McKenney promised to spend up to $2 million a year on hundreds of new charging stations.

The organization heard from more than 70 candidates running about what they'd do about climate change


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.