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In Conversation: Local Climate Action Depends on Reaching Out to a Wider Community, Moffatt Says

Scott Moffatt has been an Ottawa city councillor since 2010 and became chair of the city’s Standing Committee on Environmental Protection, Water and Waste Management in 2018. In this feature interview, he talks about what it took to get the city’s Energy Evolution decarbonization strategy adopted by a disparate group of councillors, and how to turn ideas into action.

The Energy Mix: With Energy Evolution on its way to implementation after passing city council, which elements of the plan do you find most exciting, and what are the first steps?

Moffatt: I can’t pinpoint any specific part of it that gets me more excited. It’s just the reality that we managed to depoliticize it to a degree where we could actually get something done. People focus on the C$57-billion price tag, and what gets lost on people is that it’s only $7 billion for the city. That’s still a big number. But it’s over 30 years, and most of it will be invested anyway because we need to do things like buy new buses and cars and maintain our buildings. Now we’ll be putting a lens on it and making sure we consider climate when we do those things.

The Mix: You’ve said you didn’t want the City of Ottawa’s climate emergency declaration last year to just be a symbolic act. What did it take to build consensus around the council table for real action?

Moffatt: I myself have voted against symbolism time and time again. During the last term of council, I voted against setting a target of net-zero by 2050 because there was nothing to it. You can set a target. That’s easy. But if there are no teeth to it, it’s just a political show. You can say you passed this motion, but you’re not doing anything.

This time, [Capital Ward Councillor] Shawn Menard brought it to me, and we worked with city staff on how to structure it and have it mean something. That began with laying out what we’re talking about by defining the climate emergency, and better defining how the city was already responding. That way, we could point out to our colleagues what we were already doing, then give staff the direction they needed to reach the target we’d already given them, which was net-zero by 2050.

It was a commitment we had already made. It was a direction we’d already decided on. Clearly, we see the public in this space, we know it’s a force out there. So this was the plan, and that’s how we got council to give it such strong support.

The Mix: To what extent is this a matter of aligning climate action with the other priorities that councillors and their communities are already focused on, so that carbon reductions almost become the co-benefit of other successes—or climate funding helps deliver those other successes?

Moffatt: That’s the point we’ve been trying to make about the $7 billion. To a large extent, this is money that would already have been spent over 30 years on various projects. The Climate Change Master Plan, the climate initiatives, the climate lens, they don’t just belong to one committee. Climate initiatives are everywhere, whether they show up at the planning committee or the finance committee or the transportation committee. It’s not just in one box or silo. It’s city-wide, in everything we do. When we decentralize our climate change initiatives, we’re saying they belong everywhere.

The Mix: A win is a win—but Ottawa has been working on Energy Evolution since 2015, and talking about taking action on climate and energy for far longer. Since 2015, the gap between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and a stabilization target of 350 parts per million has increased 27%. What do we have to do now to pick up the pace?

Moffatt: Between now and 2025, what’s important is to push through the 20 projects we’ve identified through Energy Evolution, using dividend money from [local utility] Ottawa Hydro that comes out of their surplus revenue. While we advance those projects, there’s no question that we have to start the conversation with other levels of government. I don’t want the federal government coming out with a climate change plan for us. We’ve just created one, and now we have a plan that needs funding over the short, medium, and longer term. I don’t care if they take credit for it. But they want to spend money, and we have a plan to spend it.

So we’re funding the short-term work, but after that we’ll be looking at grant programs through the federal government, through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and leveraging other opportunities.

That’s why it was so important to get that initial $2.6 million into the budget. If we had relied on federal COVID emergency funds to backfill our budget, we couldn’t have lobbied other levels of government for more money. The plan is to get as far as we can with what we have, then get more.

The Mix: In spite of the council vote, we’re already hearing concern that the city’s 2021 budget gives short shrift to Energy Evolution funding—and this wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. If we can agree that any organization’s most genuine strategy document is its budget, what will it take to get dollars flowing to really bring Energy Evolution to life?

Moffatt: This is one of the main reasons I pushed staff so hard to preserve the Hydro surplus and not take it away as a COVID relief strategy. There is no other money that city council will put into these initiatives. It’s up to the Energy Evolution group to take that $2.6 million and make it more.

But at the same time, there are things going on in the budget that fall into our climate initiatives. If you’re looking for a line item for climate funding, you won’t find it. But there’s a whole department based on climate resilience that we’ve never had before. That’s important. It’s not where we should be 10 years from now, but it’s important that we’re there right now.

I don’t have a good answer on the 2021 or even the 2022 budget. There’s no plan to add direct climate funding in those two budgets. I expect this to be a conversation during the next municipal election, but until then we’re in a tough spot. We have $5 billion worth of light rail transit plans that we’ve approved and need to fund. There’s obviously a greenhouse gas emission reduction there, but for new projects, there isn’t much more.

The Mix: So it’s going to take a whole-of-government approach to get this done?

Moffatt: We own a lot of buildings, and we own a lot of vehicles. Ford and GM are investing in electric vehicles, so when the city does go to renew its fleet, what will be on the market and available for us will be EVs. We don’t have to go out and create the supply. As you age a car out you buy an EV, and within 10 years maybe the city is operating entirely with electric vehicles. That’s huge, and it’s not something you’ll find in one budget. It’s going to be in our Green Fleet Strategy, in bylaw services, in public works, where we have a lot of trucks.

One of the criticisms of our plan is that it’s full of assumptions. Well, any long-term plan, to some degree, is full of assumptions. I do feel this plan is built on educated assumptions, based on clear directions these companies are taking that will help us get where we need to be. When you see Petro Canada installing in super-chargers, they’re there. They’re not going to play catch-up. It’s unreal when you go to Brockville and you see Tesla charging stations. We don’t own gas stations, and we don’t’ need to, because there’s a market for gas stations, just like there’s going to be a market for EV charging stations.

The Mix: What other obstacles can you foresee, how will the city address them, and how can the community help?

Moffatt: We’re going to need city councils in the future that are focused on doing the right thing, not necessarily the politically right thing, but the right thing for the longer term. Buying cars is not politically sound. Spending a bit more on renewing an arena is not that politically sound. It’s just not something you’re going to get a lot of votes with.

But this plan isn’t about getting anyone elected. It’s about setting the city up for the right future. So I do see future councils as a stumbling block, depending on the makeup of those councils and the priorities they put forward. It’s very easy go down the wrong path and be short-sighted.

The Mix: How can the community help drive the agenda?

Moffatt: The community has to bring this agenda home, make the Energy Evolution report and our existing Climate Change Master Plan a piece of every discussion, and be sure to drive the climate change piece during elections. If you ask the majority of my constituents, for the most part their biggest concerns are going to be taxes and roads, roads and taxes. Climate doesn’t always go to the top of that. Then across the region, you’ll get homelessness as an issue, and we know it is. You’ll get access to services as an issue. But climate change has to be top-three in every ward, to make sure it gets placed on the priority list. That positive reinforcement has to come from the community, constantly talking with people about the benefits of taking action.

I always try to make climate change more personal, because most people still don’t think it affects them. And I try to poke around with the efficiencies. The best example that always seems to nail it down for people is the LED lighting conversion we took on. We invested in something that will have a net return within six years, and then we’ll start saving money. There’s not a single person who says that’s a bad thing, and that LED light conversion was a huge climate opportunity. We didn’t paint it that way, but that’s what it was. When you look at the potential to connect buildings to a district energy system, there’s a huge net savings on operating costs, and that means more money for services. The less efficient we make our system and our city, the less we have for everything else, because now we’re spending more to keep the lights on. And no one ever got elected to keep the lights on.

There are a lot of people who don’t need to be convinced that this climate plan is a good thing. But for every one of you, there are another 10 out there who don’t care about it. So you have to figure out that less commuting time on the road isn’t about climate change for them. It’s about more time at home, more time with their families. More time doing the other things that matter to them.

I just think of the millions of dollars we would save on not having to widen certain roads to manage peak traffic. We’ve allocated $60 million just to widen Prince of Wales Drive, which works perfectly well today because there isn’t enough traffic during the pandemic to make it dysfunctional. Those are the things that resonate with people, and that’s how you can frame this stuff without opening the conversation with climate change. Branding it in a way that makes sense to the various people you’re targeting is going to be the key to getting the majority onside.

None of us thought we would get such a strong vote, but it was even more than that. Some of the councillors who took the time to speak in favour of it came from different segments of the population, were leaders of those segments, and that brings others along with them. Nobody was compromising on anything. But we needed this plan to make sense to a wider group of people, and that’s what we managed to do.

Follow-up: @ScottMoffatt21