As several communities in Ottawa and Gatineau are combatting rising water levels along the Ottawa River, a majority of Ottawa city council voted on Wednesday to declare a climate emergency, following in the footsteps of several other municipalities across the country.
The motion to declare a climate emergency in the national capital was put forward by Capital Coun. Shawn Menard, vice-chair of the city’s standing committee on environmental protection, water and waste management.
His motion called on city staff to conduct several reviews and updates to the city’s long-term strategies and targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change and air quality, and to work with other levels of government to “accelerate” climate action.
In passing the declaration, council voted to allocate $250,000 towards implementing the motion’s proposed initiatives.
“I think the important thing about the climate change file is some cities have just passed a motion calling it an emergency and not doing anything. We’ve actually added a lot of meat to the bone … to help reduce our carbon footprint in Ottawa,” Mayor Jim Watson told reporters after the meeting, adding the city has already taken other steps on the climate file.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well what’s it matter, how is the city going to make a difference?’ But I think if everyone took that attitude at all three levels of government, we’d be in a very terrible state when it comes to the air quality and the livability of our city.”
Council ultimately split up the motion into three and held three separate votes on particular sections. Councillors George Darouze and Allan Hubley voted against the motion in its entirety, while Coun. Rick Chiarelli voted specifically against an official declaration of a climate emergency, after arguing the use of the word “emergency” was “misplaced.”
Chiarelli and Coun. Jan Harder both voted against the motion’s second part, which called for the creation of council sponsors group that would oversee the measures outlined in the motion. The group will be made up of representatives from the environment, planning and transportation committees, as well as the transit commission and the Ottawa Board of Health.
Watson told reporters he does believe “there is a connection” between major weather events in Ottawa, like flooding and September’s tornadoes, and climate change.
“I think when you look at almost every scientific journal and every report that’s come out on climate change, these are not coincidences. They’re actually serious challenges to the planet’s well being,” he said. “We just celebrated Earth Day a couple days ago and I think it was timely that we have that vote and that discussion here at council. ”
WATCH: Homes along Ottawa River left flooded
Most councillors spoke in favour of Menard’s motion and applauded the councillor and staff for taking the lead on the issue.
“Cities are the economic and social engines in our world today and as such, we have to be leaders. And I think the motion sends a clear message to staff, to other levels of government and to our residents that this is something we need to act on and is a priority for the city and council,” Coun. Glen Gower argued.
“This impacts every resident that we represent,” Coun. Jenna Sudds said.
But some councillors, including Harder and Carol Anne Meehan, challenged using city dollars for this purpose when numerous other municipal priorities are competing for limited funding.
“I would not want to support something that advantages this over everything else,” Harder said.
Senior city staff told councillors the $250,000 requested in the climate emergency motion was to implement its specific measures and any additional work requiring funding will be identified ahead of the 2020 municipal budget.
Ahead of city council’s meeting, a rally in support of climate action was held outside city hall and many of the participants sat in the council chambers to observe the debate.
The City of Ottawa is the latest out of a number of Canadian cities who have declared climate emergencies in recent months. Kingston was the first municipality in Ontario to do so on March 6 and a majority of city council in London, Ont., voted in favour on Tuesday.
Wednesday’s meeting also marked Rawlson King’s first time at the council table as the new representative for Rideau-Rockcliffe, after winning the ward’s byelection on April 15. He voted in favour of declaring a climate emergency.
— With a file from Alex Mazur