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Council says it takes more than just words to fight climate change

City will also look into replacing municipal vehicles with electric and hybrid models, and inspecting implications of becoming a living-wage employer
2019-08-28 Barrie water tower RB
The City of Barrie water tower on Mapleview Drive West. Raymond Bowe/BarrieToday

Progress was the name of the game this week at city hall. 

Declaring a climate emergency, investigating the electrification or hybridization of city vehicles, and working toward the city becoming a living-wage employer were all given initial approval at Monday's general committee meeting. 

But it was the climate declaration that received a thunderous applause from those in the gallery, as city officials move closer to joining the growing ranks of Canadian municipalities to have taken that step.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the world has less than 12 years to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

If the motion receives final approval at city council later this month, staff will report back to general committee on creating a climate change mitigation plan, with the goal of having net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

Coun. Sergio Morales called "a huge, lofty goal" and one that he says needs to be costed out with a plan that could be "realistically" implemented. 

However, Morales questioned whether declaring a climate emergency was needed, because he didn't want it to become more about symbolism than policy. "I just didn't feel comfortable declaring an emergency for the sake of declaring an emergency and then not having a logistical plan," he said. 

Coun. Keenan Aylwin, who raised the item for discussion, said he agrees there needs to be a policy component, but also highlighted the hundreds of people who marched downtown last month and their message. 

"A lot of young people, myself included, feel very real anxiety about our future and the uncertainty of our future," he said. "It's important as leaders in our community that we validate that anxiety and concern, and show that we stand in solidarity."

Aylwin said having net-zero emissions by 2050 "is not a lofty goal, it is what the science requires of us."

Morales said he "wasn't trying to trivialize the passion of the movement ... or the reality we are facing," but he didn't want to commit to declaring a climate emergency without knowing the implications on the city, such as costs.  

There was also talk around the table regarding what declaring an emergency actually means, following a similar discussion a few months ago about calling a health emergency for the opioid crisis. However, it was noted that the two are distinctly different, because a health emergency would trigger funding from other levels of government. 

"Declaring an emergency does nothing to mitigate climate change. Declaring an emergency is a statement to the public," said Mayor Jeff Lehman, adding it doesn't change the city's eligibility for funding, for example. 

The mayor said it's "a symbolic gesture" and "purely a political statement."

"I've made no secret, I'm not a big fan of the 'declaring emergencies' approach to things when it stands alone and accomplishes nothing, although it is sometimes an important message," added Lehman. "I think our commitment is actually demonstrated by our actions. Every activist out there, from Greta Thunberg to the thousand people who showed up in Barrie, is demanding action. They're not interested in anymore talk."

Rather, the city's climate change mitigation plan would come with tangible ways to make a positive impact on matters such as facility operations, construction and energy use. 

"At some point, movements start to use language of their own," Lehman said, "and this is the language that our young people are using and expecting of us in response."

Deputy Mayor Barry Ward said he also had reservations about declaring a health emergency around opioids, due to the effect it would have on services, etc., but this is different. "In this case, the symbolism is important," he said. 

When it comes to policy and political statements, Morales said "you can have both. I would prefer to have the policy."

Coun. Mike McCann called for more information on the implications of calling a climate emergency. "What I don't want to do is give our youth and the people who showed up here three weeks ago a false sense of security," he said. 

"Look, it's not the language that's scaring young people," Aylwin said. "Young people are very aware of the issues that we're facing in our world today. What they're afraid of is the very real threat that poses to their future."

After councillors gave initial approval to declaring a climate emergency, the Leap Barrie group commended the move, but said it didn't go far enough. 

"There are no commitments from the city and no immediate action being taken, action that is necessary to truly tackle this threat to humanity," the group said in a release, adding it falls short in areas such as racism, poverty, wealth distribution, and Indigenous issues. "People and our planet must always be put ahead of profit."


Council also gave initial approval for up to $3 million to finance a fleet renewal program Monday night.

In 2016, a consultant's report identified that 52 per cent, or $27 million, of the city's vehicles are in poor or very poor condition. The estimated replacement value is just over $49 million. 

Over the last five years, the city has spent over $10 million on repairs and vehicle rentals.

Staff recognized the need to take a "systematic, innovative and cost-effective approach to fund the renewal of the aging fleet," city treasurer Craig Millar said in his report. 

To meet the needs of the fleet renewal program, city officials expect to seek $3 million in financing over a five-year term.

The finance department will also look at leasing options, however, that would be "less desirable" because the city’s fleet managers prefer to own the vehicles at the end, Millar said. 

Annual financing costs are expected to range from $645,000 to $660,000 over five years. Once financing is secured, the city will reissue a request-for-proposal for the vehicles, with expected delivery in early 2020.

Coun. Morales also tabled an amendment calling for up to $75,000 from the fleet replacement reserve to study the costs associated with converting all city vehicles (except for transit buses) to electric or hybrid, which could save the municipality money in the long run. Staff would report back to council in late-2020. 

"One of the things that is often missed is that electric/hybrid cars have different life spans," said Morales, adding electric and hybrid vehicles tend to last longer. "I think this is a really good opportunity ... to hopefully find more financial efficiencies in our fleet, but also moving forward with the mitigation of climate change."

Lehman said he supported the move. 

"If we were just looking at the dollars then there are different business cases for different types of fuelled vehicles, but the business case for electric vehicles, when you consider the whole life cycle, may well be a much better decision than gas-powered vehicles," said the mayor.

"Far more importantly, in terms of looking at the future fleet, this is a tangible action we can take to lower the city's carbon emissions," Lehman added. "I think this is money well spent."


Pending final approval and without any discussion Monday night, councillors also directed municipal staff to investigate the feasbility of the city becoming a living-wage employer and report back to council. 

According to a recent presentation by the Simcoe County Poverty Reduction Task Force, a living wage is defined as "the hourly wage a worker needs to earn, in order to cover their basic expenses and to participate in the community." Expenses in the living-wage calculation include food, housing, transportation and child care.

The task force says $18.01 an hour is the current living wage for Simcoe County.