St. Catharines strengthens emissions reductions targets after surpassing previous goals
November 26, 2023 | By Rachel Morgan
On Monday, St. Catharines council committed the city to reducing community emissions by 63.5 percent below 2018 levels by 2030 and ultimately reaching net zero by 2050. It’s one of the most ambitious green strategies of any municipality in the province.
“I was very happy to see this recommendation from your staff. I like the ambition. I admire it. And I like the initiative,” Herb Sawatzky, representing the group 50 by 30 Niagara, said when delegating to council. He is part of a community effort to push Niagara Region and all 12 of its lower-tier municipalities to reduce emissions 50 percent by 2030.
The strengthened targets come a few years after the city reached previous reductions targets making St. Catharines a leader in municipal sustainability. The City has received multiple accolades for its efforts to fight climate change. Earlier this year it was recognized with a Climate Action Award from the Water Environment Association of Ontario for innovations in climate resilient infrastructure. A study from the University of Ottawa ranked 15 Climate Change Adaptation Plans from across the province. The one adopted by St. Catharines was ranked third, ahead of communities like Toronto, Kitchener and Hamilton.
In 2015, the city joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy which required member municipalities to set emissions reductions targets in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement solution of keeping average global warming to 1.5 degrees. Following these commitments, St. Catharines set the initial targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2020, 37 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2080, when compared to 1990 levels.
The city has since been overtly successful in achieving these targets, seeing significant reductions in its 2019 and 2020 carbon inventory studies. In the 2020 inventory – the most recent data available – the city surpassed the 2020 and 2030 emissions reduction targets. As of 2020, the City is sitting at 5.62 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per capita _ the initial 2030 target was 6.9 tonnes per capita.
The significant decrease in community emissions is largely accounted for in the transportation and commercial sectors. City staff note that these reductions are likely a result of the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and intermittent stay at home orders. In contrast, there were two sectors that increased emissions: residential and solid waste sectors. Staff note increases in the residential sector are also correlative to the pandemic with the increase of people working from home, increasing use of residential electricity, air conditioning and home heating. The solid waste sector could have experienced higher waste volumes due to increased home cleaning and renovations during these stay at home orders.
By source, the most significant decreases in emission came from cutbacks in the use of natural gas and gasoline. Between 2018 and 2020, the community of St. Catharines saw a 10 percent decrease in emissions from natural gas use.
The topic of natural gas is heavily contested across Ontario right now as the PC government under Premier Doug Ford government amplifies the use of the fossil fuel as energy demands increase. One of the most talked about solutions to the greenhouse gas problem is rapid electrification of all sectors, but this only provides a sustainable solution if this electricity is coming from clean sources. Ontario has one of the cleanest electricity grids with over 90 percent of its power coming from renewable sources since the phase out of coal fired plants in the province in the early 2000s. But the increasing use of natural gas from the Ford government is expected to cause emissions from these sources to spike 400 percent, compared to 2017 levels, by 2030 and almost 800 percent by 2040.
“If we do that, then Ontario’s municipalities will not be able to achieve their climate targets, because we will have a dirty electricity grid,” Jack Gibbons, executive director of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, previously told The Pointer.
While St. Catharines does not house its own gas plant there is one in the neighbouring municipality of Thorold. The Thorold South gas plant, owned and operated by Northland Power since 2010, has a capacity of 265 megawatts. Earlier this year, Northland Power submitted an application to expand the plant with the new plant providing 200 megawatts of power – enough to power 100,000 homes – and act as a backup source to stabilize the regional energy grid. But when the application went to council, the city voiced its opposition to the expansion, forcing the provincial government to backtrack on its plan to ramp up natural gas generation.
However, other cities have not been as fortunate as Thorold to make their own decisions on their power source. Regardless of the proximity to the power source, if natural gas generation is ramped up provincially, it will make it more difficult for municipalities to reach their emissions reductions targets as emissions from the electricity sector will stand to increase.
As the threat of the pandemic begins to wane and more and more residents continue to return to their daily lives, there is bound to be an increase in all forms of transportation. Niagara Region Transit reported in 2022 that public transit ridership had returned to pre pandemic numbers. Alongside this increase in transportation, there is the need to look to more sustainable alternatives.
Councillor Bruce Williamson brought up the fact that the Niagara Transit Commission has stated they will continue to buy diesel buses in order to replace end of life vehicles, a move that is contrary to many other Ontario municipalities who are looking into the possibility of hybrid and fully electric buses. While transit across the Region is a matter of Regional council, St. Catharines Mayor Mat Siscoe chairs the Transit Commissioner. Siscoe said that the Commission has yet to produce a phase out plan for diesel buses but it is on the radar as the Region considers elements such as cost and infrastructure.
“We need to not only discuss upfront costs, but also life of equipment costs, which is refueling, and which is also maintenance,” Sawatzky said.
Lindsay Taylor, sustainability director of the St. Catharines downtown association also commended the city for looking to strengthen its emissions reductions targets and also brought up the importance of the role of gentle densification in mitigating climate change, encouraging things like active transportation.
Taylor said she herself does not own a car and while she is satisfied with the public transit opportunities in the downtown core _ she said in the outskirts of the city a demand study may be needed to improve service – it is also important that the city caters to those choosing to walk and bike.
“Our main streets, the lifeblood of any thriving community, are the original 15 minutes cities. Convenient hubs where services are within arm’s reach,” she said. “Densification here is not just a choice, it’s a necessity to foster a sustainable and vibrant urban core.”
The City has been in the process of developing an active transportation master plan which will be coming to council in the coming months.
While Taylor stressed she is happy with the transportation options in the city, and commended City staff for their work on the sustainability file, she recommended the city explore the use of disseminated area level data for a more precise modelling of transportation emissions and making this data available to the community to replicate on projects throughout the municipality.
“Together, let’s perform this to propel our city forward, let’s not merely settle for survival, let’s thrive sustainably,” she said.
St. Catharines has previously received recognition for its dedication to climate mitigation through its efforts to plant 100,000 trees in 10 years, a motion passed earlier this year. The initiative, spearheaded by Councillor Kevin Townsend, works alongside the City’s effort to increase its urban tree canopy to 30 percent – the most recent inventory shows the urban tree canopy to be 23 percent.
According to municipal data, the City plants between 2,500 and 3,000 trees per year, mainly on boulevards and private residential properties through giveaway programs. Townsend’s motion requires the City to ramp up its efforts to plant a minimum of 10,000 trees per year.
When asked by Councillor Townsend about the mitigation potential of this tree planting initiative, Taylor stressed that while trees do consume carbon dioxide and have multiple benefits for greening the city, providing shade and promoting better air quality, urban trees face unique stressors and can have many associated costs for things like depaving or implementing a soil cell system for the tree to thrive.
While tree planting is celebrated by politicians nationwide, using the act as photo ops for reassuring their constituents they are dedicated to fighting the climate crisis, repeated studies have shown the outward effort is one of the least effective mitigators of climate change.
A 2021 study by Nature United identified 24 “pathways” which, if fully implemented, could help Canada reduce its natural greenhouse gas emissions by 76 megatonnes – or 11 percent – by 2030. But out of those mitigated emissions, only five percent come from restoration efforts like tree planting and wetland restoration projects, the study found. In contrast, simply leaving greenspaces as is, can reduce emissions by 30 megatonnes.
Nonetheless, Taylor noted that while trees may not be one of the fastest ways to achieve the City’s new reduction targets, they can provide many other benefits for the City, especially the downtown core which is largely paved over with very little natural beauty left.
Given St. Catharines’ successes to date, the majority of councillors who spoke to the report stressed faith that the city could meet these new updated targets. One of the signifiers of the new targets is the changing of the base year from 1990 to 2018. This single alteration to the calculation shows how well the city is doing – emissions in 2018 were already 11.2 tonnes per capita lower than 1990, a significant reduction.
Staff note that the new targets – 63.5 percent below 2018 levels by 2030 and net zero by 2050 – were developed with guidance from the Cities Race to Zero Campaign and the Science Based Target Network. The methodology used is based on data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest data published in the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees which integrates consideration of fair share of emissions.
The new city targets are exclusive to community emissions. Corporate emissions – which refer to the emissions from city buildings, fleet and other resources – are addressed through the City’s Energy Conservation and Demand Management Plan (CDMP) which was adopted by council in 2019. The CDMP sets the targets of a 30 percent reduction in corporate energy intensity and a 40 percent decrease in corporate greenhouse gas intensity, both relative to 2011 levels, by 2030.
By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, THE POINTER