Watching Toronto City Council debate its climate emergency declaration, it was clear that even the most battle-scarred of politicos had been moved (dare I say scared?) by the tens of thousands of youth-led climate strikers who’d marched past City Hall the previous Friday.

The motion – co-sponsored by Mayor John Tory and Councillor Mike Layton – passed unanimously. Greenpeace supported it because it’s more than just words, though there’s still a lot of work required to turn these intentions into action.

When Councillor Layton first started meeting with environmental groups about the motion, we were unanimous that it had to commit the City to doing more, faster and in an inclusive way. The Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) then took the lead on gathering input from community groups and youth climate strikers, and pulled together a set of recommendations endorsed by 47 groups that set the frame for the Council motion.

In declaring a climate emergency, Toronto City Council has committed to: 

  • Set a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target in line with keeping warming below 1.5 degrees. The City has set a new target of net zero by at least 2050, and will look at ways to achieve this target by 2040. It will also set interim targets and carbon budgets to ensure that we are on track to meet those long-term targets.
  • Explore financing mechanisms to adequately fund climate action in the 2021 budget cycle (more on this below).
  • Meaningfully consult and cooperate with Indigenous communities on the development and implementation of the TransformTO climate action plan, in line with the City’s commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Apply the City’s Equity Lens to TransformTO decision-making in order to ensure that strategies include and benefit equity-seeking groups.
  • Collaborate with youth to increase their participation in the development and implementation of TransformTO.
  • Apply a climate lens to evaluate the climate impacts of major City decisions including financial decisions.
  • Create a low-carbon jobs strategy that supports a decent work agenda and expands green industry sectors.
  • Initiate a plan to become a green investment City and exclude fossil fuels from City investments.

Turning these commitments into reality is still going to take a lot of work – keeping up the pressure in a context of competing budget priorities and a pro-fossil fuel lobby that never quits. Toronto does have some credibility on the file, as greenhouse gas emissions within the city are down 44% relative to 1990 (with the provincial coal phase-out lending a helping hand).

The easy reductions, however, are largely gone. Getting to net-zero is going to be harder. And expensive, though of course doing nothing or not enough is terrifyingly more expensive.

Achieving what’s in this motion is going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people, over a long period of  time. This is why it has been inspiring to see so much Green New Deal-style organizing – which recognizes opportunities for greater equity and a better kind of economy – in the lead-up to the emergency declaration.  

One piece of the puzzle, and one that Greenpeace Canada has been advancing with allies, is to make big polluters pay their fair share of the costs of acting on the climate emergency. 

Just like tobacco companies misled the public about the health danger of cigarettes, oil companies hid the fact that they knew their oil and gas products would lead to climate change. For decades, Big Oil funded efforts to cast doubt on the science they knew to be true. Now, floods, wildfires, storms and heat waves are costing Canadians billions of dollars in damage. Unchecked climate change will make this ever-worse, affecting all us of — but the most vulnerable people are at the greatest risk.

City staff are currently exploring legal avenues for making oil companies pay their fair share of the Toronto costs of dealing with the climate crisis they created.

Tell your councillor to get on board.