In advance of the civic election this fall, advocacy groups are trying to make the environment and sustainability ballot-box issues.

In advance of the civic election this fall, advocacy groups are trying to make the environment and sustainability ballot-box issues.

"​​We’re trying to make sure that mayoral candidates are challenged to put forward a strong climate platform in their campaigns," said Niall Harney, a researcher at the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, at an event at the courtyard at city hall Thursday.

Representatives from seven groups presented policy options from the centre’s alternative municipal budget that would curb greenhouse gas emissions and improve green infrastructure.

"The next four years are critical for climate; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have to reach peak emissions by 2025, and that we have to reduce emissions by 43 per cent by 2030. We want to make sure that mayoral candidates know that and are being pushed to go further," Harney said.

The alternative budget tackles six areas for municipal investment in climate strategies, with a focus on Winnipeg’s two largest emissions sectors: transportation and natural gas heating.

The use of personal vehicles accounts for nearly on-third of greenhouse gas emissions in Winnipeg, according to the city’s 2018 Climate Action Plan. To meet the city’s 2030 target of a 17 per cent reduction in emissions from transportation, the centre, a left-wing policy group, proposed upgrades to transit and active transportation.

Winnipeg was the only major city in Canada to record a reduction in public transit ridership between 1996 and 2016, and that decline intensified during the pandemic, Harney said.

"Transit is one of the most significant tools the next mayor and council can use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change," he said.

Harney noted Winnipeg under-spends on transit, investing $205 per person compared to cities such as Edmonton, which spends $335 per capita, and Ottawa at $426 per capita. A boost to Winnipeg Transit operating funds, along with capital investments in driver safety measures, electric buses and rapid transit infrastructure could help improve ridership and reduce emissions, he said.

Mark Cohoe, executive director of Bike Winnipeg, said the city has made improvements to its sidewalk and bike network in the last decade, but lacks funding to finish the job. With a suggested $27.5-million investment, largely re-allocated from existing roadway funds, Cohoe said the city could add 15 to 20 kilometres in new bike routes each year while maintaining and improving existing sidewalks and bike paths.

Natural gas, used to heat buildings and water, accounts for another third of city emissions, but the city’s climate plan projects those emissions will increase eight per cent by 2030.

"Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is the low hanging fruit of climate action," said Laura Tyler, a representative of Sustainable Buildings Manitoba.

Tyler noted the city has fallen behind on its green building policy: the last amendments were made in 2011, and include outdated references to defunct green-certification programs. Similarly, the provincial building codes are among the worst in the country, she said, as the province did not harmonize its code with national building code updates in 2015.

Despite vast opportunities for improvement, Tyler said the city’s sustainability office is understaffed and has an inadequate budget. They would need to be bolstered to review building codes, complete energy audits, and update green building policy.

Speakers at Thursday’s event, including representatives from the Manitoba Eco-Network and OURS Winnipeg, highlighted the need for an organic waste-collection program to reduce landfill emissions, sustained investment in green-space, urban forests and biodiversity policy, riverbank protection, and upgrades to wastewater networks to reduce sewage overflow into the rivers.

While the centre’s suggested budget items are costly, Harney outlined changes to city revenue streams — including an increase to property taxes — that could raise $100 million. The alternative budget suggests several opportunities for partnership and cost-sharing with federal and provincial governments.

"We don’t envy city council in dealing with the massive infrastructure deficit that the city has, and this is likely a significant reason why the city has barely acted on climate change today," Harney said.

"If the next mayor and council are going to make the kinds of investments in green infrastructure, services and programming required to meet climate targets, they will need to confront the city’s revenue."

More than 50 people attended the presentation, including St. Vital councillor Brian Mayes and mayoral candidates Rana Bokhari and Rick Shone.

Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers is a climate reporter with a focus on environmental issues in Manitoba. Her position is part of a three-year partnership between the Winnipeg Free Press and The Narwhal, funded by the Winnipeg Foundation.