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Curbing Oakville’s greenhouse gas emissions requires urgent intervention

Town-wide, transportation creates 48 per cent of emissions. The remainder comes from homes (27%), businesses (20%) and institutions (5%).
Oakville News KA
Oakville News KA

Oakville climate activists are urging faster action on a plan to help residents reduce their carbon footprint by ditching their natural gas furnaces and installing heat pumps.

There’s plenty of buzz around electric vehicles and their role in reducing emissions. But how you heat and cool your home may be your biggest contribution to climate change.

Natural gas furnaces are the primary source of the four tonnes of greenhouse gases emitted by the average house every year.

With a heat pump-based system, homeowners can rely on Ontario’s largely clean electrical grid for heating and cooling while also lowering their utility bills.

Helping Oakville residents understand, install and fund heat pump purchases has always been a centrepiece in the town’s community energy strategy.

But three years after the approval of that strategy, forward momentum has stalled.

It’s a situation the planet can’t afford, says Ron McKee, a member of GASP (Grandmothers Act to Save the Planet) and captain of the Oakville Climate Hub.

In a February presentation to the town’s budget committee, he urged councillors to find a way to “incentivize residents, businesses, industries and institutions to urgently and dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”

“Many of the town’s climate initiatives have been set back two years due to COVID, but scientists tell us that climate change continues virtually unabated,” he said.

“So, we cannot push back our net zero deadlines. We have no choice but to invest more dollars and catch up.”

Despite urging from McKee and Hart Jansson of Halton Action for Climate Emergency Now (HACEN), the budget committee did not direct any additional town resources toward reducing community emissions.

And next week, councillors will consider yet another report that might further delay any action.

Why does it matter?

The Town of Oakville has made great strides in reducing emissions from its operations and facilities, said McKee.

But those corporate emissions make up only 1.5 per cent of Oakville’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Town-wide, transportation creates 48 per cent of emissions. The remainder comes from homes (27%), businesses (20%) and institutions (5%).

“Tree planting, bike lanes and electric charging stations are all commendable but represent a drop in the bucket toward our emission goals,” he said.

Helping residents rid their homes of fossil fuels is “low-hanging fruit” that could quickly impact community emissions, McKee added.

Hart Jansson echoed that call in a presentation to the budget committee.

“We can’t force developers to build really energy-efficient houses for the foreseeable future, but we can certainly help existing homeowners to improve their energy efficiency and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through a sensible retrofit program,” he urged. “We should do the best job on that front that we can.”

To help residents green their homes, the town has studied a plan to offer retrofit loans that could be paid back over time through property taxes.

Guelph is set to roll out a similar program this spring, while Calgary already offers one.

Through the federal government’s Canada Greener Homes initiative, residents who install heat pumps are also eligible for grants of up to $5,000.

“Oakville is a microcosm of the global climate crisis,” Jansson said in a recent letter to Oakville councillors. “We seem to be saying all the right things and moving in the right direction, but our emissions (here in Halton and globally) continue to go up.

“Oakville, of all places, has the resources to do something meaningful and do it urgently.”

What’s happened?

In 2019, the town declared a climate emergency. That led to the creation of a task force to develop a community energy strategy.

The multi-pronged strategy completed in 2020 highlighted the importance of encouraging Oakville residents and businesses to cut their emissions.

Its 2041 goals include cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent, improving energy efficiency by 40 percent from 2016 levels, and returning at least $7 billion in energy savings to the community.

In 2021, an independent organization known as Future Energy Oakville (FEO) was set up to be the strategy’s champion. It was also intended to work toward financial self-sufficiency.

Read more: With the launch of championing agency, Oakville aims to cut emissions in half by 2041

But the private sector partners anticipated to step forward to fund the organization have failed to materialize.

At this point, FEO has received $250,000 of town money and one donation of $75,000 from Alberta-based Suncor.

The organization, which was anticipated to have a $2 million budget and seven staff by now, was dealt a further blow last December. Richard Thomas, its founding executive director and only staff member, died suddenly only four months after being hired.

With no staff, FEO consists only of a volunteer board. A service agreement with the town is set to expire at the end of this month, and the town appears ready to sideline the organization.

As a result of the FEO struggles, Oakville is several years behind on its stated climate change goals.

Last September, town consultant Garforth International told councillors that the town would not meet its 2041 goals of cutting emissions by half.

During a workshop on April 4, town council will discuss the possibility of establishing a home retrofit program through the Oakville Enterprises Corporation, the group of town-owned companies that includes Oakville Hydro.

According to a staff report, the workshop will "include a presentation, jointly facilitated by town staff and OEC, on the work completed to date, changing landscape and lessons learned from in-market municipal programs, and the proposed approach moving forward."

But John Matthiesen, chair of FEO’s board of directors, says the organization is talking to the town about renewing the service agreement, which could involve additional funding.

He added that FEO also hopes to hire a part-time interim executive director over the next few weeks and remains optimistic that it can contribute to Oakville’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.

“We’re going through a process right now to figure out where we can add the most value in the near term,” said Matthiesen.

“Our executive director was the person to run with things and advance the vision. With Richard’s departure, we’re back to all being volunteers with day jobs, so this definitely has been way slower than we would’ve liked.”

Matthiesen said it is too early to comment on what FEO’s priority might be if it is no longer involved in the retrofit program.

Interested in learning more about heat pumps?

Check out HACEN’s website, which offers webinars, articles and a link to the Canada Greener Homes grant.