Remembering Robert Hoffman

We are sad to share that Robert Hoffman, co-founder of whatIf? Technologies and a pioneer who has shaped our energy and emissions modelling work, passed away peacefully on June 5. 

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Q&A: Toronto’s Net Zero Program Manager on Why Communication is Key

The City of Toronto is targeting net-zero community emissions by 2040—a decade sooner than most major North American cities with climate action plans.

“It is a long-term vision,” said Sophie Plottel, who leads the team responsible for the development of Toronto’s TransformTO Net Zero Strategy, which aims to unite City divisions and the community at large around a cohesive, vision for accelerated climate action in Toronto, she explained.

The Net Zero Strategy, for which SSG modelled the decarbonization pathway, was  adopted by Toronto City Council in December 2021. Earlier this month, the American Planning Association recognized the City and SSG’s work on the strategy with an Award for Excellence in Sustainability in the Environment, Climate, & Energy category.

We caught up with Plottel to discuss how the City plans to reverse the general trend of rising emissions and what other communities can learn from Toronto’s experience.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

The public square outside of Toronto’s City Hall. Photo by Rachael Annabelle on Unsplash.

 

SSG: It’s been just over four months since Toronto passed the Net-Zero Strategy. How are things going? 

SP: We’ve had lots of community interest. We’ve leveraged the passing of the report to launch new programs. Just last month, the City announced a Deep Retrofit Challenge to accelerate emissions reductions from buildings and identify pathways for other buildings to replicate.  The launch of the strategy was an opportunity to advance and sharpen our focus on immediate actions to get us on the emissions trajectory needed to hit our 2030 goals and reach net zero by 2040. Some City Agencies, such as the Toronto Transportation Commission (TTC) and Toronto Hydro, are accelerating climate action and increasing their ambitions based on our strategy.

SSG: The Net-Zero Strategy is exciting, but emissions in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are rising. How does the strategy tackle this challenge? 

SP: The Strategy contains 2030 interim targets which were developed to stimulate and measure progress on the way towards net zero. These include designing 100% of new buildings to be near zero emissions, cutting GHG emissions from existing buildings in half, and sourcing 50% of community-wide energy from renewable sources. The Strategy contains City commitments to demonstrate carbon accountability via a carbon budget, accelerate a rapid reduction in natural gas use via new building standards, establish performance targets for existing buildings, and increase access to low-carbon transportation options.

The City will play a big role in communicating the challenge and uniting people around a single goal. Everyone, including city residents and businesses, needs to know what they can do and how they can contribute.

The City of Toronto is also focused on demonstrating leadership—showing what’s possible for City-owned buildings, vehicles and waste. Once people understand what they can do and what’s possible, with appropriate information and support, then we can get there.

 

Net-zero pathways modelled for the City of Toronto, relative to a Do Nothing Scenario and a Business as Planning Scenario, which projects emissions based on policies already in place. Toronto selected the Net Zero by 2040 pathway (dark blue) for its TransformTO Net Zero Strategy. Image from the TransformTO Net Zero Strategy.

 

SSG: Can you tell me more about how decision making is changing at the City? 

SP: Climate is an increasingly important factor in decision making at the City. For instance, we’re working on a carbon budget to track climate actions against annual emissions limits and drive accountability. We’re also developing a ‘climate lens’ and process that staff will follow to evaluate and consider the climate implications of all major City of Toronto decisions.

And we’re putting in place structures for accountability and management of climate action, and to make climate action a visible issue in our work across all City divisions and agencies.

A key piece is an accountability and management framework that will go to Council soon. The framework will see the City create three advisory bodies, including an external Climate Advisory Group to advise on strategy implementation, to draw on the knowledge of staff, stakeholders and residents. We will also establish a Senior Leadership Table comprised of senior city staff to discuss the challenges and opportunities at the highest level, as well as a Joint Implementation Committee made up of City management and unionized staff to understand how City facilities and operations can work to achieve our goals.

SSG: How do you hope Toronto will be transformed by this strategy? 

SP: Reducing emissions to net zero will require significant changes in how we live, build, commute, manage waste, and more. I hope people understand that taking climate action can improve their lives and create a better future for our city. If we live our lives in a way that’s kind to the planet, it also means that we’re being kind to ourselves and to one another and it can permeate other areas of our lives. So by walking an extra three or four minutes, or taking your bike instead of driving, you might have a better day. People are going to have to retrofit their homes to reduce emissions, but that’s also going to make their homes more comfortable.

We have learned and continue to learn from the First Nations, Inuit, Métis, and urban Indigenous communities in Toronto. A learning I’ve taken from them is to treat others the way that you would like to be treated—and that includes plants, animals, the earth, the air, water. We’re considering that as we implement the strategy.

 

A view of downtown Toronto from Riverdale Park. Photo by James Thomas on Unsplash.

 

SSG: What insights do you have for other cities? 

SP: If I were speaking to a colleague from another city, I’d tell them communication is the biggest piece. You have to understand the priorities of your senior leadership team and speak that language. You have to understand the priorities in other City divisions and speak their language as well. You have to include and understand the priorities of residents and stakeholders, and speak their language as well.

People have different priorities, so taking a step back and tying climate action to the City of Toronto’s strategic priorities was important. These include priorities to maintain and create affordable housing, keep Toronto moving, invest in people and neighbourhoods, and tackle climate change and build resilience.

We made sure we were speaking to staff across the City about their priorities as well. So, if we were talking to someone in Transportation and they had goals to build out cycling routes, we’d learn about their constraints and challenges and support them through the climate strategy by working with them to align their actions with our action plan.

Early involvement was also important. We got other divisions involved when SSG was modelling decarbonization pathways so staff could provide input on and understand what actions we were including in the climate modelling, the challenges that lay ahead, and how they could contribute. Now we have colleagues across the City that are environmental champions. It helped that senior management is focused on achieving net zero and communicated this as a priority.

It’s also important to be clear about what you’ve heard from the community and to reflect that in your climate strategy. Toronto has an active climate action community. We needed to demonstrate that the work that we were doing was in response to community need and desires. And then, finally, express that back out to the community—that we were putting forward a plan that reflected their input.

A public streetcar in downtown Toronto. Photo by Marcin Skalij on Unsplash.

 

SSG: What are you looking forward to about climate action in Toronto?

SP: Some new and important programs are being developed, especially related to reducing emissions from transportation and buildings. Buildings are the largest source of Toronto’s emissions, so these programs will be critical.

The latest Toronto Green Standard came into force this month. New buildings will have to adhere to even stronger environmental performance. In the future, the City will be looking to incorporate the embodied carbon impacts of new construction into the standard, as well.

To reduce emissions from existing buildings, we have the City’s Net Zero Existing Building Strategy. Homeowners and building owners can take advantage of many existing and new programs, including low-interest loans, to help get our buildings to net zero as soon as possible.

And the City’s Electric Vehicle Strategy is in place to support the transition to electric vehicles, while the TTC is set to expand transit service and the further electrification of its vehicles. Decarbonizing the transportation sector is important, as vehicles are the second largest source of emissions in Toronto today. And, we have a big focus on reducing waste as well and moving towards a circular economy.

I’m looking forward to projects getting underway and showing people what’s possible. We’re on the cusp of transformative change.

 

The TransformTO Net-Zero Strategy can be found here. To get in touch with us about how we can help your municipality reach net zero while contributing to the economy, contact us here.

SSG, Toronto, and Edmonton Win APA Awards For Climate Action Work

On May 2, SSG’s cutting-edge climate planning work was recognized with two awards from the American Planning Association Sustainable Communities Division!

With the City of Toronto, we won the Environment, Climate, & Energy Award for the TransformTO Net-Zero Strategy, attaining a near-perfect score from the jurors. The strategy sets a target of net-zero community emissions by 2040—a decade sooner than most major North American Cities with climate action plans.

Our team modelled emissions reduction pathways to explore how the city could reach net-zero emissions by 2040 and 2050. As our Principal Julia Meyer-Macleod explains on our blog, pursuing net-zero emission by 2040 is feasible, costs less, and results in fewer overall emissions than pursuing net-zero by 2050.

With the City of Edmonton, we won the Policy, Law, or Tool Award for Edmonton’s carbon budget. Jurors were impressed by its status as the first carbon budget in North America, the comprehensive set of strategies backing the budget, and the focus on accountability.

As our Principal Yuill Herbert writes in the National Observer, we believe that every city needs a carbon budget to stay on track with their climate goals. Carbon budgets ensure accountability for municipal decisions by setting a cap on how much a community can emit annually and for all time.

In Edmonton, the carbon budgeting process is being integrated into the financial budgeting process for the 2023-2026 budget cycle. That means that every investment the City makes will be evaluated in terms of emissions as well as finances.

We’re humbled by these awards and hope more communities will be inspired to undertake similar climate action work.

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Toronto Aims for Net Zero by 2040

In 2019, the City of Toronto declared a climate emergency and adopted a net-zero emissions by 2050—or sooner—target. Yesterday, the City held true to its word, passing its Net Zero Strategy. The Strategy targets net-zero community emissions by 2040—a decade sooner than most major North American cities with climate action plans.

Sustainability Solutions Group and our partners at whatIf? Technologies helped Toronto develop its strategy. We modelled emissions reduction action pathways to explore how the city could reach net-zero emissions by 2040 and 2050. We found that not only is pursuing net-zero by 2040 technically feasible, it results in fewer emissions overall, provides health and well-being benefits to residents sooner, and actually costs less than pursuing net zero by 2050. So, while many municipalities have typically considered the pursuit of less ambitious climate targets to be a more cautious approach, Toronto’s pursuit of net zero by 2040 could mark the beginning of an era where the opposite will be the case.

It comes as no surprise that the effort required to reach net zero by 2040 is immense. Over the next 20 years, the community needs to retrofit nearly 300,000 homes and apartment units, and over 2,000 commercial buildings. Every viable rooftop needs to be fitted with solar panels, all food and organic waste must be composted, and all vehicles need to be electric. For context, over 1.1 million gasoline-powered cars are currently on Toronto’s roads.

Despite the great level of effort required to get to net zero by 2040, modelling shows that Toronto does not need to lean on any untested solutions to complete the actions of the strategy. Namely, electric vehicles, high-performing building materials, solar panels, and battery storage systems are all on the market and in operation today. While new technologies are not required to meet the target, the mass deployment of green technologies is likely to spur innovations and improvements that could enable the city to achieve carbon neutrality even sooner.

All in all, reaching the net-zero target by 2040 requires $146 billion in investments from the City, other levels of government, businesses, residents, and financial institutions over the coming decades. At first glance, these numbers may make the task seem insurmountable, but the investments required amount to just 5% of the city’s GDP for a decade. Many of these investments result in reduced energy bills, vehicle bills, and avoided carbon tax costs, amounting to $114 billion in savings and avoided costs. The sooner the City and the community acts, the more money the local government and Torontonians will save in the long run.

Financial modelling shows that pursuing net zero by 2040 will cost the community $135 million less than pursuing this target by 2050 because savings will start sooner. The net-zero actions also produce a broad range of societal benefits which result in direct and indirect financial paybacks beyond those discussed above. For example, our analysis showed that improved air quality from electrifying vehicles could result in health benefits valued at nearly $1 billion per year. Increased walking and cycling will reduce heart disease, and transit improvements will result in increased access to jobs and services without the need for vehicle ownership. Investments in net-zero actions will result in the creation of approximately 50,000 new jobs. In other words, reducing emissions will also advance multiple municipal and community objectives.

Electrification of building energy systems and vehicles is often cited as a big challenge—will the grid be able to accommodate the increased demand? While adaptations to the grid will be needed (for example, through improved controls and energy storage options), at a high level the net-zero pathway mitigates grid overload by increasing efficiencies first to minimize the increase in electricity demand. This is done, for example, through building retrofits, increasing the performance of new buildings, and encouraging the use of transit over personal vehicles.

Another issue with electrification is the emissions associated with the provincial grid, which are projected to increase over the coming decades. For Toronto to achieve net zero, the grid will either need to decarbonize, or the city will need to invest in costly carbon offsets or renewable energy certificates, which will deliver far fewer co-benefits.

Our modelling shows that while the challenges and effort required for the city to reach net-zero emissions are significant, it is possible and beneficial to do so. Toronto stands to gain in many areas—financial and otherwise—from pursuing its target of net zero by 2040. Toronto’s Net Zero Strategy puts the city in a position of opportunity, setting an example for the country and other cities to follow.

Julia Meyer-MacLeod is a Principal at Sustainability Solutions Group and co-author of Toronto’s Net Zero Strategy.

Halton Hills Adopts Most Ambitious Climate Action Strategy in Canada

On November 15, 2021, the Halton Hills Town Council did something no Canadian community has done before: it unanimously approved a strategy for the community to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030.

Located on the northwestern edge of the Greater Toronto Area with a population of about 60,000 people, Halton Hills is a fast-growing town with big climate ambition. In 2019, Halton Hills Town Council challenged themselves to a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, joining the ranks of global climate leaders like Glasgow, Scotland; Bristol, England; and Ithaca, NY. In 2020, they hired SSG to help them develop an evidence-based and community-informed pathway to get there.

The Town’s Low-Carbon Transition Strategy is the result of over a year of technical analysis and engagement with a Multi-Stakeholder Governance Committee and the public. The committee—with membership from the Town corporation, utilities, institutions, businesses, industry, environmental nonprofits, and the community—played a critical role in strategy development. It dedicated over a dozen hours to learning about the planning process and provided detailed input on what measures would work for the community.

Like many other community decarbonization plans, this one features:

  1. Deep energy retrofits and electrification of homes and businesses;
  2. Net-zero emissions new buildings;
  3. Increased walking and cycling trips, and electric transit;
  4. Switching from combustion engine to electric vehicles;
  5. Diversion of organic waste away from landfill; and
  6. Increased renewable energy generation.

The plan’s timeline is unique: it shrinks into eight years what other communities are planning to accomplish over 28.

A major challenge in achieving the 2030 net-zero goal is vehicle emissions. Even with ambitious goals to shift vehicle trips to be made by active transportation and transit trips instead, some gas and diesel vehicles will still be on the road in 2030. One potential strategy to reach the net-zero goal despite remaining vehicle emissions is to purchase carbon offsets. The Town continues to explore options like this and is committed to moving forward in other areas they can effectively decarbonize.

To get in touch with us about how we can help your municipality reach net zero, contact us here.

Join Us For Our Summit: Cities Taking Rapid Climate Action Now

Enough talk! It’s time to act. Join us on Wednesday, November 3, on the sidelines of COP in Glasgow to explore how cities are quickly and effectively moving from planning to implementing climate action. Our Summit—Cities Taking Rapid Climate Action Now—will bring together urban climate action leaders to explore what more municipalities and local governments can do to accelerate climate action. To register to join us in-person or virtually, sign up for a ticket on eventbrite. More details about the event, including the speakers and schedule, are provided below.

Lunch and snacks will be provided to those attending in Glasgow. The event will end with a reception featuring special musical guests.

The link to the online livestream can be found here.

All attendees must provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 48 hours of the event.

Summit Overview

As the impacts of climate change accelerate, cities must urgently move from declaring climate emergencies to taking climate action. Join us for a series of panel discussions and participatory problem-solving sessions in which we will hear from cities that have effectively moved from planning to implementation, as well as urban climate action experts from Sustainability Solutions Group and beyond. We will explore transformational moves, as well as creative and scalable solutions, including carbon budgets, rapid multi-building retrofits, andclean air zones. We will learn about what is effective and working, and discuss how to create an accelerated response to climate change at the local level.

A special focus of the Cities Taking Rapid Climate Action Now Summit will be 1,000 Cities for Carbon Freedom, a project and report focused on climate action best practices from UK Cities.

Summit Schedule and Speakers

Panel 1: Carbon Budgets: Accounting for A Net-Zero Future

Time and format: 11:00am UK time, in-person and live broadcast

Overview: This panel will explore how cities are using carbon budgets as an accountability mechanism and tool to align municipal and community actions with climate action goals. Come and gather insights into how you can implement a carbon budget in your community!

Speakers:

Andrea Fernandez, Director of Climate Planning, Finance, and Partnerships, C40

Andrea Fernández serves as C40’s Director of Climate Planning, Finance and Partnerships. Andrea is responsible for overseeing C40’s climate planning, finance programmes and driving new strategic priorities and partnerships. Before joining C40, Andrea worked as a consultant at Arup for 11 years. In this role, she led high-profile engagements related to sustainability and climate change in the urban environment, with a focus on policy, funding, governance and delivery strategies.

Yuill HerbertYuill Herbert, Principal, SSG

Yuill Herbert is a co-founder and principal of the Sustainability Solutions Group, a climate planning consultancy that has designed climate action plans and conduction emissions analyses for more than 80 municipalities, ranging from City of Toronto and City of Vancouver. Yuill led the development of some of the first carbon budgets in North America for the City of Edmonton, the Region of Durham, and the Town of Whitby.

 

Panel 2: Creative Solutions for Decarbonizing Transportation

Time and format: 12:00pm UK time, in-person and live broadcast

Overview: How can cities quickly and effectively decarbonize transportation? This session will explore novel solutions beyond electric vehicles and transit planning, such as Clean Air Zones, car shares, and decreasing last mile shipping emissions with electric cargo bikes.

Speakers:

Stephen Arnold, Head of Clean Air Zone, Birmingham City Council

Stephen is Birmingham City Council’s Head of Clean Air Zone and is responsible for its delivery and operation.  The introduction of the zone is just one of the measures that the Council is taking to improve air quality across the whole of the city as part of its Brum Breathes initiative.  Importantly, the Clean Air Zone is seen as an enabler of a number of other changes in the city which include encouraging more people to adopt active modes of travel and public transport, especially for shorter journeys.

 

Jack Skillen, Placeshaping Director, Team London Bridge

Jack has worked for 15 years in fields of urban regeneration and sustainable transport since completing his MSc in Cities, Space and Society. He is focused on achieving the placeshaping strategy for the London Bridge BID, including a vision for cycling, the ‘Low Line’–London’s new walking destination–and a sustainability strategy to make London Bridge one of the greenest and most civic minded business districts in the world.

 

Ben Knowles, CEO of Pedal Me

Ben Knowles is currently Rider and CEO of Pedal Me – the world leading cargo bike operator, transporting people and their goods around London, outcompeting motor vehicle based logistics for the vast majority of urban movements.  Before this he was a transport planner and worked on a variety of projects – including leading on introducing School Streets to London.

 

Panel 3: Taking Retrofits to Scale

Time and format: 1:30pm UK time, in-person and live broadcast

Overview: In order to achieve net zero, cities must retrofit virtually all existing buildings for energy efficiency. This panel will explore novel approaches to retrofitting en masse and at scale, while keeping equity in mind.

Speakers:

Marianne Heaslip, Associate Principal, URBED

Marianne is an architect and Associate Principal at URBED with interests in urban design, sustainability and participative design. She holds an MSc in Advanced Environment and Energy Studies from the Centre for Alternative Technology, and is a Certified Passive House Designer. Marianne has more than a decade of experience on live retrofit projects and is also involved in the development of policy and tools to support better retrofit. Much of this work is carried out in collaboration with Carbon Coop, through the development of tools like Home Retrofit Planner and projects like the Community Green Deal. This wealth of experience now informs the People Powered Retrofit service, designed to support individuals in the retrofit of their homes. She also delivers training, development work and design work for a variety of community energy and community-led housing organisations, whilst working on scaling up retrofit in social housing – from TSB Retrofit for the Future, through work with housing associations and local authorities across the country to achieve real world decarbonisation and user-friendly outcomes.

Michael McLaughlin, Digital Lead, HACT

Michael joined HACT in January 2020, having previously accrued 16 years’ experience in various social housing roles, much of which has involved developing and managing Digital strategy and policy.  Having lead a programme on measuring impact of social housing for Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA), which uses the wellbeing approach to social value aligned to the UN Sustainable Development goals, Michael has a keen interest on the the ways in which this can be increased within communities. He currently leads HACT’s sector-leading UK Housing Data Standards initiative environmental module to create a common dictionary, model, and process of data exchanges, and recently co-authored a paper on The Impact of Social Housing: Economic, Social, Health and Wellbeing.

Panel 4: Mobilizing Communities for a Just Transition

Time and format: 2:30pm UK time, in-person and live broadcast

Overview: Broad public support is key to climate action. In addition, local communities can invest in and help cities advance climate action. This session will examine how communities can get involved with climate action from planning through to implementation.

Speakers:

Dirk Vansintjan, President, European Federation of Citizen Energy Co-operatives, REScoop.eu

Dirk Vansintjan is an expert on community energy who has been working in the renewable energy sector since 1985. He is the Co-founder and President of REScoop.eu, the European renewable energy cooperative federation. He is also the Co-founder and a board member of REScoop Vlaanderen, the Flemish federation for renewable energy cooperatives and the Co-founder and Vice-president of REScoop.be, the Belgian federation for renewable energy cooperatives. He has also co-founded Molenforum-Vlaanderen, a federation of mill conservation societies in Flanders, as well as ODE-Vlaanderen and Ecopower, a renewable energy cooperative in Flanders that has 60 000 members and supplies 1.6% of Flemish households with green electricity.

 

Jonathan Atkinson, Co-founder, Carbon Co-op

Since completing a degree in Environmental Biology, Jonathan Atkinson’s career has crossed boundaries and disciplines. He worked at two research co-ops, Ethical Consumer Magazine and Corporate Watch and in 2002  co-founded UHC Collective, a multidisciplinary art and design project. Jonathan’s interests lie at the point where urban development, art, community and politics meet. Throughout his career he has explored the potential for co-operative and collective action to create change. He is a co-founder of Carbon Co-op, a board member and staff member,  developing and project managing innovative, new low-carbon projects.

Sal Wilson, Stokey Energy

Sal worked as an architect for 10 years before training as an environmental designer at Atelier Ten, where she gained experience in a wide range of sustainability strategies. She tutors sustainable design in London at the Bartlett and the Architectural Association, and has been involved in editing the recently launched LETI Retrofit guide. Sal has been working with Stokey Energy, a local community energy group based in Hackney in London, as the group works to establish its presence in the community and seek out opportunities to reduce carbon at multiple scale across the neighbourhood.

Session 5: Open Space – Participatory Discussion on Accelerating Climate Action

Time and format: 2:30pm UK time, in-person only

Overview: What is the best way for cities to rapidly decarbonize with the resources they have at hand? How can cities and local governments accelerate climate action in the climate emergency? Summit participants will be invited to propose topics for discussion in breakout sessions facilitated by the summit organizations. The outcome of this session will inform the development of a City Climate Action Handbook that documents the insights from the summit.

Closing Reception With Bill McKibben and Tenzin Choegyal

Time and format: 5:15pm – 7:00pm UK time, in-person only

Overview: We will wrap up the Cities Taking Rapid Climate Action Now Summit with an evening reception, featuring a keynote speech by renowned climate activist Bill McKibben and tunes by the award-winning musician Tenzin Choegyal. If you would like to only attend the reception, sign up here.

Featured guests: 

Bill McKibben, Founder, 350.org

A man who needs no introduction: Bill has been a part of the climate movement for decades, writing multiple books since The End of Nature in 1989, and going on to found 350.org. He is an environmentalist, author, activist, and journalist who was awarded the Gandhi Peace Award in 2013, is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, and has been named one of the most influential people by Foreign Policy magazine, MSN, the Boston Globe, and many others.

 

Tenzin Choegyal, Grammy-nominated Tibetan/Australian Artist

Tenzin is a Tibetan/Australian artist, composer, activist, musical director and cultural ambassador. While proudly continuing the unbroken nomadic lineage which is central to his music, Tenzin also embraces opportunities to take his music into more contemporary, uncharted territory, both in the studio and on stage.

Tenzin has nine independent albums, three of them with his fusion band Tibet2Timbuk2, and regularly performs with Camerata Brisbane’s acclaimed Chamber Orchestra. His collaborative albums include The Last Dalai Lama? with Philip Glass and the 2021 Grammy-nominated Songs from the Bardo with Laurie Anderson and Jesse Paris Smith – a moving interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.