The Town of Whitby’s outgoing mayor, Don Mitchell, is an unlikely climate action advocate. He was once set on “debunking climate change [and] green nonsense,” he said. But the more he read, the more convinced he became of the gravity of the climate crisis.
“If we don’t fix the unfolding climate catastrophe, I don’t think it really matters what else we do,” he told SSG.
Over the course of his time as mayor, which started in December 2014 and ended November 15, 2022, Mayor Mitchell led the Town through the creation of significant climate initiatives. SSG worked with the Town to develop:
- The Climate Emergency Response Plan, which details how Whitby will adapt to climate change by preparing for climate risks and hazards and sets a goal to reduce community greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2045; and
- The Zero Carbon Whitby, a framework that empowers staff to develop and implement actions to meet GHG reduction targets by aligning capital and operating budgets with GHG reduction targets.
- The Zero Carbon Whitby Costing Study, which details every action the Town will need to take to reduce its corporate operational emissions to net zero by 2045.
Here is more of our conversation with Mayor Mitchell. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SSG: Congratulations! Whitby Council recently approved several climate action initiatives. What do you find most exciting about these projects?
Mayor Mitchell: It’s exciting that we’ve partnered with Mattamy Homes [a residential developer] to demonstrate the cost of developing a set of low-rise buildings that meet the higher tiers of the Green Standards we adopted in 2020. Toronto has green standards which are largely applied to high-rise developments and they seem to implement them well. But for areas outside of Toronto, a lot of new housing is going to be ground related. I’m excited for this demonstration project to show how sustainable low-rise development can be viable and also persuade the Province to improve its building code standards.
[Note: This interview was conducted before the Ontario government put forward the More Homes Built Better Act (Bill 23) on October 25, 2022. If passed, it could remove the site planning authority municipalities use to set their own green development standards, posing a huge challenge for municipal climate action.]
The other exciting thing is that we’re building a major new sports facility with a business park surrounding it. Our plan is to have a district energy system implemented there. It will reduce GHG emissions related to heating and cooling by 96%. District energy is a huge opportunity, but you need to get an example in place, so people see it works.
We also passed Zero Carbon Whitby—a detailed plan of what we [the Town] need to do to achieve net zero operations by 2045. Part of this is the carbon budget. So when staff look at their capital projects each year, they have to look at the capital budget from a carbon lens and the greenhouse gas impacts of the project have to align with the target of zero carbon by 2045.
With the Climate Emergency Response Plan, we looked at a number of threats, including heat waves and flooding. The biggest piece that came out of that was that Whitby could experience $17 billion of damage from building in areas that will eventually be in a flood zone, according to the modeling. This is really important. This information will help us avoid a future threat. It also sends a powerful message about the reality of the cost of climate change.
SSG: This plan is the first to be based on our new climate adaptation model for municipalities. Why did Whitby choose to develop a plan with the model?
Mayor Mitchell: It’s important that we create a business case with the financial benefits of addressing climate change. The modeling is so important to get buy-in from individuals who need reasons other than “it’s the right thing to do.” With this data, you can point to the numbers to get the buy-in.
SSG: Going back to the Zero Carbon Whitby Plan, what will it take for Whitby to achieve net-zero operations by 2045?
Mayor Mitchell: We have a plan [Zero Carbon Whitby] in place to reach our goals. It’s now a matter of implementing that plan and doing it in the right time frame. The earlier we retrofit our facilities or move to an electric vehicle fleet, the more we’re going to be able to have an impact. The biggest risk is if we don’t have funding to do the work. We know right now that we require seed money upfront and we have a number of applications for grants.
I’d like to see the provincial and federal governments provide dedicated funding and make the necessary policy changes to combat climate change. There needs to be the same level of urgency with climate change as there was with COVID.
SSG: What do you hope other communities can learn from Whitby’s experience?
Mayor Mitchell: There are a lot of progressive councils focused on building resilient and sustainable communities and there are a lot of progressive developers who share our concerns. It is important to share experiences with other municipalities, to share them with Durham Region, the Province and beyond. Ontario’s Big City Mayors is a great forum for getting to know other mayors, sharing what’s working, and discussing critical issues. We’re all after the same outcome and need good ideas. It stokes the natural competitiveness between us all – if Whitby seems to be doing this and doing it well, then other municipalities want to do it better, and that’s good. And vice-versa.
The other big thing is that every town should have a dedicated sustainability department. We hired our lead sustainability person four years ago. She transformed everything. You need this energy, passion, and expertise to keep moving forward.
To learn more about how SSG can support your community’s climate action work, give us a shout via our contact form.