Halifax’s award-winning climate action plan is only 30% on track, but the staffer in charge is optimistic after a hiring spree this year.

HalifACT 2050, adopted in 2020, is a set of recommended actions designed to achieve carbon neutrality within municipal operations by 2030, and within HRM as whole by 2050. Those actions include retrofitting municipal buildings, electrifying the vehicle fleet, and decarbonizing the electric grid.

In a report to council’s Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee’s meeting on Thursday, Shannon Miedema, director of Environment & Climate Change, and Simone Charron, climate change specialist, gave an update on the progress in implementing the actions.

The plan was 30% on track at the end of fiscal 2021-2022. Of the actions in the report (now counted as 53), 16 are planned for the future, 18 have seen some progress, 11 are in progress and on track, six have seen no minimal or no progress, and two are contingent on other levels of government.

It’s an improvement over last year, when the plan was only 20% on track, but not enough.

“While HRM has made strides in HalifACT implementation, the plan’s ambitious targets that reflect the reality of the climate emergency call on the Municipality and its partners to do much more, much faster,” Miedema and Charron wrote.

The municipality has seen some encouraging trends, with corporate emissions down 20% since 2016. That’s due to building energy retrofits, putting solar panels on HRM buildings, and converting street lights to LED. Community-wide emissions are down 7.4% over the same time period, “primarily from the continued decarbonization of the provincial electricity grid.”

That’s not the kind of decrease HalifACT called for in the early years of the plan.

The wedge diagram from HalifACT 2050, showing carbon reductions from different categories of action. Credit: Zane Woodford

Looking at the wedge diagram showing the kind of reductions required, Coun. Shawn Cleary said he doesn’t think HRM has enough control over municipal-wide emissions to achieve the target.

“I don’t see how we can get there on our map given the task ahead of us and the resources available to help people do those things,” he said.

Director optimistic amid ‘incredible momentum’

Miedema said Halifax is well positioned to hit its 2030 target.

“It’s that community-wide piece and what’s happening with the utilities and those broader conversations that leave us with those questions going forward,” Miedema said.

Miedema agreed Halifax is “critically dependent” on utilities and other levels of government.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t lead from where we are in the role that we have,” Miedema said.

The municipality is handing out grants to organizations with ideas on climate mitigation and pushing the private sector to sign onto a climate charter, for example, Miedema said.

“The way to really motivate and build is by being optimistic and showing those wins and allowing for those wins by others,” Miedema said.

HalifACT won Top Project of the Year at a ceremony in Toronto last month.

“And it was because they got really excited about what they were hearing about the momentum of our community, the leadership of our council, and the dedication of kind of the whole city in actually investing in climate,” Miedema said.

Miedema said she’s optimistic based on recent progress, too.

“I think that we’ve actually had incredible momentum in the last six-plus months,” Miedema said.

That’s mostly because the number of people working on the plan has more than doubled.

“Getting some additional staff positions and getting people in the chairs and starting to move and growing our team has been really game changing, and it’s just enabled us to help support moving the work in all these different pockets across HRM,” Miedema said.

“I’m really excited the burst that we’ve had.”

‘Low taxes on a dead planet’

But there are budgetary concerns looming. Councillors are gearing up for a budget with a forecasted shortfall of more than $75 million, meaning they’ll need to raise taxes or cut services.

“I am worried about our economic situation,” Miedema said, “and what it’s going to mean and do we need to slow down, can we keep going as quickly as we need to?”

Council approved a 3% climate tax last year, which will stay on property tax bills unless it’s removed.

Coun. Sam Austin said the climate work needs to happen.

“To me, the benefits of low taxes on a dead planet are pretty minimal,” Austin said.

Kortney Dunsby, sustainable cities coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre, told the committee the organization was “super impressed” with the work on HalifACT.

“There’s some amazing progress happening, as Shannon highlighted, showing leadership to both the province as well as other municipalities on climate action,” Dunsby said.

Green Network Plan on track

The committee also received a progress report on Thursday on the municipality’s Green Network Plan.

That plan, adopted in 2018, “defines an interconnected open space system for the entire municipality, highlights ecosystem functions and benefits, and outlines strategies to manage open space.” In short, it’s a greenbelt.

The plan included 79 actions. Of those, 27 were identified as “guidance” action and 24 of those are in use in the planning department. Another 46 actions are in progress, five are complete, and one has not be initiated. To put a percentage on it, 95% are on track.

Councillors have recently expressed concern, first brought forward by Dunsby and the EAC, that the plan isn’t sufficiently enshrined in land-use planning documents.

The bow of a canoe is centred in the foreground on a still waterway. In the background, green trees, red huckleberry, and yellow grasses stand along a shoreline, along with some granite rock. The foliage is reflected in the blue, still water.
Canoeing through a stillwater between Susies and Big Cranberry Lakes in the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Wilderness Area. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

“Really we need to see acknowledgement of our parks, biodiversity corridors, wetlands, all down at the nitty gritty bylaw level, or folks are going to keep stepping — or shall I say bulldozing — all over them,” Dunsby said on Thursday.

“I know you’re under a lot of pressure to deliver on housing … But we also need to implement these plans.”

Dunsby said there’s a lack of political will, both at council and the provincial government, to fully put the plan to use.

Provincial interference a concern

Kate Greene, director of regional planning at HRM, told the committee new amendments to ensure the regional plan respects the Green Network Plan and other plans are awaiting ministerial approval. She said she’s hopeful that will happen in the next 15 days.

The minister approving those amendments, which by nature would slow or stop development, is Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister John Lohr.

The municipality is currently fighting Lohr on Bill 225, which gives him the power to nullify any recently-approved HRM bylaw effecting housing and development.

Coun. Tony Mancini, chair of the committee, said that’s concerning.

“Should I be concerned? Do we know what he minister is going to bring forward? We now don’t know when we’re dealing with the province on this,” Mancini said.

Greene said HRM executive director of planning, Kelly Denty, has indicated that the province will continue to approve council’s planning priorities.

“Albeit, that relationship might be a little bit tenuous right now, I think we’re still operating under that principle,” Greene said.

“I would think that there wouldn’t be any reason to not support them, but of course we’re in a new world now and it’s an adventure day by day.”

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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