Our MP is now Canada's Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment
Julie spoke with the Pocket Change Project about her new post and some of the opportunities and challenges she - and all of us - face when it comes to achieving net-zero.
Q: Congratulations on your appointment. How are you settling into the job? It must have been a big switch from being Parliamentary Secretary for Heritage. What are your priorities?
A: I have a mandate letter that I got from the minister and it goes to developing and implementing a national net-zero emissions building strategy, working to develop a national net-zero emissions building code and a model retrofit code that would be put in place by the end of 2024.
Building codes would ultimately have to be adopted by the province. The federal government doesn't put them in place. But having the model building code is a big guideline. Done right, working with the provinces, we can create a model building code that would be adopted by our provinces and territories going forward.
Q: Making the building code more energy efficient is important, but what about all the old, inefficient houses we already have in our neighbourhood?
A: We have a largely older building stock, stuff that was not built with all of this (energy efficiency) in mind. And the challenge is how do we get that to where we need to be? And that's where the Greener Homes Grants play a role. It is a program that's already open on that front. That's a building block. And the question is: where do we go from there?
There’s a big question about the mix between our federal support, provincial and municipal support and private capital to do the different retrofits. There's a bit of a mix to it, right? A five thousand dollar home retrofit grant also assumes that people will be investing a certain amount towards their own homes on these retrofits, but they obviously need some assistance because it's a big undertaking.
Overall, there is going to have to be more thinking in all quarters of governments about exactly how do we tackle the existing housing stock in communities like ours?
Q: These are exactly the types of questions that the Pocket Change Project works on. Deep carbon-reducing retrofits won’t pay for themselves in savings on your gas and electricity bill. Because climate change is such an existential issue, there needs to be public money too. Are there any opportunities to change the way the government spends on existing programs to include a carbon-reduction aspect?
A: Yes. When we're providing money to the city to do maintenance retrofits on community housing, it’s also an opportunity to do some of these energy retrofits as well: Change the windows, add better heating and cooling systems. There is a project that happened locally, a pilot retrofit project in the Walpole Ave buildings not far from the Pocket. The project changed their heating and cooling systems to something that would be more cost effective, but also that would have a lower impact on the environment.
When I look through the reports from the Walpole pilot project, it was sort of a good news and bad news story. It made the quality of life better for the people in the units that had the retrofits done, but it wasn't clear that there were the emissions reductions that they'd been hoping for. There was a lot of learning that came from it about how we are going to do these retrofits going forward. And it’s kind of cool to see some of the stuff happening right here.
And then that goes to a larger point. When I talk with people who live in those buildings, they would talk about the fact that their windows were leaky. It’s a comfort issue, a quality of life issue. But the net effect is that when you're putting in those new windows, you are also retrofitting them and making them more energy efficient.
Sometimes I see people talking about it only as an expense. We're spending all this money to do this, and it isn't cheap. But it has a double impact: it can impact your quality of life and the cost of living for people living in the unit; There are also a lot of jobs that are created there. And we're actually saving units in Toronto community housing because of those investments at the same time. There are multiple layers to it.
Q: What about transportation. The federal government has a $5,000 subsidy for the purchase of electric cars, and there’s municipal money to help install a charging station at home. But here in the Pocket, lots of folks don’t have a garage or a driveway and can’t install a charger. This seems to be a huge barrier to adopting zero emissions vehicles, far more than the purchase price.
A: That's one of the ones that goes to the partnerships between all the orders of government. The city is doing pilot projects right now with on-street charging stations. There are a couple of chargers near the Pocket (on Mountjoy Ave.) But at the federal level, we’re also working to support the installation of more chargers. That's also part of my mandate letter. And then there’s another piece about the regulations towards the sale of net-zero emission vehicles so that all new vehicles sold by 2035 will have to be zero-emission vehicles. That is our target and now there are consultations happening about exactly how we will achieve that.
There’s another piece too: making sure that we get those vehicles built here. That's on the industry side, but we want the jobs of the future for our country to make sure that we're building as many of those cars right here in Canada.
Q: Of course, it’s not all about cars. We live in one of the densest urban areas in the country. Surely the future includes less car use too?
A: Yes! We focus a lot on zero emission vehicles. Personally, I don't own a car at all. And the city of Toronto has a goal of, I believe, 75 percent of all trips under five km be done through active transportation: walking and cycling. That's a really important part of curbing our emissions: Reducing the amount of energy is not just about transforming the energy we use, but making sure that we try and reduce our load as a whole.
That's where our opportunity is. We're lucky to live in a community that in fact is pretty well serviced by public transit. We also have small businesses and places that we can get to on foot. You can get food and a lot of what we need in a really easy way, which I think is a great thing and helps to reduce the number of times we have to get into a car.
By the way, I think it goes beyond that. I think it helps to build community when you can get out of your house and you're walking about, you just see neighbors. It makes it easier for people to get together and talk. We see each other more (in the Pocket) because it's a more active transportation type of place.