Council Update: Climate Change, Carts, and more

"Earth Rise." Famous 1968 NASA photo that helped inspire the environmental movement.

Agenda, June 23

Climate Change Plan:
While we’ve all been fixated on the immediate crisis that is COVID-19, we can’t forget the pressing issue of our times: climate change. The existential threat to human civilization and the natural systems that supports the world as we know it hasn’t gone away. The science behind climate change is indisputable and it seems like the forecasts around it grow more ominous all the time. The impacts are already apparent from disappearing polar ice, wildfires, stronger hurricanes and other storms, droughts, heatwaves, shifting species ranges, and more. We’re at a crossroads where the decisions we make over the next few decades will determine what sort of world our children and grandchildren inherit. We can’t go back and undo the damage that we’ve already done from uncontrolled CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution began, but we can still change our ways and mitigate the worst of it. We still get to decide how bad it’s going to be.

HRM isn’t going to solve climate change alone. Climate change is the single biggest challenge humanity has ever faced in terms of the need for collective action. In looking at the scale of the problem, it’s easy to feel hopeless. It might be tempting to say “why bother, HRM won’t make a difference.” The problem is though, if everyone adopts that attitude, all will definitely be lost. We have a moral duty to act, to pull our weight, to do our share. Humanity as a whole might succeed, or we might not, but I know which side of history I want HRM to be on. HRM declared a Climate Emergency just over a year ago and yesterday, HalifACT, HRM’s Climate Change Plan came to Council.

I was really worried that HalifACT would be watered down before it reached Council. That the pressing need for action wouldn’t survive the bureaucratic filters. That’s not what happened. HalifACT is an ambitious plan that pulls no punches. It sets out how to make HRM carbon neutral by 2050. Being carbon neutral by 2050 isn’t even close to the hardest part though. The real challenge is that we need to act quickly in the here and now. HalifACT calculates a carbon budget for HRM based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommendation to keep warming to 1.5 degrees. If we take no action, HRM will use its entire 1.5 degree carbon budget in just eight years! 2028! We don’t have three decades to pick away at reducing emissions, we have to make major reductions in the next couple of years.

The HalifACT graph above shows HRM emissions under the business as usual scenario versus where we need to be to do our part to keep global temperatures to 1.5 degrees (blue line). Emissions do drop in business as usual scenario, mainly thanks to Muskrat Falls decarbonizing a large portion of our electric grid, but our allowed carbon budget will still be shot by 2028 (red line) if we don’t take action now.

So how do we go beyond the reductions in the business as usual scenario to do our part to keep the world to 1.5 degrees? How do we avoid exceeding our carbon budget by 2028? HalifACT’s answer is to make our buildings much more efficient, scale up renewable power generation, and electrify our transportation system. The graph below shows emission reductions by category (more efficient buildings account for the largest share).

Meeting HalifACT’s aggressive goals isn’t something that HRM will be able to do alone. It will require the cooperation of many other institutions, individuals, and businesses in our community as well as leadership from the Provincial and Federal governments. There is a lot that HRM does have control over though and can lead on. Some of the highlights include net zero HRM operations by 2030, expanding Solar City, and electrifying transportation (transit, fleet vehicles, and making chargers widely available). HalifACT identifies seven priority areas for immediate action

  • Retrofit and renewable energy programming
  • Retrofit municipal buildings to be net-zero and climate resilient
  • Electrification of transportation
  • Net-zero standards for new buildings
  • Risk and vulnerability assessment
  • Capacity building for climate adaptation
  • Sustainable financing

Although meeting the ambitious pace of change that’s needed will be challenging, the good news in HalifACT is that the investment in a low carbon future pays for itself over time, and that payback isn’t just from avoiding the worst of climate change. The low carbon scenario means the creation of many new jobs in the green sector, as well as significant savings in energy costs. Oil and coal aren’t produced here, which means that every dollar we spend on energy is generally money that leaves our Province for elsewhere. The more efficient and green our buildings, transportation, and electric system becomes, the more money remains in Nova Scotia. The HalifACT projections indicate energy costs of $1.73 billion a year in the business as usual scenario in 2050 versus $565 million in the low carbon scenario. That’s a lot of cash! HalifACT will be hard, but it’s not just virtuous sacrifice for the greater good, there are measurable economic payoffs for doing the right thing.

As great as the HalifACT is, there was one problem in the staff recommendation. The recommendation had HRM endorsing the need to resource HalifACT in principle, but delaying ramping up efforts until the financial crisis created by COVID is over. I appreciate the caution of HRM’s financial experts, but that caution just isn’t going to work given the challenge that’s in front of us. We could be 3-4 years before the economic impacts of COVID are really behind us and we have just eight years before HRM will exceed our carbon budget. This isn’t something that can wait for a more convenient financial time to implement. Humanity had its chance to do a slower more gradual move to low carbon, but we squandered the last four decades with inaction. We’re now all going to have to prioritize Climate Change and treat it as the crisis that it is.

So I moved an amendment to the staff recommendation to direct the CAO to, instead, bring forward a resource plan to coincide with the 2021 budget. My colleagues were unanimous in their support. This doesn’t mean that the resources needed to really get started on Climate Change will be built into the 2021 budget. They could still be on an options list. What it does is ensure that it’ll be before Council so that we can make some choices. Council may decide to aggressively fund HalifACT, Council may not, but we will get to own the decision. I know what side of history I want to be on. As Councillor Mason quoted during the debate, “you can’t tax a wasteland.” The best balance sheet in the world doesn’t mean much if humanity, as a whole, has ruined this fragile little blue dot that is our home.

Green, Blue and Black Bins in Tonroto. Photo: Toronto Sun

Waste Carts:
The other big item on Council’s agenda was whether to carry on looking at introducing a cart system to HRM for garbage and recycling. The initial spark to look at this was a motion I made back in January 2019 when Council was looking at banning one-use shopping bags. A lot of feedback to Council during the bag discussion was that HRM was being pretty hypocritical to be banning shopping bags while requiring people to buy one-use plastic bags for waste disposal. I was surprised as I dug into it to find that HRM is almost alone in Canada in having carts just for organics. Most cities that use carts, have them for all portions of their waste system. We’re almost a club of one. So I moved a motion that Council supported to look at what an expanded cart system would look like in HRM. The Province has since picked up the plastic bag ban, and yesterday the cart report returned to Council.

The report and Council discussion reveals there are a lot of pros and cons to carts:

eliminates single-use plastic bags (at least from recycling)garbage would still likely require bags
6 years payback for most households from reduction/elimination of plastic bag expensebins require a lot of plastic to produce, reducing environmental benefits
safer for garbage collectors (no cuts from broken glass or injured backs)challenging on some properties to store carts
automated collection would be more efficientexisting privately-owned bins would become garbage
unlikely to get blown around like bags do on windy dayschallenging for some residents to move
harder for animals to get intolarge upfront expense and negotiations with contractors
landfill diversion rate may drop

Some of the drawbacks to carts can be worked through by making exceptions for specific individuals or neighbourhoods. The biggest drawback that is hard to mitigate is the potential for HRM’s waste diversion rate to drop. When clear bags were introduced, garbage heading to the landfill dropped by an astounding 25%. Similar results have occurred in other municipalities that have introduced clear bags. That is a huge reduction and is part of the reason that HRM has one of the best waste diversion rates in the country. In a cart system, it would be easier for people, either deliberately or through ignorance, to put waste where it doesn’t belong, potentially undermining any environmental benefits that we gain from having carts.

HRM’s source separation for recyclables is also something we do well that we would have to consider carefully. Source separation makes our recyclables more readily reusable than is the case in other municipalities that collect recycling as a single stream that then has to be sorted. Maintaining source separation with carts isn’t impossible. Some municipalities give people more than one blue cart to keep paper separate, but that comes with extra expenses, additional storage challenges, and increases the environmental footprint of a cart system. A few municipalities manage it by dividing carts in two, but there aren’t many examples of divided carts. Source separation challenges aren’t a deal breaker, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Source separation in a single cart in Sault Ste Marie

Finally, the environmental benefits of a cart system aren’t as significant as people think. The plastic bag is a ubiquitous symbol of waste, but carts require a lot of plastic to produce. HRM’s analysis indicates that it would take 8 – 12 years before the amount of plastic used in bags for waste disposal by a typical household would exceed the plastic needed to build a cart. With an expected life cycle of 10 years for carts, the plastic usage is roughly the same. That said, HRM has had really good results from its green bins (many are now nearly 20 years old). The environmental pros and cons of carts would really depend on whether bags were required to put waste in carts (garbage is typically still bagged in cart systems), what materials a cart is built out of, and how well it’s made. To produce a net plastic reduction, HRM’s best bet would likely be long lasting blue carts built from recycled materials.

All that said, bagless carts would save money for most households in a remarkably short time frame (extra tax or fee for carts made up in just 6 years), they would make for more efficient and safe collection, could reduce plastic use (especially blue carts), and would decrease litter from waste being strewn around by wind and animals. There is enough there that it’s worth continuing to look at the idea. Council accepted my motion to move forward with the next phase of the analysis in context of an overall strategic review of HRM’s waste strategy.

Looking at carts in the overall context is important because there could be better places in the waste system to invest limited capital dollars, and because we don’t know yet what the Province will do regarding Extended Produce Responsibility (EPR). The idea behind EPR is to make companies responsible for the lifetime costs of their products. Nova Scotia is looking at EPR and, if adopted, it could change the entire dynamic around recycling and waste collection. The risk to HRM in proceeding with carts, absent a decision on EPR, is that the money to buy carts could end up completely wasted if a new industry lead system doesn’t align with HRM’s new cart infrastructure. We need a Provincial decision on EPR first so that we know where we’re heading.

With all that in mind, a cart system in HRM, if it happens, is still a few years away (likely 5-10).

Crichton Avenue, Dartmouth. Photo: Google Street View

Crichton Avenue Active Transportation:
Council approved the addition of new candidate routes to HRM’s Active Transportation Priorities Plan. While a lot of attention was on the proposed paved shoulders in East Preston, Crichton Avenue, Glen Manor, and Mic Mac Boulevard were also added to the active transportation plan.

Crichton Avenue is a street that has been mentioned to me several times in the past by cyclists as it’s the main route along the north side of Lake Banook. Crichton joins residential areas to Downtown Dartmouth, shopping around Mic Mac Mall, and of course the Shubie Trails. I have also heard from area residents expressing concern about speeds on the street, and everyone who walks along the lake would like a sidewalk on the south side from Glen Manor to Lakeside. Adding Crichton Avenue to the AT Priorities Plan is something that I asked for based on the neighbourhood feedback at the Transportation Standing Committee and I was pleased to get a positive recommendation from staff.

So what does becoming a candidate route mean? It means that HRM has identified the streets for future planning. It’s not a guarantee of any particular street design or outcome. The main challenge on Crichton Avenue is the section from Hawthorne Street up to Crichton Park Road is very narrow. It will be tough to design a complete street in that section as there just isn’t much space to work with. After Crichton Park Road though and all the way through Glen Manor and Mic Mac Boulevard, there is tons of space to provide room for cyclists and pedestrians. The roadway is so wide through there that it is likely detrimental to the neighbourhood as excessive street widths encourages speeding. The table below from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) shows the proven relationship between street widths and speeds in miles per hour.

Crichton Avenue will be assessed for traffic calming this year and I will be really surprised if results indicate that speeding isn’t an issue on the Crichton Park Road to Lakeside Terrace portion of Crichton given that it’s wide and straight.

The opportunity to really implement design changes on Crichton Avenue/ Mic Mac Boulevard will likely come when a major paving project is needed. Work was recently done on Mic Mac Boulevard, but it was a skim coat designed to buy time while HRM prepares for a more comprehensive look at the area in regards to transit, and, now, active transportation as well.


  • Requested a staff report on future use of some vacant lands on Shore Drive in Bedford
  • Awarded contract for wharf repairs at various locations (including Alderney)
  • Awarded tenders for transit priority road redesigns/measures for Bayers Road and Young/Robie
  • Authorized the CAO to negotiate a facility operating agreement with the Eastern Shore Recreation Commission
  • Accepted staff recommendation not to provide free transit on election day
  • Council voted to freeze the salary of councillors and the mayor for 2020/2021 given the current COVID financial realities


  1. How thorough and interesting. I am grateful that we have such a wise, forward-thinking, environmentally aware, and well spoken councillor to represent our area.

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