“Everything we do now, we’ll have that question: how will it affect climate change?”

Saint John unveils new climate action plan, Mayor says city in climate emergency

A police cruiser parked near the floods in Martinon, Saint John, in 2018.

Mayor Don Darling declared Saint John is in a “climate emergency” earlier this month – a term many municipalities across the world have been using lately to describe the threat of climate change to people’s health, well being, property and way of life.

For some, the phrase is a symbolic gesture, an acknowledgement of people’s new reality. But in Saint John – a city known for heavy industry – the announcement was paired with concrete changes to how the municipality will function.

“It’s more than just acknowledging there are some vulnerabilities; it’s saying they want to take a leadership role,” Graeme Stewart-Robertson, executive director of ACAP Saint John, told the Conservation Council.

Saint John follows Edmundston, Moncton and hundreds of other municipalities across North America that have made similar proclamations.  

Darling first declared the city was in a climate emergency in late April and repeated it in early May, coinciding with the release of Saint John’s climate action plan.

In the short term, the city hopes to expand its solar and wind capabilities, purchase a few electric vehicles and create an idle-free policy.

More ambitious goals include being carbon neutral by 2040 and a 30 per cent reduction in corporate greenhouse emissions by 2025. The plan projects the city could save $44 million over the next 21 years.

The City also hopes to reduce 2015 community greenhouse gas emissions by 18 per cent by 2035 and evaluate its assets for climate change vulnerabilities. It projects it could divert $1 billion of energy savings back into the local economy over the next 25 years.

Despite the lofty goals, Coun. Donna Reardon said she doesn’t know of any upcoming initiatives that would pressure the private sector to make similar changes.

“It’s more what the City can do,” she said. “You’re right, we have a refinery here, what are we going to do about that?”

She said the point is to review Saint John’s operations and find efficiencies.

“Everything we do now, we’ll have that question,” she said. “‘How will it affect climate change?’”

Stewart-Robertson said his organization is working on a climate adaptation plan, which should be more ambitious than the city’s. It will be presented to common council in March 2020.

ACAP’s plan will include “community targets” for greenhouse reductions and climate change adaptations.

“For everyone who lives, whether it’s a corporation or a private citizen, within the city boundary,” Stewart-Robertson said.

He said just because Saint John is an industrial city doesn’t mean the city can’t make tangible, meaningful steps toward change.

“We’re working within different constraints because of things like Canada’s largest oil refinery, but we are also moving the needle on a lot of other things.”

David Hickey, Saint John’s newest councillor, said the devastating flooding on the Wolastoq (St. John) River has focused the City on what has to be done.

“I think it says a lot about the new attitude around City Hall,” he said. “We can be cutting edge. We can be at the forefront of conversations as important as climate change. We can be focused on continually improving our city.”

One tangible climate change initiative has already been announced for the city, albeit not by the municipal government. Last week it was announced the federal government would spend spend $11.9 million to raising the sea wall near the Coast Guard as a response to the changing climate.

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