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Opinion: Kingston needs a Green New Deal

Inspired by Michelle Wu, candidate in the Boston Mayoral Election taking place today, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, two local academics and climate emergency activists implore Kingston to employ a Green New Deal like that which Wu is embracing in her campaign.

The following is a submitted Op/Ed article written by Doctors Jeremy Milloy and Kyla Tienhaara. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

On Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, the people of Boston will elect a new mayor. Why are we, two Canadians living in Kingston, excited about this election? Because one of the candidates, Michelle Wu, is running on a Green New Deal (GND) platform that could change the way that cities all over North America approach the dual crises of climate change and rising inequality. 

The GND was popularized by American Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in 2019. The idea has flourished and spread throughout the world, from the UK to South Korea. In Canada, NDP MP Peter Julian has a motion for a made-in-Canada GND. And as of late, the idea has been taken up at the local level by several progressive mayors and candidates like Wu.

GNDs emphasize the role of governments, rather than markets and the private sector, in driving the transition to a low carbon economy. And programs and investments under a GND must deliver on both equity and decarbonization.

That means creating jobs that are “green” – but also good (i.e., well-paid, unionized). Additionally, while the “green jobs” slogan generally conjures up images of men wearing hard hats and installing solar panels, the GND also emphasizes the importance of “pink collar work” – i.e., jobs in teaching, nursing, and child/elderly care – that is low-carbon and critical to society, but also often poorly paid. 

Although employment is central to the GND, it is not the only path through which inequality and injustice is addressed. Michelle Wu’s GND for Boston includes a plan for fare-free public transportation, and numerous initiatives to ensure affordable and energy-efficient housing. 

Like Boston, Kingston has officially declared a climate emergency. The city seeks to get to “net-zero” by 2040. City council will soon deliberate on a draft climate leadership plan (CLP). While we applaud many of the initiatives in the CLP, we feel that it is missing the two key aspects that make Wu’s GND so promising. Wu responds to the climate crisis as the emergency it is, and she applies an equity lens to make her plan fair and forward thinking. Kingston’s CLP would benefit from more urgency and more equity.

The urgency starts with the “net-zero” target itself. Offsetting is a controversial and often/potentially unreliable bandaid/stopgap solution to reducing carbon emissions. Not only does it offer an unreliable estimate for carbon saved, but it has also increased conflict over land use and land rights elsewhere in the world. We should not be depending on offsetting for 35 per cent of the reductions needed, as the CLP does – we must directly minimize carbon expenditure at the source. We can do more, and as a wealthy, privileged community, we must do more. The 2040 target needs to be zero, not net zero.

Urgency also requires that we move up our interim goals and engage local residents in meeting them. When faced with the imminent threat of WWII, the Canadian state mobilized rapidly and radically in order to win the war. We must do the same with the climate emergency. One way to keep the public engaged is to be clear and transparent about our goals and what we need residents to do to play their part in achieving them. Plans fail without transparency and accountability. Kingston would benefit from an external panel evaluating City and community progress and reporting on it publicly. 

Urgency also requires that we mandate action. For example, instead of hoping developers will build what we need, we should announce that new building permit requests (both residential and commercial) after January 1, 2023, will not be allowed to have natural gas connections. In August, California amended its building code to make heat pumps the standard for home efficiency standards and requiring most new commercial builds to have the capacity to store renewable energy. 

If we act with urgency on climate, we can simultaneously address some of the major issues of equity that plague our city right now. The pandemic has highlighted what most residents already knew: we are also in an emergency concerning housing and poverty. Thousands of Kingstonians have no chance at home ownership. A growing number of people have no home at all. 

Our city’s emergency food providers have seen a staggering increase in demand over the last couple of years. A drug poisoning epidemic is killing people in our community. This is the legacy of decades of policies that tore apart our social safety net. Disinvesting in health care, income supports, employment insurance, and job training has consequences, and we are living with them now. In order to make our society stronger and adapted for the climate crisis and climate action, we have to invest in public capacity, not private profit. 

Investing in fare-free, green transit, for example, would be a major boost to the quality of life for lower-income residents. It would also make transit a better alternative to car travel, and significantly contribute to our climate goals. If we more aggressively move to retrofit multi-unit housing, we can achieve greater emissions reductions and energy savings, create more jobs locally, and help our most vulnerable residents adapt to extreme weather. That is the beauty of combining climate action and economic justice – you get synergies that reduce emissions and make communities healthier and stronger.

We know that Kingston can’t do it alone. Federal and provincial partnership is required. But this was the case when our city was among Canada’s first to declare a climate emergency. We acted then because we recognized the crisis and wanted to be leaders in building momentum towards a solution. We must do the same now. Kingston needs a Green New Deal.

Dr. Kyla Tienhaara is Canada Research Chair in Economy and Environment and Assistant Professor in the School of Environmental Studies and Department of Global Development Studies Queen’s University.

Dr. Jeremy Milloy is a climate justice organizer who works with 350 Kingston, Just Recovery Kingston, and River First YGK, and also a scholar of work and capitalism in Canada and the USA.

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