Unicorns prance as Council approves a green-energy motion

City Hall | by Paul Dechene

City council got a standing ovation, guys. It was a real thing that happened and I was there to see it.

But why? you may ask.

They got the ovation because, at their Oct. 29 meeting, council rousingly endorsed the Renewable City Motion.

And considering the gallery was packed mainly with that motion’s supporters, no surprise that they’d be pleased to see it go through.

The Renewable City Motion was brought forward by councillors Andrew Stevens, John Findura and Joel Murray and called on administration to draft a framework to commit Regina to becoming a 100 per cent renewable city by 2050. To back this up, the motion also directs administration to seek external funding sources to finance the costs of this commitment.

It’s a grand gesture and with the distant 2050 timeline it may seem like little more than a symbolic motion. Still, it’s also the kind of motion that presumably locks the city into spending cash on (short-term) expensive green infrastructure. Those kinds of motions typically don’t get through council without some hand-ringing and speechifying over not wanting to tie the hands of future councils or the need for responsible stewardship of taxpayers dollars. “Property taxes are a limited and outdated form of revenue generation. And really, this is a provincial or federal concern,” goes the usual line.

Not this time.

“At my age, you realize aspiration is fine but action is better,” declared councillor Bob Hawkins, who then proposed a friendly amendment to make the Renewable City Motion even more ambitious. The amendment called on administration to include within their framework at least four new, concrete actions for improving the city’s environmental sustainability that can be implemented by the end of 2023.

Hawkins’ amendment passed unanimously.

All in all, it was a standing ovation-worthy performance from council. And, seriously, motions that commit the city to spending even a modest amount of cash don’t usually sail through council this easily.

Take for instance…

Living Dead Labour Theory

A Living Wage Policy did not fare as well.

The policy had been proposed through a motion by Councillor Andrew Stevens and would have committed the city to paying all of its employees at least a living wage — that, depending upon your source, would be $16 to $16.95 an hour. Currently, 86.5% of city employees already have a living wage with only 379 casual and seasonal staff receiving wages below that rate. Thus, it would only cost the city about $57,000 a year to boost those employees’ pay.

Administration, in their recommendation to reject the Living Wage Policy, raised a series of unknown risks that could inflate that number. Among them, administration argued that city worker unions could demand across-the-board increases to match the raises given to these low-earning employees through the Living Wage Policy.

Further complicating the policy’s fate, it included a provision whereby the city would be prohibited from hiring contractors who don’t pay their employees a living wage. Administration feared that could increase costs at minimum by $374,000 a year and would limit their ability to hire qualified contractors.

More concerning, though, was an administration argument highlighted by Councillor Barbara Young about the negative impact of a Living Wage Policy on the wider labour market.

“There was a line in the report this evening that the Fraser Institute did a study about a living wage and they found sometimes when that comes into play in cities, employers cut jobs and they cut hours,” said Young.

City administration is using data from notorious right-wing think tank the Fraser Institute now?

Indeed they are. In their living wage report, administration cites a 2014 Fraser Institute report that claims living wage policies can have similar impacts as minimum wage laws.

“…the Fraser Institute in Canada found that when governments mandate a wage above the prevailing market rate, a typical result is that fewer jobs and hours become available and it is usually people with the lowest skills who are most adversely affected,” reads administration’s report.

Hmm… I’m having deja vu. Where could I have read reasoning like that before? Oh, right, it was when I was researching a minimum wage piece for Prairie Dog in August. (“Give The People A Raise: Saskatchewan’s bottom-feeding minimum wage needs a big boost.”) That article looks at how arguments against minimum wages — or, by extension, living wage policies — are based on a series of simplistic assumptions about the labour market that aren’t borne out by the data.

And the Fraser Institute report appears to be drinking from that same well of facile ECON 101 justifications for leaving workers exposed to the worst vicissitudes of labour market — the kind of gross oversimplifications a seven year old could draw, for instance.

Here’s hoping city administration won’t be using the Fraser Institute going forward because it could spell doom for the Renewable City Motion when it comes time to consider actually spending money on green infrastructure. Not only does the Fraser Institute trade in sketchy, right-wing labour theory, they are also long-time purveyors of climate-science denialism. These noted oil-industry shills were behind such classic works as “The Science Isn’t Settled: The Limitations of Global Climate Models” from 2004, “Greenhouse Gas Reductions: Not Warranted, Not Beneficial” from 2003 and “Taken By Storm: The Troubled Science, Policy, and Politics of Global Warming” from 2002.

They also put out “Understanding Climate Change: Lesson Plans for the Classroom” in 2009, a program for teachers designed specifically to get kids to doubt what we know about climate science and global warming.

These were articles that Canadian governments at every level have used for years to justify their inaction on greenhouse gas emissions. The Fraser Institute is directly (though not solely) responsible for the sorry state of Canadian climate policy.

And now, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we only have 12 years left to get our act together or else we’ll face a climate catastrophe.

So yes, let’s not have any more Fraser Institute, please.

But At Least We Still Have 12 Years

Yeah, about that “12 years” number. That comes from the IPCC’s “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.” It lays out an aggressive set of targets the planet will have to hit if it hopes to keep global warming to an increase of 1.5°C or lower — 45 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and a drop to zero emissions by the end of the century, essentially. And we’ve barely taken even the tiniest baby steps towards those goals.

But this report isn’t one of the IPCC’s Assessment Reports, the gold standard for international climate science. And according to many prominent climate scientists — including Michael E Mann, the guy behind the Hockey Stick Graph — there are problems with the Special Report. No, it’s findings aren’t alarmist exaggerations. Rather, according to Mann and others, the Special Report underestimates the amount of warming that has already happened and overestimates the amount of carbon budget we have left.

Sorry to be a killjoy just when council seems to be getting its act together on renewable energy but I think we have to consider that 12 year number to be extremely optimistic. In fact, Mann remarked recently on Twitter: “Reversing the arrow of time is pretty much the only option available to us now for avoiding 1.5°C planetary warming.”

I guess while city staff are drafting their four concrete steps to satisfy Councillor Hawkins’ amendment, they’ll have to consider including “time travel.”