Blog: Vulnerable Communities and Climate Change 

Blog post by Fiona O’Flynn, CELA Communications Intern

In September of 2019, an estimated 6 million people across the world took to the streets to protest the climate crisis. Following the climate strikes, over 50 municipalities in Ontario declared climate change an emergency. 

It’s crucial that climate change declarations are accompanied by action — and, as climate change disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities, action needs to be equity-focused.

Municipalities in Ontario have significant power to address climate change issues. They have the authority to pass by-laws concerning climate change and the health, well-being, and safety of persons in their region. There are huge opportunities for progress on climate equity issues at the community level. 

Following are some of the areas in which municipalities can have a significant impact on climate equity.  

Extreme Heat 

From 1971-2000, Ontario had about 50 days per year with temperatures exceeding the threshold where heat-related deaths are most likely to occur. In the 2050’s, this number is expected to increase by 1.5 times. 

Certain communities face far greater risks from extreme heat, including elderly people (especially elderly people taking certain medications), children, low-income households, individuals without housing, and those living with chronic health conditions. Municipalities have a responsibility to take action now, at the community level, to save lives. 

Ensuring access to cooling centres, funding outreach to vulnerable people, and providing protections for outdoor workers are all actions that can be taken by municipalities. 

Vulnerable communities can also be protected through measures like Mississauga’s Adequate Temperature By-law. The by-law requires landlords to maintain suitable temperatures in their rental units — keeping households safe from both extreme heat and extreme cold. 

CELA is advocating for better tracking of heat-related deaths by the Coroner’s Office in Ontario. Tracking and data collection is crucial to protecting vulnerable communities — especially as heat waves are predicted to become more frequent and more severe. 

Transportation Planning

The transportation sector accounts for about 25% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and over 1,000 premature deaths related to air pollution. 

Individuals in cars and underfunded transit present barriers for some vulnerable communities, such as low-income and elderly populations. 

The rise of gentrification has pushed many low-income people to the city peripheries — which can limit mobility. These areas often lack effective infrastructure and transit options, which impedes the ability to participate in public life.

 Equity-based transportation planning serves a dual purpose: provide all communities with mobility while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Municipalities can incorporate equity into transportation by reducing dependency on cars and providing more transit options for vulnerable groups. For instance, Toronto has also implemented an Equity Lens Tool for transportation, which identifies how vulnerable groups will be impacted by transit projects. 

Access to Green Spaces

Those living in urban areas often lack access to green spaces. Disadvantaged neighbourhoods in particular tend to have less trees, vegetation, and public parklands. 

The lack of green spaces is especially harmful in larger cities, which act as ‘heat islands’ — urban areas which experience higher temperatures than natural environments. As a result, people in urban areas are more vulnerable to heat exposure. Access to green spaces can help to alleviate the heat island effect and improve air quality.  

Green spaces also have huge benefits for physical and mental health. A Toronto study found that adding 10 trees per city block, on average, improves health perception comparably to a $10,000 increase in yearly personal income. 

When planning for new green spaces, equity needs to be top of mind. Municipalities can incorporate equity into their green space planning by creating frameworks that prioritize it, like Ottawa’s Urban Forest Management Plan

Housing and Energy

Inadequate access to affordable and safe housing is the root cause of many climate change health impacts. People living in substandard housing often suffer the most from extreme weather events, such as heat waves and flooding. 

One step municipalities can take to mitigate the effects of climate change is to require developers to meet affordable housing standards. For instance, the City of Whitby’s Green Standard ensures that all new developments meet a set of criteria based on health, equity, and sustainability. This helps to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, and to increase resiliency and quality of life for the entire community. 

Nearly one in five Canadians experience energy poverty — meaning they pay a disproportionate amount on home energy costs. These same households are also more likely to experience other socioeconomic inequalities. 

Funding low-income retrofitting programs and incentives can offset energy poverty. Retrofitting homes cuts energy costs, while also reducing emissions. By providing incentives for energy retrofits, municipalities can boost sustainability and improve housing conditions. For example, the City of Toronto’s Hi-RIS Program supports retrofits to apartment buildings. 

CELA strongly supports energy efficiency for all Canadians, and encourages more funding for low-income energy efficiency programs, with a focus on Northern, remote and Indigenous communities.

Mapping Inequities

In order to better protect and support vulnerable communities, it’s crucial to have accurate data on where they are located. Mapping can help address climate inequities in myriad ways. From planning tree-planting projects, to cooling centre locations, to tracking energy poverty levels, mapping helps inform decision-making. 

At the municipal level, solutions like Ottawa’s Neighbourhood Equity Index are excellent tools to guide decisions. The index examines well-being of areas based on factors like economic situation, health, and physical environment. 

Mapping can also be used to keep communities safe. CELA has long advocated for communities to have the “right to know” what pollution is in your community. For instance, the mapping of PFA’s (sometimes called ‘Forever Chemicals’) in Canada identifies which communities are most at risk. This knowledge is crucial to effectively take action against PFA’s

Climate issues are equity issues. CELA is continuing to work towards climate equity for vulnerable communities by advocating for practical solutions. At the municipal level, there are huge opportunities for action on climate equity. Throughout every level of government, equity and climate health must be weaved together to protect vulnerable communities. As Vancouver’s Climate and Equity Working Group wrote, there should be “justice in the process, not just in the outcome.”