Part 5: Envisioning a Low Carbon Future

The Institute of Southern Georgian Bay > 2021 Events > Part 5: Envisioning a Low Carbon Future

Our Sustainable Future: Get Inspired, Get Informed, Get to Work!

7-Part Online Discussion Series, February – November, 2021
We believe that Southern Georgian Bay can meet today’s needs of the planet,

its people, and economic vitality…without compromising the needs of future generations.

Part 5 – Envisioning a Low Carbon Future
June 16, 2021

Regional model already successful


In Part 5 of the Our Sustainable Future series, Tova Davidson of Sustainable Waterloo Region (SWR) took us on a tour of what her organization is doing to support the regenerative nature of the local economy in Waterloo Region. Working with corporations, seven municipalities, regional government, and an army of volunteers, SWR works with multiple partners on delivering impactful programs and providing fee-for-service support to businesses. She discussed the current state of the climate crisis and what can reasonably be done to combat it from a return-on-investment model – with returns being economic and social toward community well-being. A question and answer session and breakouts allowed participants to dig deeper into concepts and talk about best practices the Southern Georgian Bay area could implement.


The need for a collective community response to climate change mitigation is now. With an ever-growing number of cities and towns across Canada already committing to meaningful Green House Gas (GHG) emission reduction targets and proactive low carbon efforts, Southern Georgian Bay has a valuable opportunity to follow suit with its own regional approach.

Now, more than ever, we all need to work together to engage our municipal, business, non-profit, philanthropic, and grassroot organization assets in taking a united stance for a resilient, sustainable, and equitable future. This session on Envisioning a Low Carbon Future offered attendees an opportunity to learn more about the possibilities, participate in breakout sessions to share their ideas to help take the collective sustainability of our community to the next level.

Tova Davidson presented the evolution and success of her organization and its flagship program, the Regional Carbon Initiative. She offered a view into how this fully integrated environmental sustainability program evolved to meet the needs of the community, unify the Waterloo Region in addressing climate change mitigation, and facilitate the net reduction of over 69,471 tonnes of GHG emissions as of 2019.

She also shared lessons learned in the development of SWR, the value of grassroots efforts, requisite community culture shifts, and how such insights could apply to the implementation of a similar initiative here in our own backyard. This session helped participants imagine a regional Climate Action Plan inspired by leaders in the field and our own creativity to create a low carbon future.


  1. The time for action is NOW! Canada is already behind other developed nations, so we have a lot of work to do. This is our responsibility.
  2. Climate change issues are intersectional and require big picture thinking and simple local steps in partnerships, collaboration, resource sharing and participatory innovation.
  3. Return on investment is social as well as economic – employee attraction through value alignment is significant and benefits include reduced operating costs and risk management.


Tova Davidson is Executive Director of Sustainable Waterloo Region. She leads the organization under the Board of Directors, by developing strategic direction, supporting team members and building key relationships throughout Waterloo region. Her experience in public relations and communications supports a creative approach to sustainable opportunities. Leveraging her business background, she collaborates with top organizations in Waterloo Region to drive change locally and provincially. Davidson was selected by The Guelph Mercury for its Top 40 Under 40 list and was the recipient of the Mayor’s Award of Excellence. She leads by example while inspiring others to do the same.

Opening with her own land acknowledgement of the area around Waterloo region, Davidson noted her organization honours The Dish with One Spoon treaty of the Anishnaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee who bonded to share territory and protect the land to the mutual benefit of all inhabitants. In coming to a shared table, Sustainable Waterloo Region (SWR) works as a social enterprise not-for-profit business to provide fee-for-service “work towards helping organizations be more sustainable both financially and economically.” In the last few years, SWR has expanded to take all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals into account, as she noted SDG 17 suggests “we can’t solve one issue without solving all of them.”

To outline the issue, she noted the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted we have nine years to reduce global emissions by 50 per cent or face irrevocable climate disaster. This is happening now, and Canada is one of “the worst emitters in the developed world”. Canada is also warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. The impacts of climate change are here, they are real and they are urgent.

“It’s not just about the bugs, the bunnies and the trees,” she explained, suggesting emissions from Canada effect the planet. “It’s about the people. When you hear about groups like Extinction Rebellion, they are not talking about animal extinction, they are talking about human extinction.”

She offered a view of the low impact of electricity compared to the much larger impact of natural gas and gasoline use. For its part, SWR is collaborating with multiple municipal, corporate and educational partners and a volunteer “army of sustainability angels” to enact community climate change programs. The impact and more details of SWG’s efforts may be found here:

As a background on SWR, Tova gave a shout-out to founder Mike Morrice. Their work involves scaling up programs he began in Waterloo Region. Thanks to his early guidance, everything SWR does includes measurement, because if it’s not measured it doesn’t matter; is never in isolation, so embraces networks and community building because change only happens in collaboration; and is built to be scalable, because “everything we do, we intend to share.”


The keystone project from the beginning was the Regional Sustainability Initiative. This program works with companies to measure material impact (GHGs, waste & water) in operation and offers coaching, professional development, target-setting to celebrate milestones. Some 85 companies in the region, representing 20 per cent of the workforce, are involved in the program, which is self-sustaining through fees for service and access to expertise.

Climate Action WR is up and running to reach an 80 by 50 target (80 per cent GHG reduction by 2050). This unique model in Canada is a community-driven plan where SWR works with corporations and ReepGreen Solutions works with residents on energy audits. The project is currently being endorsed by the region and seven lower-tier municipalities.

“Climate Action WR
is owned by the NGO’s
because this is
the community’s plan,”
Tova Davidson,
Sustainable Waterloo Region

ChargeWR supports electric vehicles and infrastructure. It almost tripled a target of 1,000 electric vehicles in the region by 2020 and has helped make over 200 public charging ports available. TravelWise is a partnership with the Region of Waterloo providing resources to companies to provide employees with discount transit, carpool matching, trip planning with employee engagement and an emergency ride program. Its benefits of reduced need for parking, increased employee satisfaction and positive corporate exposure have led to success.

Evolv1 is Canada’s first net-positive multi-tenant office building. It generates its own power and has zero energy costs to run the 110,000 sq. ft. building. The ground floor houses Evolv Green, a partnership between SWR, University of Waterloo and Laurier University and the Accelerator Centre, which has an incubator for clean tech. Evolv GREEN is working on the big questions of how to change our culture and individual minds to get to sustainability.

In her deep work, there have been many lessons learned, with her top five being:

  1. Hold tight to your vision – hold your best world like a hedgehog to protect it vehemently
  2. Measure what matters – manage what you measure – innovate and improve as you go
  3. Partnership is essential – builds social capital to do the big things
  4. Intersectionality is the reality – always have to look at how other issues are effected
  5. Be bold – big things are possible – Evolv1 was built in only four years!

Q & A: as moderated by Catherine Daw, several questions came up.

Q: Please offer more insight into your social enterprise funding model.

A. SWR runs a bit like a chamber of commerce with members paying fees for services, Tova explained. There are non-profit sponsorships to support marketing and events. Some services are provided to municipalities to supply expertise and engage with community. ChargeWR is volunteer-run so has less overhead. She suggested the Evolv1 space is supported through a culture of sustainability in partnership with universities, with innovations sometimes getting funding but always with a view to being self-sustaining. And, of course, there are many volunteers offering immense value.

Q: Tell us more about partnering.

A. The big lesson in partnership building is to “leave your ego at the door.” She said community engagement in strategic planning will make space for people to help launch initiatives and talk about it. “We are entirely a support organization,” she said, adding she shares her cell phone with everyone so she can supply answers to questions at a moment’s notice, like when a mayor was on the floor of the UN and wanted information to back what he wanted to say. “We are working to make this community better together.”

Q. In building Evolv1, challenges included hierarchy in the fear of “you don’t know what you don’t know.” So how do you focus people on reality?

A. When dealing with developers, just ask why. “It’s a great opportunity to look at what we’re doing,” Tova offered, adding working with developers to question why things can’t be done and what their processes are can result in leading-edge thinking.

Q. How much does the presence of 2 progressive universities influence the success of SWR? How might other areas move ahead without those local partners?

A. Having universities changes the ethos of the region as a whole, Tova said, suggesting Waterloo is a tech region. But, it can also be a challenge as volunteers come and go as coop students rotate.

Q. What are the threats to the hedgehog? (from the concept in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great –

A. There is always money to do something else, she suggested, noting “scope creep” and “mission bleed” are challenges. You can also become too narrowly focussed on the hedgehog. You have to use something that isn’t going to change. So, Tova said, we focus on being “the very best at organizing community sustainability in Canada.”

Q. How do we create trust and equity in community with diversity, urgency and divergent change?

A. “The culture shift is ongoing,” Tova noted, “it will never stop.” Listen with no pre-determined judgement and abandon the scarcity mindset. A groundswell comes along as people see they are welcome to come forward and get involved as fear falls away. She has spoken with climate change deniers, energy producers and agricultural people and invited all to SWR’s “castle with many doors.”

Q. For municipalities not as advanced as WR which innovation should a municipality start with to get most on board and inspired?

A. Determine where your impact is needed and what resources you have in place, she said. You can start big or are there foundational pieces to look for. Find your strengths and your greatest needs. There are tools like the Energy Star analysis of buildings or the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Partners for Climate Protection’s climate action milestones (


Facilitators offered brief descriptions of discussions with some providing aspirational statements to answer: If we were 10x bolder, what would we be doing?

  1. Make it regional – make it happen – get us all on the same page.
  2. Get all business involved for a cultural shift to collaboration.
  3. Make the case for investment and return – use the waterplant in Collingwood as an example.
  4. Our region is an interconnected rural and urban community where quality of life is the focus, infrastructure is net positive, our town centres are built for the people and food security, affordable housing and environmental services are provided for all. A utopia so to speak.
  5. Recognize we don’t live in isolation, what happens on the waterfront effects the Beaver Valley and what happens in Beaver Valley effects the waterfront. We need a communal transportation system.
  6. Build a community network and holistic view to work together to use resources collectively across the region.
  7. Look at planning processes as sustainability is a pressing issue. Invite and encourage process changes.
  8. As area municipalities review their Official Plans it is a good time to engage community residents and business and seek to pivot on current directions.
  9. Elect politicians based on creativity and vision. Stop teaching old economic theory and emphasize the doughnut economy. Reach out to agricultural and business as partners.
  10. Need to establish a vision to harness the natural beauty that brought us here.


TOVA’S TOP THEME from observing the breakout reports

Listening in on the breakout report, Tova suggested it reminded her of the outreach SWR did during the development of the Climate Change WR initiative. When they were setting out to set targets with the community, they asked people “if you could envision 2050, what would it look like?”.

They didn’t just talk to environmentalists, she personally went to rodeos, motor park events and hockey games. The overwhelming number of people set emission reduction targets at 70 per cent or more and agreed the future should be “equitable, prosperous, resilient, low carbon community.” These are now the values “baked-in” at every step they take.

“There is a return on investment and a social return,” she explained. “We don’t just have to change how we move, how we build and how we waste, but we added a fourth on how we have to change how we relate to each other.”

LAST QUESTIONS – with a short time left a couple more questions were asked:

Q. How much do you think provincial and federal political status of who’s in power influences the potential success of a “social enterprise” sustainability initiative?

A. It does affect it, the change in provincial leadership slowed down ChargeWR as government support was withdrawn, Tova explained, and that is the “reason we don’t rely on government funding.” She offered that provincial and federal levels may make decisions and enact requirements, but “the real transformation happens at the municipal level.” Examples of cities stepping up to meet targets when the US pulled out of the Paris Accord shows it can be done without higher governments. The City of New York has mandatory reporting on building efficiencies that charge $250/ton for over set targets. And in London, UK if you want to drive into the city core you have to pay a fee.

Q. Tell us what didn’t work?

A. With a lot of examples available. Tova offered that fee for service doesn’t always work if there is no commitment to the process. Services for free don’t work as companies don’t fully engage without some skin in the game. ChargeWR was planned to have staff but not enough demand or need so they just pivoted and it is run by volunteers. “We have done a lot of community implementation,” she said, adding you just have to keep going even if you don’t have the funds. The Evolv1 building faced challenges until Ontario Trillium Foundation came in with the funding to get them over the finish line, leading to a very deep breath on her part. She has faith in the cause and suggested people “just push on, you can do it.”

Q. The area has been developing like crazy with development charges as a financial consideration for municipalities. How do we change to know we can do this and that it is not always about money?

A. “It’s an ongoing challenge,” Tova admitted, adding she has hope as she sees tiny rural communities looking to put the SDGs “on every council report”. She clarified it is very difficult for municipalities to control development as they can not require a higher standard of sustainability, but “green standard” incentives have been successful in Toronto, offering less parking and smaller setbacks if met. The Region of Waterloo offers less parking requirements if companies join transportation initiatives like TravelWise. This is a big savings as parking spots are hugely expensive to provide – sometimes worth $30,000 a spot. She said there are resources out there with the Canadian Green Building Council (, which offers advice around requesting energy models prior to site plan approval, so developers can engage in best practices before the design phase to save funds and avoid costly adjustments.



“Climate action plans owned and delivered by the community!!! What a great idea!”
“Partnership and collaboration are crucial.”
“Municipal governments have a key role to play.”
“Redesign of urban spaces, vehicles removed, social hub, sustainable food sources for the community, active transportation the focus.”
“Take advantage of all the skill that has moved here in the past 2 years and last decade.”

Feasibility Study for Evolv1:


What is the most important idea/concept we could apply?

“Partnerships and acting in a support role, rather than punitive capacity”
“Let municipalities and businesses know that the organization is there to help. Building Social Capital is the first step.”
“Move ahead with what’s working and don’t be afraid to drop or at least hold-off on topic that is not gaining traction.”
“engage business”
“We need regional municipalities, businesses and residents working together.”
“If it can work for Waterloo it can work for us.”
“The community owning the Climate Change Plan.”
“Leadership and starting in one key area based on strengths.”

What were your biggest takeaways, relevant information or new concepts?

“The success that Social Enterprises can have with fee for service.”
“Regional approach makes sense.”
“Tova explained the service for fee concept; the organizations have to have some skin in the game – (they need to pay to feel motivated to carry through on their particular project)”
“Building a social enterprise to remove vulnerability from exclusively gov’t funding.”
“Relationship-building with businesses, and a model supported by businesses and the municipality, and her accessibility providing support to mayors.”

What is the most impactful action we could take based on what you heard?

“Get started. Take action and learning from mistakes is better than not taking action.”
“Pilot the concept of a nonprofit org to lead the region in imagining how to move forward and implementing initiatives to meet the SDG 2030 milestones.”
“engage business”
“Education & Communication throughout the region to get overall buy-in from residents, businesses and municipalities…”
“Raise awareness of alternate energy sources and embed them in the building code for new housing.”
“Provide notes on Tova’s presentation and other material you have to support municipal councillors and environment groups in the region in moving ahead.”
“Renewable energy sources.”
“The importance of measurement and transparency.”

Is there anything else you would like to share?

“Keep going!!!”
“Need to pick 2 or 3 project to move forward. One easy and one that will toke time to develop.”
“Every session provides new learning. I love knowing how others are approaching these issues so we can understand what works and doesn’t. Great job!”