Canadian Cities and the Climate Emergency: Moving from declarations to delivering pollution cuts

By: Eric St-Pierre (c) 2021

Talking about greenhouse gas emissions in Canada tends to be pretty abstract. We hear about what proportion of pollution comes from oil and gas, or transportation, or buildings, for example. So it might be news to you that a significant portion of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions—estimated as high as 42%— come from Canadian cities. So it’s odd, then, that so much attention is paid to the climate efforts of the federal government— carbon pricing, methane regulations, coal phase-out, or electric vehicle and energy efficiency subsidies—and so little to the role, responsibility and leading examples of municipal governments. The fact is, cities—and our local elected officials—are front and centre in the battle against climate change.

Now is the time for bold municipal action

Eric St-Pierre, 2021

Municipal governments tend to be pragmatic and are often best equipped to handle local priorities. Put simply, they get things done, from picking up your trash to clearing snowy roads. They could also be key catalysts in cutting carbon pollution in Canada. Hundreds of Canadian cities have declared climate emergencies and committed to doing more. Still, these declarations ring hollow unless they translate into action: Municipal climate plans, policies and the implementation of practical solutions.

Now is the time for bold municipal action, from adopting energy labelling codes for buildings to energy efficiency measures and programs that shrink the carbon footprint of the buildings we live, work and play in. We need cities to consider banning natural gas in new building construction and investing in clean transportation, like bike lanes and EV chargers. We need cities to increase urban density, issue green bonds to raise capital for larger clean infrastructure projects, and adopt standards for lower carbon building materials, from cement to steel to engineered wood. Further, we need cities to be ever mindful of the need to make buildings and infrastructure more resilient, given we are already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate.

City bike lanes

It’s a long and ambitious to-do list. So, where to start?

First, cities need to adopt ambitious science-based climate plans that meet the Paris Agreement target of reducing emissions under a 1.5C scenario. Montreal recently adopted such a plan with a reduction scenario using technical modelling that strives for a 55% reduction of emissions by 2030. But aspirational targets without robust data and analytics can risk setting up local governments for failure. Cities need the right socio-economic data and guidance to inform decision-making.

Second, targets are the first step, but devising a climate action plan that sets out specific policies and programs—like Montreal’s 46 action items—is a must. For example, applying so-called “climate tests” for all government decisions; energy ratings for institutional, commercial and residential buildings as well as efficiency standards for new construction; zero-emission zones to encourage greater EV adoption; financial support for electrification and transportation is required and so much more. Cities need to enact practical policies and not just one-off projects.

Third, cities need to start working with civil society and diverse organizations to secure and sustain support for action. Montreal recently collaborated on the Montreal Climate Partnership, which seeks to mobilize business owners, property developers, the transportation sector, the finance sector and civil society. Cities cannot act alone in decarbonizing our communities. They need the buy-in and help of their citizens, civil society groups and local businesses.

Fourth, we need to mobilize capital to help scale up local climate solutions. The establishment of the Low Carbon Cities Canada (LC3) initiative is a recent contribution that accelerates urban climate solutions across Canada. LC3 centres in the seven largest Canadian cities have endowment capital to catalyze impact investing in local projects and have the capacity to invest in projects that can be scaled up to help cities reduce emissions. Leveraging private capital towards local energy efficiency projects must be adopted rapidly, and the finance sector has a very important role to play. Additional capital and blended finance models (mix of concessional public capital with private market-rate return) are necessary to implement large-scale retrofit initiatives. These are especially needed in small and medium cities that often lack internal capacity.

Finally, we also need to build stronger city networks and greater collaboration amongst existing city networks. Networks like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, C40 Cities, Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners, LC3, Climate Caucus and others require stronger co-coordination amongst each other. They need to be better resourced to mobilize and equip more cities for stronger climate action.

Overlooking the city

Addressing the needs for cities in the fight against climate change will not be an easy task, but it should become a top priority for all governments to consider. If Canada is to meet its Paris agreement targets, it’s critical that we enable Canadian cities to lead the transition to a low carbon and climate-resilient economy. While ambitious federal and provincial climate policy is critical for meeting our targets, so too is municipal climate action. It’s time for cities to lead.