Toronto city skyline at night, Ontario, Canada Toronto city skyline at night, Ontario, Canada
David Miller Why Cities Should Lead Climate Planning in Canada
David Miller
Managing Director - C40 Centre for City Climate Policy and Economy

Why Cities Should Lead Climate Action Planning in Canada

Published on

Canada needs the leadership of cities – particularly in climate action planning.

Canada is not on a path to achieve the Federal Government’s climate ambitions – which have been justly criticized as insufficient.  Globally, leading cities are demonstrating that urban climate action is effective and can reduce emissions today. Canadian cities too are combining strong ambition, based on science, with clear and bold action.

What does Canada need to do? First, we need to respect the science, which is clear and unequivocal. The world collectively needs to halve emissions by 2030 and get on a path to net-zero by 2050.  Canada’s share is at least halving – although given our historic emissions, most in the climate movement would argue strongly that our fair share is more.

Are we there?

No. Not only is Canada not on a path to halving emissions, but government and industry rarely, if ever, acknowledge the scientific reality of the necessity to halve emissions by 2030 on the path to net-zero by 2050, which is an essential goal if there is to be any hope of avoiding climate breakdown.

Challenges in Canada’s Climate Action Planning

The fossil fuel industry is particularly good at avoiding this discussion, despite profiting obscenely from the market disruptions caused by the illegal and immoral Russian invasion of Ukraine. British Petroleum’s astonishing (but not surprising) announcement last week that it had its highest profits ever and consequently was going to reduce its investments in renewable energy is just the latest example of the industry’s “full steam ahead approach”, betting that its political influence can win the day, despite understanding and accepting the science for decades, at least privately.

“Gas is about as dirty as coal because of the upstream methane leaks in the pipelines.”

We can see this in the approach to “natural” gas – which is a fossil fuel just like oil and coal.  Studies show – including this recent study by C40 Cities – that gas is about as dirty as coal because of the upstream methane leaks in the pipelines.  If we are going to half emissions by 2030, we need to rapidly reduce our use and development of gas, including liquefied natural gas (LNG). Yet, almost every week, we see promotion in the media of possible new gas and LNG projects, which alone would prevent Canada from reaching its climate targets. The phrase “when you are in a hole, stop digging” applies, quite literally.

Why are Cities Important?

In this context, it is a fair question to ask: why do cities matter? They matter because globally, most of the world’s population, most of the economic activity and most greenhouse gas emissions are within city regions. They also matter because of the strong leadership of mayors globally who are demonstrating climate action planning that effectively lowers emissions and makes cities more liveable, equitable and prosperous.

Cities have climate plans based on science, agreeing to their responsibility for a fair share of halving emissions by 2030 on a path to net-zero by 2050. More importantly, a significant number of cities around the world not only have plans but are implementing those plans in a way that has them on or close to their committed trajectory.  

These plans generally are structured around the fact that of the 70% of global emissions that can be attributed to cities, most are in four areas: transportation, waste, buildings and electricity generation. Of these, typically buildings and transport are the leading sectors – in a dense city like New York, buildings alone account for over 70% of emissions. Cities can use their direct authority to act. For example, the City of Los Angeles is cleaning its energy grid through their regulatory authority, purchasing power and the bully pulpit of the Mayor to make effective change.

The most ambitious and effective of these cities – like Oslo, Norway – have integrated their climate plans into a process called climate budgeting, in which all departments are required to assess every action against their climate impact and report it to the finance department. This serves as the preliminary step to budgeting carbon as the city does finance.  

“In the same way that a department cannot undertake a project without funding, a department cannot undertake a project without a carbon allocation.” 

By setting a cap on the city’s overall emissions within its operations such as purchasing and more, the city can then force departments to fight for allocations of existing carbon the same way they fight for funding in the annual budget process. In the same way that a department cannot undertake a project without funding, a department cannot undertake a project without a carbon allocation. 

C40 Cities presented this work at a Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference last week and is working to support Canadian cities that have shown interest in this idea to develop a made-in-Canada model for climate budgets. The goal is for this model to show Provincial and Federal governments, as well as businesses, how to act today to use their financial budgeting processes to reduce carbon emissions in line with what the science requires.

Canadian cities are an important part of this global movement.  What action are they taking?

Multiple Canadian cities have climate plans aligned with the science and are taking strong steps to implement them, including cities like Vancouver, Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton and Victoria.

Climate Action Planning: What Cities Can Do

1. Put a Stop to Urban Sprawl

Encouraging dense urban areas built around transit is an essential step in halting urban sprawl. The Federal leadership role since the Paul Martin administration agreed on a gas tax-sharing deal with cities in 2005 has been important in this regard. Numerous cities have taken advantage of this funding and cooperative Provincial governments have encouraged a more compact urban form built around transit, walking and cycling (recent actions by Ontario encouraging sprawl go the wrong way environmentally and socially).

These actions matter well beyond climate. Excellent rail-based transit has important co-benefits. For example, it encourages new development which in turn has an important economic impact, being a significant job creator. Studies consistently show better health outcomes because of cleaner air (in London, England, over 1 million hospital visits are being averted by 2050 through its Ultra Low Emission zone that tolls polluting vehicles).

“The Canadian government should keep funding transit through the gas tax and, in partnership with the provinces, find ways to provide more support to transit.”

What can Ottawa do? The Canadian government should keep funding transit through the gas tax and, in partnership with the provinces, find ways to provide more support to transit.  Canada’s cities need to ensure today that ridership comes back from post-Covid declines and an increase in remote work, amid concerns from some about health-related safety. The government can also use its environmental assessment powers, as it has threatened to do in Ontario, to fight sprawl and thereby encourage the kind of denser cities that succeed economically, socially and environmentally.

2. Clean up emissions from buildings

We can address emissions from buildings by retrofitting existing ones and address emissions from new buildings by building zero-emission buildings. Finally, we can address embodied emissions through suitable building codes. Canadian cities are leading the way in all these areas.

Some have recognized the risk of gas, for example, Montreal, whose Mayor Valérie Plante recently announced changes that will essentially eliminate new gas hookups in tall buildings between 2024 and 2025 – a policy which benefits the health of residents and the environment.

Vancouver is leading globally in reducing embodied and operational emissions through its Building Code (the “step code”) which essentially requires net-zero buildings by 2030 – a model for the entire country.

Toronto has historically led on retrofitting existing buildings, with a variety of programs ranging from the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) – a partnership to reduce gas consumption in commercial buildings through energy retrofits. Interestingly, the partnership includes the City, major building owners and Enbridge, a gas supplier that was incentivized some time ago to reduce gas consumption by the Ontario Energy Board. These efforts have proven to be economically effective and efficient, particularly in the institutional and commercial sectors where owners value reduced costs, even if the returns take time.

Significantly, Toronto has created a strong program to reduce emissions from residential tower blocks, particularly those built from concrete in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The program uses external cladding to add new insulation to buildings, paid for through energy savings. The Tower Renewal program is predicted by University of Toronto engineers to reduce Toronto’s greenhouse gas emissions by 5% – and the good news is that these buildings exist across Canada, generally having been financed originally through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CHMC) directly or indirectly.

Huge opportunities exist if these ideas and actions are supported in cities across Canada. Ottawa could, for example, adopt the provisions of the Vancouver building code into its long-delayed revised National Building Code. Provinces could create incentives for the reduction of gas use like those from Ontario that spurred the creation of the BBP 30 years ago. Ottawa could finance the revolving fund needed for the Tower Renewal program to succeed in cities across Canada by using the CHMC.

All these efforts create jobs, improve health outcomes and contribute to economic prosperity, which are all common benefits of climate action.  

3. Electrify Transport

In Canada, particularly in BC, Ontario and Quebec provinces that have very clean electricity grids –electrifying transport is a critical step and one that can be taken now.

We can start with public transport and other public fleets.  Electric buses have proven effective in cold climates and are cost-competitive with diesel and hybrid buses due to vastly lower maintenance costs. It is technically feasible for all new bus purchases to be electric – and they should be. This does not only apply to buses. Other vehicles in city fleets – like garbage packers – now have electric models, as do delivery vehicles like the ones used by Canada Post. We can support our bus, truck, van and car manufacturers and their suppliers with climate action planning to dramatically increase the speed at which these fleets are electrifying.

“Dense walkable cities built around a backbone of public transit allow for people to live without the significant expense of owning a car and must be the priority.”

What about private electric cars? While they are clearly better than gasoline-powered cars from a climate perspective, from a city-building perspective, dense walkable cities built around a backbone of public transit allow for people to live without the significant expense of owning a car and must be the priority.

Will City-Led Climate Action Planning Work?

There are plenty more opportunities in Canada’s cities than there is time to write here, but this article should give a flavour of what is possible. We know that city-based leadership works. For example, Toronto passed its first climate plan, “Change is in the Air” in 2007.  By 2017, the city’s greenhouse gas emissions as a geographic region were 33% below 1990 levels – a period coinciding with a booming local economy.  Although Toronto’s progress has slowed, it shows what is possible. There are numerous examples from around the world of city leadership lowering emissions, creating jobs, and improving people’s health. 

Given the slow progress of our national government in reaching its already weak climate targets, it is time for a focus on the leadership of Canada’s cities, propped up by the financial and policy support of Ottawa and the Provinces. Our ability to reach necessary climate goals, our international reputation and the health and prosperity of our country depend on it.

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David Miller Why Cities Should Lead Climate Planning in Canada
David Miller
Managing Director - C40 Centre for City Climate Policy and Economy

Bio: David Miller is the Managing Director at the C40 Centre for City Climate Policy and Economy. He formerly served as the Mayor of Toronto from 2003 to 2010, where he proposed and enacted several policies around climate action. He is the author of Solved, How the Great Cities of the World are fixing the Climate Crisis.

Organization Profile: The C40 Centre for City Climate Policy and Economy brings together mayors, researchers, city practitioners, leading economists and academics to develop an evidence-based approach and elevate the economic and political strategies needed to stop climate breakdown.