As climate change becomes increasingly noticeable and expensive to deal with, we need to seriously engage with the solutions put forward by the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. While ambitious climate and sustainability goals were already set in 2015 by the Paris Agreement and the United Nations, time is running out to implement these targets into local action. Local action is rooted in cities, where the majority of people live. Cities are responsible for 67 to 72% of global emissions (2020) and their environmental footprint generally exceeds their ecological capacity. Buildings alone are responsible for about 40% of global energy utilization, almost 35% of total GHG emissions and 40% of global resource usage. In Canada, fossil fuel extraction dominates its carbon emissions, followed by transport and the building sector.
“Canada’s climate targets, policies and finance systems are still considered “Highly Insufficient”.”
Canada, like many other countries, has a 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan with a roadmap for the Canadian economy to reduce 40 to 45% of its emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. We also have the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, in effect since 2021, that helps chart a path forward for us to become net-zero by 2050. However, Canada’s climate targets, policies and finance systems are still considered “Highly Insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker, indicating that even if they were fully implemented, Canada’s current policies would still be insufficient. Between 1990 and 2020, Canada’s GHG emissions even increased by 13.1%. There is a long way to go, and cities are the places where change can happen.
In Canada, 81.65% of people live in cities (2021). To become net-zero emitters, bold changes are needed in the way we construct, move people and goods, and deal with materials and waste. Many cities are at the forefront of collective action and policy innovation to tackle the climate emergency, which lends to their climate leadership. Cities have become the world’s climate laboratories and leaders in governance by experiment. They are large enough to test new socio-technical and governance solutions, and small enough to discard failed pilots without excessive cost.
As the level of government closest to citizens, municipal governments are also catalysts for engaging communities in co-creating solutions aligned with net-zero targets. Cities are driving efforts to advance a Just Transition and respond to people’s needs. Initiatives that tackle energy poverty or air pollution in low-income neighbourhoods exemplify the strong local dimension of climate and environmental justice.
Currently, transnational city platforms and networks such as C40 Cities, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Energy and Climate provide the main support frameworks for local governments to formulate and implement climate goals. However, as informal multilateral organizations, their capacity and influence only go so far. The need for a more formalized role for cities in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 is evident in initiatives such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change-backed Cities Race to Zero campaign. Launched in the run-up to COP26, the campaign mobilizes city governments to rally behind the Paris Agreement and leverage their capacity to drive on-the-ground transformation. Another example is the European Union’s (EU) Mission for Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities, which supports over 100 European cities in becoming net-zero by 2030, making them leaders in the EU’s sustainable growth strategy: the European Green Deal.
“Boosting local solutions requires additional financing, administrative capacity, research and stronger collaborations across different scales of government.”
However, the gap between local climate ambition and the delivery of urban climate plans and mitigation targets remains large. Local authorities are active in key areas such as renewable energy infrastructure, the energy efficiency of buildings, public and shared transport systems and digitization. Nonetheless, boosting local solutions requires additional financing, administrative capacity, research and stronger collaborations across different scales of government – from local to national, regional and global – to jointly work towards broader systemic change. Local public funds often fall far short of the capital needed to implement net-zero solutions in cities, with the urban climate financing gap estimated to be in the trillions of dollars. Additional resources can come from increased direct revenue sharing with regional or national governments, such as income and sales taxes, sharing of carbon pricing revenues, increased intergovernmental transfers or new local government revenue streams, such as congestion charges.
To fully unlock the capacity of cities to reach net-zero by 2050, significant barriers must be overcome. Cities require more governance and technical and financial support from provincial and national governments. Legal reforms and pioneering legislation are emerging as an area where multilevel government cooperation is needed. These collaborations will help cities implement innovative urban climate policies such as ultra-low emission zones and zero-carbon building standards or to make city climate action plans as binding as possible.
What Must Canada do Now to Lead in this Space?
Significant green infrastructure investments are needed for decarbonization. Major Canadian legacy projects are needed to expand renewable energy generation, transmission and storage. We need to invest in public transit and affordable and energy-efficient housing through a large-scale retrofit program. This will create local jobs and keep the 34 billion dollars Canada spends annually on liquid fossil fuel imports in the country.
“In a 15-minute city concept, amenities are so close to home that car use becomes unnecessary.”
In the transport sector, a radical shift to public transit is required to help reduce the dependency on single-car driving. This includes a substantial expansion of railway networks with fast intercity trains displacing short-distance airplanes, but also better regional rail services. Within cities, trams, metro lines and electrified or hydrogen buses should be the first choice for sustainable mobility. City designs with density in mind are needed to facilitate active mobility such as walking, biking and other micro-mobility options. In a 15-minute city concept, amenities are so close to home that car use becomes unnecessary. Such a radical shift from today’s car dominance means we must aim for 65 to 80% active or public transportation.
Ultra-low-emission zones, removing parking space quotas for new buildings, comprehensive car-sharing services and innovative concepts for the logistics of last-mile distribution can make this possible without significant loss of convenience. The transition can be supported by experimentation with more futuristic concepts such as autonomous and modular shuttle buses, which offer comfort and provide flexible capacity through the docking of multiple units based on demand. Such modular, demand-driven transit systems are even more important for lower-density cities, where fixed transit lines cannot be operated economically. Low-density communities are increasingly striving to provide access to amenities without jeopardizing low-carbon ambitions.
With only a few decades to go to become completely carbon-neutral, it is surprising that we only see very few pilot eco-districts in Canada that show how zero-carbon can be done in practice. Carbon-neutral eco-districts are often not built today because of higher initial investments that only pay off after 10 or more years. At that point, private developers that drive the real estate market will often have left the project and will not profit from the owners’ or tenants’ energy cost savings.
Higher ecological standards need to be incentivized, for example, by allowing developers to build with higher density or obtain building permits faster. The Montréal Climate Partnership, a new initiative led by Concordia’s Next Generation Cities Institute, was founded to create a project accelerator for sustainable building projects that joins relevant stakeholders from the city with the finance, real estate, research and energy sectors as well as consultants. Many more such local actions and structures will be needed to increase the speed of implementation.
“If a significant part of the population moves to the countryside, as seen during the pandemic, our urban sprawl would put even more pressure on current biodiversity.”
Building cooperatives that stand for a long tradition of shared responsibility and community-oriented living could be a driver of change in the built environment. Key to all these concepts is ownership of the ground by the municipality, which can set rules beyond national building codes and vary sales prices depending on the ecological and social concepts and type of stakeholders of each building project has. Density is the key to more sustainable neighbourhoods that have a high quality of living. If a significant part of the population moves to the countryside, as seen during the pandemic, our urban sprawl would put even more pressure on current biodiversity, which is already highly stressed due to our way of living and producing food, goods and consumables.
Last but not least, a healthy, inclusive and equitable environment is essential for a true next-generation city. Measures for this include but are not limited to:
- Public spaces to meet and socialize
- Equitable and mixed-use neighbourhoods
- Access to green spaces with biodiversity and urban agriculture
- Rainwater management to prevent flooding
- Grey water re-use
- Circular economy concepts
These are all essential components of a city that has its citizens at the center of its priorities. Living in such neighbourhoods could be the new urban dream and a driver for the much-needed sustainability transformation.
The part of this text on the international strategies for cities was developed jointly with co-authors Hannah Abdullah, Karim Elgendy, Roxana dela Fiamor, Namita Kambli and Adeline Rochet in a position paper for the 2022 G20 Summit on Empowering Cities in the Race to a Just Net-Zero Transition, Task Force 3.