Culture important to achieving low carbon communities

May 4, 2017


When legislation and good intentions meet culture, unintended consequences can occur.  As the saying goes, culture eats strategy for breakfast.  I would add: it snacks on legislation for lunch.


The province requires all Ontario municipalities to report annually on their corporate energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.  They must also approve a corporate energy management plan.  The public has access to this data and the plans.  All in all, this is great public policy.

Good intentions:

Municipalities are complying with this new regulation.  There might be some hold-outs or uninspired efforts.  However, some municipalities are setting transformational targets for their corporate energy management plans. This might be expressed in a goal to become net zero or carbon neutral.  Or they might be aligning their targets with those of the province. This is municipal leadership at its best.  Bravo!  The planet doesn’t have a minute to spare.


However, there is a risk and it is a consequence of culture.  For most of their existence, Ontario’s municipal governments have served as a vehicle to deliver provincial services.  Decades of “quasi-subordination” have entrenched a culture of compliance within many municipal governments. This history did not encourage municipal governments to think about developing their own policies or decisions. And despite the modernization of Ontario’s municipal legislation in the early 2000s to embrace a more permissive framework, old habits die hard.

Unintended consequences:

A credible corporate energy management plan, with cost effective recommendations to meet breakthrough targets for greenhouse gas emissions, can only be developed within the context of a wider community energy plan that has set similar transformational targets.  However, few municipalities have done this because their central role in community energy planning remains poorly understood in Ontario.

Path forward:

I have always appreciated the work of David Siegel.  It is helpful in understanding the status of community energy planning in Ontario. A few years after the new Municipal Act of 2001, he suggested that the decision in front of Ontario’s municipal governments was a choice between “comfortable subordination” and “assertive maturity”.  “Comfortable subordination” suggests that municipalities exist only to deliver the services they are told to and keep taxes as low as possible, with no role in policy-making or intergovernmental relations. “Assertive maturity” suggests that municipalities have a broader role in delivering value, setting priorities and ensuring they provide the services residents want in an effective way.  However, culture can get in the way of making this choice.

Over fifty percent of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions are under the direct or indirect control of municipal governments.  Land use is the most important determinant of a community’s greenhouse gas emissions and land use planning is a significant municipal responsibility.  For no other reasons, municipal governments will need to take a leadership role in addressing climate change.  But “comfortable subordination” won’t get us there.

Municipal operations do not exist in isolation but are part of the fabric of the community. Only though an integrated, community-based approach can the best opportunities to optimize where and how we use energy be identified.  Otherwise, we risk making some costly mistakes along the way.  Worse, good intentions might end up reinforcing the crushing narrative that climate change is too costly to address.  As with all wicked problems, we will need new models for cooperation between municipal governments and their communities to meet the future energy needs of a local carbon community.

This lingering culture of “comfortable subordination” is perhaps the biggest barrier to achieving low carbon communities – not   technology or strategy or even legislation.