It's the low-carbon economy, stupid

April 13, 2016

With an economy heavily dependent on fossil fuel extraction, Canada has struggled to find a credible path forward on climate change. Our emissions are among the highest in the world and are projected to increase without significant intervention.

There is a substantial gap between Canada’s current greenhouse gas reduction targets and what will be necessary to honour the commitments made in Paris.  The Paris Agreement calls for the de-carbonization of the world’s economy by mid-century.

Regional differences continue to make it challenging to agree upon a national climate change strategy.  However, if there is one thing that all orders of government should be able to agree upon it is a shared desire for all Canadians to live in resilient, sustainable and prosperous communities.

Local governments influence over 60 percent of Canada’s energy consumption and 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. That means their participation in combating climate change will be essential for Canada to meet its climate change commitments.

There are several emerging trends that serve to underpin the crucial role of local governments in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The first is energy is going local.  Local and community-based solutions to meeting our energy needs are transforming our energy system and this is triggering a new role for local governments and communities in energy decision-making.

Climate change policy is going mainstream and it being integrated into land use planning legislation across the country including Ontario.  Changes to land use planning will determine our success in reducing emissions in two sectors – transportation and buildings. In cities, a more compact urban forms support low carbon solutions for heating and cooling buildings as well as transportation.

Local governments are responsible for land-use planning and make decisions on 60 percent of Canada’s infrastructure. Infrastructure is a significant driver of greenhouse gas emissions. Every capital budget that a local government approves has the potential to hurt or help the cause – it either supports the transition to a low-carbon economy or it locks-in emission profiles, lifestyles and consumption patterns for decades to come.

More people than ever live in cities.  By mid-century more than two-thirds of people on the planet will live in urban centres. Canada is already an urban nation.  More than 8 out of 10 Canadians already live in urban centres.  Getting cities right will not only determine the fate of the planet, it will also decide our quality of life.  The co-benefits of transitioning to a low-carbon economy are strongly tied to our wellbeing.

Quality of life matters in a competitive global economy.  Modern transportation and communications are removing geographic barriers so people are freer to choose where they live and invest.  Smart cities know this.

In addition to these trends, there are also several unique features that only local governments can bring to the national climate change conversation. While federal, provincial and territorial governments might have a lot of data on communities – which they need to share –they lack context.  Local governments have a much deeper understanding of their own communities. Communities also know their own story and those stories need a voice to ensure a just and equitable transition to a low-carbon economy. Local governments can tap into rich and diverse networks of people, businesses and organizations to mobilize remarkable action. And local decisions are regionally-relevant. They take advantage of regional strengths and assets.  Rather than viewing our country’s regional energy differences as a liability, enabling our communities to act can turn our regional energy diversity into a strength.

Better living with less carbon starts in our communities.