ANALYSIS: How Can Municipalities Mitigate Climate Change?

When discussing strategies to mitigate climate change, responsibility tends to fall entirely on provincial and federal governments. Municipalities are often excluded from the conversation, which is unfortunate, as they play an important role in developing environmental public policy.  All levels of government must be included in climate mitigation discussions if Canada is to reach the aggressive, time-sensitive emission reduction goals needed to maintain a healthy climate. Discussing the policy tools available to municipalities will help Canadians identify the importance of local government. In doing so, Canada’s democracy can be strengthened through the mobilization of voters in municipal elections, which will be necessary to facilitate rapid change.

Under the Canadian constitution, municipalities bear no direct power. Instead, they rely on lobbying efforts directed towards their provincial government. Cities are given autonomy to create bylaws; however, provincial legislation can overrule them. This is not to say municipalities are powerless though. Typically, provinces leave local affairs to municipal governments, meaning clashes seldom occur. Even though power exists within the municipal government, it is often overlooked on headline-grabbing issues, such as climate change. The scale of this issue in particular has likely contributed to the disconnect of what voters think municipalities can do, and reality. The notion of “thinking globally, acting locally” has merit to it, yet the inability of individuals to recognize the importance of being a part of a collective still poses a challenge. The frequent repetition of the message has also diminished the meaning, reducing it to little more than an eco-friendly platitude. Increasing awareness of municipal responsibilities related to environmental preservation is key to encouraging disillusioned voters, particularly young people, to participate in their local democracy.

One of the most effective ways municipalities have been able to reduce emissions is through the use of stringent energy efficiency standards. Updating building codes to require new residential, commercial, and industrial units to use less energy is critical towards reducing a city’s carbon footprint. These policies should also be introduced alongside retrofit incentive programs, allowing for older, more wasteful buildings to reduce their energy usage. Energy efficiency standards are a particularly easy policy to implement, as they offer significant social, economic, and environmental benefits. They help mitigate climate change as well as reduce energy bills for residents and businesses.

Municipalities also have a great deal of control in planning their land usage. Under Ontario’s Planning Act, cities are responsible for submitting land use planning regulations to the province for approval. Regulating how land within municipal boundaries is used provides a myriad of options for local politicians to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. Urban sprawl has spread like a plague throughout much of North America, and as a result, carbon sequestration is far lower than is necessary. This unregulated, poorly planned growth has led to the culling of much of the world’s forests. The protection and expansion of urban and suburban carbon sinks are well within the municipal mandate, and represent an extremely cost-effective mitigation strategy.

 For this reason, many countries, including China, Pakistan, Ireland, and Japan, have undergone massive reforestation campaigns. Weaving green space (both shielded from and welcomed to human activity) throughout cityscapes, and generally improving vegetation cover in urban settings can rapidly develop a municipality’s ability to weather the impacts of climate change. During floods and storms, vegetation helps prevent erosion and soaks up vast quantities of water. The “heat island effect” so often experienced in downtown areas in the summer can also be reduced through the greening of the city. This is especially important in the context of vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or homeless, which are particularly likely to suffer injury or death during heatwaves. The World Health Organization (WHO) also writes that “green spaces are important to mental health. Having access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in the treatment of mental illness. Moving forward, it is critical that municipalities plan the future of land use with both climate mitigation and adaptation in mind. Otherwise, the quality of life within city spaces is likely to deteriorate as the climate does.

Transportation is another policy area where municipalities have significant opportunity to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, the design of cities has been purposefully oriented to favour personal vehicles, rather than collectivized transit. Cities should be built with public transportation in mind as a critical source of mobility, to allow citizens to take advantage of more environmentally friendly transit options. Further investments (on behalf of the Province) combined with the reduction and eventual elimination of municipal transit fees will encourage growth in collectivized transit usage. Increasing the availability of bike lanes is also vital in promoting alternative transportation methods. Not only does biking promote active living and a low carbon lifestyle, but it’s also free! Currently, many cities have entire neighborhoods devoid of bike lanes. Asking individuals to bike without proper space is negligent on behalf of the municipality, and has led to countless preventable deaths. The introduction of no-car zones, which are usually oriented around physical marketplaces, should also be explored as a way of moving cities into the 21st century. These spaces increase local economic activity, improve air quality, and provide a temporary retreat from cognitive overload, often brought about by excessive noise pollution.

It’s more important now than ever before that millennial and generation Z voters understand the functions and tasks of local government. Mobilizing environmentally conscious voters is needed in all levels of Canada’s democracy if environmental degradation is to be reversed. Change starts from the bottom up, and municipal governments are uniquely positioned to be facilitators in the transition to a carbon-neutral economy.

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