The Role of Municipal Government in Fighting Climate Change

Discussions of climate change mitigation strategies are often centered around provincial and federal initiatives. Municipalities are often excluded from the conversation altogether, which is unfortunate, as they play an important role in developing environmental public policy. If Canada is to achieve the aggressive, time-sensitive emission reductions needed to maintain a healthy biosphere, all levels of government must be included in strategizing decarbonization processes. Discussing the policy tools available to municipalities is also important as it 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.

Toronto City Hall: Photo by Filip Mroz

Under the Canadian constitution, municipalities bear no direct power. Instead, they are given autonomy by the province to create bylaws, though provincial legislation can overrule them. Typically, provinces leave local affairs to municipal governments, meaning the ‘traditional’ jurisdiction of municipalities is generally respected and clashes seldom occur. Even though provinces grant a host of powers to municipal governments, their impact 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 “act locally” line has also diminished its 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 democratic process.

One of the most effective ways municipalities are able to reduce emissions is through the use of energy efficiency standards. Updating building codes to require new residential, commercial, and industrial units to use less energy is a critical step towards reducing a city’s carbon footprint. These policies should also be introduced alongside retrofit incentive programs, which allow for older, more wasteful buildings to reduce their electricity consumption. Policies promoting energy efficiency are quite palpable, politically speaking, as they offer savings on electricity bills, in addition to decreasing negative environmental externalities.

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 climate 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 the biodiversity and density of vegetation cover in urban settings can help a municipality reduce the threat of climate change significantly. During floods and storms, vegetation helps prevent erosion and soaks up vast quantities of water. The “heat island effect” experienced in city cores throughout the summer can also be reduced through vegetation cover — this has the potential to save lives, especially as heat waves become more prevalent and Canada’s population ages. The World Health Organization (WHO) writes that “green spaces are [also] important to mental health, as they aid in the treatment of mental illness, reduce health inequalities, and improve well-being and longevity. Moving forward, it is critical that municipal planners consider how social, economic, and environmental factors interact with each other in urban environments.

Transportation is another policy field where municipalities have an opportunity to reduce emissions. Unfortunately, cities have been designed to favour personal vehicle transportation, rather than public transportation, which represents a more equitable and environmentally friendly alternative. Further investments into transit combined with the reduction and eventual elimination of transit fees will encourage growth in collectivized transit usage. It is imperative that public transit is not used to balance the books of a municipal budget, as transit fees are disproportionately collected by low-income individuals. The funding for these projects therefore, will have to come from both municipalities and the provincial or federal government. There is simply not enough in municipal coffers to cover the necessary costs.

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, which is negligent on behalf of municipalities, 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 climate change is to be successfully combatted. 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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