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Imagine life in a low-carbon community. The streets are crowded with buses and cyclists, and skyscrapers and condominiums tower above the sidewalks. Office spaces are close together, your apartment is only a few blocks away, and your morning commute is surprisingly bearable.
If it sounds like the city you already live in, that's because it is.
But look more closely at this futuristic community — the buildings around you are powering themselves. The condo roofs are plated with solar panels and the gas station around the corner is pumping out biofuel. Heat from the sewer system beneath your feet is being used to warm up offices and homes, both of which are close together to encourage your commute on foot.
Such a world is possible, but provincial and federal governments must first put their trust in municipalities, according to a Vancouver-based think tank with a mission to foster sustainable communities.
Huge climate action potential in cities and towns
"The truth of it is that Canada cannot meet its climate change obligations without cities and communities," said Charley Beresford, executive director of the Columbia Institute and co-author of its new report, Top Asks for Climate Action — Ramping Up Low Carbon Communities.
"I think it’s more about developing a respect for the role that cities and communities play. I think cities as a solution doesn’t seem to be in that top line debate [on climate change], and they should be because there is so much hope there."
As of late, much climate change discussion in Canada has focused on oilsands expansion and the creation of a national climate plan anticipated in October this year. But cities and communities directly or indirectly influence 50 per cent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions, said Beresford, a substantial contribution that can no longer be sidelined.
Her institute's report, released Thursday, analyzes what federal and provincial governments could do to empower municipalities to deliver climate change solutions. It recommends a few key funding and policy options to deliver on capacity-building, smart growth, harnessing local energy, and reducing carbon pollution from transportation and buildings.
"There are lots of communities that have tools at hand, but they need some additional program and policy support from the other two orders of government to maximize that," she told National Observer. "Many of them are already taking action that could be greatly amplified with particular federal and provincial supports.”
And after a nearly a decade of frosty relationships with the Harper government, cash-strapped municipalities are desperate to get more involved. Since the Trudeau government took over in late 2015, municipalities have already played a much larger role in climate change discussion and had a delegation present at the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris.
Lean more on municipalities, say councillors
The reality is, said Toronto City Coun. Michael Layton, that most constituents interact more with municipal governments than their provincial and federal counterparts. Municipalities deliver their services, license their businesses, get them to work and back on the bus, zone their land, and maintain their green spaces.
Cumulatively, these operations not only have an enormous impact on the environment, he explained, but also put cities in the best position to determine where clean energy dollars can best be spent.
"Everyone wants to talk about the big steps, but municipalities are actually the ones who will have to deliver them on the ground in 10 little steps," said Layton. "Provincial and federal governments may need to give guidance — they certainly will need to give resources — and they may need to give regulatory authority to municipalities or set standards for municipalities for us to meet, but they need to include municipalities in the discussion."
Changing the national building code to ensure that new homes and buildings are ready to integrate renewable energy sources such as solar panels into their design is one example proposed in the report. Offering incentives for retrofitting old buildings and putting a firm price on carbon pollution are other proposals that would reduce energy consumption from households.
But one of the 'top asks' of the report is for provincial and federal governments to change laws to ensure a range of climate-friendly outcomes. These could ensure that climate and energy policies are integrated into all land-use planning, or that transit and active transportation infrastructure projects are favoured over auto-only infrastructure. Another suggestion would be to fund community and Indigenous-owned renewable energy capacity.
Such changes are long overdue, argued Vancouver City Coun. Andrea Reimer, as industrialization has brought cities to the point where "fossil fuels are literally killing us."
Climate action and local economies
"That is really the whole point of the federation," she explained. "We all rise or fall together. That’s the way Canada is constructed.”
Empowering municipalities is about reducing emissions and vulnerability to extreme weather impacts, she added, but it's also about strengthening local economies by locally-sourcing these transitions and improving overall quality of life. These changes — though they may change little about cities visually — will have a massive impact on air quality, personal health, and revenue.
“We might not have been able to make transformative change [so far] except in the bigger cities like Vancouver, but suddenly there's this opportunity to supercharge that and have the licenses and pilot programs from Vancouver really expand across the entire country.”
More than 180 communities in Canada (representing 50 per cent of the population) already have innovative Community Energy Plans, the report found, but with municipalities collecting less than 15 cents of every taxpayer dollar, most lack the resources to take them to the next level. Both Reimer and Layton were one of more than 100 locally elected officials, stakeholders, and community members who participated in the report's research, and even large cities like Vancouver and Toronto are struggling.
"We're fighting for every dollar that comes in," said Layton. "We’re also at the mercy at the other two levels of government which fund us to a variety of degrees with gas tax and transfers through the province, but when they start retracting, the level of service people expect is the same."
Both councillors endorsed the recommendations in the institute's report, including one that the federal government re-allocate roughly $2 billion it spends on fossil fuel subsidies to low-carbon initiatives at the community level. The document will be sent to federal and provincial leaders, as well local leaders who can use it to shape their own proposals.