Cities are pushing climate change policy despite limited tools and skeptical businesses
Edmonton is home to multiple oil refineries, natural gas processing plants, industrial fabrication yards and an ambitious, if improbable, goal: to be carbon neutral by 2050.
“We know the carbon neutral goal is a stretch goal, but our council has endorsed that goal as part of our energy transition strategy,” Mayor Don Iveson said in an interview, though he admits city administration doesn’t yet know all the steps that will allow it to eventually meet its goal to reduce emissions.
Nevertheless, Edmonton remains ambitious and in March will welcome mayors from around the world who have similar aspirations when it hosts the first ever Cities and Climate Change Science Conference, organized with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Climate change has so far been the domain of higher levels of government, but cities are becoming increasingly active on the file by implementing their own bylaws, setting their own targets and joining global initiatives.
But that increasingly active role has also led to conflicts with utility companies and consumer groups, which say many of the policies being implemented will increase costs for residents and make housing less affordable. It has also led to conflicts with higher levels of government, threatening repeals on jurisdictional grounds.
Still, an increasing number of cities in Canada and elsewhere are making climate change commitments, in some cases regardless of what their national governments have committed to. For example, after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his country’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, multiple big city mayors in the U.S. announced they would stay in.
“With half of the world’s population living in cities, and urbanization trends that show three quarters of human beings living in cities by 2050 … there’s no way we’re going to get this (emissions reduction) work done without understanding how the science applies in cities.” Iveson said.
One of the leaders of this municipal drive is David Miller, Toronto’s mayor between 2003 and 2010 and now the North American director for C40, an organization of cities larger than three million people that have pledged to do their part to meet Paris commitments to hold global warming to 1.5 C.
“City governments are at the direct point of contact between policy and action,” he said.
Miller, who will be the master of ceremonies at the IPCC conference in Edmonton, said the mayors attending the event could collectively sign a joint declaration on climate change akin to what federal governments did in Paris two years ago.
Despite that, Miller said cities still have the ability to curb total emissions based on their influence over their transportation networks, electricity mix, building codes and waste management.
Iveson said Edmonton has ordered its first 40 electric buses and plans further public transportation infrastructure to curb emissions. He said the city is also working on plans to improve waste management and reduce emissions for landfills.
Some cities also own electricity generation utilities, such as Calgary’s Enmax Corp. and Toronto’s HydroOne Ltd., and, therefore, are in a position to influence what type of electricity generation is used to power their infrastructure. For example, Calgary’s light-rail transit network is underpinned by a power purchase agreement from wind farms.
Karen Tam Wu, B.C. director for Pembina Institute, a Toronto-based think tank, said roughly half the carbon emissions in Canadian cities is generated by transportation — cars, trucks and buses burning gasoline and diesel — and another half comes from buildings.
In Vancouver, she said, emissions from buildings account for roughly 56 per cent of the city’s emissions, while transportation accounts for roughly 41 per cent and landfills account for four per cent.
Vancouver last year pledged — alongside London, Paris and Los Angeles — to become a “zero carbon city,” making it one of the most ambitious cities in trying to implement emissions reducing policies and offering a preview of what might work in other cities.
Stewart Muir, executive director at Resource Works, a Vancouver-based natural resources advocacy group, said the city’s goal of generating all its power from renewable sources is admirable, but not feasible.
“It’s more about hype than it is about good public policy to address a challenge that we all acknowledge exists, which is climate change,” he said.
Vancouver, as a result of B.C. statute, is also one of the only big cities in Canada that can control its building codes. Last year, it implemented rules that restrict the use of natural gas furnaces, fireplaces, hot-water heaters and stoves in new buildings.
Power utility FortisBC Inc. blasted the changes, saying they would increase utility costs by 30 per cent.
“We know that our customers want natural gas,” company spokesperson Jason Wolfe said of the change, adding FortisBC has since come to an understanding with the city whereby it will look to source methane emitted from a landfill in Delta, B.C., as biofuel to reduce emissions there and across the city.
Wolfe said the company is not anticipating an overall loss of market share in Vancouver as a result of the change, because the province is also committed to using more natural gas as fuel in its ferries as well as in heavy-haul trucks and garbage trucks since gas burns cleaner than diesel.
But other groups were also upset with the changes, including restaurant owners and chefs who said gas is necessary for cooking.
Muir at Resource Works said Vancouver’s administration did not conduct a proper cost-benefit analysis of how changing the building codes would affect affordability in the city.
“They simply rammed this policy through on the basis of what people have called their green virtue,” he said.
“It’s the consumer, ultimately, who will pay for all of these follies. That’s what we’re hearing from the builders, who say it adds to the cost of a new home.”
Muir said cities should continue to implement climate change policies, “because consumers live within municipal boundaries,” but the impacts of those decisions need to be properly studied, including at a higher level.
The B.C. Liberal party had threatened to revoke the building code changes, but was ousted from government before it could do so by the NDP and Green Party in elections last year.
Former Toronto mayor Miller said there is a potential for cities to fight with higher levels of government over planned emissions reduction measures, but noted that all provinces have implemented their own environmental plans, which should work with, rather than against, city plans.
“In a country where you have a carbon tax, or cap and trade, in most provinces, the initiatives of cities are going to be consistent with that kind of policy,” he said.
In Edmonton, Iveson said there will be costs associated with his city’s plans to reduce emissions, but said some of the higher capital costs, such as for electric buses (for which the city did establish a business case), will be offset by lower operating and energy costs over time.
“There are other costs of not dealing with a changing climate. We are looking at minimum $2-billion worth of investment to upgrade our drainage system,” he said, adding the upgrades were necessary because more frequent major storms had strained the city’s sewer infrastructure.
At this point, Iveson said, the city’s goal of being carbon neutral by 2050 is aspirational.
For one thing, city staff and council don’t yet know all the policies and technologies that will have to be implemented in order for the city to meet its goal, but he’s hopeful the Cities and Climate Change Science Conference will help identify some of them.
“We’re not meeting all of our goals and we’re transparent about that,” he said.
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