“Laboratories of democracy” - Why cities can and must lead on climate action

You’ve heard the expression, “Think globally, act locally.” But what does it really mean? 

If you live in a Canadian city, it means the fight against climate change could be taking place right in your own backyard. When it comes to climate action, cities can and must lead the way. 

Right now, hundreds of community-level efforts are underway to deliver climate action in line with scientific requirements for keeping our planet from catastrophic climate change. The headlines may focus on international meetings and Speeches from the Throne, but what happens in cities matters. We can’t build a greener Canada without learning how to build greener cities. In Canada, cities are directly or indirectly responsible for roughly half of climate emissions, and are where most Canadians live. This is where we make the daily decisions that consume energy and generate waste - from travel, to heating our homes, to planning our urban environments. 

With so many cities tackling the climate crisis at the same time, there is a massive opportunity for them to function as “laboratories of democracy.” This phrase, used by an early-20th century U.S. Supreme Court Justice to characterize American states, points to opportunities that come from policy experimentation at the local or quasi-local level. 

Cities make for great labs. Each faces the challenge of transporting its citizens, heating and cooling its built environment, and developing infrastructure to respond to the complex needs of its citizenry. And each must find ways to do this while addressing the global climate crisis. The good news is, the lab approach allows cities to adopt what works elsewhere, before adding their own unique twist.   

Take the examples of Toronto and Ottawa. Toronto was an early adopter of comprehensive climate modelling, with the aim of outlining the actions needed to drastically reduce emissions by mid-century. Toronto’s goal - an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2012 levels by 2050 - was in line with provincial goals in place when Toronto’s targets were adopted. 

So far so good, but the climate file moves quickly. In 2015, with the signing of the international Paris Agreement, the world saw new language about stopping emissions “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” with a global goal of 1.5 degrees. Just a few years later, the United Nations warned that humanity had 12 years left to keep to the 1.5 degree limit and avoid climate catastrophe.

Back at the city level, people took to the streets. In 2019, declarations of climate emergency were declared in cities all over the world, including nearly 500 in Canada. 

In Ottawa, that declaration was attached to a review of climate targets. Following the new language and 1.5 degree target being touted by the international community, Ottawa one-upped Toronto’s target by aiming for net zero emissions by 2050. (Toronto followed suit just a few months later, after its own climate emergency declaration.) Learning from Toronto’s experience, Ottawa also adopted a similar modelling methodology to determine the many actions needed to hit that target. 

Ottawa’s analysis was finished this fall, and contains a new element that other cities can adopt or adapt. That is, a financial analysis that spells out the costs of action, and the billions of dollars of savings that will come from ambitious upfront investments as Ottawans save on more efficient buildings and electric cars. It makes a solid fiscal case for climate action - an important feature that may hasten uptake from cash-strapped city councils. 

This is especially remarkable when we consider where Ottawa was on the climate file only a few short years ago. As recently as 2014, Ottawa had no credible plan to speak of, minimal climate staffing and an aimless council. Now, we have unanimous agreement on the need for an ambitious plan. The challenge remains in the doing - securing the necessary funding, initiating keystone projects, and rigorously tracking and reporting on progress towards our climate goals. 

The fight against climate change is certainly a global one - no one city, province, state, country or region can do it on their own. But local action matters, and cities provide an exceptional opportunity to act as climate-focused laboratories of democracy. What we learn from one another can strengthen the broader urban community, and can kickstart profound changes that help address the generational climate challenge. 

A blog from the Urban Climate Alliance. The Urban Climate Alliance is a network of four Ontario-based municipal environmental organizations working to take climate action at the city level. Members include Ecology Ottawa, Environment Hamilton, the Citizens Environment Alliance and Toronto Environmental Alliance.


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