Cities muscle up

Action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and to tackle climate change can be organised more rapidly and have greater impact when it’s taken at the local level.  Communities are urging their elected officials on municipal councils to introduce and implement measures to transition to renewable sources of energy, curb emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce waste, and  improve energy efficiency in buildings.

The latest reports from the United Nations released in 2018 have confirmed that the world is still on course for catastrophic climate change caused by the continuing emissions of greenhouse gases.  Already this year, several international agencies have confirmed that average global temperatures in 2018 were the fourth highest ever recorded. The years from 2014 to 2018 rank as the warmest 5 years on record, and 9 of the 10 warmest years in the last century have occurred since 2005. 

Although over 190 governments committed to reducing their emissions in order to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, last year’s Emissions Gap Report clearly shows that these commitments are inadequate. It’s anyone’s guess where global temperatures will be at the end of the century: probably at least 3°C higher, but even 6°C higher is within the realm of possibility.

It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that more people, especially younger people, are taking more direct and confrontational action. A group called Extinction Rebellion in the UK has disrupted London’s parliament and draped dramatic messages on bridges across the Thames; school children in Europe have taken to going on strike; and protests against pipelines are growing in intensity across the US and Canada. Getting arrested for protesting against what many people believe is an existential threat is increasingly seen as a legitimate and moral course of action.      

The frustration with the lack of action by national governments in Canada, the USA and Europe is striking. But is there another way that communities can take action and see results in real time, instead of just endlessly listening to the repeated promises of their national governments?

Non-state actors

In the global movement to lessen the destructive impacts of climate change, what are called non-state actors include cities, states and regions, and companies. In 2017, over 7300 cities in 133 countries had pledged to take action to tackle climate change. Many of the largest cities have joined the C40 movement: Cities for Climate Leadership. Smaller cities and towns, over 9000 of them representing 780 million people, have signed up to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. This movement includes the European Compact of Mayors, which counts almost 8000 signatories representing over 250 million people.   

In Canada, over 350 municipalities have signed up to the Partners for Climate Protection (PCP) program run by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.  Across the USA, over 50 cities have adopted 100 percent clean energy goals.  Five cities have already met this target: Aspen, Burlington, Greensburg, Rock Port and Kodiak Island. Other US cities have made commitments to cut carbon emissions through the Compact of Mayors and We Are Still In. Universities and schools are powering up on solar energy. This year, the University of Hawaii, Maui College, will be one of the first campuses in the US to generate all of its energy from on-site photovoltaic electricity coupled with battery storage.  The entire university network will be 100 % renewable by 2035, and the state has committed to be 100% powered by renewable energy by 2045. The US Sierra Club has pioneered Mayors for 100% Clean Energy, and nearly 200 mayors have committed to this target. Over in Europe, Copenhagen has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2025, and several European cities have pledged to ban all gasoline and diesel vehicles from their city centres. 

There is a groundswell of community action against climate change that works through people’s representatives in local government. Elected officials at national level, particularly in the US, simply can’t be trusted: regulatory capture is rampant particularly under the Trump administration.  So it’s at the municipal level where communities can exert real pressure to develop and implement policies that result in a measurable reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases.

These reductions can be substantial. Cities are responsible for more than 70% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and 65% of energy demand. When cities and towns fully transition to renewable sources of energy, improve energy efficiency, and phase out natural gas, the aggregate reduction in emissions makes a measurable impact at the national level and a significant contribution to meeting targets committed to under the Paris Agreement.

Even small towns can take action. With a population of only about 7000, the District of Digby in Nova Scotia, Canada, is a leader in renewable energy production and energy efficiency improvements. The town has replaced electric heating with geothermal heating in their administrative building, installed an 800 kW wind turbine and a 350 kW generator powered by waste gas from sewage, converted street lighting to LED lights, and installed three electric vehicle charging stations. Greenhouse gas emissions were cut by 3000 tonnes a year. Digby shows what can be accomplished when the town council and the mayor are solidly behind the community in transitioning to renewable sources of energy and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. 

Cites are where climate change action is going to be played out. A recent article from the World Resources Institute (WRI) noted that 75% of urban infrastructure that will exist by mid-century has not yet been built.  There is therefore a huge opportunity to design and build more efficient and less wasteful cities that will emit much lower levels of carbon gases, while being healthier, less stressful, and more productive urban environments.  The WRI article noted that every dollar that cities invested in low carbon technologies would yield roughly $17 in net present value through 2050 just from direct energy savings alone. And this doesn’t count the value of the health benefits of clean air and the jobs generated by energy efficiency retrofits and renewable energy technologies.

Action not words

The WRI article argues that cities need to focus on three things:

Optimize: Make urban energy use more efficient across all sectors—particularly in buildings and transportation;

Electrify: Switch from fossil fuels to electricity for motorized transportation and buildings;

Decarbonize: Cities should incentivise a transition to clean, zero-carbon technologies for producing electricity, both distributed sources such as rooftop solar (with energy storage), and utility-scale power generation systems like wind farms.

But what do we do when municipal councils and local governments don’t seem to understand the urgency of action on climate change, and are locked into a business-as-usual mentality that discounts the importance of taking into consideration the measures outlined above?  This is when communities need to organise and to challenge their elected city councillors. There are signs that this is slowly happening. Many people believe that only national governments can take serious action to tackle climate change—but it’s not true. 

Stronger and more effective action can be taken at the local level. That may mean replacing your present elected officials with councillors who understand the issues, believe that stronger action is urgently needed, and who will push hard to make the changes that will transform the municipality into a model of resource efficiency, renewable energy, and zero emission transportation and infrastructure.


For more information:

The article from World Resources Institute can be accessed here: See also Chapter 5 of the 2018 Emissions Gap Report: See also: , and                                                                 

One thought on “Cities muscle up

  • 02/22/2019 at 5:05 pm

    There is a way that Canadian cities could solve our part of the climate change challenge without needing any help from the federal or provincial governments. The key is to use inter-seasonal thermal storage for heating and cooling our buildings and for hot water. In Canada most of our peak power demands are caused by those thermal demands so using stored heat solves two problems: it eliminates the need for natural gas and it eliminates the need to use fossil fuels for power peaking stations and nuclear power for baseload power. Actually it solves a third problem at the same time – how to switch to electric cars. Thermal storage systems incorporate batteries that would provide a large network of fast-charge stations and cheap power to run the electric vehicles. Inter-seasonal storage systems are presently in use but the concept is shunned by the senior levels of government that rake in tens of billions of dollars per year by clinging to the status quo. See for a more detailed explanation.


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