Municipal governments around the world are on the front lines of dealing with climate change impacts like storms, flooding and heatwaves. They provide critical infrastructure and services to communities, which often can’t handle extreme weather events.
Many municipalities want to do their part, and are leading on climate change action. But they don’t have the same powers as provincial or federal governments, and have limited freedom of action.
Tomorrow is World Cities Day. As newly elected municipal councils in Ontario plan their first meetings, we are looking at some of the ways municipalities are addressing climate change. A lot is already happening, but much more can be done.
The challenge of urban growth
Almost 9 in 10 people in Ontario live in urban areas. Our ten largest cities, each home to more than half a million residents, make up a fifth of Canada’s population. As cities grow, urban sprawl forces people to drive longer distances. This contributes to more traffic congestion and GHG emissions from transportation. Over 70% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions comes from people living in cities and towns.
To reduce Ontario’s GHG emissions, more people will need access to cleaner, low-carbon transportation options. They will also need affordable housing near transit in high-density communities. It will be a challenge to balance these needs with climate adaptation with efforts to expand green spaces and improve stormwater management.
“Municipalities have a key role to play in reducing vehicle use through smart urban planning."
Municipal government authority
In 2015, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (444 municipalities) and the Union of Quebec Municipalities signed a long-term Climate Change Action Covenant. This sent a strong message to the federal and provincial governments that municipalities are ready and willing to tackle climate change.
In 2017, Ontario’s municipalities were given new powers to create climate-friendly communities. They can pass bylaws related to climate change, and plan clean energy systems to reduce GHG emissions.
The province also updated the Planning Act and Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe with requirements that municipalities have policies for reducing GHG emissions and adapting to the changing climate. Municipal GHG emission inventories, targets and strategies were also recommended.
Local opportunities and actions
Ontario municipalities have been inspired to take action with their new powers and directives. They are adopting new technology for net-zero buildings and wastewater treatment plants. Several municipalities fund these projects in new, creative ways. For instance, revolving funds are used by municipalities to recycle revenues from clean energy to fund other cost-saving sustainability projects.
Ontario’s now-cancelled price on carbon pollution provided funding to 130 Ontario municipalities and more than 50 social housing agencies for projects to address climate change. They included:
- community wood heating pilot projects,
- solar-powered pipes to divert landfill wastewater,
- designing streets that are safe and convenient for everyone (people who walk, bicycle, take transit, or drive, and people of all ages and abilities),
- bike share systems,
- geothermal energy systems, and more.
Many projects lost funding, and some municipalities had to find other ways to pay for their projects when the price on carbon pollution was cancelled. These included:
- Haliburton’s pilot wood heating project to cut energy bills and GHG emissions, while supporting the local forestry economy. Now, this project is uncertain after the province backed out of a $2.8 million commitment.
- The City of London planned to set up its green bin program with $2 million in cap and trade funds. Instead, the city will charge homeowners an extra $36/year.
- Brampton and York Region are hoping to use internal and private funding to continue their electric bus pilot, after the province withdrew $13 million in funding.
What’s next for Ontario municipal climate action?
Since 1994, more than 350 Canadian municipalities have committed to take action on climate change through the Partners for Climate Protection program. As elected mayors and councillors settle in, climate change — which impacts capital budgets, infrastructure, and the health and safety of residents and local economies — must be top of mind. With today’s uncertainty and a lack of clear climate policy from the province, action at the municipal level is now more important than ever.
Learn more about the challenge of climate disruption and adaptation in Ontario municipalities in our report Climate Action in Ontario: What’s Next?.