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The Power of Municipalities to Wage Climate Action in Canada

Riyana Karim-Hajiani

Riyana Karim-Hajiani is a third-yearundergraduate student of McGill University’s Department of Political Sciencewhere she is pursuing a Bachelor of Honours Arts. Riyana has joined the Climate Reality Project as the Community Climate Hub Research intern. She is heavily engaged in journalism where she advocates for social, political, and legal justice. She has always been passionate about the law and intends to tackle law school following her undergraduate degree. She predictsthat her work will involve organizations advocating for climate action in the courtroom.  

For many Canadians, the threat of global climate change didnot always feel like a direct threat to their particular circumstances. But as Canadais warming twice as fast relative to the rest of the world, estimated at 1.7 °C annually, threats that once seemed far away arefelt close to home. For example, in 2017 parts of British Columbia weredevastated by extreme wildfires that reached levels seven to eleven times more intense than previously experienced. Extreme wildfires such as these are projected to further intensify. More than ever, we are in need of lasting solutions to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions.    

Communities are at the front lines of climate disaster. BritishColumbia’s wildfires displaced 65,000 local people and millions more wereexposed to wildfire smoke. Or take for example, as a result of warming in the Arctic (warming at 2.3 °C annually), Inuit communities’ way of life and survival are under threat. Thatis why we must look to municipalities (or communities), to deploy the solutions needed for a net-zero emissions Canada.    

What about the federal government?   

While the Canadian government has committed itself tofighting climate change, the pace of change at the federal level is often slow andcomplex. This is largely due to what is best described as a balancing act between economic growth and the environment that often puts federally elected officials in the middle of long political and legal disputes.   

For instance, in 2018 Parliament passed the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act to impose a minimum carbon tax on provinces. Followingwhich, the federal government was hit with three individual lawsuits filed byOntario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. It was not until March 2021, three years later, that the Supreme Courtruled in favor of the federal government.    

This may demonstrate how the federal government is unfit tomake swift moves against climate change’s ticking clock as national action iscontinually muddled by resistance against federal direction.    

Nevertheless, Canada cannotafford more years-long legal battles directed against progress. That beingsaid, municipalities may be better situated todeliver the mass decarbonization that is needed to defend against climate change.    

How can the actions of municipalities profoundly influencethe future?   

With 81 per cent of Canadians living in urban centers, cities are leading low carbon innovationhubs. Namely, in 2011 Vancouver set out to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. Currently, thecity ranks among the top environmental cities worldwide as leaders in greenbuilding and architecture design, infrastructure, and policy. For example, Vancouver requires energy efficiency retrofits when a building issold and when renovation permits are being issued. Proposed climate action policies such as these, become tailored to local communities, their vulnerabilities, and advantages—maximizing the efficacy of policy.   

Speaking of policy, local governments may be wellpositioned to influence the federal government. This refers to the ability ofmunicipal policy to trickle up. Take Toronto for example, which emitted 49.2 megatons of carbonemissions and 41 percent of Ontario’s total carbon emissions in 2017. Any Toronto-led climate policy that reduces emissions would not just affect Toronto, rather the effects would span outwards across the province and the country. In this same vein, any policy that is implemented in cities such as Toronto calls on a wider range of people, elected officials, and public servants to step up for climate action. In doing so, the culture of action changes by beginning local municipal conversations about how to build a better Canada.     

However, big cities are not the only municipalities capableof taking action. North of Thunder Bay, the people of the Kiashke ZaaginngAnishnaabek (KZA)/ Gull Bay First Nation have become the first fully integrated microgrid in Canada. Through microgrid, the community will be ableto use clean energy generated by solar panels in place of diesel fuel. Demonstrating that any community, despite remoteness, can join the climate fight.   

Meaningful action can happen in Canada, but only if ourambitious municipal leaders and locally based solutions are supported asmunicipalities have the power to profoundly influence the future. Ask yourself, how does your community fit into the climate fight? 

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