Cities taking the lead on climate change

Saturday, December 5, 2009 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

They can talk about the environment at a United Nations summit, but the action is at your local recycling depot and bus stop, and in your water taps, light bulbs and street-side bike stands. That’s why the real show during the Copenhagen talks might be on the sidelines – at a parallel summit of cities. And there, Canadians are at the forefront.

Cities argue that in an urbanizing world where at least half of emissions are created in municipalities, they are best suited to fight climate change. Just give them the resources and clout.

“We want to show the international community that cities are acting,” says Martha Delgado Peralta, environment minister for Mexico City, once the most polluted municipality in the world.

More than 1,000 U.S. cities have voluntarily joined a climate-protection agreement established in 2005 to bring them in line with the Kyoto Protocol. Its Canadian equivalent, the Partners for Climate Protection, has garnered hundreds of signatories.

Cities in developing countries are also at the forefront: Mumbai is overhauling its lighting system to save energy while Shanghai is trying to reclaim one of the city’s remaining, sludge-filled waterways.

Still, University of Toronto politics professor Douglas Macdonald cautions against putting all faith in local governments. “What has to happen, and is happening, is the emergence of some kind of global governance,” he says. “To give up and say we’re going to count on cities causes problems. We’re moving to the weakest policy actor that we have.”

Cities’ resources are limited and their jurisdiction narrow. Even if they regulate development, resource use and transport, it’s easy for pollution or unsustainable development to move out to suburbs and neighbouring municipalities.

Still, Ryerson University politics professor Christopher Gore says Canadian cities have been on the vanguard even as the country’s environmental reputation sours. “The surprising thing in Canada is that not many people know that Canadian municipalities are among the recognized leaders in the world.”

***

EDMONTON

The best place on the continent to recycle pretty much anything is just a few hundred kilometres south of the oil sands that have become the bogeymen of Canada’s climate challenges.

Edmonton is the only signatory of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Partners for Climate Protection program that has completed all five of the program’s emission-reducing milestones.

The city has 14,000 people in its rebate program for residential retrofits, a biomass facility is in the works and construction on a $10-million waste-to-energy research facility is scheduled for completion next year. It is on track to divert 90 per cent of residential waste from landfills by 2011.

On emissions, however, progress is not as swift. The original goal was to reduce Edmonton’s emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010. But in 2008, it produced 18.3 million tonnes – almost 40 per cent higher than in 1990. This is partly due to population growth in the boomtown.

Mayor Stephen Mandel says the city could do better with some help. “[Other levels of government] need to realize the importance of investing in cities, where the biggest source of greenhouse gases is and where the biggest source of gain can be.”

***

MEXICO CITY

Twenty years ago, Mexico was a poster child for crowded, polluted metropolises. The city of 20 million was rated the dirtiest in the world in 1992.

“Your eyes were just crying, you couldn’t see 20 metres ahead of your face,” says the city’s environment minister, Martha Delgado Peralta. “The birds started dying in the streets.”

So the city started to clean up its act. In 1995, it began restricting driving, requiring each car to take one day a week off the road. In 1997, it created a municipal environment ministry tasked with drafting 10-year environmental plans for the city.

The change is palpable: The air is cleaner, the city is trying to rehabilitate its remaining waterways and, Ms. Peralta says, residents’ attitudes toward conservation have shifted dramatically, choosing public transit in unprecedented numbers and using previously ignored garbage cans.

“People were totally, ‘Ecology? What is that?’ And right now, they’re not ecologists, but they … realize there are environmental impacts if you cut trees, if you dispose waste badly, if you waste water,” she says. “This is a success story.”

***

SEATTLE

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’s environmental “aha” moment came when his damp city dried up: A particularly warm, rain-free winter in 2005 not only ruined ski season but also was disastrous for the ice melt the city relies on both for its water supply and to power its hydroelectric infrastructure.

After that, Mr. Nickels says, he got religion: “I pledged the day Kyoto became law that Seattle would reduce its emissions as if the United States had signed it.”

And he started a countrywide roster of cities pledging to do the same. The U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement recently passed the 1,000-city mark. That represents 86 million Americans, Mr. Nickels notes, “which is far more than symbolic.”

For the past four years, Seattle has also been one of the few cities in North America whose electricity production leaves virtually no carbon footprint. It relies almost exclusively on hydro power, thanks to dams on the snowpack-fed Skagit and the Pend Oreille rivers, assisted by wind and “community-scale” solar power.

“This is a local issue,” Mr. Nickels says, “and it’s here and now – not some time in the future. That was key for me.”

***

TORONTO

Toronto Mayor David Miller heads to Copenhagen this month not only as Canada’s municipal ambassador and chairman of the C40 group of environmentally oriented megacities, but as mayor of a place he claims is ahead of the pack: “Other cities … are talking about doing energy retrofits. Well, we’ve been doing that for 20 years. We’re now expanding them to residential buildings.”

The city’s Live Green plan, passed on Monday, proposes an array of initiatives to make the city’s buildings – producers of two-thirds of its emissions – more energy-efficient. Meanwhile, the city has cut its own operations’ emissions to 40 per cent below 1990 levels, and hopes to reduce Toronto’s overall emissions to 6 per cent below, in line with the Kyoto Protocol.

“It’s achievable,” Mr. Miller says. “It’s a little bit tight.”

A best-case scenario for Copenhagen? If countries resolved to listen to and learn from their local governments, he says.

“Cities are acting. We are making real change, we’re setting real targets and we’re achieving them. Countries are talking and, in some cases, like Canada’s, even failing to talk. … And it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Anna Mehler Paperny is a reporter for The Globe and Mail.

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