Municipalities are on the front lines of climate change because they must respond directly to floods, droughts, landslides, forest fires, heat waves, and water shortages.
Transportation and buildings are the biggest producers of greenhouse gases in the country, and municipalities have a lot of control over both.
“Municipalities directly influence about half of Canada’s energy use and emissions,” Nelson city councillor Rik Logtenberg told the Star following last week’s conference of the national Climate Caucus, which he founded in 2018.
The caucus has 294 mayors, councillors and regional directors as members, 180 of whom were on hand for the digital conference.
“The feds and the provinces have made commitments but they don’t even have a plan for achieving them,” Logtenberg said. “And many of those commitments are within the realm of local government, but local government often doesn’t have the ability to act on them [because of lack of staff and resources].”
How, with limited financial and staff resources, can municipalities best make a real difference in their communities and at the same time influence legislation at upper levels of government?
Identifying the most workable solutions for cities
Conference participants looked at six areas: transportation, buildings, waste, nature-based solutions, and food security. For each, they examined success stories from specific municipalities that could be replicated, with the highest chance of success, by other municipalities across the country.
In the transportation category, Nelson’s electric bike financing program got a close look.
The program gives residents low-interest financing to purchase an electric commuter bike. The loan will be applied monthly on the homeowner’s Nelson Hydro bill and repaid over the term of the loan.
“E-bikes are a great tool to unlock further action,” Logtenberg said. “The more people you get onto an e-bike, the more of them are on the street, then the more incentive there is to create active transportation infrastructure [such as bike lanes].”
Increasing the number of people on e-bikes means fewer cars. That makes urban sprawl less likely, densification easier, and greenhouse gas emissions lower, he said, adding that the first step in Nelson was for the city to get its own staff on e-bikes through an incentive program before offering it to the public.
Buildings: the second largest emitters
In the buildings category, another Nelson project was featured: the EcoSave energy retrofits program.
This program, which offers home energy assessments and repairs with the cost financed onto the homeowner’s Nelson Hydro bill, is easier than in most places because Nelson is one of the rare cities that has its own energy utility.
But there is an alternative that is working in other municipalities, Logtenberg said. In a scheme known as a Property Assessed Clean Energy Program, low interest financing of retrofits is applied to the homeowner’s property tax bill.
He said members were encouraged to lobby for expanded powers over energy conservation in buildings by developing their internal capacity, for example by having an energy assessor on staff and altering building licensing processes.
Valuing natural assets
In another example, the Town of Gibsons has decided to put the value of its natural assets (soil, air, water, plants and animals) onto the city books. That way those assets’ value in preventing the effects of climate change (including floods, drought, erosion, fires) will be accounted for. With natural assets listed on the balance sheet, the true cost of destroying them will be more obvious.
At the conference the caucus unveiled its new publication, the Climate Caucus Councillor Handbook: A toolkit for elected leaders (and their allies) to take action on climate change.
“Its purpose is to provide members with inspiration, resources, sample motions/reports, and sustained support to transform our communities to become equitable, regenerative, decarbonized, and resilient in 10 years,” the handbook’s introduction states. “The science is clear, we have a decade, maybe less, to avoid triggering ecological tipping points we won’t be able to stop.”
Logtenberg said the purpose of the conference was not to come up with a list of recommendations.
“The goal wasn’t to come to decisions as a group. The goal was to empower people to go back to their town and bring something forward,” he said.