Canadian Cities on Front Line of Climate Change Fight

Cyclists in Vancouver

While federal and provincial politicians continually fail to reach international and national agreements to fight climate change, some civic governments are already beginning to deal with the biggest challenge facing humankind.

Pushed by a seemingly unstoppable trend to increased urbanization, cities are the new battle zone dealing with the consequences of our warming planet.

Vancouver, which wants to become the greenest city in the world by 2020, is already finding surprising successes in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

City Councillor Andrea Reimer, who heads Vancouver’s planning, transportation and environment committee, said it is important that cities take an even greater role in fighting climate change.

Cities are at the front line of climate change, both in terms of being a source of emissions and by being most severely impacted by extreme weather events caused by climate change,” Reimer told DeSmog Canada via e-mail.

When floods, fires and sea levels rise, it’s generally municipal infrastructure and urban residents taking the largest hits. On the adaptation side, cities have a big role to play through policy and regulation of transportation, built form (both individual buildings and community planning) and waste, which are the holy trinity of climate-changing emission producers.”

Reimer said Vancouver, which has more than 600,000 residents, has already seen positive results since city council adopted its Greenest City Action Plan 2.5 years ago.

We’ve reduced waste by 40 per cent, increased active transportation by 10 per cent and emissions are 4 per cent below 1991 levels even as population and jobs continue to grow at a strong pace,” she said.

Our emissions profile is less than half the national average and 60 per cent below other major Canadian cities showing that cities can get a lot done even without a supportive federal framework.”

Vancouver isn’t the only Canadian community leading in the fight against climate change. A DeSmog Canada report earlier this year shone a spotlight on five communities taking action that you rarely see in the headlines.

According to UN-Habitat, urbanization and climate change are converging in dangerous ways.

Cities are major contributors to climate change: although they cover less than 2 per cent of the Earth’s surface, cities consume 78 per cent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 per cent of all carbon dioxide,” the UN-Habitat website says.

At the same time, cities and towns are heavily vulnerable to climate change. Hundreds of millions of people in urban areas across the world will be affected by rising sea levels, increased precipitation, inland floods, more frequent and stronger cyclones and storms, and periods of more extreme heat and cold. In fact, many major coastal cities with populations of more than 10 million people are already under threat.”

UN-Habitat also says that despite climate-change-related threats, many cities have not significantly addressed global warming. Reasons include a lack of action plans, regulations that have not adapted to climate change realities and slow responses to climate disasters due to a lack of resources.

However, cities can be places of innovation and efficiency, UN-Habitat notes.

Together with their local authorities, they have the potential to diminish the causes of climate change (mitigation) and effectively protect themselves from its impacts (adaptation).”

The United Nations Population Fund has noted that more than half of the world’s population in 2008 was, for the first time in history, estimated to be living in towns and cities.

Reimer says Vancouver is doing well so far with its Greenest City Action Plan. She added, however, that cities still need provincial and federal governments to get moving on policies that enable further GHG reductions.

Ultimately though, Reimer thinks cities like Vancouver will inspire provincial and federal governments to take up the struggle.

I believe yes but it will take time, results and determination,” she said.

Photo: “Rush Hour on the Dunsmuir Separated Bike Lane” by Paul Krueger