What is the role of our city governments in our col- lective efforts to improve air quality and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that cause climate change? This is a question of great interest to local politicians and administrators, environmentalists and academic students of urban politics and local government.

I have no special knowledge of the various programs and technologies adopted around the world by city governments in their attempts to do their part to mitigate climate change. But I am very interested in trying to understand how and why city governments have become involved. On the basis of conventional academic theories and findings about the behaviour of urban governments in advanced industrial democracies ”” especially in North America ”” one would not expect city governments to be in the forefront.

The reason has to do with what economists call ”œexter- nalities.” When city governments collect garbage and build and maintain roads and parks, they are providing direct services to their residents and businesses, not to humanity in general. Indeed, many debates about municipal boundaries, for example, have been sparked by claims that one municipality (usually a central city) is in fact providing services or benefits at little or no cost to people who live elsewhere. Municipal taxpayers generally don’t like to pay for benefits that will be enjoyed by others outside their boundaries.

If ever there was a non-local issue, it is global warming. The reason the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in the first place is precisely that governments of sovereign states rec- ognized that global problems required global solutions. At the global level, everyone is concerned not just with reduc- tions in carbon emissions, but with spreading the burden fairly and equitably. No one wants to encourage ”œfree rid- ers,” countries that do nothing themselves to limit emis- sions but that cannot be prevented from reaping the benefits of the collective action of others.

There is nothing unusual in countries signing an interna- tional agreement and then enacting legislation to ensure that individuals and organizations (such as municipalities) play their part in implementing it. As Canadians know all too well, however, things are a bit more complicated in a federation.

The federal government quite fre- quently signs treaties whose provisions it has little or no legal authority to implement. Signing a treaty to reduce GHGs ”” or making a decision to pur- sue the same objective by other means ”” does not provide the federal gov- ernment with the legal authority to make special regulations for munici- palities about their use of energy. Only provinces can make such regulations ”” and there is very little evidence that they have done so.

It appears instead that city govern- ments have voluntarily taken various steps to limit energy use and reduce emissions, even if such steps impose additional burdens ”” financial and otherwise ”” on their residents and businesses. A possible explanation for this behaviour is to claim that city gov- ernments act in environmentally friendly ways because they understand that, in the long run at least, being rec- ognized as ”œgreen cities” is in their own economic best interests.

The operative word here is surely ”œrecognized.” The optimum position for a city government to be in is to be ”œrecognized” as ”œgreen” without hav- ing to bear the financial burdens or inconveniences. I suspect that a good many city ”œgreen plans” fall precisely into this category. Toronto’s two elec- tricity-generating windmills, placed strategically on the lakefront near the Gardiner Expressway and on Highway 401 near the Don Valley Parkway, would seem perfect examples of sym- bolic, rather than real, efforts to change our practices with respect to electricity generation.

Hidden from public view in Toronto are the pipes that go far into the depths of Lake Ontario so that very cold water can be used to cool many of Toronto’s downtown buildings. This project makes perfect economic sense. Publicly owned utilities can be just as speedy as any other organization in building projects that save money.

But the big question is whether city governments can be counted on to spend additional funds volun- tarily to prevent GHG emissions or to enact regulations that make doing business in their respective territories more difficult and costly. If they were to do so, they would be putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage in relation to other municipalities, both on their immediate borders and in other city-regions.

While any municipal initiative to reduce emissions is to be welcomed, we should wonder about the extent to which these initiatives have been encouraged by the availability of funds from other levels of government, the ”œGreen Municipal Fund” administered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities using federal funds being the main Canadian example. The availability of such funds might well, from a municipal viewpoint, turn a project that is merely ”œgreen” into one that is a cost-benefit winner, even in the short term. Indeed, this is precisely how we should be measuring the usefulness of such federal programs. If municipali- ties were going to carry out the project anyway, there is no need for the feder- al program.

Everyone knows that the success of private business corporations is ulti- mately measured by the return on investment to shareholders. Different corporations will make different calcu- lations about the ultimate benefits of ”œgoing green,” but no one expects them to place the long-term benefits to humanity above the long-term benefits to their shareholders. Governments exist, in large measure, to coerce such private institutions into behaving in a way that is more congruent with the longer-term interests of citizens.

As usual, municipal corporations ”” in North America at least ”” fall somewhere between our federal and provincial and state governments and our private business corporations. They are undoubtedly part of the pub- lic sector, but their economic interests are by definition very much tied to a particular place, a place whose territo- ry is inevitably tiny compared with our other governmental jurisdictions (always excepting Prince Edward Island and Rhode Island). Is it possible that they can sometimes put aside their particular economic interests and take into account the bigger picture?

In attempting to answer such a ques- tion, we can begin by thinking about how individuals behave. While the more simple-minded models used by some economists might have diffi- culty accounting for such altruism, we all know some individuals who seem perfectly content to sacrifice what appear to be their own long-term eco- nomic interests in order to help save the environment. People who volun- tarily pay more to use ”œgreen electrici- ty” would be examples.

Can municipalities behave in a similar way? Yes ”” but only if there is a huge and sustained mobilization effort at the local level by those who are committed to having their munici- palities behave in environmentally sensitive ways. Such efforts are likely to be more successful in booming municipalities (like Calgary) than in places that are fighting to maintain jobs and prosperity (like most cities and towns in northern Ontario). And small hard-won local victories can eas- ily be lost as economic and political circumstances change.

While it makes perfect sense for activists to apply pressure wherever they can as often as they can, it also makes sense to have an overall strategy. What I am suggesting is that effective governmental action to limit GHGs is more likely to come from fed- eral and provincial governments than from local ones. It is true that city gov- ernments can change their planning policies to make public transit more attractive. But federal and provincial and state governments can enact legis- lation requiring that new automobiles emit lower levels of GHGs than older ones. Experience teaches us that the latter course of action is more effec- tive. If such action is also part of a coordinated continental or global strategy, then it is, of course, likely to be even more effective.

Municipalities have good reason to tout their environmental initiatives. We all should applaud initiatives that involve collective decisions to take on additional financial burdens. But we should not delude ourselves that it is easy to ”œact locally” to solve global problems. Municipalities face huge incentives to provide their residents and businesses with clean and safe drinking water and with efficient waste disposal. Their incentives to help clean up our air are much less clear; indeed, the disincentives for uni- lateral municipal action are manifest.

The existence of a truly global set of circumstances causing global warm- ing means that reducing the emission of GHGs is a textbook example of a non-local problem. This means that on this issue we should expect our city governments to be policy-takers, not policy-makers.  

Vous pouvez reproduire cet article d’Options politiques en ligne ou dans un périodique imprimé, sous licence Creative Commons Attribution.

Creative Commons License