With a threat as existential as climate change, people tend to focus on national and international leadership, with its broad tools such as carbon taxes and emissions regulations. But it was clear at last month’s COP22 Climate Change Summit in Marrakech, Morocco, that cities are leading the way on concretely reducing carbon emissions.

I wore two hats in Marrakech. As Mayor of Edmonton, I welcomed the chance to share some promising examples of green innovation from my own city. But I was also speaking as chair of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus (BCMC) of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). FCM speaks for 2,000 of our country’s municipalities, representing 90 percent of Canadians, and BCMC convenes 22 big cities from that group. Together, we’ve been showing how local action should be the centrepiece of a winning national climate strategy — and a sustainable economic growth plan for the decades ahead.

As the COP process has evolved through the years, so too has the municipal presence. We have grown from observer status, to staging side events, to taking our full place on official national delegations. In Marrakech, I stood alongside federal and provincial ministers, and with Indigenous leaders as well. Cities were the focus of some of the highest-profile discussions.

A highlight for me was speaking at an event previewing a new initiative that brings together 7,100 cities from 119 countries, over six continents, to coordinate local climate action. Set to launch in January, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy is sending a message to national governments that cities are a key part of the solution.

Here in Canada, the activities that happen within municipalities now account for half of our country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In Marrakech, I was able to tell the world how we are responding with some of Canada’s most innovative low-carbon practices. In fact, we’ve been at this for over 20 years.

Since 1994, the 300 municipalities in FCM’s Partners for Climate Protection program have cut 1.8 million tonnes from Canada’s carbon footprint. We’re doing that through public transit projects and innovations like building retrofits, district heating through centralized plants or boilers, low-GHG-emission waste systems, and more systematic rethinks of land use and development. FCM’s Green Municipal Fund is supporting local innovation that has already cut nearly half a million tonnes of GHG emissions.

In my own city, our new LEED-certified Centennial transit bus garage incorporates a solar wall, reflective roof and other features to reduce energy use by a full third. Edmonton’s Solar and Energy Savings Program has cut GHG emissions by retrofitting community association buildings for efficiency and installing photovoltaic energy systems. The Blatchford redevelopment is creating a highly livable carbon-neutral community that will one day house 30,000 people.

Our Community Energy Transition Strategy is defining the many pathways our city will take to reduce our carbon emissions — from city vehicle fleets to energy sources.

Today, the ripest potential to reduce Canada’s GHG emissions lies in scaling up local innovation projects from coast to coast to coast. Technologies that Canadians develop to meet local demands, like Enerkem’s waste-to-biofuel plant at Edmonton’s Waste Management Centre, can help drive the export-based clean growth Canada needs.

So how do we unlock this potential? What needs to happen next?

1) National governments need to systematically support local green innovation

Municipalities have built and now operate nearly two-thirds of Canada’s public infrastructure — from our transportation networks to public buildings to water and waste systems. Among orders of government, we understand local needs best, we hear local demands loudest, and we have a track record of responding cost effectively with national impact.

Cities, however, were never designed to generate revenues on the scale needed to fund long-term, transformational projects. With access to barely 10 cents on the tax dollar, we have learned to be efficient. But to build up local green innovation on the scale Canada needs, we need help. The emission-cutting projects we see today amount to prototypes. Moving to full production across Canada will require considerable federal investment.

The federal government’s Fall Economic Statement grew phase 2 of its infrastructure plan to include $25.3 billion for public transit and $21.9 billion for other green projects over 11 years. This can be truly historic if they get the mechanisms right, and we expect the details in Budget 2017.

2) Local governments should keep coming together across borders

If local action is where the climate solution lies, local governments will do well to come together to get the job done. To share ideas and best practices. To raise our collective capacity. To build systems that support smart decisions in our own jurisdictions. To strengthen our voice in our partnerships with regional, national and supranational authorities.

Internationally, this is the motive for the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. Our goals are ambitious, ranging from reducing GHG emissions, to raising climate literacy levels, and to developing strategies to spark green job creation. These are exciting times.

FCM’s Green Municipal Fund has brought life to local innovations that might never have seen the light of day. And in January, FCM will launch the Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program, with federal support, to help local governments share data and make smart investment decisions that support the twin goals of climate-resiliency and GHG emissions reductions.

3) We need a broad-based return to “think global, act local”

Ultimately, to transition to a lower-carbon planet, real things need to happen on the ground. Greener infrastructure needs to get built. Greener decisions need to happen in our everyday lives. And people can find inspiration in the practical difference they can make.

Choosing to take a bus or bike instead of driving. Turning off the lights. Choosing to live in more efficient homes near work or on a transit line. These things do matter. They matter in their own right. And they matter because they can be a personal gateway to the next level of local involvement — perhaps actively supporting the densification or greening of your neighbourhood.

From there, it is a relatively short hop to becoming involved in local government and our planning and consultation processes. We like to say we are the most open and accessible order of government — that we respond to local needs and draw on local expertise. Call us on it. This is an opportunity for climate-aware residents to assert their priorities and contribute their expertise, as citizens or as business-driven innovators.

How this plays out will vary widely by city, but it may be the real engine of our climate solution. We’ve reached a moment in history where local leaders are telling national ones to look down for the answers. We need to be ready to hear the same message from the people we serve.

Photo: Igor Sorokin/Shutterstock.com

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Don Iveson
Don Iveson est maire d’Edmonton et prĂ©sident du conseil du caucus des maires des grandes villes, qui fait partie de la FĂ©dĂ©ration canadiennes des municipalitĂ©s.

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