Municipalities can play a lead role in reducing emissions: Senator Sorensen

Canada has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieving net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. As a nation, we have started to get serious about putting the needed policies in place. There is now a broader, educated understanding of “the why” — and more openness on taking big steps towards “the how.”

But I am most inspired by the work of our municipalities. Having served for 11 years as the mayor of Banff, a little town inside Banff National Park, I know firsthand the commitment Canadian towns and cities have made to a greener future 

In Canada, municipalities have influence over roughly 50% of GHG emissions. If all municipalities focused on reducing emissions by the same 40-45% target as the federal government, we’d be more than halfway to our national target, which would be a massive accomplishment.

On a tactical level, municipalities can document and track their GHG emissions with high accuracy on a small scale. They can develop detailed programs that target those emissions in ways that are truly actionable on the ground. Their smaller-scale environmental programs can serve as case studies of what works, what doesn’t and where funding makes sense.

As an example, the Town of Banff — with a robust environmental master plan and a quantifiable renewable energy transition roadmap — has positioned itself to meet its goal of community-wide GHG emissions reductions by 80% of 2005 levels by 2050. The plan includes a sustained transition to renewable energy, with 100% of energy demand being met by renewable energy supply by 2050. This is no small feat for a little town in the Canadian Rockies. But with the implementation of Banff’s Green Site and Building Guidelines, significant efforts towards mass transit and active transport, and numerous incentives for residents and businesses, it is achievable.

Municipalities have the tools and authority to influence environmentally positive actions in their day-to-day operations. They exert at least partial control over land use through zoning. They can issue building permits and development approvals that meet green criteria. They can control parking supply and prices. They are responsible for roads and public transit. And they oversee parks and recreation.

This all said, municipalities need assistance to do the work they want to do. These efforts are expensive and often beyond the reach of municipal budgets. The promise of cost savings down the road and the moral imperative to “do the right thing for our planet” don’t always make for convincing arguments at the municipal budget table, where residents are counting every increase on their annual property tax bill. Decisions for local councils are made much easier when a high percentage of the costs are coming from federal or provincial partnership dollars.

An example? Over the last 12 years, Banff National Park and the towns of Banff and Canmore have created the Bow Valley Regional Transit Commission. With a pre-pandemic annual ridership of more than 1.5 million, Roam Transit — with a goal of a zero-emission fleet — has hugely reduced single-vehicle travel in the Bow Valley.

Federal and provincial dollars — $15 million in total — made Roam possible. Vehicles were purchased with provincial GreenTRIP funding and with federal investment via the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund. A zero-emission training and operating centre was recently built to house Roam, with two-thirds of the cost funded by GreenTRIP.

The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy shares a long-term vision to combat climate change. Local Governments for Sustainability, or ICLEI, argues that sustainable development be the only model for the 21st century. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, through its Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program, offers funding, training and resources to help towns and cities achieve success on climate action.

Municipal governments are on the front lines of so many of the major issues, problems and crises facing our country — and behind some of the greatest advances in solving them. Canada’s municipal centres deserve support and need to be taken seriously.

Senator Karen Sorensen represents Alberta in the Senate. She is a member of the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment, and Natural Resources, and the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2, 2022 edition of The Hill Times.

Canada has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieving net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. As a nation, we have started to get serious about putting the needed policies in place. There is now a broader, educated understanding of “the why” — and more openness on taking big steps towards “the how.”

But I am most inspired by the work of our municipalities. Having served for 11 years as the mayor of Banff, a little town inside Banff National Park, I know firsthand the commitment Canadian towns and cities have made to a greener future 

In Canada, municipalities have influence over roughly 50% of GHG emissions. If all municipalities focused on reducing emissions by the same 40-45% target as the federal government, we’d be more than halfway to our national target, which would be a massive accomplishment.

On a tactical level, municipalities can document and track their GHG emissions with high accuracy on a small scale. They can develop detailed programs that target those emissions in ways that are truly actionable on the ground. Their smaller-scale environmental programs can serve as case studies of what works, what doesn’t and where funding makes sense.

As an example, the Town of Banff — with a robust environmental master plan and a quantifiable renewable energy transition roadmap — has positioned itself to meet its goal of community-wide GHG emissions reductions by 80% of 2005 levels by 2050. The plan includes a sustained transition to renewable energy, with 100% of energy demand being met by renewable energy supply by 2050. This is no small feat for a little town in the Canadian Rockies. But with the implementation of Banff’s Green Site and Building Guidelines, significant efforts towards mass transit and active transport, and numerous incentives for residents and businesses, it is achievable.

Municipalities have the tools and authority to influence environmentally positive actions in their day-to-day operations. They exert at least partial control over land use through zoning. They can issue building permits and development approvals that meet green criteria. They can control parking supply and prices. They are responsible for roads and public transit. And they oversee parks and recreation.

This all said, municipalities need assistance to do the work they want to do. These efforts are expensive and often beyond the reach of municipal budgets. The promise of cost savings down the road and the moral imperative to “do the right thing for our planet” don’t always make for convincing arguments at the municipal budget table, where residents are counting every increase on their annual property tax bill. Decisions for local councils are made much easier when a high percentage of the costs are coming from federal or provincial partnership dollars.

An example? Over the last 12 years, Banff National Park and the towns of Banff and Canmore have created the Bow Valley Regional Transit Commission. With a pre-pandemic annual ridership of more than 1.5 million, Roam Transit — with a goal of a zero-emission fleet — has hugely reduced single-vehicle travel in the Bow Valley.

Federal and provincial dollars — $15 million in total — made Roam possible. Vehicles were purchased with provincial GreenTRIP funding and with federal investment via the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund. A zero-emission training and operating centre was recently built to house Roam, with two-thirds of the cost funded by GreenTRIP.

The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy shares a long-term vision to combat climate change. Local Governments for Sustainability, or ICLEI, argues that sustainable development be the only model for the 21st century. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities, through its Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program, offers funding, training and resources to help towns and cities achieve success on climate action.

Municipal governments are on the front lines of so many of the major issues, problems and crises facing our country — and behind some of the greatest advances in solving them. Canada’s municipal centres deserve support and need to be taken seriously.

Senator Karen Sorensen represents Alberta in the Senate. She is a member of the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment, and Natural Resources, and the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2, 2022 edition of The Hill Times.

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