Land use and future development are big concerns when it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in cities

Late last week, with COP26 nearing a tense conclusion and country delegates hashing out an agreement behind closed doors, it seemed like the final theme day — on Cities, Regions and Built Environment — risked being shunted to the sidelines.

But Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, speaking under the bright lights to a global audience in the conference’s last High-Level Climate Champions session, wouldn’t let that happen.

“The difference between national governments and cities is the difference between night and day, between delayers and doers,” he said.

Khan cited London’s recent actions to reach net-zero before 2050 as an example — in particular, the creation of an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) where stiff fees are imposed on any polluting vehicle travelling within it.

“In two years, we’ve seen the toxic air in central London reduced by 50 per cent; a 44 per cent reduction in NOx, a 27 per cent reduction in particulate matter, a 6 per cent reduction in carbon. Last week, I extended the ULEZ, so now it covers almost four million people, double the size of Paris.

“That’s cities doing rather than delaying,” said Khan.

Cities taking centre stage

Whatever doubt or disappointment remains in the final COP26 agreement, Khan’s pointed remarks underscored one absolute truth about these meetings and the ongoing work to reduce emissions and build resilience against climate change: cities are taking centre stage like never before.

“Cities are where most people live and where a significant portion of emissions originate,” said Julia Langer, chief executive officer of The Atmospheric Fund (TAF), a climate agency that uses targeted investments and grant funding to help lower carbon emissions from buildings and transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Areas.

“Delegations can make all sorts of pronouncements and set targets, but in the end, they have to come home and implement, and that means implementation in cities,” she said.

Globally, according to figures shared at COP26, buildings and construction account for 40 per cent of global carbon emissions. In Canada, close to 50 per cent of this country’s carbon emissions originate from cities, with the main sources being buildings, transportation, local industry and waste.

Taking on this challenge was the inspiration for Low Carbon Cities Canada (LC3), a partnership launched in 2019 by seven of Canada’s largest cities (“LC3 centres”) and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM).

Investments to scale up action

Supported by $350 million in FCM and federal government funding, each LC3 centre is applying the TAF model of targeted capital investments, grants, demonstration projects, and knowledge transfer to scale up emissions reduction and climate change adaptation in its own urban region.

In some cases, such as electrification of transportation, the centres collaborate.

“We’ve been working together on [lobbying] for zero-emission vehicle mandates [to increase electric vehicle sales],” said Langer. “This is something that could drive down emissions across the country significantly in a predictable way.”

But most of the centres’ work is tailored to local needs.

“In Montreal, for instance, they’re focused very much on getting a lot of buildings that still use oil off oil. That’s not such a big thing in Toronto or Vancouver. So, there’s an opportunity for locally specific mitigation programs.”

Mike Savage, mayor of Halifax, one of the LC3 cities, attended COP26 as a representative of the FCM. He said his goal was to meet with Canadian and international partners at the meetings to learn more about the role of municipalities in getting to net zero.

“A lot of the stuff that’s going to impact that — transit, buildings, protection of nature, building bike lanes, waste management — are all things that municipalities have a very strong role in,” said Savage. “So, we have to be leaders.”

Nature-based solutions

Savage cited one area in particular where he learned a lot at COP26: the topic of nature-based solutions.

“There’s a lot of potential to reach net zero through nature, the protection of green spaces, of preserving and planting trees, protection of wetlands, and other natural assets,” he said.

Significantly, nature-based solutions don’t just provide another means of absorbing carbon and reducing emissions. They’re also a critical component in any city strategy to build resilience to help cope with the impacts of climate change, such as flooding and extreme heat, that are inevitable even in a 1.5°C warming scenario.

“We have to bring nature into our cities,” said Alex Boston, executive director of Renewable Cities, a program to support cities in the transition to renewable energy based at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “It can play a huge role in stormwater management, flood mitigation, tempering the urban heat island effect. We need to start thinking about this in a really integrated manner.”

Kate Strachan, South Africa-based global lead for Cities Race to Resilience, a global campaign by the COP26 Presidency to mobilize a coalition of cities to take action on climate resiliency, puts it even more bluntly.

“We’re locked into the impacts of climate change now. This has been very evident over the past few years with wildfires, flooding, droughts, and extreme heat disasters occurring globally. If we fail to build resilience, our consequences are still going to be dire.”

Buildings and land use

Fostering resiliency isn’t just about working with nature, of course. In Asia and Africa, in particular, where most of the world’s new urban population growth is expected in the coming decades, both the design and siting of new communities and individual buildings is also critical.

“If we build in the wrong place, if we don’t build housing that can cope with sea level rise or flooding, we’re going to have bigger problems on our hands,” said Strachan.

Land use and patterns of future development are also a big concern for Boston when it comes to cutting emissions. Too often, he argues, Canadian cities and towns continue to expand their urban footprint rather than upping density in existing locales. This is true even with the most recent investment in clean transportation infrastructure.

“We cannot meet our 2030 [emissions] targets with our current approach to land use. The biggest determinant of a household’s GHGs is its proximity to major employment nodes. The further you are from job centres, the higher your carbon footprint,” he said.

Cities bring optimism

However, despite such concerns, anyone looking for optimism in the fight against climate change is bound to find more of it in what the world’s cities are doing than in the country-level commitments delivered at COP26.

Performance reports from the 97 megacities that are members of the global C40 Cities network are a case in point, as Khan — who took over as C40 president and chair during COP26 — also noted in his Cities day remarks.

“More than two-thirds of the 97 cities, so 65 cities, are either on schedule for meeting the Paris promise or exceeding the Paris promise. Compare and contrast: how many countries are on course to meeting Paris or exceeding it? One. So, 66 per cent of cities meeting Paris or beating it, 0.5 per cent of countries,” said Khan.

“Doers versus delayers.”

This article was originally published with the title “Major investments needed to curb staggering emissions from cities” by The Weather Network on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021.