Look to the Cities for Climate Change Leadership

This article explores the reasons why Canada and the United States have failed to implement meaningful climate policies at the federal level. It then discusses the critical role that municipalities can play in picking up the slack, along with some of the challenges and opportunities that lie in their way.  

Why North America Feds Have Failed to Act on Climate Change

Environment Minister Peter Kent recently announced that Canada will stay in line with the United States on the issue of climate change. The justification for this is all too familiar: we cannot afford to have fundamentally different climate policies because our economies are so intertwined – straying too far would result in financial repercussions and never-ending legal and diplomatic disputes. At least for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that Canada will jump the gun on climate policy.1

In light of this, I would argue that the answer to North American inaction at the federal level must be sought in Washington. According to former Director of the London School of Economics, Anthony Giddens2, there are three main reasons for the climate-related gridlock in American politics:

1) climate change is very polarized along partisan lines; in fact, in no other country is opinion about the issue so severely divided as in the USA.

2) the separation of powers enshrined in the American constitution requires the President to negotiate with Congress on most matters of domestic policy.

3) well-funded lobbies have a huge influence on members of Congress.

The political paralysis on climate change has led to inaction at the federal level in the US, and as a result, inaction in Canada. But these realities should not justify a policy of idleness from either countries, especially in the face of growing concerns about climate change and the grave consequences that it will have on the world. It does seem, however, that if any action is going to be taken, it will be the United States who makes the first move.

What’s a President to Do?

In his recent State of the Union address, regarded by many as the greatest call for action on climate change in the country’s history, President Obama declared that if Congress fails to endorse federal action on the issue, he will use his executive authority to bypass the legislative body altogether.

One of the many options available to him is to reach out to municipalities, where the issue is not judged along partisan lines, and enable them to adopt better climate mitigation and adaptation measures, primarily through increased, steady financial assistance.

Municipalities: Leaders on Climate Protection

Clinton Climate InitiativeOver the last decade, like-minded municipalities have emerged as key actors in climate policy, and have assumed responsibility for their contributions to climate change. The Clinton Climate Initiative claims that while cities take up a mere 2 per cent of the Earth’s landmass, they consume 75 per cent of the world’s energy and produce nearly 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. To put it in perspective, New York City’s yearly emissions are roughly equal to that of Ireland’s or Switzerland’s.

The main reason why municipalities are considered key players is because they have direct or indirect influence over 30-50 per cent of national GHG emissions in Canada and the United States through land-use planning; building codes and regulation; waste management processes; and public transit systems.3

At the forefront of municipal action is ICLEI, the “world’s leading association of cities and local governments dedicated to sustainable development.”4 ICLEI has partnered with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in our country, and with the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) in the USA, to “promote local action for global sustainability and support cities to become sustainable, resilient, resource-efficient, biodiverse, and low-carbon; to build a smart infrastructure; and to develop an inclusive, green urban economy with the ultimate aim to achieve healthy and happy communities.”5

What’s The Business Case for Action at the Municipal Level?

FCM’s and USCM’s steadily increasing membership suggest that more and more municipalities are realizing that protecting human health and the environment makes good financial sense. In this regard, ICLEI officials have focused on the co-benefits of managing local GHG emissions. For instance, lowering the energy consumption of buildings will not only reduce pollution but will also save money. “More jobs are created per dollar invested in the energy-efficiency conservation sectors than are created in conventional energy supply sectors. Improved air quality reduces staff absenteeism, while increasing productivity and morale.”6 Some notable examples of cities that have achieved considerable savings from GHG reduction initiatives – in the face of ineffective federal leadership – include  Calgary, New York City, Portland and Toronto.

The Need for an Enabling State

The financing, or lack thereof, of climate policy initiatives is the greatest challenge faced by municipal policymakers, mainly because inadequate funding makes it difficult to implement more aggressive climate initiatives. Federal decision-makers in Canada and the US have typically shown a reluctance to expand the inadequate levels of funding they provide for municipal action on climate change7, but as it stands, Obama is in a perfect position to change this trend.

Although the importance of federal action on climate change is still paramount, the political gridlock at the top is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon. At this point we don’t know if Obama will exercise his powers to enable American municipalities – or if he’s going to do anything about climate change at all – but if he does, it will be interesting to see if Canada follows suit.

This month at TSSS we will explore Cities and Climate Change” with the former Mayor of Toronto, David Miller and the current Mayor of Guelph, Karen Farbridge.  Feel free to join us in person or via FREE WEBCAST and twitterchat.  Share what your city is doing to prepare for this looming challenge.  REGISTER TODAY!


  1. “Canada can be more than a follower on climate change” by Tom Harris, 2013. http://www.fcpp.org
  2. “Politics of Climate Change” by Anthony Giddens, 2011.
  3. http://www.fcm.ca
  4. http://www.iclei.org
  5. http://www.iclei.org
  6. http://www.fcm.ca
  7. “From Rhetoric to Action: Can Municipalities Fulfill their Pledge on Climate Change Action?” by Ajay Sharma,      2010.