Helping communities adapt to the ravages of climate change

Helping communities adapt to the ravages of climate change

More than 600 municipalities in Canada have declared a climate emergency. Many are now working to tackle the issue head on — together.

The residents of Canmore, Alta., are all too familiar with the impacts of the climate crisis.

In the late spring of 2013, the small town of 16,000 nestled in the Canadian Rockies suffered widespread flooding. The snowpack high in the mountains was melting faster than usual and the water was barrelling down through steep mountain creeks. With the ground unable to absorb the melt, the town was quickly transformed into a large body of water. Houses were destroyed, bridges and roads were washed out, and thousands were evacuated. The town declared a climate emergency. “This was a wake-up call for us,” says Canmore’s mayor, Sean Krausert.

That devastating flood was just one in a series of natural disasters that are occurring around the world with increasing frequency and intensity. No longer once-in-a-lifetime events, destructive fires, intense storms and extreme temperatures are becoming more prevalent, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned.

To better adapt to this changing climate, a growing number of municipalities across Canada are setting goals and taking action. Some 645 municipalities across Canada have, like Canmore, declared climate emergencies. While it may seem like throwing a pebble at a giant, cities are major contributors to climate change. According to the United Nations, cities account for only two percent of the Earth’s surface, but consume 78 percent of its energy and are responsible for over 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. That means communities can play a significant role in creating change. Collectively, governments are the largest purchasers of goods and services in Canada — accounting for 13.3 percent of the country’s GDP. But most municipalities make decisions independently, and often lack the funding, staffing and coordination to make a real dent in emissions.

“Achieving net zero is a big, hairy audacious goal,” says Sue Talusan, a senior manager on MaRS’s partner solutions team who leads its cities-based initiatives. “We need to come together and figure out how we can leverage all these different pieces to create the best path forward.”

To that end, MaRS is launching Mission from MaRS: Net Zero, a new series of initiatives to break down common barriers to the wide-scale adoption of climate solutions. Its first mission zeroes in on public procurement to provide municipalities the support they need to reach their climate objectives. It’s one of several initiatives that puts climate action squarely into our own backyards.


But where to start?

Knowing there’s a climate emergency is one thing; knowing where to start reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is quite another. “There’s so much to do, but for us the first step was understanding the scope and scale,” says James Nowlan, executive director of environment and climate for the City of Toronto. What they found: 57 percent of GHG emissions in Toronto come from buildings, 36 percent is from transportation and the rest is from waste.

The goal of Toronto’s ambitious climate change strategy, TransformTO — the second iteration of which was passed by City Council last December — is for both the City and the community to achieve net zero by 2040. “It’s a city of three million people with hundreds of thousands of buildings and a million personal vehicles, plus lots of other forms of transportation,” says Nowlan. “Transitioning that to mostly non-fossil-fuel-derived sources within 18 years is transformational.”

But as overwhelming as the necessary changes are, there is help. One of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities many federally funded programs is Partners for Climate Protection. The voluntary program, in partnership with Local Governments for Sustainability, consists of a network of more than 500 municipalities across Canada that have the shared goal of reducing GHG emissions. It provides municipalities with a five-step framework as well as resources to move through the steps. Those include: creating an inventory of GHG emissions and a forecast of future emissions; setting reductions targets for both municipal and community emissions; developing an emissions-reduction action plan; implementing that plan; and then monitoring, reporting, evaluating and adjusting.

Some larger cities, such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, were quick to get on board and are already through the five stages. They are now setting more ambitious targets. More recently, smaller municipalities such as Canmore have signed on as well.

“Working together, we can ensure more hockey rinks and recreation centres reach net-zero targets, and more building codes move toward net zero, all while creating good jobs in the retrofit economy,” says FCM president Taneen Rudyk. “We need to invest in public transit, active transportation and zero-emission vehicles, as well as the charging and refuelling infrastructure required to create the net-zero communities of the future.”


Navigating the hurdles to change

There isn’t always a clear pathway to the solutions, however, as many communities struggle with supply chain delays and bureaucratic hurdles. While Canadian municipalities collectively have 80 percent of the public sector purchasing value (close to $160 million), they lack the funding, resources and coordination to leverage that collective purchasing power for maximum impact. All too often, communities opt for economical and traditional solutions, rather than those that can be truly transformational. It’s challenging for small cleantech companies to compete on contracts: it’s difficult to underbid multinational corporations and many lack the on-paper experience to win government work. Governments — at all levels — need help in accessing the latest innovations.

The City of Toronto, for instance, knows what needs to be done to reach its targets — buildings and homes must be retrofitted, transportation must go electric, among other things — and that the technology already exists. But even it needed help.

“The city is so large and they have so many different teams who all have very specialized areas and capabilities so it’s just helping them wrangle the beast,” explains Talusan.

The City decided to fast-track procurement from certain Canadian cleantech companies, which have been identified and vetted by MaRS through its Mission from MaRS program. “We’re helping them make good decisions about where they’re going to go and giving them a pathway to achieve their goals,” adds Talusan. “And if we can connect them to potential companies that can help them slash away at their GHG emissions over the next 10 years, that’s even better.”

And the public procurement–focused mission aims to build on this development by sharing resources with all levels of government. In the coming months, MaRS and the Circular Innovation Council are looking to develop an open online resource and solutions database that acts as a one-stop-shop for public buyers and private sellers of net zero-related products, services and information.


The best way forward is working together

One hurdle, particularly for small cities and towns, is a lack of staff to focus on reaching reduction targets. “If you’ve got one person who’s expected to manage all the projects for the municipality, it’s really hard,” says Talusan.

The idea driving another MaRS’ initiative, Climate Action Accelerator to Net Zero (CAAN0), is that it needs to be easier for communities to adopt solutions. Part of the public procurement mission, CAAN0 aims to help ease procurement issues by providing resources to help them identify, select and aggregate projects and — most critically — access funding. A third-party fund manager identifies retrofit projects for municipalities that will drive their emissions reductions and energy savings for both public and private sector buildings. Then it helps them access capital.

“The funding that is out there is often too large-scale for smaller municipalities to access,” explains Talusan. Their projects are often not that big, so they are not able to apply for funding to the Canada Infrastructure Bank, for example, which invests in larger projects. Through CAAN0, a fund manager can bundle together projects across municipalities to get the necessary scale to bring in the investment that’s needed.

Collaboration is the mandate as well for Buyers for Climate Action, a federally funded group of large-volume green buyers committed to achieving net zero by 2050. “It’s about looking at purchasing and how it can be done more effectively and sustainably, and whether there are opportunities to work together and combine purchasing for value,” says Nowlan.

“The problem is just so complex that it requires systems change,” Talusan says. “It’s not something that one party can do on their own. If that were the case, this wouldn’t be an issue at all — we’d have solved it already.”

Since declaring a climate emergency, Canmore has made many changes. Among other initiatives, any newly constructed municipal building must be LEED certified, and there are now almost 3,000 solar panels on existing buildings. The town has also begun to electrify local and regional transit systems — local buses are free of charge to encourage riders — and added safe bicycle paths.

Through FCM, Canmore is also taking advantage of an incentive that gives homeowners access to low-interest loans for retrofitting. That means if someone is improving insulation of their home, for instance, financing can be paid off through property tax or a utility bill. “As it’s paid off, the principle is returned and that’s cycled back into the community,” explains Jeca Carrière, FCM’s senior manager of capacity development. “It’s more economically self-sustaining.” Another bonus? It doesn’t cost the municipality anything.

Carrière says it would be close to impossible to find a city, town or village anywhere in Canada that isn’t doing something — whether it’s getting organic waste out of landfill, improving bus service or putting in LEDs for street lighting.

But there isn’t really another option — change will happen, and people like Canmore’s mayor and Toronto’s Nowlan understand that it’s better to drive that change than be driven. “We recognize that climate change is not some distant thing — it is something that’s going to affect us all,” says Krausert. “We wanted to set an example for other communities and do our part so we’re not relying on others to do it for us.”

Mission from MaRS: Net Zero is working to promote the wide-scale adoption of climate technologies to build a more sustainable planet. Learn about the Climate Champions who will be a part of the public procurement-focused mission at a special event December 8. Register here.

Image source: iStock