Climate Battles: Where We Go From Here

Yesterday Councillors heard an update on our Energy Transition Strategy. Our original strategy, approved in 2015, no longer does the job. The proposed new approach is to keep us within a carbon budget consistent with a global 1.5-degree celsius warming limit. This warming limit was a key part of the Edmonton Declaration, approved in 2018 and endorsed by more than 4,500 cities around the world. However, with this great buy-in comes a sobering update on our own carbon emissions at home. It’s time to update our strategy – fast! 

Cities contribute 70 percent of global emissions and therefore have a critical responsibility for dealing with their effects. As it stands, the world has about 600 gigatonnes of emissions left in its carbon budget until 2050, (including all greenhouse gases equated to carbon) in order to keep warming below 1.5 degrees. 

Edmonton’s share of this budget, calculated between 2017 and 2050, is 155 megatonnes (MT). We currently emit 19 MT a year. On our current track, we’re set to spend this budget by 2027 unless ambitious action is taken immediately. Thinking in terms of reducing emissions by X percent below Y year’s level no longer applies. Carbon budgets are based on the best science available and provide the most precise way for us to measure and track our progress. They’re not based on arbitrary numbers but are instead calculated based on the emissions we’re allowed to keep warming below a certain level.

To meet our climate targets, we have to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions per person from 20 tonnes annually today to 3.2 tonnes annually by 2030. By 2050, this needs to come down to 0 tonnes. A reduction from 20 to 3.2 sounds enormous, and it is, but it’s worth noting that in Winnipeg, emissions per capita are nearly half that of Edmonton. In Stockholm, emissions per capita are around 4.5 tonnes per capita and falling. These are cold cities like Edmonton that have made significant progress in reducing their greenhouse gas consumption.

The report today provided an overview of what we can do as a city to stay within our carbon budget. This climate shift is built on six key pillars; 1) Using the right tools and targets, 2) Low-carbon city planning and zero-emissions transportation, 3) Carbon-neutral buildings, 4) Wide adoption of renewable energy, 5) Ensuring that the shift is just and equitable, and 6) the all-important negative emissions. These pillars apply to the City of Edmonton but they also apply to our citizens.

Effectively, we need to cut 17 tonnes per person by 2030. So how do we do that as individuals, communities, and industries? We know that high-level systems changes are needed but citizens have an equally vital role to play. We have to go on a permanent carbon diet in order to limit warming. How do we start? Where should we wage our climate battles?

First, we need to set the right targets and use the right tools. As a City, that means using the carbon budget and staying within that. As of 2017, we had 155 megatonnes left to spend until 2050 and we’re withdrawing 19 per year. Our current rate of spending is simply not feasible, something has to change. The carbon budget is the right tool and the right target. This tool will also help reshape our Change for Climate program, designed to assist individuals and families in reducing their carbon footprint. If the average Edmontonian has to shift from 20 tonnes per year to 3 real changes will be required, like flying, buying, and driving less. 

Second, city planning and zero-emissions transportation. This battle requires us to engage more with our local communities. For some folks, active transportation like biking simply isn’t feasible, but people can strive to take public transit more often or use vehicles with better fuel economy. As a City, this battle requires us to provide excellent zero-emissions transportation options for our residents. It also forces us to plan our city more densely and to provide more amenities locally to make walking preferrable.

Third, carbon-neutral buildings. As a City, we need to incentivize retrofits of old buildings and establish minimum green building standards for new developments. In 2017, Council approved a new sustainable building policy for all City owned, leased, or funded properties. I think that this policy can be implemented city-wide, starting with leadership from the City. Greater energy efficiency saves energy and, in the long run, it saves property owners money. Paying less for heating, water, and electricity while also reducing your emissions? That’s a change that everyone can get behind.

Fourth, renewable energy. The city currently has a strategy in place to procure renewable energy for 100% of our energy needs by 2050. As individuals, we can invest in or rent solar panels for our homes, but this is often challenging for folks to afford upfront. A way to make this way easier is the property assessed clean energy (PACE) program. PACE provides financial assistance for residential and commercial property owners to install renewable energy and/or retrofit their buildings. Owners who do so receive the installation cost back monthly on their property tax bills using savings derived from smaller energy bills.

Fifth, ensuring that the shift is just and equitable. The large changes demanded by our climate fight cannot leave anyone behind. The effects of shifting our society and economy toward carbon neutrality are not equally distributed. This means that we need to support those who work in carbon-intensive sectors as they transition to greener industries. We also need to be cognizant of those who can’t afford to suddenly shift their lifestyle patterns and to make this shift as easy on them as possible. We also can’t preach at or shame people. We need everyone on board.

Finally, negative emissions. For all of our best-laid plans, this fight will not be won without the drawing down of existing emissions in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide takes 10-15 years from first being emitted before it causes warming. This means that even if we halted all emissions today, the world would continue warming for over a decade. We need negative emissions. An important way we can achieve this is by preserving our surrounding farmland. This land plays a vital role in our local food ecosystem and sequesters carbon in the process, particularly when certain crops are grown.

The fight of our lives…

This climate fight won’t be won in a day, nor will it be won by a small group of us. This fight is comprised of many smaller battles being waged by each of us together. The scope of this challenge requires that governments and citizens alike buy-in and make changes as part of a new carbon diet. If we can do that together, with ambition, ownership, and optimism? That’s how we’ll win.

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