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Cities want more of a say in fighting climate change

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This week:

  • Cities want more of a say in fighting climate change
  • Tracking global warming from space
  • Why it matters to the world if China delivers on its carbon targets

Cities want more of a say in fighting climate change

Cities want more of a say in fighting climate change
(Christer Waara/CBC)

What On Earth36:23Why cities are key to cutting carbon

As all eyes turn to COP 26 in Glasgow, we hear the case for cities to get more money and power as they find themselves on the frontlines of climate change. 36:23

Given that the majority of the global population lives in urban centres, cities are responsible for organizing many of the activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, such as public transportation, land use planning and construction.

And yet as countries roll out pledges to tackle the climate crisis, many cities are finding they don’t have the input and leeway they need to transition to a greener economy.

“Cities are at the front edge of dealing with this crisis,” said Shauna Sylvester, executive director at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

Urban areas are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with wildfires and rising sea levels being just two of several threats that Vancouver and other Canadian cities have had to face this year alone, she said.

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: ask@cbc.ca or join us live in the comments now.

This summer’s heat dome “is an example of what British Columbia went through,” Sylvester said in an interview with What On Earth host Laura Lynch. But because of a lack of political or financial leverage, cities “don’t have the capacity to really take action and deal with the issues that they have to confront.”

Sylvester is the lead convener of Cities on the Road to Glasgow, a working group on climate action, and will be attending the COP26 climate summit in Scotland next month. At the top of her list of demands for cities is more money, more authority and a seat at the climate negotiating table.

“We want a very different kind of relationship which is much closer and acknowledges the role that cities play in climate action,” said Sylvester, “and gives them the capacity to act, since [cities] control about 60 per cent of the emissions.”

Under the Paris Agreement, Canada’s new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) is a pledge to reduce emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Sylvester said this ambitious commitment requires both significant funding and quick, decisive action from all levels of government.

A report from the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue includes a number of calls to action, including the recognition of cities in the NDC, federal and provincial funding to advance climate efforts and support in data collection to inform policy creation. 

CBC reached out to Environment and Climate Change Canada for comment on Sylvester’s suggestions, but did not receive a response in time for publication. 

Another solution suggested by Sylvester is to embed city representatives in each of the federal ministries and create formalized relationships so that cities have a clear part to play in national and international negotiations and policy development.

“Ultimately, whatever Canada agrees to internationally has to come home to roost,” said Sarah Burch, Canada Research Chair in sustainability, governance and innovation and associate professor in the department of geography and environmental management at the University of Waterloo. “It hits the ground, really, in cities and communities in Canada and around the world.”

Burch emphasized the need for each level of government to work together and for cities to have a say in the governance, tools and policies that will be implemented within their jurisdiction.

“We will inevitably and continuously fail to make speedy-enough progress if all levels of government aren’t pulling in the same direction on this,” said Burch.

These changes would also present an opportunity to share potential solutions among cities.

“We need to roughly halve global emissions by 2030 if we’re to have any chance whatsoever of avoiding the worst effects of climate change,” said David Miller, a former mayor of Toronto and managing director of international diplomacy for C40 Cities, a global alliance of city mayors.

“That means we need to take things that are working now, somewhere, and do them everywhere. And the best examples of what’s working somewhere to lower greenhouse gas emissions and improve people’s lives are in cities.” 

One solution he highlighted is broad electrification of public transportation, such as in Shenzhen, China, where both the taxi and bus fleets are entirely electric. Meanwhile, New York City has mandated that existing commercial buildings over a certain size have to cut their emissions by 40 per cent by 2030.

C40 is a partner in the global Race to Zero campaign that’s been growing ahead of COP26 to mobilize businesses, cities, regions and investors to make pledges and plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. 

“People are in cities, our economies are in cities and greenhouse gas emissions are in cities,” said Miller. “That means that where there are solutions, there is a huge opportunity to address climate change.”

Dannielle Piper

Reader feedback

Last week, reader John Manuel astutely pointed out that despite all the concern about climate change, CBCNews.ca did not have a dedicated Climate category on its site. 

This week, CBCNews.ca editor in chief Brodie Fenlon published a blog post explaining how CBC will expand its climate coverage in the lead-up to the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland — and beyond. You can read it here.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show and podcast! Canada has strengthened its Paris Agreement targets, but ahead of COP26, critics say ongoing oil and gas production means Canada has “one eye shut” when it comes to climate policy. We hear the arguments and what might be a first step toward a solution. What On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.


The Big Picture: Tracking climate change from space

You may have heard — how could you not? — that 90-year-old William Shatner made a 10-minute foray into space last week aboard a rocket from Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin. Much of the coverage centred on the pop cultural significance of Capt. Kirk’s journey, but Shatner’s own reflections on the trip were more sobering. “I was moved to tears by what I saw, and I come back … overwhelmed by sadness and empathy for this beautiful thing we call Earth.” Indeed, the view from up there seems both humbling and clarifying. Last week, a group of space scientists and politicians came together at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to discuss ways to use a variety of space-oriented technologies — including satellite data, 3D imaging and new radar and laser applications — to produce a more complete picture of the scale of climate change on Earth. As former U.S. senator and current NASA administrator Bill Nelson told the group, “I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but in truth, this discussion is about saving our planet.” Leveraging the tools available to NASA to adapt to global warming is by no means a new idea, but any efforts to take advantage of them were effectively scuppered during Donald Trump’s years as U.S. president. The potential is quite profound. For example, a platform called OpenET uses NASA data about “evapotranspiration” — that is, how water moves from land to the atmosphere — in order to help farmers and other stakeholders to make improvements in water management.

Cities want more of a say in fighting climate change
(NASA via Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


Why it matters to the world if China delivers on its carbon targets

Cities want more of a say in fighting climate change
(Florence Lo/Reuters)

It has been well documented, most recently in last week’s International Energy Agency report, that the world’s governments have failed to keep up with their climate promises.

That is why as the globe prepares for the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, starting Oct. 31, analysts are watching whether the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China, is actually on track to meet its own objectives. 

It’s pledged that its carbon emissions will peak “around 2030,” if not earlier, en route to net-zero emissions by 2060. 

Some independent analysts say it could happen: a combination of central government authority and a national commitment to technological change mean the country could succeed. But with Beijing boosting coal production and juggling a number of challenges at home, that’s far from certain. 

As the workshop to the world, China cranks out about 27 per cent of global greenhouse gases and many international analysts see the country’s success as crucial to keeping the planet from overheating.

“No [climate] pledge is as significant as China’s,” declare the authors of the IEA’s roadmap to carbon neutrality in China.

Some analysts offer scenarios where China fails to meet the ambitious targets promised by leader Xi Jinping (photo above). Missteps could include a property crash, a domestic economic downturn and an insatiable demand for energy that can only be met by fossil fuels. An outbreak of hostilities over Taiwan likely wouldn’t help.

Others question whether Xi, who said last week he won’t be attending the Glasgow summit, can simultaneously navigate a recently articulated fight against inequality — his “common prosperity” agenda — while meeting the country’s climate goals. 

Even as Beijing instructed its banks to stop lending for the construction of international coal-powered plants, the country has just announced it is responding to a domestic electricity shortage by upping fossil fuel generating capacity at home.

The test for China is whether national carbon output will reach its promised peak by 2030, which experts say is not necessarily in conflict with current coal-powered increases.

“Carbon peaking means it keeps going up until the peak, obviously,” said Scott Vaughan, an economist and senior fellow at the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development who specializes in China. “Analysis I’ve seen is that 80 per cent of those emissions are on track to peak by 2025, so really, the next three years, and then you start driving down those emissions.”

Some analysts say the 2030 target for peak carbon output would be relatively attainable because planners had set the goal in a way that would make it certain not to miss.

With about 58 per cent of China’s energy now coming from coal, Vaughan does not think reaching either goal will be easy, partly because of a “risk of social discontent,” which Beijing would have to take seriously. 

Nonetheless, Vaughan said Beijing faces strong domestic pressure to meet or exceed both its targets, pressure that he believes is motivated by a popular backlash against China’s previous environmentally destructive development.

“The challenge is tremendous,” said political economist Wei Shen, a British scholar, who along with Canada’s Mark Jaccard and others is already working on next year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

On the bright side, Shen said, China’s top-down system of government has guided dramatic environmental successes in the recent past. He cites the central government’s moves to reduce urban air pollution following a red alert and public outcry in 2015, taking it from from horrible to merely bad.

But he said an authoritarian system of government can be a double-edged sword. Beijing’s pressure on regional governments to raise GDP has been blamed for the overbuilding in the property sector. Pressure on local authorities to reach climate targets may have contributed to recent electricity shortages.

In terms of carbon output, said Shen, the country is divided into two distinct parts: poorer provinces like Guizhou and Shanxi that remain heavily dependent on coal for power and jobs, and rich cities like Shenzhen, a worldwide leader in green technology. It is the poorest areas that will likely feel the brunt of climate change policy.

China has invested heavily to bring down the global price of wind turbines and solar panels, and Vaughan says that renewables already generate about 30 per cent of China’s power, more than the U.S. or Canada. Shen says there are more innovations in the pipeline.

“I think the Chinese deeply believe in technology,” said Shen. He said the current view in Beijing is that European domination during the previous century was because of China’s backward technology. Investing in renewable power, efficiency, clean transport and battery tech is part of a calculated strategy to lead rather than follow.

“They think that technology is the central pillar for solving the problems of climate change,” he said. “They deeply believe that technology can save the world.”

Don Pittis

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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