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January 07, 2020

Physics Will Not Negotiate

What the climate collision means for our cities

By: Dianne Saxe, L.L.B., Ph.D.

Dr. Dianne Saxe is a leading environmental lawyer and the former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. Dr. Saxe is providing thought leadership for the Future Cities Canada program and key strategic direction on building low-carbon cities.

City councils need to step up.

The climate crisis is not a normal political negotiation between different interests, where solutions come from compromise. The climate crisis is a collision between human beings and physics. Physics does not compromise.

The impacts of the climate crisis have started to accelerate.  Fires, floods, droughts, storms, wind and heat are increasingly severe with no “new normal” in sight. Rather, we are beginning to see the end of “normal.” Past emissions have already locked in hotter, weirder weather for the next 20 years, and what’s coming after that is terrifying.

Much of the climate collision will take place in cities, where most Canadians live. Municipalities own most of Canada’s infrastructure; according to the Expert Panel on Climate Change Risks and Adaptation, they can expect “high consequences” in financial damage to that infrastructure (e.g. billions of dollars of damage a year) in the next 20 years.[i] After that, it’s likely to be worse.

Canadian cities also generate much of our greenhouse gases. A huge and growing number of Canadians live in sprawling, low-density suburbs. As a result, Canadians drive more than ever, in the world’s most climate-polluting cars. As city builders and urban planners have known for decades, urban sprawl forces people to drive to jobs, stores and services, destroys natural areas and agricultural lands, and creates the worst commutes in North America. In Ontario, urban sprawl is our oil sands.

So it makes sense that so many municipalities have adopted climate emergency declarations. But then what?

If we want a world that is “only” 1.5° hotter, i.e. tough but mostly manageable, Canadians must burn only half as much fossil fuel within 10 years, and must get to ZERO net GHGs within 30 years. Although individual choices matter, a transition of this magnitude cannot be achieved by just guilting individuals. For example, no one can be expected to give up their car if they don’t have a reasonable alternative. A central key to a low carbon future is therefore urban form and urban infrastructure that make low carbon options the cheapest, the safest and the most convenient ways for people of all income levels to meet their needs.

The fundamental responsibility for this future lies with city councils. Whether senior governments are helping (as in British Columbia) or hindering (as in Ontario), residents can and should hold councils accountable for what they control, for how they collaborate with others, and for the examples that they set. Time is running out and the stakes could not be higher.

One step forward and four steps back

It is great to declare a climate emergency. But we won’t get a world that remains within the 1.5° threshold if cities keep allowing new ways to burn fossil fuels. That means it is too late for cities to buy, build or permit anything else that uses fossil fuels and encourages their use. It’s too late for new buildings heated with fossil fuels. It’s too late for new highways, new airports or new low-density suburbs. It’s too late for new parking lots, unless they’re just for non-emitting vehicles, e.g. human- or electric-powered.  It’s too late for new fossil-fuel infrastructure.

Instead, we still see municipal councils making climate declarations, then promptly voting for wider roads and new suburbs that will make the climate crisis worse. That is like trying to get out of a hole by continuing to dig it deeper. There is no compromise. It does not work.

The climate crisis is already so severe that the most important job for all city councils and city staff is to both:

  • improve low-carbon choices, such as bicycling, walking and transit, and
  • discourage or limit high-fossil choices

People have a lot to gain

Despite what Evergreen and other city builders have shown for years, most cities have continued to dig this hole by building roads and suburbs. How can this change? Can councils withstand the overwhelming economic and political power of those who get rich from cars and suburbs, and the immense inertia of “the market”?

The climate crisis can usefully force councils to focus on the better quality of life for all in a city that goes green. According to the World Health Organization, the health benefits alone from reducing fossil fuel use are worth twice what the transition will cost, especially for children, and seniors.

Many people want to live and work in cities with reduced congestion and green jobs. Clean Energy Canada reports that Canada already has 298,000 clean energy jobs, as many as work in real estate, and that the sector is growing strongly. The Vancouver Economic Commission proudly reports that its green business sector has grown 35% since 2010, and an average of 7.8% per year in 2015-2017. 

Denser areas have lower taxes and better services. Denser areas can also provide better alternatives to the private car. Montreal and Vancouver reduce congestion and commuting costs with world-leading cycling infrastructure.

And do we really want millions of seniors who can’t drive anymore living in isolated suburbs where they can’t walk anywhere and have no transit access? Or is this just a private family problem for all the unpaid caregivers, who are mostly women?

Carbon budgets can make it real

City builders already know that most people have happier, healthier lives in greener, more compact, low-carbon cities, with great infrastructure for active transportation and transit. Once people have good alternatives, city builders also know how to discourage or limit high-fossil choices, such as road pricing and taxes.  

But it is hard to change the momentum after a century of building fossil fueled cars and suburbs. It is therefore time for every city to have a carbon budget. Carbon budgets make it real and should be non-negotiable. Just as a financial budget forces good measurement, discipline, accountability and hard choices, so does a budget for climate pollution (both that of the corporation and of the community). If that budget is based on science and on respect for our children, it will cut the city’s allowable climate pollution in half in the next ten years. Once councils accept this daunting task, they will have to turn to the low-carbon solutions that city builders have offered for 30 years. And then we can all end up with better lives.

Monday, December 23, 2019 [i] Prepared at the request of the federal government by the Expert Panel on Climate Change Risks and Adaptation