Municipalities Series: Achieving your sustainability goals

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A sustainability plan is a vital must-have for any city that is serious about climate change and reducing its emissions.

Read the rest our Municipalities Series here:


  • Many North American municipalities have not implemented Climate Action Plans (CAPs), or have incomplete initiatives in place. Regional leaders can provide encouragement and inspiration for cities looking for meaningful climate strategies.
  • Engaging residents, incorporating public input and oversight, and making CAPs legally binding are key factors for success.
  • Grand gestures and sweeping statements are often not the best policy, municipalities should first focus on those areas where they can make the biggest changes based on local conditions.

By 2050, 70% of the global population will reside in cities, and urban dwellers are already the source of 75% of total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) today. While national and international cooperation is essential – sustainable cities and human developments are included in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – cities can take a leading role in promoting change.

This is not a hypothetical based on a future tech sure, rather “using technologies and policies that exist today, cities could cut their carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2050.”

Such a reduction alone would push the global community 60% of the way to the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal to limit warming to no more than two degrees Celsius. 30% of this reduction could be accomplished through the electrification of processes traditionally reliant on fossil fuels, and a further 30% through improvements in building efficiency.

According to a 2020 report by Brookings, “climate cooperation is a followership game in which leaders should pay closer attention to which factors scale; and which green steps inspire actions by others.”

This sentiment is especially important in North America because municipalities in this region lag behind many European cities regarding climate action planning. Those cities recognized as green leaders can thus have an outsized effect by encouraging others and by demonstrating proof of concept. Alex Chapman, executive director of Our Energy Guelph explains that:

“Goals and targets don’t accomplish anything by themselves. However, if they translate into action, they can telegraph intent and galvanize the market to step up and provide solutions. For example, more and more cities are setting end dates for allowing internal combustion engine vehicles. Auto manufacturers have responded with commitments to add more electric models to their line-ups and increase the EV share of sales. Where there is clear leadership, there will be real change.”

One of these leaders is Vancouver, which has been at the forefront of green initiatives for decades. Alongside various technological advances, Vancouver also owes its success to the city’s commitment to community engagement.

Vancouver’s Greenest City Plan consulted 35,000 people, with 9,500 residents adding their insights and suggestions to the working plan. Approved in 2011, the city reached 80% of the plan’s goal by 2014. The remaining 20% was deemed too expensive or no longer relevant due to changing circumstances.

Toronto also includes residents in its climate plans, including hosting presentations at local town halls and selecting 30 randomly chosen volunteers representative of Toronto’s diverse populace acting as a “citizen jury” to provide input on the TransformTO plan.

In part thanks to robust citizen engagement, Toronto has managed to achieve its goal of a 30% reduction in emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 2020 ahead of time. Specifically, city wide emissions were 44% lower than 1990 levels in 2017. The city is aiming for a 65% reduction by 2030 and net-zero by 2050.

In the United States, Californian cities have been the most successful at reducing their carbon emissions, reducing the state’s collective GHG output by 47% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2013. Since 1991, more than 600 local governments in the US have adopted Climate Action Plans (CAP); however, there are substantial discrepancies between pledged commitments and concrete results.

As of October 2020, only 45 of the most 100 populous U.S. cities have adopted CAPs, although there has been an uptick in adoption numbers, with 17 of the 45 cities, as mentioned earlier, assuming CAPS since the Trump administration came to power in 2017.

Concerns about a lack of federal leadership spurred many cities to take matters into their own hands. In the future, they will be able to count on Washington’s more robust support thanks to the new Biden administration.

North American sustainability efforts vary greatly by city

That less than half of America’s biggest cities have CAPs is clearly not enough, although if fully met, the commitments of these 45 cities would result in an annual reduction of 365 million tonnes of CO2e – the same as removing 79 million cars from the road.

On top of these goals, these cities need to reduce emissions by an additional 124 million tonnes per year in order to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius warming threshold set out in the Paris Agreement. The fact that larger cities are more likely to implement and stick to CAPs than smaller ones further highlights the need for more substantial action across the board.

As things stand, only 40 million Americans (12% of the total population) living in the 100 largest U.S. cities reside in areas with active and fully formed CAPs.

On top of this, currently, two-thirds of U.S. cities with climate goals are lagging behind their set targets, in part because (with the notable exception of California) most GHG reduction goals are non-binding. Many Canadian cities are faring equally poorly. As such, “most communities have no real incentive to meet tough GHG reduction targets,” notes Brookings.

Some U.S. cities have even seen their emissions drastically increase, with places like Madison, Wisconsin reporting a 30% increase (compared to 2010 levels) in 2014, and Tucson, Arizona a 40% increase (from 1990 levels) in that same year.

“Instead of sweeping manifestos, cities beginning their climate action plans should look at which changes will have the highest impact on local circumstances and focus on these first.”

The tools, technologies, and techniques needed to address this lack of follow through are too extensive to be listed here. Still, there are some simple steps that municipalities can take regarding sustainability plans. As previously mentioned, engaging with citizens is critical.

It is also “beneficial for larger cities to form partnerships with surrounding suburban/exurban cities, metropolitan planning organizations, utility companies, and state / national government agencies,” especially when tackling issues that transcend jurisdictions.

Many cities also find their efforts spread too thin to tackle all possible facets at once. Instead of sweeping manifestos, cities beginning their CAPs should look at which changes will have the highest impact on local circumstances and focus on these first.

Improving the quality of climate pledges is also necessary, as there need to be fewer bold, media-grabbing announcements. Instead, we need to place a greater focus on creating valuable and accountable plans on how reductions occur, notably how pledges are to be politically sustainable (e.g.; not fall victim to short-sighted electoral cycles).

Over 10,000 cities have signed onto the Global Covenant of Mayors, seeking to provide collective support and best practice proliferation to cities looking to tackle their carbon footprint. Municipal-level action is an important catalyst for broader change, as fewer than two in five nations have a coordinated strategy for their cities.

Pioneering green cities also need to focus on how they can turn pledges into reality and provide access to this information in a way that makes it possible to check claim progress. Collaborating on creating a centralized organization or group to tackle data processing can save cities time and resources.

One example is the Global Covenant of Mayors Data4Cities group that provides consistency and transparency regarding climate data from member cities. Establishing a baseline emissions inventory can be impactful since pledges tied to emissions from a specific year need clear reference points. For example, 22 of America’s largest cities have not fully pursued their CAPs because they have not even conducted a GHG inventory.

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