Local elected officials play a pivotal role in climate action. Engaged mayors and councillors are key to ensuring a supportive policy environment and championing the vision of a more resilient community in the face of climate change.
From September 2020 to November 2020, FCM’s Municipalities for Climate Innovation hosted an online course on climate leadership for 93 elected officials from across Canada. The course included sessions with experienced climate leaders, uncovering lessons learned, best practices, and tools aimed at helping mayors and councillors drive their community’s sustainability objectives.
Following a successful course, we interviewed four climate leaders, who participated in the course, to talk about their connection to climate action, their municipality’s journey and what experience they would share.
Below you’ll read the diverse experiences and opinions of climate leaders:
First-term councillor with a background as a Public Health Nurse and history of advocacy for health, wellbeing and safety.
Please note, these interviews have been edited down for length.
What was the context for your community before you started the course in
Nancy Dicks: The Town of New Glasgow was an early adopter of the Partners for Climate Protection program delivered by FCM and ICLEI Canada, having joined in 1998. Like many smaller communities, our efforts stalled over the years due to limited capacity. We were recently able to benefit from MCIP’s climate staff grant, which funded one staff and allowed us to renew our commitment to ambitious climate action.
Nadine Nakagawa: The City of New Westminster is a progressive municipality with good plans and strategies to address climate change, however we need to update all our work to align with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change targets. The community has a supportive and diverse population of around 80,000.
Joey Leckman: The City of Prévost has a population of close to 14,000 people and we are involved in a lot of different initiatives. We are part of the first Showcase Cities cohort of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (GCom) Canada, and recently received a GCOM badge for our emissions inventory. Within Quebec, we have implemented several municipal-led sustainability initiatives, for example a new bylaw that places fees on certain single-use products.
Cathy Moore Coburn: Georgian Bluffs is a municipality of about 10,500 residents who live in rural areas, small villages, and along the western shores of Georgian Bay. We value our many small businesses, agricultural lands, scenic waterfalls, shorelines, and trails. Only a few months ago, climate change had not been identified as a priority, and since that time we have established an official Climate Action Committee, who will begin the process of developing a formal Climate Action Plan in 2021.
What are some of the climate challenges facing your community?
Cathy Moore Coburn: Our municipality faces climate challenges that impact our people and infrastructure, including our natural and built environments. There is an increasing likelihood of severe weather-related events (flooding, drought, hail, lightning, wildfires, shoreline damage due to high water levels and severe winds), which we are now experiencing more frequently. These events impact our agricultural and food production, roads and bridges, municipal facilities, tourism, recreation, and the health, wellbeing, and safety of our residents. Further, these climate-related factors impact our municipality’s risk position regarding insurance claims, premiums, and legal implications.
Nadine Nakagawa: As a built-out community, we have little ability to create new public green spaces. Our city is old so much of the infrastructure does not come close to meeting current standards. We are the geographic centre of Metro Vancouver so we have heavy traffic passing through our community on a daily basis.
Nancy Dicks: We are facing many of the same challenges other municipalities are facing. We’ve set goals for our corporate emissions but we are balancing competing priorities and budgetary concerns that present challenges to climate action. As a coastal province, we are also concerned with the threat from rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and storm surges.
Joey Leckman: Elected officials in Prévost see climate change as a serious global problem and our challenge is to get our act together and be leaders. We want to be able to look our kids in the eyes and say that we did all we could. When it comes to working for the environment, we’re all in this together.
Can you name some of the barriers your municipality faced when trying to plan
or implement local climate initiatives?
Cathy Moore Coburn: Budget considerations — As with any municipality, we have multiple, competing, budgetary demands that require finding the right balance.
Nancy Dicks: It’s important that we are achieving value from our assets and operations to meet the needs of our citizens. For many of the initiatives we’re moving forward, there’s a payback to the municipality or citizens along with many positive outcomes for health and wellbeing. This shift in thinking doesn’t happen overnight, but we are making important strides to incorporate sustainability and climate considerations into our decision making to reduce barriers to implementation in the short and long term.
Nadine Nakagawa: It is always difficult to assign adequate budget to climate crisis work, however embedding the work within other ideas is helpful. It is problematic to continuously present the climate crisis as costing money and causing difficulties, so presenting a positive spin is important.
Joey Leckman: Simple answer: money. To provide one example, we have three old municipal buildings (recreation centre, community centre, and church) that are still heated using oil. The question here is: do we put money into fuel switching or do we wait until we construct a new building, while knowing that we will be contributing to pollution and increased emissions until then? These are decisions we are working through.
Education and awareness
Cathy Moore Coburn: The public, council, and staff have varying levels of knowledge about climate change and its impacts at the local level. Awareness and education remain challenges to be addressed.
Nancy Dicks: With education and awareness, changing our approach from status quo to climate and sustainability at the forefront of decision making is required. Climate action is often looked at as being separate, but it needs to be looked at as an integrated approach to providing services to our citizens. For example, we’re not going to stop plowing the roads next winter because we’re focusing all our efforts on climate change action. It’s not one over the other, climate action needs to be embedded into our decision-making framework.
Staff resources for planning
Nadine Nakagawa: The community can be very resistant to change. For example, in reallocating road space, we’ve seen many criticisms and outcries from neighbourhoods that have been impacted. The city doesn’t often have time or resources to implement a change management strategy. So much of addressing the climate crisis involves planning to do the work and this is costly and onerous.
What are some of the climate actions your community pursed? What are climate initiatives other communities can pursue?
Nancy Dicks: Over the last year and a half, here’s an overview of what has been recommended and passed:
Greenhouse gas emissions inventory for corporate and community emissions
Council approved Corporate GHG emission reduction target (30% below 2018 levels by 2030)
Council approved Corporate Climate Change Action Plan
Property Assessed Clean Energy Program – our PACE By-Law was approved in December and we will be launching our program this year
The launch of the Pictou County Fridays for Future Youth Climate Council (and regular meetings of the group)
New Committee: Community Climate Action Committee
Joined the Global Covenant of Mayors and were part of the Canadian Showcase Cities Pilot Program. Completed our first badge for Mitigation!
Development of a Heat Alert Response Strategy with our Regional Emergency Management Organization
We’re in the process of completing energy retrofits for our Town owned and operated buildings through an Energy Savings Performance Contract – targeting 25-30% GHG reductions.
Water Treatment Plant renewable energy feasibility study (in progress)
And my personal favourite - our new corporate anti idling policy
Nadine Nakagawa: We are prioritizing this work in the budget by having staff dedicated to updating plans such as Combined Energy Efficiency Rating and Community Energy and Emissions Plan. We are building awareness about the work we’re undertaking and making efforts to bring people along in understanding why it is a priority. We are also working on having our communications highlight the positives.
Joey Leckman: We have approximately 150 actions in our Green Plan. Some examples of these actions include:
Establishment of a network of park-and-ride lots (17)
Purchase of electric and hybrid vehicles for the municipal fleet. More than 40% of our fleet is electric!
Creation of a vehicle sharing system that allows citizens to rent municipal vehicles after 6pm and on weekends
Installation of charging stations to facilitate electric mobility for staff and citizens
Creation of new grant programs to facilitate and encourage green options
Tightening of environmental regulations for new residential and commercial construction
Cathy Moore Coburn: Our actions taken to date are:
Acknowledgement of the significance of climate change and the need for adaptation and mitigation strategies at the municipal level
Initiation of an official climate change committee of council that includes 5 members of the public
Engaging local experts in climate science and using their expertise to inform the committee work
Presentation to council on the science of climate change and its impacts locally, with projections
Creation of a detailed committee work-plan to formalize strategies and timelines
Recommendations brought forward to council including funding for the development of a formal climate action plan
Networking with neighbouring municipalities and the upper tier to share knowledge, process, resources
Commissioning a study on the feasibility of increasing the potential of our Biodigester to process more source-separated organic matter, resulting in less waste sent to landfill and more biogas power generation to be fed back into the grid
Affirming our commitment to the use of relevant authorities and official documents in the planning process and operations that ensure we continue to mitigate risks
Installation of solar panels on a community centre and works shed
Installation of LED lighting in community centres
Switch to salt pre-mixed with sand at an appropriate ratio for roads work to lessen environmental damage caused by pure salt on our roads
What would you say to an elected official who has not yet considered the benefits of addressing climate in their community?
Nadine Nakagawa: Taking action on climate encourages the next generation to have faith in elected leaders and to become more politically and civically engaged. We have an enormous opportunity to use the climate crisis to build a better community that is more equitable and socially connected.
Joey Leckman: People are happy when they see their municipality acting on climate issues. Our citizens are proud and have a sense of belongingness and accomplishment. I would say stop seeing the challenges related to budget and start to frame the conversation with an eye to the pride that your citizens will have. There is a list of best cities to live in Quebec that gets printed every two years, and prior to our actions, the City of Prévost had never made the list. Now we are #8. People are proud.
Cathy Moore Coburn: Despite the obstacles, keep moving forward. Celebrate even your small steps and successes along the way. I also recommend setting clear objectives and timelines while keeping your eye on your overarching goals, and seek out climate change champions, allies, and supporters in your municipality who can help you maintain the momentum.
Nancy Dicks: Climate change is an incredibly important issue and also a tremendous opportunity to promote sustainability, community resilience and a low carbon future. The opportunity to participate in FCM’s course and working with our Climate Change and Sustainability Manager, inspired me to be more purposeful in advancing climate action with staff and Council to act responsibly for the future of our community. It’s exciting to be part of this transformational work.
Resources for elected officials striving to make climate changes in their community
Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis, book by David Miller
This resource was developed by the Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program (2017-2022). This program was delivered by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and funded by the Government of Canada.