Shauna Sylvester: Going beyond COP26, it’s time for a new order—municipalities first

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      By Shauna Sylvester

      I’m finally leaving the U.K. with COP26 a vague, blurry memory. I’ve watched from a distance as family, friends, and the whole Fraser Valley and Similkameen communities have faced unprecedented flooding. Despite 20 years of working on climate, I never thought B.C. would be declaring a third provincial state of emergency in six months. Even in my worse-case scenarios, I hadn’t thought that climate impacts would be so decisive, quick, and relentless.  

      I struggled with writing my final blog after COP26 because of the heaviness of it all. I wanted to find hope, trace the silver lining, and write about the positives I saw, but I left Glasgow feeling depleted.

      A week later, I’ve found renewed energy and a clearer focus for climate action.

      Nation states are letting us down. They have demonstrated time and time again that they neither have the capacity or the resolve to make the necessary decisions to save us from planetary disaster. Their inability to stand up to fossil-fuel lobbyists and make the difficult decision to stop fossil-fuel production and transition to a clean economy was so clear in the final 48 hours of COP26. Instead of strengthening commitments and resolve, negotiators allowed the texts to be weakened.

      When farms are flooded, roads are washed out, and people are stranded—who cares about global negotiating texts?

      Climate change is real and its impacts are devastating. All of our resources now are directed, as they should be, to helping our neighbours and communities cope with this disaster.

      But let there be no mistake: this disaster is man-made and the texts at COP26 are a demonstration of our governments’ commitment to act. Or as we witnessed, to “phase down” instead of “phase out” coal…to “cap carbon emissions of fossil fuel” not cap production, to stop subsidizing fossil fuel development in other countries, not at home. All clear indications of not acting.

      In our democracy, governments are given the mandate to lead by citizens. If they can’t lead us out of this climate emergency, they need to enable those who can to step forward. And thankfully, in this country, we do have leaders. But they aren’t in our nation’s capital—instead, they are in our municipal and urban centres.

      If we look across this country at where the real reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions have occurred, it is in municipalities and cities where local governments have made the decision to act. Across this country, mayors and councils are declaring a climate emergency and staff are putting the policies, regulations, and programs in place to transition their communities away from fossil-fuel dependence.

      From investing in transit and active transportation infrastructure, supporting green buildings, setting up EV-charging stations, converting their city fleets to electric vehicles, introducing waste-reduction strategies, building renewable district energy systems or planting trees, municipalities are taking the real steps toward creating more livable, safe, and healthier communities.

      Yet, they are not resourced to do so.

      And while local governments are the first to act, they are also the first to step up when disaster hits. When the people of Merritt, Princeton, Hope, and Abbotsford were facing flooding and mudslides, who did they look to for immediate support? Neighbours, first responders, and local government, who in turn had to appeal to provincial and federal sources for support.

      Local governments don’t have the luxury of waiting for federal and provincial committees to study and develop climate frameworks and action plans. Nor do they have time to wait for finance and budget committees to allocate funding envelopes for provincial climate mitigation and adaptation plans that may one day make their way into a municipal financing agreement.

      When the water is rising, the mountainside is falling, and the farms are flooding, local governments must act.

      The climate crisis has made it abundantly clear that our system of federalism doesn’t work. We pay taxes federally and provincially and yet our municipalities are on the front lines and must bear the burden of immediately serving the needs of our communities.

      It is not enough for federal and provincial ministers to say that municipal governments are "good partners" in the fight against climate change. The tables need to turn so that municipal governments are playing a more significant role in directing where our resources are allocated.

      It is time for a tax shift.

      Local governments must have far more than property tax dollars to meet the needs of their communities. Mayors must have a bigger role in setting policy, and the federal and provincial governments must create the enabling conditions including new financing authorities for municipalities to act on climate.

      COP26 demonstrated that nation states are not stepping up to save our communities. So, it is time to allow our communities to step in to save ourselves.


      Shauna Sylvster is executive director of the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and lead convenor of Canadian Cities + COP26. She wrotea regular blog profiling some of the people, initiatives, and ideas in Glasgow from November 1 to 12.