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A man walks in frigid weather at Rundle Park in Edmonton as emissions rise from the Imperial Oil Strathcona Refinery on Dec. 25, 2019,DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Edmonton will miss its target to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 by a long shot unless significant investments are made into climate actions plans, shows one of the first “carbon budgets” released in Canada.

The document shows Alberta’s capital city will deplete its allotted 176 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2037 instead of 2050. It will also will fall eight years short of its corporate target of carbon neutrality by 2040. Edmonton, like many other cities across Canada, declared a climate emergency in 2019.

“One thing is clear: Current investments are not enough. Action is needed to achieve targets as the carbon deficit continues to grow under the current state,” said the budget, created by the city. It states municipal funding will have limited impact on meeting emissions targets, and that other orders of government and private investments are needed to change the tide.

Climate change experts say the carbon budget highlights that the “business as usual” approach to meeting climate goals is failing – and likely in more cities than one – but studies like this can serve as a catalyst for change.

“The power of this carbon budget is it’s showing explicitly to council the type of decisions they’re going to have to make if they want to actually hit their GHG targets and satisfy all the other demands that they have to address,” said Yuill Herbert, director of Sustainability Solutions Group, a worker co-op that advises municipalities and institutions on climate action plans.

“It will be about changing how they do business.”

He used the example of cities updating their construction standards to ensure zero-carbon building for new projects, which may be more costly at first but deliver long-term savings. The current construction approach taken by the City of Edmonton won’t ensure lower, or zero, GHG emissions, he said.

But while cities can either directly, or indirectly, influence about 60 per cent of emissions within their geographic boundary, he said the responsibility does not fall solely on their shoulders. Addressing climate change will require widespread collaboration, especially between the different levels of government.

If the federal and provincial governments also committed to releasing carbon budgets, it could better align common goals to fight the “carbon battle,” said Mr. Herbert.

In Toronto, the city’s environment and energy division said in a statement its climate advisory group, which is made up of 26 community members with expertise on the topic, will provide recommendations to city council on undertaking a carbon budget.

It did not comment on whether Toronto is on track to meet its 2040 net-zero target for GHG emissions or 2030 sector-specific goals, such as ensuring 30 per cent of registered vehicles in Toronto are electric. But, the statement said progress has been made and “hard work is still ahead.”

A 2019 report that measured GHG emissions from energy use in buildings, transportation and waste showed a 38-per-cent reduction from 1990 levels in Toronto. A preliminary review of the 2020 version of that report shows Toronto met its target for another 30-per-cent reduction in emissions that year, according to the division.

“For the most part, the short-term actions found in the TransformTO Net Zero Strategy do not require Toronto to pursue dramatically new climate actions – they require Toronto to do them faster and at a larger scale,” said the statement.

It added that the municipal government does not have the legislative tools or fiscal capacity to achieve climate targets on its own and will require additional approval, authority or action from other levels of government. “Continued and increased funding and financial incentives to encourage consumer uptake from both the provincial and federal governments will be necessary,” it said.

In Calgary, a carbon budget is set to be completed in 2023.

Carolyn Bowen, climate and environment director at the City of Calgary, said in a statement that city council is debating its four-year plan and budget this month. Once approved, it will determine the pace of climate strategies.

An item that will be deliberated through this process is an ambitious $87-billion plan for Calgary to reach its net-zero target for GHG emissions by 2050, which city council adopted in July. It outlined costs of just over $3-billion annually and indicated the need for financial backing from other levels of government and the private sector.

“The climate implementation plan is a realistic and achievable first step toward a modern city that uses less energy and reduces climate risk,” said Ms. Bowen in a statement. “The plan allows for flexibility to respond to advances in science, technology and new funding opportunities in our efforts to scale up carbon reductions.”

Jeff Birchall, director of the Climate Adaptation and Resilience Lab at the University of Alberta, said too often local governments are reactive to the effects of climate change, instead of taking the initiative. Cities must also balance economic and political interests, which can lead to inadequate action being taken.

“When our capitalistic society is driven by constant economic growth, it’s hard to get a handle on climate change and we’ve made an economy out of it, too, when it comes to trying to reduce GHG emissions,” he said.

“The issue associated with that is the efficacy of the reductions. How are you actually reducing these emissions? Are you doing it through you carbon offsetting? Are you genuinely reducing the emissions or is it a function of intensity? Is it a function of how much money your community is generating?”

He said cities across the globe must “kick into a higher gear” and take climate change more seriously, especially as it deepens inequalities for the most poor and vulnerable.

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