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Opinion Our cities can lead the challenge to solve climate change

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Megan Kallin is a student in the masters of public policy program at the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance.

The polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, the average global temperature is increasing, and natural disasters are wreaking havoc. We have reached a global consensus that climate change is real, it is happening now, and we must collectively take action. So, why is it that top world leaders cannot reach an agreement? If not them, then who else can take effective action?

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Climate change is mired in complexity. It is a cross-border problem that affects us all. Solving climate change comes at a cost though, one that no single country seems willing to pay unless others agree to it too. Time and time again, Canada and many other top carbon-emitting countries fail to enact or sustain seemingly obvious policy solutions.

As millennials we are inheriting this problem from our parents' and grandparents' generations, due to sustained inaction. This failure to act – on climate change as well as many other important issues – leaves us with little faith in our democratic institutions' ability to solve the world's greatest problems. Some of us who are optimists seek democratic reform and new avenues for change, while others are left frustrated and disillusioned. While we may see climate change as the most important issue of the day, how can we become politically engaged on it?

Canadian provinces also have trouble attempting to fight climate change, without a nationwide strategy. Look at British Columbia, which has imposed a carbon tax, but would not have been able to do so without exempting major emitters like the oil industry. Otherwise, it would have lost these industries to Alberta. At the national level, on the other hand, tariffs can be imposed in order to maintain competitiveness. How can we ever hope to solve climate change without changing the behaviour of the oil industry?

These setbacks do not mean that we should stop advocating for our national and provincial governments to take action on climate change. Indeed, in order to make truly significant progress, we need to have both of these orders of government on board. Yet, progress on solving climate change does not necessarily need to start there. Given decades of inaction, perhaps it is time that we started thinking about the problem differently, being more innovative, and most importantly, thinking outside the nation-state box.

What is often overlooked in the talk about climate change policy is the role that cities and regional governments can play in helping to solve the problem. More than half of the world's population now lives in cities. In Canada, more than 80 per cent of the population lives in cities. In addition, more than 80 per cent of carbon emissions worldwide come from cities. Cities are an important source of the problem.

So, why not invite cities to be part of the solution? There is a great deal that cities can do (and that many are already doing), like improving public transportation, introducing more bicycle lanes, developing mixed-use neighbourhoods, planting trees, and upgrading old buildings to be more energy-efficient. There are international city organizations like ICLEI (the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) – Local Governments for Sustainability, which are enabling cities to act together and to share best practices. Cities do not need to wait for top world leaders to reach an agreement. International city mayors can make their own agreements with each other, or simply take action and develop their own climate change strategies.

Mayors are pragmatists and problem-solvers. Cities are constantly adapting to modern challenges, unlike our provincial and national governments, which are much more rigid institutions that are struggling to keep up to the complexity of the modern age. Cities are the world's oldest institutions, yet they have adapted. In Canada, they may be the institutions best positioned to initiate strategies on climate change, and they have a responsibility to do so.

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In the end though, we need to have a national strategy and a global one. We cannot hope to solve climate change without these. Moreover, we cannot afford to wait any longer. With the price of oil at an all-time low, there has never been a better time to put a price on carbon. Even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has taken the position that they would support a nationwide carbon tax, cap-and-trade system or renewable energy incentive program.

The solution should be obvious. Yet, perhaps it will take the bold actions of our cities to finally convince our provincial and national leaders that climate change is something worth solving. Cities, lead the way.

This article is part of a Globe and Mail series on the role of Canadian institutions in partnership with The Walter Gordon Symposium – a two-day public policy conference co-hosted by the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance and Massey College.

This year's symposium, titled Confronting Complexity: Better Ways Of Addressing Our Toughest Policy Problems, will explore how the media, private sector, governments, and supranational organizations factor into the policymaking process in our increasingly complex and changing society.

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