People running, walking and cycling on a tree-lined road

How Cities Can Make 1.5°C a Reality

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlines that the window of opportunity to limit global heating to 1.5°C is closing quickly. It also makes clear that cities—which account for 70% of global emissions—can help humanity through the window if they act immediately and strategically. They can also help ease the impact of the widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere that are already wreaking havoc on weather systems around the globe. Here, we present eight key takeaways from the IPCC report for climate action by local governments.

1. Cities must move beyond reducing carbon; they must remove it too.

We can no longer simply reduce emissions. To stay within 1.5 degrees, the IPCC report states that “in addition to limiting cumulative emissions, CO2 removal (CDR) will be necessary.”

Cities can deploy a handful of approaches to do this. Sequestering carbon through planting trees, rewilding fields, and creating green spaces are common choices. Adopting no-till and regenerative agriculture practices are others. Cities can also employ emerging technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS, which stores CO2 from energy produced through biomass burning) and direct air capture.

Municipal regulations also have a role to play. For example, in 2019, the County of Marin in California’s Bay Area passed the Low Carbon Concrete Code to limit construction concrete production emissions—the first policy of its kind in North America. Others have followed suit, with Langford, BC, becoming the first Canadian jurisdiction with such a policy. Since June 2022, Langford has required city-owned or solicited projects to use concrete produced with post-industrial carbon dioxide mineralization technologies or other techniques that achieve lower embodied CO2

Downtown Toronto’s Villiers Island aims to be Canada’s first climate positive neighbourhood. SSG’s work with WATERFRONToronto determined how the community can achieve this goal. With highly energy efficient buildings, a deep geothermal energy facility, on-building solar PV generation, and low embodied carbon materials, the development will provide homes for around 10,000 people while accommodating almost 3,000 jobs. The deep geothermal facility will satisfy all heating requirements for Villiers Island and is sized to export a great deal more energy to neighbouring planned and existing developments. 

 2. Every community must to be on a climate action pathway.

Every single community needs to be on a pathway to net-zero emissions or beyond by 2050, preferably sooner. The IPCC report is clear “urban systems are critical for achieving deep emissions reductions.” For local governments, a climate action plan identifying investments and policies required to decarbonize society is the first step. Emission reduction and climate positive actions in the plan can outline associated policy benefits, such as public health improvements, energy bill savings, and fresher air. 

Some communities’ plans focus on energy poverty reduction or economic growth. For example, SSG’s work with Bridgewater, NS, on its Community Energy Investment Plan (CEIP) outlines how retrofits, solar panels, and district heating systems can reduce historically high energy bills while keeping energy dollars within the community. 

Other communities use analysis on these additional benefits to make the case for action. We’ve worked with communities like Vancouver, Toronto, Tacoma, and many others to figure out how climate action can reduce energy costs for the average household, create jobs, and improve access to walking and cycling, which leads to better public health. 

Figure SPM.6 from the IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report shows that if we don’t take actions that set us on a path to limiting warming by 2030, we will have fewer options available. Image: IPCC, 2023.


3. Cities will benefit most from immediate, sustained climate action investment.

Climate action can be costly, but inaction will be far costlier, and cities will end up footing a large part of the bill. Recent studies have determined that inaction on climate change will cost an unimaginable US$178 trillion over the next 50 years, globally. 

All financial modelling SSG has performed on dozens of municipal climate action plans indicates that communities hit break even points on community-wide climate action investments within 5 to 15 years. After that, cities, homeowners, vehicle owners, businesses, institutions, and others reap the financial benefits of avoided energy costs, operation and maintenance costs, and carbon taxes. Many of these entities are also planning for significant revenues from renewable energy generation sales. Our recent work with Toronto discovered that achieving citywide net-zero emissions by 2040 will be less costly than achieving it by 2050.

If cities wait to invest, they will have to spend more money at some point in the future to take mitigation and adaptation actions—when the challenges and impacts are greater as a result of inaction. Meanwhile, the climate is changing so rapidly that communities can no longer afford to focus on either mitigation or adaptation at the expense of the other. “Deep, rapid and sustained mitigation and accelerated implementation of adaptation reduces the risks of climate change for humans and ecosystems,” according to the IPCC report.  

4. Cities must stop making investments that lock-in emissions.

For municipalities, the largest emissions reductions continue to be found in buildings and transportation. For both, land-use policies are powerful tools that municipalities can wield to avoid making investments in infrastructure that lock-in emissions. When cities implement net-zero building standards, it decreases the energy and cost to heat, cool, and power buildings. 

In the City of Nanaimo, British Columbia, land-use bylaws support densification by limiting development to within city bounds, rather than expanding into the surrounding area. This enables “10-minute communities” where residents are able to walk, run, roll, cycle, or transit to places where they work, learn, or play. Not only does this type of compact community reduce emissions and air pollution from cars, it also facilitates greater opportunities for social connection.   

Figure SPM.7b from the IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report indicating the significant reductions to emissions that can be gained through changes in transportation and buildings. Image: IPCC, 2023.

5.Cities need to track their climate action effects.

1,136 cities around the world have committed to achieving net-zero community greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at the latest. However, commitments don’t reduce emissions, actions do. The IPCC stresses throughout the report that monitoring and evaluation are essential to meet emissions targets.  Cities must report on their emission reductions using evaluation and monitoring processes that allow tracking and tweaking of actions. 

Carbon budgets are a tool that can operationalize evaluation and monitoring by setting a cap on how much a city can emit. Akin to a fiscal budget, governments must budget for the emissions of every decision they make. SSG created Canada’s first carbon budget with Edmonton. The City’s first annual carbon budget report alerted them that, based on their current operations, they were on track to blow their 176 million carbon budget in 13 years. The carbon budget allows them to course-correct and take more aggressive actions to curb their emissions before it’s too late. 

6. Cities can use climate action to address inequities and injustices.

The devastating effects of climate change disproportionately affect vulnerable populations. Climate actions can counter this trend if they are designed so vulnerable groups can participate and have access to the benefits. 

Many cities have committed to retrofit existing buildings for energy efficiency, but low-income households can be left behind if they can’t afford the retrofits or don’t have the means for upfront investments in exchange for rebates. Not only are these households unable to participate in reducing emissions from their homes, they also can’t benefit from the lower energy bills and improved comfort that retrofits provide. To prevent this, cities can work with other levels of government to subsidize energy efficiency retrofits for low-income housing. 

Similarly, poor and racialized areas of many cities lack greenspace. Cities can counter this issue by bringing more trees, fields, and green roofs to these communities, which will keep the neighbourhood cooler during heat waves and more enjoyable to live in. Better yet? Involving communities in identifying where greenspace is most needed and how they can be involved in bringing it to life. 

Low-income and other vulnerable groups should be involved in the development of actions from the get go. They have the expertise to help policymakers figure out what will and won’t be a success in their communities.

7. Cities need funding—along with a business case—to enable action.

Yes, it saves money and improves people’s lives, but the upfront costs of climate action are high. The IPCC identifies that there is an insufficient mobilization of finance towards the costs for taking immediate action.

Recent funding commitments from the Canadian and US governments are encouraging. The Inflation Reductions Act allocates US$5 billion for US states, local governments, and Tribes to develop and implement climate action plans (distributed through the US Environmental Protection Agency as Climate Pollution Reduction Grants). For its part, Canada has allocated C$1.6 billion for municipal climate action projects funded by the Green Municipal Fund. More will be needed. We recommend local governments band together to make the case for more federal and state/provincial support.  

Making a business case for upfront investment can be helpful. For example, the Town of Whitby, Ontario, worked with SSG to develop a climate action plan based on modelling its exposure to climate hazards. The analysis found that a large area slated for development would experience C$17 billion in damage because it was expected to become a flood zone. With these numbers, the Town’s leadership could handily make the case to shift its development plans

On the flipside, many local councils have advocated for climate action with detailed financial analyses showing how many jobs climate investments can create, relative to continuing business as usual, and how much money they will leave behind in people’s pockets thanks to lower energy costs in the long-run. SSG worked with Nova Scotia’s Western Region Economic Network to develop an investment plan for energy efficiency and renewable energy to reduce money spent on importing power to the community, create jobs, and—as an additional benefit—reduce emissions.  

8.Cities should harness natural systems.

Natural systems like green roofs and walls, trees and shrubs, and wetlands can soak up carbon and help make communities more resilient to climate change by reducing heat, managing stormwater, and acting as a buffer against floods, among other benefits. Cities’ impermeable concrete roads and parking lots make them hotter in heat waves and more vulnerable to flash floods when extreme rain or snow has nowhere to go. 

The IPCC highlights moving away from this form of development in favour of ecosystem-based approaches such as vegetation, permeable pavements, water retention sites, and proper site grading to enable better stormwater absorption. In fact, this approach has been prioritized by mayors of major cities worldwide who, in a bid to reduce heat- and water-related climate risks, have signed C40’s Urban Nature Declaration, which calls on them to ensure that 30-40% of built-up surface area is green space by 2030. 

Investing in natural infrastructure also tends to be cheaper than “traditional” municipal infrastructure and provides an opportunity to preserve or restore local ecosystems. For example, wetlands—one of the most biodiverse types of habitat—sequester carbon and enhance climate resilience. They also filter pollution from air and water, act as a buffer against floods, recharge groundwater, and provide recreation and tourism opportunities. Even so, many wetlands have been and continue to be destroyed for urban areas and farmland.