Local Leadership: Challenge, Opportunity and Influence

British Columbian communities demonstrate the breadth of climate change challenges and opportunities. Many are confronting increasingly intense natural disaster events. A lot are advancing integrated sustainability agendas that will reduce emissions as well as strengthen their prosperity.

Local governments are really where the rubber meets the road on climate change. Their role is pivotal for three reasons:

  1. The challenge of acutely vulnerable local infrastructure to climatic change;
  2. The opportunity to advance an integrated economic, social and environmental agenda that supports climate protection; and
  3. The influence of local government over emission reduction opportunities.

It is estimated that local governments have control or influence over approximately 45% or more of greenhouse gas emissions. Local priorities and local leadership will determine the path each community takes to shape our common future.

1. Challenge: Potential Collision Course

Communities are vulnerable to climate change due to an extensive infrastructure supporting high concentrations of people and economic activity. According to insurance company Munich Re, direct losses from large or globally significant natural catastrophes increased 14 times between the 1950s and 1990s. [1] Insurance Bureau of Canada data shows losses doubling domestically every 5 to 10 years. [2] Seeing a climate fingerprint in these rising losses, the global insurance industry has been calling for action for a decade.

Local Governments on the Front Line

Local governments operate half of the country’s public infrastructure. With vast assets in facilities, roads, bridges, waterfronts, dikes, parks, water and sewage networks, and a stake in the prosperity and safety of citizens that depend on this infrastructure, local governments could be on a collision course with climate change.

Infrastructure standards are based on historical climate data with the premise that past averages and extremes will represent the infrastructure’s lifespan. These standards, however, are increasingly inadequate with our changing climate.

As witnessed recently by Prince George’s Nechako River ice dam, Kelowna’s wildfire, and the windstorm that tore through Vancouver, when disaster strikes, local governments are on the front lines. 

Dealing with the clean up and restoration of these emergencies is costly. Dealing with socio-economic dislocation in communities with slow moving emergencies like the pine bark beetle infestation is even more costly and complicated.

BC’s Climate Action Plan reviews the most recent Natural Resource Canada analysis of the province’s forecasted impacts:
  • increasingly frequent and severe water shortages, which will affect everything from agriculture to hydroelectric power generation, and will require complex trade-offs, especially in densely populated areas;
  • risks of land loss, resource changes and shifts in related economic, social and cultural values in coastal communities as sea levels continue to rise;
  • challenges to critical infrastructure, including pipelines and transportation networks, many of which are located in narrow valleys and vulnerable to flooding, slides, etc.;
  • increased stress on our forests and fisheries; and
  • higher costs, including costs for insurance and post-event clean-up and restoration, associated with more extreme weather events.

For more background on BC Climate Change impacts and adaptation visit the Retooling for Climate Change website: http://www.retooling.ca.

Economic and Scientific Case

In the world’s most extensive review of climate change economics, former World Bank Chief Economist, Sir Nicholas Stern concluded, “the benefits of strong, early action considerably outweigh the costs.” The UK Government report estimated the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level were one percent of global gross domestic product; compared to a loss of up to 20 % of global GDP if we do nothing.[3]

The most recent review of scientific evidence by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded global emissions need to peak before 2015, with 50 % to 85 % reductions below 2000 levels by 2050, if we are to avoid tipping points with dangerous disruptions such as severe agricultural collapses, water shortages, droughts, and sea level rise.[4]

For direct weather data he PCIC Data Portal gives the public access to weather observations from more than 6,000 locations around the province, including records of temperature, precipitation, wind speed and humidity. The data dates from the present to as far back as 1872. Access it here.

Provincial and Local Government Leadership

The BC Government has accepted this challenge and responsibility. Its target to reduce emissions at least 33% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 is consistent with the strongest scientific evidence. With the overwhelming positive response to the Climate Action Charter, local governments are also demonstrating their commitment to protecting BC’s future, and the future of generations who follow us.

2. Opportunity: Sustainability Course Correction

Climate Change is not just an inconvenient truth. It is a convenient opportunity!

Communities on the Move

Many local governments across BC have already begun making a course correction towards a future that is more sustainable, resilient and prosperous. Rarely have these measures been driven just by climate change concerns.  Taking action on climate change reinforces these broader sustainability efforts, and these efforts can reinforce climate change action. Visit the Success Stories section to read more about climate actions successes around the province.

Triple Bottom Line Business Case

With good design, reducing greenhouse gas emissions can advance social, economic and environmental priorities that are important in your community:

  • reduced health costs through improved air quality;
  • enhanced livability and active lifestyles through more complete, compact communities;
  • reduced congestion and improve mobility by increasing transportation choice;
  • lower energy costs through efficiency and conservation in transportation, infrastructure and building systems;
  • new revenue streams from sustainable energy production;
  • community economic development and job creation by generating more energy locally and supporting growth industries;
  • protection of fragile ecosystems and productive agricultural land by containing growth;
  • improved fiscal sustainability of infrastructure systems by reducing solid waste, waste water flows, and concentrating development; and
  • reduced infrastructure risk from extreme weather events.

These benefits are all part of the triple bottom line business case for taking action.

3. Influence: Local Government Driver’s Seat

Local governments have an immense opportunity to contribute to the growing climate protection movement.

Significant Influence

While much of their control is indirect, local government decisions influence almost half of BC’s greenhouse gas emissions, concentrated in transportation, waste and buildings.  Over the next 10 years, BC local governments will approve over $100 billion in building permits.Local governments have a wealth of tools that can be adapted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions featured on this site. They include management plans, such as OCPs and RGSs, policies like development cost charges and subdivision bylaws, and processes like annual budget planning. There are also a wide range of catalyst projects local. Local government innovation is increasing the diversity of these opportunities. In time, they will be added to this toolkit.

Connection to Services & Citizens

Through the services they deliver, local governments have a more direct relationship with citizens than other levels of government.

These services start flowing each morning when British Columbians turn on their taps to brush their teeth. This is followed by the bus ride to work, walk to school, or the drive down the street. Local governments shape waste management practices, neighbourhood form, including lot sizes, parking space requirements and building permits. Their services end in the evening when the drain is pulled on the bathtub, and in some cases only when the lights are switched off.

Decisions about these services strongly influence the GHG profiles of individual British Columbians, communities as a whole and the province’s total emissions. Local government’s are in the driver’s seat over many of them.

Community – The Scale for Solutions

Community is the scale for the greatest opportunities to make dramatic emission reductions in people’s everyday lives.

Compact neighbourhoods with close access to commercial areas, schools, transit and other amenities can reduce transportation emissions up to 35% over standard low-density, isolated development. [5]

Townhouses, duplexes, low-rise apartments and high rises all have greater thermal efficiency and lower electricity use than single detached houses.

Higher densities are also much more conducive to community energy systems. Running on renewable sources like biomass, or sewage heat and methane, community energy systems can produce heat and power more efficiently and reliably than conventional sources while providing a revenue stream to local governments.

These neighborhoods meet the market demand of aging baby boomers and people struggling with rising oil prices rise, and the desire to create a sense of community where people know their neighbors and support their local businesses. 


There is some early indication that local governments may have started to reverse two decades of growth in transportation emissions. Transportation emissions have grown 42% since 1990, most of which can be attributed to increased per capita car ownership and longer distances traveled due to low-density developments of isolated homes and shops.

This has been compounded by higher sales in low efficiency light trucks and vans over conventional cars. [6] In the last several years, however, a reversal in this trend appears to be starting that is most likely attributable to more complete, compact development in some high growth areas of the province.  

Different Paths, Common Destination

Local governments can reduce their vulnerability to climate change by taking action today. Activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions can reinforce a broader integrated sustainability agenda. The precise path your local government takes will be determined by the unique priorities of your community. The common destination, however, is a global climate that supports healthy communities.

[1] While some losses can be attributed to more infrastructure in vulnerable areas, the insurance industry identifies climate change as the primary factor. These figures are adjusted to inflation. Source: Munich Re NatCatService 2005 Geo Risk Research Department, www.munichre.com

[2] Insurance Bureau of Canada. (May 4, 2003) Hurricane Juan insurance tab tops $113 million: points to need for preventive measures.

[3] Stern, Nicholas. 2007. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. Cambridge Press.

[4] IPCC. (2007). Climate Change 2007, Fourth Assessment Report. (http://www.ipcc.ch/)

[5] These figures are based on a meta analysis of numerous US studies. They may not precisely extrapolate to Canada. The underlying development patterns, nevertheless, are very similar. Source: Ewing, Bartholomew, Winkelman, Walters, and Chen, 2002. Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change, Smart Growth America.[6] B.C. Ministry of Environment. 2007. Environmental Trends in British Columbia: 2007. State of Environment Reporting. Victoria, B.C. 

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