Environment

First-of-its-kind project is helping Canadian cities transition to net zero

Launched by the University of Waterloo, The Municipal Net-Zero Action Research Partnership (N-ZAP) is developing resources to support municipalities in their climate action plans

  • Dec 04, 2023
  • 1,255 words
  • 6 minutes
A sunrise on the first day of October at the Walterdale Bridge in Edmonton, 2022. (Photo: Jadene Grimmon/Can Geo Photo Club)
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It was a chart displaying how Edmonton’s average temperature is predicted to change over the next 30 to 40 years that set off alarm bells for Chandra Tomaras, the Director of Environment and Climate Resilience in the city’s urban planning and economy department.

Tomaras is used to perusing data about how her city is transforming due to climate change. But when she saw how Edmonton’s average temperature is expected to shift to the right within the current bell chart—indicating a hotter-than-average future—she thought of her children.

“It really made me start to think about what that means for my kids when they’re my age,” she says. “This is their future. It’s why I try to work as hard as I do.”

A bell curve showing the statistical variability of the annual average temperature in the Edmonton region. The average annual temperature in Celcius is shown on the X axis, while the Y axis shows the number of times the city has seen the average temperature. This modelling shows that by the 2050s, the new average annual temperature could be between 5.1 to 5.6 degrees Celcius. In other words, the centre of the bell curve is moving. (Graph courtesy of Chandra Tomaras)
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Across Canada, more than 600 municipalities, including Edmonton, have declared climate emergencies. Since about 71 to 76 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from urban areas, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Canadian municipalities have a crucial role to play in lowering them. In fact, a 2012 study found that municipal governments in Canada have 52 per cent direct or indirect control over emissions.

That’s why, in July 2022, the University of Waterloo launched the Municipal Net-Zero Action Research Partnership (N-ZAP) aimed at helping cities with the transition to net zero. The first project of its kind in Canada, N-ZAP will create resources and tools to support municipalities in developing, monitoring and measuring their climate action plans.

Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are among 13 municipalities actively involved in working groups helping to develop the five-year program. The plan is to recruit an additional 250 municipalities to participate in a pilot beginning in year four of the program (spring 2025). 

For Tomaras, getting Edmonton onboard with the partnership was a no-brainer. 

“As cities, we’re at the forefront of climate-related impacts and action,” she says, pointing to how climate change can impact every part of our urban lives, including municipal infrastructure, the natural environment, the economy, and the health and safety of communities. “Because we’re so uniquely positioned to respond to climate change, we find it incredibly important to be working with other cities who are also working through those same challenges and opportunities.”

Coal Harbour in Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo taken in September 2022. (Photo: Samantha Pope)
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The program is the brainchild of University of Waterloo professor Dr. Amelia Clarke, who envisioned a collaborative approach to tackling climate change. When the federal government announced its Climate Action and Awareness Fund, she asked the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, ICLEI Canada and other academics across Canada if they’d like to co-design a partnership together. They were successful in their bid and were able to secure $4 million for the project.

Above all, the development of the program centres on the insights and experiences of municipalities themselves: How can they best be supported in their emission reduction projects, policies and programs? 

“The design is built on working with the leaders and helping them, and at the same time, learning from their experience and being able to build tools to help others,” says Clarke. “It really is a great opportunity to co-create.”

In Vancouver, residential, commercial and industrial buildings combined are some of the most significant sources of emissions at around 55 per cent, largely due to the burning of natural gas for space and water heating. Accordingly, the city is focusing on this sector as it transitions to net zero.

For 16 years, Vancouver has used its municipal building bylaw to require that buildings be constructed and designed for energy efficiency. As of 2022, new buildings must have low-emissions heating and hot water equipment—effectively requiring the installation of electricity-powered equipment such as heat pumps. The municipal bylaw—which initially came into force in 2007 and has been amended multiple times since—has resulted in a notable reduction in emissions.

An ongoing challenge is bringing existing structures in line with the new guidelines. To address these issues, the city has now imposed an emissions limit for large, existing commercial buildings—the first Canadian jurisdiction to do so—with hefty fines coming into effect in 2026.

The Toronto skyline at dusk, taken in January 2023. (Photo: Ron Clifford/Can Geo Photo Club)
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It’s a big step for the city, says Brad Badelt, climate policy manager with the City of Vancouver’s sustainability group, and an example of what other municipalities could do. “Learning from other cities in N-ZAP is going to be super helpful,” he says. “We’re interested to learn more about how other cities are approaching their climate budgets.” 

For its part, Edmonton has announced the creation of a new position within the municipal government: chief climate officer. It’s part of restructuring efforts to reallocate $240 million over four years to priority areas. 

“Changing the voices at the leadership table is changing how we budget and invest our city resources,” says Tomaras. Alongside augmenting leadership voices internally, the city is eager to learn from other municipalities with N-ZAP. “Looking at a wicked problem like climate change, it’s great to have friends there with you. It really gives us this opportunity to have brilliant minds from across Canadian cities looking at how we can advance solutions and work through complex problems together.”

As Canada’s most densely populated city, Toronto is focusing on its transportation sector, which accounts for 32.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. By 2030, Toronto hopes to have 30 per cent of registered vehicles be electric by increasing charging availability and addressing cost and convenience barriers.

But it’s not just mitigating climate change that the city is focusing on with N-ZAP, says Cecilia Fernandez, manager of the policy and research team in the environment and climate division. Increasingly, municipalities are also looking at climate-related risks and how future extreme weather events might factor into budgeting decisions. 

“It will have impacts on the reliability of infrastructure in the future,” she says, pointing to how severe flooding and heat waves in Toronto have impacted transit and road systems in recent years. Moreover, these events have had impacts on people who are precariously housed or who live in communities without adequate cooling systems. “When the rubber hits the road, we are the level of government that has to deal with those immediate impacts… I think from an action point of view, a lot of [municipalities] are very interested in working with one another and hearing about what others have done in the past and if that will be useful for our own cities.”

The first step in becoming a pilot city is taking a survey that aims to capture the current state of a municipality’s climate action. The project is targeting municipalities with populations greater than 10,000, but it’s not just large municipalities that are taking part in N-ZAP; smaller cities like Moncton, N.B., Revelstoke, B.C. and Barrie, Ont. are also on board. 

“The large and mid-sized communities are key to this, but so are the smaller ones,” says Clarke.  “My aim is to help enable those who are in positions to make a difference. The more we can do, the better it will be for future generations.”

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