Solving the puzzle of sustainability, society and our planet

Opinion: Local governance is a key driver for increasing our global sustainability efforts 

Faculty of Environment

Dr. Amelia Clarke has been working on environment and sustainability issues for decades, including as president of Sierra Club Canada, the first director of the University of Waterloo’s Master of Environment and Business program and the associate dean of research for the Faculty of Environment.

She is now a professor in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development (SEED) and project lead for the Municipal Net-Zero Action Research Partnership (N-ZAP). We asked Clarke how local governments can be major players in enacting meaningful policy changes to ensure a sustainable future.

Opinion by: Dr. Clarke

As someone immersed in environmental policy and sustainability for more than three decades, I see the growing urgency of mitigating climate change. My journey has taken me through various roles, from leading Sierra Club Canada to directing academic programs and conducting research. Today, I’m a professor advancing informed environmental policies.

I am co-leading the Municipal Net-Zero Action Research Partnership (N-ZAP), a national project supporting Canadian municipalities’ pursuit of climate mitigation goals. Why is this mission so essential? Because local governance policy is pivotal to achieving global sustainability.

Reducing emissions to align with Canada’s commitments

In Canada, 52 per cent of carbon emissions come from urban areas. These emissions are from heating and cooling our buildings, transportation, electricity generation and waste management.

N-ZAP’s goal is to ensure municipal initiatives for reducing emissions align with Canada’s net-zero commitments and are informed by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. We’re not just advocating for change; we’re taking action by developing measurement and monitoring systems for municipal emissions. Our approach is rooted in the belief that local governments and citizens can lead the way in addressing climate challenges.

Our project involves five working groups.

Assessing municipal climate action: We’re conducting a comprehensive survey to understand the state of Canadian municipal climate action planning. This survey, aimed at municipalities with populations of 10,000 or more, will provide valuable insights into current practices and guide future actions.

Measuring climate progress: To gauge progress effectively, we’re updating climate indicators, considering not only emissions but also social equity, green economic opportunities and nature-based solutions. We empower municipalities to monitor their climate mitigation efforts by providing them with the right tools.

Enhancing carbon accounting: Working with major Canadian municipalities, we’re initiating standardized climate risk disclosure practices and climate budgets. This helps municipalities report their sustainability and climate efforts, and creates a standard framework.

Community-wide emissions: Recognizing the importance of inclusive climate action, we’re exploring ways to involve citizens and prioritize social equity. We know certain populations bear a disproportionate burden of the adverse outcomes of climate change and we need to ensure they aren’t left behind.

Knowledge mobilization: We want to engage communities and inspire people more broadly. We want the tools and insights we develop to be accessible to all Canadian municipalities through data visualization tools and open access to data.

A localized solution

In addition to N-ZAP, I’m a strong advocate for youth-led change. Young people have unique characteristics that are needed for innovation: risk-taking and a willingness to challenge norms. They are a huge driving force behind climate movements and social justice initiatives, and their voices are vital.

Local governance isn’t just a piece of the sustainability puzzle - it’s the centrepiece. By empowering municipalities and citizens to align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, we’re not only addressing climate change. We’re building a more resilient and sustainable future for all, one community at a time, together.