Over half of the world’s population lives in a city. How do our urban environments contribute to the rapidly changing climate?
In conjunction with the AGO’s special exhibit “Anthropocene,” the AGO launched a new podcast focused on the significant impact humans are having on the Earth. In Episode 4, podcast host Sarain Fox, an Anishinaabe dancer, activist and storyteller, speaks with our CEO Julia Langer, about the role of cities in the fight against climate change, and what “cityzens” can do to help.
Here’s the transcript*:
Sarain: Let’s talk about this word Anthropocene. When is the first time you heard that term and what does it mean to you?
Julia: I did start hearing it in the context of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC is a body of scientists from across the world who have been looking at climate change causes, impacts, mitigation, and adaptation. It was a nerdy term, but it spoke to a really important concept. You need to label it. You need to be able to talk about these things in a way that shakes people up.
It’s kind of human nature, isn’t it? That people don’t respond until it’s right in your face. Those risks turn into not just something that you read about, but a financial risk and cost.
Sarain: What is the relationship between cities and climate change?
Julia: Well, we are a very urban population in Canada and increasingly around the world. 80% of Canadians live in cities. 50% of our emissions that cause climate change, our Canadian emissions, originate in cities. It’s just math.
We are part of the problem, but ‑‑ cities can also be very much a part of the solution.
Narrator: Are we on our way to becoming a low-carbon city?
Julia: Toronto is a very interesting case study in climate action because through serendipity, strategic thinking, and some really interesting individuals, we’ve had the opportunity to experiment, to put some things into action, and to drive some changes through TransformTO.
Today, the city of Toronto’s emissions are 24% lower than they were in 1990. Look at how our city has grown in that time. What that says at the meta level is that we have decoupled growth from carbon. That is, in the end, ultimately the metric of what we need to see all over – this decoupling so that we can actually have nice lives, a nice environment, and an economy that works without the carbon.
Narrator: Why are investors, like the Atmospheric Fund, campaigning to phase out fossil fuels like coal?
The Atmospheric Fund was the biggest and longest funder of the campaign to phase out coal. Why? Because we follow the carbon. When we got rid of those coal plants, we reduced our carbon emissions from 26% of the total emissions to almost zero from electricity.
Narrator: Julia helped draft the Generation Energy report, released in June of this year. It includes four defined pathways to a sustainable future: One: energy efficiency; Two: clean power or electrification; Three: switching to renewable fuels; and Four: clean oil and gas.
In Toronto, in particular, we are electricity constrained, so the distributed opportunity and solar prices are going down, down, down. We focused on the solutions and the multiple benefits that they provide.
Electrification means more renewable electricity, and using that to reduce the natural gas we use for heating, and the gasoline and diesel we use for transportation. We’ve got a lot of garbage and you can turn that into renewable fuels. Then, of course, cleaning up the oil and gas sector to the extent possible as we transition is a key piece of the puzzle.
It was a solutions‑focused exercise. It is ambitious. The federal government can receive our report, but in the end, it has to be at the provinces, utilities, the cities, and the people that implement these pathways.
Sarain: What are some of the smart climate investments you would recommend to government?
Julia: When you think about cities and where the emissions come from, we recommend the follow the carbon approach. 50% of emissions come from buildings. Transportation, 40% or so. The balance being from waste, when we put garbage in landfills. In buildings, the emissions are going down slowly. We need to accelerate that through much more investment in retrofits, making sure that new buildings are super‑efficient and net zero carbon.
It’s not just about the carbon, it’s about, how comfortable is your home? Is it drafty? How’s the air quality inside? When you do a retrofit, you can improve all of those things. We have congestion problems in the city. More transit, more active transportation is also good for our health. It actually can be cheaper.
Let’s look at the dynamics of this, see where we all gain. Then, “How do you actually implement?” becomes the question ‑‑ not if, or why, but how?
Sarain: It’s been so refreshing to hear you talk so much in a solution‑based manner. What can everyday people living in cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, do to help and how are cities uniquely positioned to contribute to a good Anthropocene?
Julia: I don’t want to blame the consumer because sometimes we don’t have many choices. The choices that you can make in terms of the fuel efficiency of your car, or retrofitting your home, or the amount of meat that you do or don’t eat, those are certainly pieces of the puzzle.
It would help if people better understood where carbon comes from. For example, they’ll oppose medium‑density development when that’s exactly what we need rather than sprawl. The density of our cities needs to change, and we need more transit instead of roads, to eliminate congestion and creates more transit ridership. Also, you can walk to work and be healthier. And we will see carbon reduction.
Sarain: I agree with you, especially as someone who lives in the middle of the greenbelt I’ve realized that when you can actually see the farmland going, when you see the sprawling, and when you feel the effects of it, I absolutely have just seen the effects in the last couple of years that you are motivated in a different way. I have a whole other list of motivations, but I do think there’s something to be said about a tangible expression of how you are affected.
Julia: As your program is showing, we are in this Anthropocene, it’s in our face, and it is incumbent on all of us in whatever way we can. Every person and business and institution has a different way to do what we can in our own way.
Thank you to Sarain and the AGO for this important series. The podcast is in collaboration with the AGO’s new Exhibit “Anthropocene” open until January 6, 2019.
*Note: We edited the podcast transcript for clarity in this blog. The second half of the podcast features Susan Blight, a Toronto-based Anishinaabe artist and activist.