Edmonton·CBC Explains

Edmonton has its 1st carbon budget. It's expecting to blow it

Edmonton released its first carbon budget on Thursday, a measure of its efforts to combat climate change.

City as a whole aims to be carbon neutral by 2050

The City of Edmonton will not reach its carbon neutral target in 2050, according to the 2023-26 Carbon Budget. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Edmonton released its first carbon budget on Thursday, a measure of its efforts to combat climate change.

The city officially declared a climate emergency in 2019. It has pledged to do its fair share as part of a global movement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 C.

Edmonton has greenhouse emissions reduction targets (compared to a 2005 baseline) of 35 per cent by 2025, 50 per cent by 2030, and to be emissions neutral by 2050. For the corporate city, it aims to be carbon neutral by 2040.

The 2023-26 Carbon Budget forecasts that without a major shake-up, Edmonton will miss those targets.

Climate resiliency came to the forefront during the last municipal administration but Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has taken up the torch. This week he'll be attending the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

"While the current forecast shows that based on our current level of actions and investments we will likely not meet our targets, it doesn't mean that this is a foregone conclusion," he said in a statement emailed Friday.

"I am optimistic that this can change. There are transformational and very disruptive technologies that will help accelerate our energy transition that are already here and some that we don't know about."

What is a carbon budget?

Just like a financial budget, a carbon budget indicates how much the city can spend over a time period — only instead of money, it's greenhouse gas emissions.

Edmonton has allocated 176 million tonnes of emissions for the community as a whole by 2050. The corporate city — which makes up two per cent of the total community — is set at 2.25 million tonnes.

Edmonton is one of the first municipalities in Canada to incorporate a carbon budget into its budgetary cycle. As such, it's still learning how exactly to do that — the nearly 100-page carbon budget includes a bevy of assumptions and qualifications.

The document evaluates around 400 items from the capital, operating and utility budgets for their emission impacts. About 270 were assessed to have direct greenhouse gas impacts, but only 60 provide a quantifiable number.

Two composite estimates are of particular note. The transit capital composite is expected to reduce emissions of 23,700 tonnes by 2026 while the road capital composite — the Terwillegar Drive Expressway, Yellowhead Trail Freeway, and 50 St. CP Rail grade separation — will add 12,800.

The budget said the city has already taken steps to limit emissions through various actions, including the installation of solar panels on city facilities and a long-term renewable electricity contract set to go into effect in 2024 — expected to reduce emissions by 226,000 over 2023-26.

So how is Edmonton doing overall?

For the 2023-26 cycle, Edmonton as a whole has a target of 49.1 million tonnes of emissions. Based on the proposed budget, it will miss that by about 4 million tonnes.

The carbon budget forecasts the city will use all its allotted emissions by 2037. By 2050 — its target for carbon neutrality — it is predicted to still have emissions of 12.95 million tonnes annually.

That's only about four million tonnes less than the city's emissions in 2021. Year-over-year since 2018 the city's emissions have been slightly decreasing, however.

The corporate city isn't forecasted to fare much better. It's set to use its allotted emissions by 2032.

The community carbon budget is set to run a deficit. (City of Edmonton)

Jacob Komar is the chair of the Energy Transition Climate Resilience Committee. He said they've been pushing the city to build a carbon budget for years.

"We're still disappointed a little bit — I think that a carbon budget's only useful if it's used as a real budget," he said in an interview Friday.

"If we have a target goal for missions, and a carbon budget's telling us that we were not meeting it, then we need to use it as a decision-making tool."

He notes that a number of climate mitigation projects are left unfunded, including certain bike network improvements and additional chargers for electric buses.

"There's just a fundamental disconnect between the climate emergency that we declared three years ago and our targets and what we're doing."

What should be done?

A report from administration attached to the budget says that additional municipal funding will only have a limited impact on emissions.

"Climate change is a collective problem that requires collective action," it reads. 

"Climate leadership through reduction of operational emissions must therefore balance with policy, other orders of government and private investment to achieve the targets outlined in the Community Energy Transition Strategy."

Ward Métis Coun. Ashley Salvador is the council advisor for the climate resilience committee. She said she's concerned that the proposed capital and operating budget contains very little to address climate change, especially as the city enters the "acceleration" phase of its transition strategy.

"When it comes to climate action, we have numerous levers that we can and should be pulling on — everything from land use planning, to transportation, to the efficiency of our buildings," she said in an interview Friday.

"City council is going to have to have some really challenging conversations about what is truly a priority in this budget."

Salvador said there is also a financial imperative to either mitigate climate change now or pay for its impacts later. Coun. Andrew Knack holds the same view.

"It is going to be far, far, far more expensive to not address the environmental goals than to do it at the right time," he said. 

Knack recalled the need to approve a $1.6 billion flood mitigation plan in 2019 due to changing weather patterns.

"I don't want to create that same problem for the person sitting in my chair 20 years from now."

Sohi said all levels of government, along with the private sector, need to heavily and aggressively invest in climate change and make transformational changes in energy.

"Things are starting to happen but not fast enough.

"Municipalities can tackle climate change through many policy levers, use incentives, sometimes set regulations, but we have limited revenue and need all sectors to come along in order for cities and communities around the world just like Edmonton to meet our collective targets."

Public hearings on both capital and operating budgets will take place at city hall Nov. 28 and 29 before council begins deliberating the finances in earnest in early December.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Cook

Reporter

Stephen Cook is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. He has covered stories on a wide range of topics with a focus on policy, politics, post-secondary education and labour. You can reach him via email at stephen.cook@cbc.ca.

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