As It Happens

Cities must lead the way in fighting climate change, says Victoria mayor

The battle against climate change starts at the municipal level, says Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. 

Mayor of B.C.'s capital city says municipalities need more power to enact green policies at the local level

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps says municipalities need more authority to enact climate policies. (Jill English/CBC)

Read Story Transcript

The battle against climate change starts at the municipal level, says Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. 

The B.C. mayor was in New York this weekend at the UN Climate Action Summit, where 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg told some of the most powerful people on the planet that she and her entire generation will be watching what they do to combat the climate crisis.

Helps says cities like hers can lead the way, but they need to be given the power to do so. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What do you say to those words from Greta Thunberg?

I say that she's absolutely right. She should watch us. They should all watch us. One of the messages that I've been giving to youth is watch very carefully the commitments that have been coming out of the summit here in New York and hold us accountable. 

The sessions that I participated in over the weekend should give Greta hope. The people that I spent the weekend with are national, provincial and city leaders that get the urgency of the problem and that are prepared to make new commitments and new ways of working.

So I'm actually quite optimistic.

'You have stolen my dreams'

2 years ago
Teen activist Greta Thunberg assails world leaders for inaction on climate change 1:47

She says that we're headed to "mass extinction" while governments have "fairy tales" of eternal economic growth. And that is accurate, isn't it? 

It is. And also, I was at the launch of a report by [British climate economist] Nicholas Stern and others who argue very, very compellingly that solving climate change is the best economic opportunity of our generation to create inclusive sustainable communities. And in this 120-page report, they've laid out a roadmap to do so.

The report is called Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity: How National Governments Can Secure Economic Prosperity and Avert Climate Catastrophe by Transforming Cities.

So the key message is it all comes back to cities and a different kind of economy.

What can cities do?

Not only what can cities do, but what must cities do? What this new report shows is that fully 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from around the world are generated by cities. So cities need to transform mobility, transform buildings and transform waste. Those are the three largest source of sources of emissions.

One of the things that I hope gets into the federal election campaign coming out of this report ... is that cities cannot do it alone. Only two in five national governments around the world have a climate plan that involves cities. Yet cities are 80 per cent of emissions. So that is a conversation shift that needs to happen in our country.

What can municipalities actually do given their limited powers?

It's not just the conversation about transferring financial resources. It's actually also a conversation we need to have as a country and as provinces about transferring authority.

A perfect example is the city of Victoria's plastic bag case. So we eliminated plastic bags. We passed a bylaw doing so under business regulations.

The [Canadian Plastic Bag Association] ... took us to court, and the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in our favour. It was appealed, and the Court of Appeal ruled in their favour.

So here we are bickering in court about whether a city can or cannot eliminate the use of plastic bags. 

We can help provinces and we can help the national government, but only if we are given more authority.

But a ban on plastic bags, I mean, that's pretty basic entry-level stuff, isn't it? ... That you can't get a ban on plastic bags, what does that say to Greta Thunberg's "How dare you?" speech.

Even though the bylaw has been struck down by the courts, I would say 95 to 97 per cent of businesses in Victoria are still acting as if this bylaw is in effect. So it's become voluntary.

Now, that's not good enough. We do need the authority to ban plastic bags, to regulate single-use items, to regulate whether we want electric cars or buses or gas powered ones on our streets. And those are tough conversations we're going to need to have in the coming months.

But I think, at least in Victoria, there is the political will and the social licence to move in this direction.

Helps, left, speaks at the UN Climate Summit in New York City. (Lisa Helps)

What else have you done?

We're implementing a very aggressive bike network for our small city. So it's a 32-kilometre network. It'll be built by 2022. And when that's built, it's projected to reduce emissions by 10,000 tonnes per year every year.

We've declared a climate emergency and we've given our staff marching orders to accelerate our current climate goals, which are all laid out in the 2018 plan, which Greta would agree is out of date.

So we will be rolling out over the next couple of months some very, very envelope pushing policies which, again, test the limits of the community charter in terms of the authority that cities have.

You're one of hundreds of people taking part in this United Nations summit on climate change. Flights in from all over the world to be in New York for this. What do you say to those who are saying: What are you doing using all those fossil fuels in order to be there at a summit on climate change?

In the city of Victoria, we've created a carbon tax for ourselves. So for every time that I travel, and I obviously take this very seriously, we pay $150 per tonne of tax on carbon. It goes into our climate reserve fund.

We're, you know, offsetting, which I don't think is good enough. But as I said to someone earlier today, it is very easy ... to point fingers and say, "You hypocrites." But if we didn't get together to solve the greatest challenge of our time, we would be much worse off.

My hope is that some time in the future, these kinds of emergency meetings won't be necessary. But in the meantime, coming together to do what Greta and others are asking is absolutely the only way to do it.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?