As It Happens

Why this city councillor believes Calgary doesn't need to declare a climate emergency

Edmonton and Canmore, Alta., have joined dozens of other cities nationwide in declaring emergencies at the local level. But city councillors in nearby Calgary, including Ward Sutherland, say they have no intention of following suit.

'It's nice to say and it's nice to hear, but action actually counts,' says Ward Sutherland

Calgary city Coun. Ward Sutherland argues that the city has taken real action on climate change that is more effective than 'hypothetical' climate targets or declaring a climate emergency. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)


More and more Canadian municipalities are calling climate change an "emergency." In the last few weeks, the Alberta communities of Canmore and Edmonton have joined dozens of other cities nationwide in declaring emergencies at the local level. 

But a number of city councillors in Calgary have made it clear that they have no intention of following suit. Ward Sutherland is one of them. He's the councillor for Calgary's Ward 1. Here is some of what he told As it Happens host Carol Off. 

Will Calgary join others and declare a climate emergency?

As it stands, right now — most of the colleagues that I've talked to — we will not [be] doing that. 

Why not?

We think it's really important to highlight what we do as a city. We've had very strict environmental policy and [a] climate change action plan as a city for the last 15 years, which involves everything that we do, as we supply as a city — from buildings to consumption of waste, et cetera. All the purchases that we make all have to meet environmental policies. 

So, you know, we feel we're contributing and we're in the right direction as a city. And secondly, as an economy in Alberta — and one of the things we're trying to challenge — is the misinformation about our oil and gas industry, because it really is the most environmentally responsible oil and gas industry in the world.

I find it quite, you know, to be honest, quite naive that people think we can transition [to] no oil base within such a short period of time. We're for a transition in a responsible way over a period of time to work together. 

Oil and gas industry supporters gather at a pro-pipeline rally at city hall in Calgary, in December 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Do you really think that that's what the message is? [That] if you did declare a climate change emergency, that's saying that we must immediately move away from an oil-based economy? 

I think that as a municipality — not sure why we [would be] declaring it. We need to look inward. And what people should be asking, and citizens should be asking ... to the municipalities and the councils [is] what are you doing as a city to participate in this? And what are you doing as a change in terms of climate change? That should be the real question.

What are your targets?

We're not setting targets per se.... Everything that we do has to reduce the consumption, the use of CO2. So for example ... our LRT is wind powered. We just invested in a compost facility that takes all our compost [and] converts it into a natural fertilizer that goes to the farmers. 

It's difficult to measure ... the CO2 emission from the cities. But it isn't difficult to look at each individual project and how we address it, how to reduce our impact. 

How can you say that you have a robust climate mitigation plan ... and you don't even have targets for how much you want to reduce the amount of gasses or where you want to be as to the maximum temperature? How can you have no targets at all and say you're active on this file? 

Well, you know, targets are hypothetical. What people think they should get at and whether they'll achieve them at all are two different things ... I mean, people are coming up with targets [without] realistically looking at what's available in technology, or the size of the city or the financial capacity to do so. 

Do you think climate change is an urgent cause, an urgent need? Do you think it's an emergency on any level?

I would say depending on what order of government you are. And actually, to be honest, what country you are — because, you know, the main contributors to the problems are China, India and United States.

What I've said already is our action plan is to do everything we can ... as a municipality. Just because the other three countries are the main [polluters] doesn't mean we shouldn't still be responsible. So I still think we should be responsible, and have our plan and make our purchases wisely. But ... we really need to put pressure on the main polluters and demand that they do something about it. 

What do you say to all the hundreds of thousands around the world who are turning out into the streets? What do you say to those young people? 

I would say get educated — get informed [about what] your local government does, what your provincial government does and what your federal government does. Be informed first and educated — and advocate at the proper level that'll do the biggest change.

Drizzling rain didn't deter hundreds of people from taking part in the rally for climate action outside Calgary city hall on Sept. 27. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

And if they did that research they'd find out that Calgary doesn't have targets.

Well, then they can certainly ask. But they can also ask, "What are you doing about it?" So, you know, for example, as I talked to some protesters a few months ago, and I asked, "Well, you're protesting for the climate." And I asked them, "Well what does the city do?" Not a single person in that group could say what the city actually does.

So that's what I'm saying, is it's important that you're informed and educated, and advocate in the right direction.

Is it in fact politically too difficult to actually have a climate change emergency in Calgary, given how many people are employed by that industry, and how much of your economy comes from it?

For me, you know, we're all independent. We're not part of a party. Our council — we're all, we're not tied to anything. And I'm proud of our oil and gas industry. And most of us are in this industry. And we're also proud of the environmental changes and the technology that happens.

So we're not pressured to do anything.... We can make any decision we want, 'cause we're independent.

Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 


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