COP26 Backgrounder: City of Edmonton climate change, energy transition plans (with audio)

As world leaders and government officials gather at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (Oct. 31 to Nov.12), the City of Edmonton is keeping a close eye on developments. 

The conference, also known as COP26, is considered crucial to slowing down the Earth’s rising temperature. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting communities and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees are some of the goals of the climate summit. 

Countries are being asked to unveil plans to cut emissions by about 45 percent by 2030, using such initiatives as phasing out coal, encouraging investment in renewable energies, protecting forests and mobilizing the money to finance these projects. 
“This really is a critical meeting,” says Chandra Tomaras, Director of Environment and Climate Resilience for the City of Edmonton. “I know I’m watching to see if, internationally, the plans that come forward are enough to reach net zero emissions by 2050.”

Climate change in Edmonton

While the planet’s temperature has increased about 1.1 degrees since 1850, Edmonton is warming twice as fast, thanks to our land-locked location near the Arctic. Not only do areas near the poles warm faster, Edmonton is far removed from any oceans, which are able to absorb some of the extra heat. 

“Edmonton is on a trajectory, if significant action doesn’t happen, that we could be 3.5 to 5 degrees warmer by as early as the 2040s,” says Tomaras. “We could be 6 to 8 degrees warmer as early as the 2070s.”

As a result, extreme weather events will be even more extreme. Scientists say the risk of flooding and drought will double. Edmonton’s economy could also take a hit, according to a recent study conducted by the City. 

“As early as the 2040s, Edmonton’s GDP could be $3.2 billion a year lower,” says Tomaras. “That could be $7.4 billion as early as the 2070s. If you factor in social costs, not just financial costs, not just the costs we’re going to see, but if you factor in health costs and environmental costs, we’re looking more at a scale of $8 billion a year by the 2040s and $18 billion as early as the 2070s.” 

Listen here to an extended Transforming Edmonton interview with Chandra Tomaras and Howaida Hassan as the City of Edmonton colleagues talk about COP26’s impact on Edmonton:

Zero emissions

The City has a strategy to cut Edmonton’s emissions in half by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050—at the same time as the city adds another million people to its population and grows within the limits of the Anthony Henday ring road. (The City as a corporation has a goal of reaching net zero by 2040.)

“That’s the idea in the City Plan of greener as we grow,” says Howaida Hassan, General Supervisor of Urban Growth for the City of Edmonton. 

“Even as we grow, and we know we will, how do we ensure we’re not exacerbating this situation, but, actually, improving the climate situation?  It’s not just keeping the status quo, but making it better.”

TransEd tests the Valley Line Southeast LRT on the new Tawatinâ Bridge.

Energy Transition Strategy

Our city has one of the highest emissions levels per capita in the world. (In 2018, we produced 18.5 tonnes per person; last year, we produced 15.7 tonnes.) Transportation is the largest contributor (31 percent), followed by manufacturing, industry and construction (27 percent), commercial and institutional buildings (20 percent) and residential buildings (18 percent).

The City’s Community Energy Transition Strategy and Action Plan, approved in April 2021, offers a blueprint for reducing those emissions by: 

  • making buildings more energy efficient 
  • increasing the use of carbon capture and renewable energy sources. Edmonton is taking a big step toward the latter in 2023, when Alberta phases out coal-fired electricity. The City of Edmonton will switch to 100 percent green electricity, powered by wind and solar, for municipal operations in 2024.  
  • reducing carbon emissions from transportation with such programs as supporting the transition to electricity and other net zero emission vehicles, creating 15-minute districts to encourage more walking and cycling and ensuring a transportation system that supports these modes. 

“There are a lot of big decisions that are going to need to be made, and they’re going to be made in earnest next year with the approval of the next four-year budget,” says Hassan.

New solar panels on Edmonton Convention Centre, June 2020.

It’s like a bathtub

The Energy Transition Strategy also includes a carbon budget, which means City projects will be measured in terms of their emissions as well as their financial costs. Between now and 2050, Edmonton can “spend” 135 megatonnes of emissions. In 2019 alone, the city produced 18 megatonnes, and if it maintains that pace, Edmonton’s entire carbon budget will be used up before 2030. 

Think of the budget as a bathtub. 

“There’s so much water in the tub already, which leaves us a little bit of room still for adding some water,” says Tomaras. “So, we have to figure out, one, how we turn down the tap, how do we turn and slow down the water coming into that bathtub, and the second part of it is, how do we start draining some of the water from that bathtub? And that’s when we start talking about carbon capture, ideas like that.”

Trees cast shadows on a fall day in MacTaggart Sanctuary.

Trees and facilities

Carbon capture can happen in several ways, such as preserving forests and planting more trees. One of COP26’s goals is to protect communities and natural habitats by preserving ecosystems and building resilient infrastructure. As part of Edmonton’s Energy Transition Strategy and City Plan, two million new trees will be planted by 2050. 

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities, such as the one at Shell’s Scotford refinery and chemicals plant east of Edmonton, can also be used to remove carbon emissions. Its $1.3-billion Quest facility, the first of its kind in the world, captures one million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and uses a pipeline to store it underground. Shell is now proposing to build a second CCS facility at Scotford, which could create as many as 2,000 jobs. 

“For us to stay relevant, we need to adapt to these changing global demands and markets,” says Tomaras.

 “So, it’s an incredible opportunity for us as a region and as a province to lead, right? We can deliver the innovation and the solutions these international markets are looking for. The demand exists and it’s only going to grow. So, the City of Edmonton’s Energy Transition Strategy really has taken the position that this could be our greatest opportunity.”

Walterdale Bridge, Edmonton.

Mobilizing finance

Mitigating climate change requires serious investment. Another one of COP26’s goals is to ensure developed countries mobilize $1 billion (US) per year to help developing nations achieve their climate goals. Globally, the target hasn’t been met, though Canada itself has delivered $2.65 billion since 2015 and recently upped its share to $5.3 billion over the next five years. 

Chandra Tomaras is Director of Environment and Climate Resilience for the City of Edmonton.

Tomaras says private investment companies and international financial institutions also play a key role, so she’s watching to see if any announcements will be made at COP26. In 2020, the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, divested itself from thermal coal companies and pledged to put climate change and sustainability at the centre of its investment approach. 

Edmonton requires $24 billion in private investment over the next 10 years to help fight climate change, according to City forecasts. As for public investment, Tomaras says all three levels of government need to contribute about $300 million a year to invest in capital infrastructure projects and help catalyze or “de-risk” private investment. A third would come from the City of Edmonton—$75 million to fund infrastructure projects, $25 million in incentives for businesses and residents to make their buildings and homes more energy efficient. 

Looking to the future

As complex as climate change is, both Tomaras and Hassan are hopeful about the outcome of  COP26—that countries will find meaningful ways to limit the warming of the world’s temperature to 1.5 degrees. But they also stress the need for Edmontonians to commit to changes in their daily lives—from something as simple as taking a bus or bike once a week to replacing the insulation and windows in their homes.   

“I’m optimistic because I think my kids won’t let us do otherwise,” says Hassan.

Howaida Hassan is the General Supervisor of Urban Growth for the City of Edmonton.

 “I feel they’re growing up now, they’re going to be those next leaders, like, very soon, in the next five to 10 years, and I think they won’t stand for any less. I don’t think we have any other choice but to act, so, I’m actually optimistic not in a pie-in-the-sky kind of way, but very practically, I think, there’s no other choice and people are realizing that.”

Editor’s notes: the pic at the top of the post is an aerial view of Blackmud Creek in Edmonton in April 2021. The City Plan is a good place to learn more about choices Edmonton faces.