The phrase “think globally, act locally” has been a touchstone of the environmental movement since the 1970’s, a constant reminder that the things that we do in our local context can affect other communities around the world. That’s a message that doesn’t always sink in: I once witnessed a council meeting (thankfully not here in Brighton) in which, one by one, the councillors took the mic and explicitly said that climate change is too big of an issue for a small town to address. Of course, nobody was asking this small town to solve a global crisis; only to do what they could, where they could. We have that same responsibility.
So what can we actually do about climate change? There are two short answers to that question, both of which could be unpacked at length. We mitigate: we stop making the problem worse, by reducing our emissions of CO2 and our usage of energy. And we adapt: climate change is already happening, with increased occurrences of floods, storms, tornadoes, ice storms, etc., all of which make our roads, buildings, and other infrastructure less safe. The combination of mitigation and adaptation is what is often called a Climate Action Plan, and usually involves retrofitting buildings and implementing newer technologies to make our communities safer and more sustainable. It means that between now and 2050 (at the absolute latest), we need to renovate every single building in Brighton. Really, “we”, as in humanity, need to renovate every building in the world by then; but every community is responsible for its own contribution to the solution, just as every community is responsible for its own contribution to the problem. In that way, addressing climate change IS, without question, a municipal responsibility.
So Where Do We Start?
Even if we limit our scope to just Brighton, it’s a daunting task. Where do we even start?
Thankfully, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel: plenty of other municipalities around the world are way, way ahead of us, and we don’t need to look far to see models we could emulate or implement. There’s an entire professional field dedicated to planning a community’s transition to a more sustainable infrastructure, economy, and lifestyle, and they aren’t hard to find: while chatting at the conference with a rep from SSG, one such consulting firm, I realized that he works with Ralph Torrie, who lives in Cobourg! Ralph’s wife Judy Smith used to work for Northumberland County on the sustainability file, and she and I were featured on Mayor Ostrander’s podcast not too long ago. It’s very common for municipalities to hire consultants like Judy and Ralph for deep studies into how to make those transitions, and to hire a Sustainability Officer (or related title) to implement the plan. It often takes someone working across departments in the municipality, coordinating efforts to make sure that we have a coherent strategy.
A big thing that a Sustainability Officer also does is apply for grants, because there’s a ton of funding from federal and provincial governments to support this work. Often, a municipality doesn’t even need to pay the salary of their Sustainability Officer. Last week I attended a conference of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and more or less the whole point of the conference is to promote the Green Municipal Fund (GMF), which has literally billions of dollars to give away or loan out to help communities like ours. Grants usually cover 80% of the cost of a project, program, or study. And that’s just one funding source; many others exist.
All of that to say that we don’t need to be trailblazers or big investors; the trails have been blazed, and there’s money on the table. We just need to get the ball rolling.
What Can We Do?
There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, policies and programs and projects that seem necessary, important, and strategic, but even with the knowledge I’ve gained from watching this issue closely over the last decade I wouldn’t want to imply that I have the expertise to make this plan. The experts are there for a reason! Even so, here are some things I would expect to see us do if we go down the path to sustainability:
- Studies! The first step is to plan well, which means hiring professionals to set a path and work with our staff to make sure everyone is on the same page. Other studies can look into specific buildings (there’s a program specifically about renovating arenas, for example, which use up to 80% of the energy of most municipalities related to buildings), transportation planning, clean energy projects, and more. No matter what we do, planning comes first. Measure twice, cut once.
- Grant writing. As I said, the GMF fund is over a billion dollars! I spoke with some of the GMF board members at the conference, and they said that there’s money going unused because not enough municipalities are applying for it. They literally can’t give the money away fast enough. And that’s just one funding source. These grants could not only pay for projects, but for hiring staff to coordinate them.
- Helping residents access other funding. While the GMF funding is mostly for municipalities (they do have one fund for residents), there’s other funding out there for you and I. Durham Region is using a GMF grant to pay a staff member to help residents plan their own retrofits and access grant programs to do it. There’s a lot of money to help us switch to electric heat pumps, re-insulate our homes, install solar panels, or switch to electric vehicles, but that’s a lot of research for one person to do! Having a guide is invaluable, and can go a long way toward our goal of retrofitting every building in Brighton.
- Public engagement. I can’t underscore this one enough. While it’s possible to implement a top-down strategy that will get us to the goal of Net Zero by 2050 (sucking as much carbon out of the air as we release into it), we want to do it in a way that makes our community better. Why force people to make changes, when you could empower them to do it in ways that are not only more effective, but also more enjoyable and community-oriented? Thinking this through is one of my favourite things, and I’d love to hear from you if you have ideas for a sustainability strategy! Also, please join a committee.
- Municipal building retrofits. We’re already getting new heat pumps at Elizabeth St., but to be at a sustainability standard that meets the Net Zero by 2050 goal we have a looooong way to go, particularly on big-energy buildings like the arena.
- Strict standards for new buildings, not only for energy efficiency (which is finally making it into the Canada Building Code), but also for climate adaptation (which is NOT yet making it into the Code). As we remember the tornado that tore down our town hall fifty years ago, we would do well to consider a bylaw that requires “hurricane straps” on homes built in Brighton, a simple and cheap addition that can keep the roof on through high winds. As just one example.
- Electrified transportation. We now have three EVs in our municipal fleet, and we’re looking to install two EV charging stations in a municipal lot. That’s progress, but we have a long way to go! By 2035, all new vehicles will have to be zero-emission vehicles; but we’d save a lot of money if we converted more of our fleet sooner, because EVs are just that much cheaper to operate. We will need to get started on the charging infrastructure for EVs, too — not just in the municipal parking lots, but ensuring that we have a grid that can handle increased electrification more broadly. That means connecting with Hydro One.
- Electricity generation and storage. I’ve already talked a lot here about how we could be installing solar farms in parking lots, a pumped energy storage facility, battery backups for key infrastructure, and even wind farms, all to the benefit of the local economy and to our local energy resiliency.
- Policies, policies, policies. There are a lot of changes that can be made without building anything; just by changing what we allow to be built or operated. Things like requiring that new builds go above and beyond the building code such as requiring rain barrels, bird-safe glass, and more tree planting as part of subdivision finishing. Or a policy of waiving some municipal fees for permits relating to energy efficiency retrofits and affordable housing. Or a by-law that explicitly allows for non-lawn yards, so that folks who plant native species of carbon-sequestering tall grasses and other pollinator-friendly plants won’t be troubled by bylaw enforcement if their neighbour prefers the look of manicured grass.
This is off the top of my head – there’s so much more we could do! All of this is completely within the realm of municipal responsibility, AND possibility. Never let it be said that climate change is too big for our small town to address, or that we couldn’t afford it. The expertise is out there, the money is on the table, and we stand to gain a fortune in energy savings and new jobs. We can’t afford NOT to. Are we willing to move forward into a more sustainable future?