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All Net-Zero Pathways Begin With a Local Step

At the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), countries are bringing forward their ambitious emission reduction targets. Yet, despite the significant representation of Canadian communities at COP26, Canada is only starting to understand that top-down policies and programs are not enough.

In Canada, the level of effort and transformation required — and the need for equity, diversity, and inclusion — requires a stronger understanding of these challenges at the community level. Communities are the front lines of change. 

The Diverse Pathways to Net-Zero Initiative is a response to this need and it considers the critical role that Canadian communities play on the pathway to net-zero.

Buy-in from communities is essential to ensure the transition to net-zero is quickly and widely implemented. 

We need to better equip Canadian communities with the resources and capacity they need to contribute to the target and be a part of the solution. 

Our Research 

During the first phase of the Diverse Pathways initiative, we published the following research:

  1. Literature Review

A review of literature that informs net-zero transition policies in Canada, published over the last three years, reinforces the critical role that communities have in achieving net-zero. It highlights that little consideration about the roles of, and implications for, communities has been considered in modelling, plans, and policy making to date. 

  1. The Development of Community Archetypes

This research explores the first building blocks in the development of a comprehensive archetype framework for Canadian communities. It shows that community archetyping can be an effective tool to refine what resources and capacity is needed in Canadian communities on the pathway to net-zero.

Key Findings from the Literature Review

Finding 1. Behaviour and social acceptability greatly impact our ability to quickly scale up the net-zero solutions that already exist.

 Integrating local concerns into policy design and considering community perspectives increases the social acceptability of net-zero transition programs and supports new consumer behaviour.

Finding 2. What we have is not enough. Cultivating conditions that accelerate technology and policy implementation is required.

Community engagement helps identify local barriers to technology and policy implementation. In addition, communities and local governments play important roles in developing synergies across sectors and creating opportunities for novel forms of systemic efficiency.

Finding 3. We need sound and tailored workforce transition programs based on growing sectoral needs associated with the net-zero transition.

Local governments and stakeholders have key roles to play in identifying market opportunities, mapping the geography of training needs, and helping ensure appropriately targeted, accessible training programs. 

Finding 4. Financing gaps need filling.

The infrastructure required for net-zero transitions is being implemented at the community level. Local governments own and operate 60 per cent of Canada’s public infrastructure, but their ability to maintain, renew, and reinvest in these capital assets is extremely limited. Fostering trust between communities and investors, mapping local investment opportunities, and supporting project aggregation begins with local engagement. 

Finding 5. Policy needs to align across all levels of government.

Policy coordination is particularly needed for municipalities. These local governments play a critical role in Canada’s low-carbon transition but are constrained by lack of resources and policy authority. Empowering communities to pursue ambitious climate policies, identify local resource gaps, and highlight opportunities to enhance local policy making capacity remains key. 

Finding 6. Net-zero transitions need to positively contribute to the elimination of equity, diversity, and inclusion issues.

Net-zero transitions are and will continue causing disruptions. These disruptions will have implications on household spending, with costs most likely to be disproportionately felt by already disadvantaged households and communities. Community-based analysis and engagement, including with Indigenous communities, has the potential to identify local community needs and risks. Ensuring that the delivery of programs and subsidies are accessible for all, including marginalized populations, is an important challenge.

Finding 7. Stressing the positive health impacts requires more attention.

In addition to environmental and economic benefits, the net-zero transition generates improved health and quality of life outcomes. Community engagement can better inform the relationship between economic and climate policies, climate change and health.

Understanding the transition means getting more granular. Despite acknowledging the reality of diverse pathways in Canada, models and recommendations tend to be aggregated at either national or provincial levels. As a result, local-level dynamics are not well understood and the role local governments play in accelerating or impeding transitions is neglected. A framework of community archetypes capturing important local characteristics and their contribution to diverse transition pathways initiates a deeper understanding.

While net-zero literature emphasizes the need for diverse transition pathways, it tends to conceptualize diversity at national and provincial levels of analysis. Unfortunately, this overlooks the role of communities in achieving net-zero. A complete picture must account for the diverse conditions facing local communities. 

Key Findings from the Community Archetypes Research

A Community Archetype Framework can help to inform the development of federal and provincial/territorial net-zero policies and programs reflecting the diversity of Canada’s communities.

“Canada is one of the most diverse nations in the world. The more than 4,000 communities within it are diverse in their political infrastructure, their needs for services, products, and communication, and their socio-economic composition.”

The following four criteria were identified as a priority to consider when identifying net-zero solutions for communities:

  1. Population size
  2. Population density
  3. Jurisdiction/electricity system 
  4. Net-zero economic impacts and opportunities

The archetypes consider economic, social, demographic, infrastructure, and energy factors. A series of community profiles has been developed to build understanding of the impact and implications of net-zero transition at the local level. Policies, programs, and investments that are tailored to the specific needs and context of each community type will facilitate more rapid decarbonization, allow them to overcome the barriers to adoption, and increase local understanding of and capacity to implement low-carbon projects.

The community archetypes report is the first building block in the development of a comprehensive archetype framework for Canada. The initial research and engagement identified the need for the refinement of existing criteria, as well as the development of additional criteria and indicators to provide more nuance and inclusivity to the archetype framework.

Next Steps

These are early steps. We need to better understand how a suite of indicators can reflect and help guide communities as they undertake the transition. 

Research and extensive engagement are required to leverage community perspectives. The Diverse Pathways to Net Zero initiative aims to capture, champion, and communicate community pathways and achievements. Over the next three years, the project will fill a critical gap in moving net-zero transitions toward achievement.

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Roger Francis

Roger Francis

Director, Sustainability, The Conference Board of Canada

Roger Francis has over 25 years of progressively senior corporate-relations experience. Prior to working at The Conference Board of Canada, he was Managing Director of a consultancy specializing in engagement, issues management, reputing, and business processes for national and regional clients in the resource, chemical and health sectors. Roger has led strategies resulting in a $500M corporate buyout, the establishment of national health system policies, the realignment of North American sustainability investment, and the creation of regional research innovation frameworks.

Tonja Leach

Tonja Leach

Executive Director, QUEST

Tonja Leach became Executive Director of QUEST in 2019, having been with QUEST since its inception in 2007 in a number of roles of increasing responsibility. She has been instrumental in establishing QUEST’s extensive national network and ensuring that QUEST is known as the Canadian organization that accelerates the adoption of efficient and integrated community-scale energy systems in Canada by informing, inspiring, and connecting decision-makers.

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