Barriers to Climate Action in Municipalities


Barriers to Climate Action in Municipalities

Local governments bear the direct impacts of climate change and are faced with addressing their communities’ unique needs with limited resources and legislative authority. For example, municipal stormwater and sewer pipes have to be upgraded and repaired to deal with increasingly severe storm events, sea walls and dykes have to be reinforced to address rising sea levels, and local water consumption must be carefully managed to address longer droughts.

All of these challenges are expensive to address, and local governments are limited in their ability to raise revenue to recoup the costs or proactively implement climate-resilient infrastructure.

These financial challenges are compounded by the hurdles that are placed on local governments through legislation that has, at times, failed to keep up with the types of issues, such as climate change, that modern cities and towns in BC are grappling with.

A key challenge is with respect to business regulation. The Community Charter prohibits municipalities from assisting businesses, which includes providing any sort of grant, advantage, benefit, or tax or fee exemption. Depending on the circumstances, this prohibition may not apply to the City of Vancouver, which is governed by the Vancouver Charter.

One exception to this rule is where a local government is providing assistance to a business that is conserving or developing heritage property or increasing the community’s knowledge of local history. No such exception exists for providing assistance to businesses that are, for example, aggressively reducing greenhouse gases (“GHGs”), creating zero waste, or developing alternative energy solutions for the local market.

Allowing local governments to provide assistance to local businesses or match grants provided by other levels of government could go a long way to support innovative climate initiatives and bolster the resilience of local economies.

Another challenge for municipalities is addressing GHG emissions. Energy efficiency in buildings and improving the ways in which communities construct, demolish, or heat and cool buildings are important aspects of GHG reduction. The City of Victoria estimates that nearly 50% of its community GHG emissions come from buildings.

While the Community Charter appears to grant municipalities with broad authority to regulate buildings for the purpose of reducing GHGs, this is severely limited by the Building Act and its numerable exceptions and regulations.

In an effort to harmonize building regulations, around 2017, the province largely stripped municipalities outside of Vancouver of the ability to regulate building construction or cater building requirements to the unique needs of individual communities.

The Building Code does contain an Energy Step Code that many municipalities have opted into, which addresses energy efficiency measures. However, the Step Code standards do not always directly translate to a reduction in GHGs. Many towns and cities are seeking to respond to their communities’ call to do more and move faster in regulating new construction but are hamstrung by the restrictions in the Building Act.

Finally, the Community Charter provides that the protection of the natural environment is concurrent jurisdiction shared between the province and municipalities. Unlike most municipal legislation in Canada, bylaws adopted under this head of authority requires ministerial approval. With the BC Court of Appeal’s decision in Canadian Plastic Bag Association v. Victoria (City) 2019 BCCA 254, it is unclear if every bylaw enacted to address climate change as one of the goals requires ministerial approval. This has potentially posed a significant limitation on local governments.

With their smaller size and geographic scope, local governments have the ability to be more nimble than other levels of government. Municipalities across BC are optimally positioned to monitor, respond to, and proactively address the unique impacts climate change presents to their respective regions.

Allowing municipalities to have greater access to resources and legislative authority would strengthen their ability to achieve their climate targets and address climate change challenges.