9 Steps Cities Must Take to Dramatically Cut Carbon Emissions

A very long, very bold to-do list for the next 20 years.

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The city of Toronto has already begun to sketch out policies that could reduce the area’s greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades. Officials have proposed greening the electric grid, banning incandescent light bulbs, promoting green roofs on commercial buildings, retrofitting 1960s-era high-rises and implementing a stricter energy-efficient building code for new construction. With transportation, the city wants to expand bike lanes and transit infrastructure, all while it anticipates that electric vehicles will grow slowly more common.

This is a pretty standard menu of ideas, and according to scientists it will get the city part of the way toward the kind of changes broadly needed to really keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. In the next 20 years, Toronto’s current policies could cut the city’s per capita greenhouse emissions by 30 percent (relative to a 2004 baseline). That’s no small thing.

But to really alter the future prospects for climate change, much more will have to happen in Toronto, and every other city. Researchers writing in the Canadian Journal of Civil Engineering used the city as a case study to model what a truly aggressive framework might look like. If Toronto wants to cut emissions by 70 percent by 2031 (taking into account expected population growth), all of these actions (or others with a similar impact) might be required in tandem:

  • Replacing all light bulbs with LEDs, and all appliances with ENERGY STAR ones
  • Retrofitting all buildings built before 2012 for an average energy savings of 30 percent
  • Constructing all future buildings to higher energy-efficient standards
  • Implementing solar water heating and ground-source heat pumps in all low-rise homes built before 2012
  • Implementing aquifer thermal energy storage systems in half of all apartment buildings
  • Outfitting 25 percent of commercial buildings with green roof coverage
  • Expanding bike infrastructure to cover 2,431 kilometers (as of 2009, bike lane coverage in the city spanned 403 kilometers)
  • Completing a total shift to electric vehicles
  • Implementing a VMT tax and freeway tolls that would further discourage driving

The scale of all of these changes seems overwhelming (and this is just some of them, admittedly using models that could evolve with time). But, the researches write, “If Canadian municipalities were to aggressively pursue a wide range of such strategies, subject to their own unique conditions, then it is technically feasible for many to approach carbon neutrality.”

The same goes for cities elsewhere – if, that is, they get going right now.

Top image of the Toronto Skyline: Aron Brand/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.