Council struggles with climate action in a post-COP 26 world
City Hall | Paul Dechene | Nov. 18, 2021
COP26 is over, the reviews are in and they’re not good. Very not good. Greta Thunberg declared COP a failure a week before it ended, which kicked off mass protests that shut down Glasgow for days.
The Guardian’s George Monbiot called COP’s final agreement a suicide pact.
Once again, the nations of the world failed to reach an accord that can keep the planet at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. In fact, they’ve put us on a path towards 2.7 or more degrees. That’s the temperature when we stop talking about the extinction of other species and start talking about our own.
With COP a big pile of international suck, it’s clear we’re on our own if we want to sensible climate policy. Good thing the Queen City is just a month (or so) away from releasing our own Energy & Sustainability Framework. It will lay out a roadmap to transform Regina into a 100 per cent renewable city. 
Or is it?
Unfortunately, the welcome that Framework gets at council may not be unanimously warm. Municipal climate action got a trial run at council’s Oct. 27 meeting and just barely passed.
That trial balloon was a motion from ward eight councillor Shanon Zachidniak. It called on council to join with hundreds of cities around the world and sign onto the United Nation’s Cities Race To Zero pledge.
In short, the motion, which took its language from the UN pledge, asked council to acknowledge that the climate emergency is real and commit to put climate action at the centre of all urban decision making. It was language that had already been endorsed by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Big City Mayors’ Caucus. And it was all very symbolic. No dollars were attached to the motion. The budget wasn’t in jeopardy.
And yet despite that, the Race To Zero motion squeaked through on a six to five vote with councillors Bresciani, Findura, Mohl, Shaw and Mayor Sandra Masters voting against it.
What gives? I thought our municipal vision was that we’d strive to be “Canada’s most vibrant, inclusive, attractive, sustainable community.”
But when she spoke against it at council, Masters said that she felt there was an overreach in the motion.
I caught up with her by phone a week after that council meeting to ask what she meant.
“I’m not a fan of undefined implications of policy,” said Masters. “[The Race To Zero], what does that mean? And what does it cost and in what time frame? So, we know that we want to achieve 50 per cent reduction of current GHG emissions by 2030. We already know that we want to be net zero by 2050. But … how do you actualize this in policy recommendations?
“Look, I know that 50 per cent reduction by 2030 is expensive and net zero by 2050 is also expensive. I know that,” she said. “Part of what the Energy & Sustainability Framework’s intention was — one of the pieces was to gauge public awareness, public understanding of, in some respects, climate change, but also what does net zero mean? What does GHG emissions reduction by 50 per cent look like?
“I’m not immune to the fact that the emergency exists regardless of public understanding and perception. But public policy depends upon public acceptance and so anytime we go to do something that we can’t break down in a consumable fashion — that they can understand and how it applies to their household, to their individual sense of living in the city, and how it fits into the city budget, all of those types of things — that’s my concern.”
Sure. Fine. Endorsing symbolic motions without working through all the policy implications can, maybe, risk giving off the wrong signals. But voting against a symbolic motion can also symbolize something: that climate action and sustainability commitments will get thrown under the bus once they become inconvenient.
And beyond the Energy & Sustainability Framework, council regularly makes decisions that have climate implications that aren’t always obvious. Watching the vote on a symbolic motion like Race To Zero is like reading the tea leaves for future votes. It suggests how seriously council takes its sustainability talk and how it will act going forward when the climate implications aren’t written into the report in bold type.
Take, for instance, the current push on council to rethink the Official Community Plan’s density targets. Those targets  exist to limit Regina’s urban sprawl, increase the feasibility of active transportation in the city and — spinoff benefit! — reduce our carbon footprint. That council is even opening a discussion about allowing more McMansions on giant lots suggests there’s a tension between shifting towards sustainability and just sticking with planet-killing business-as-usual.
Masters, though, says having a conversation about density is an important part of getting our urban planning right.
“In terms of the density issue, I actually think that goes to proper urban planning,” she said. “And if I use the Greens [on Gardener] as an example, we’re not necessarily providing the transit service for the density that exists, nor are we necessarily accommodating the density of human population with park space.
“I think there’s an element where we’ve gone after density without considerations for the implications of that. If I use Harbor Landing as the next example, we went after density but didn’t consider the overcapacity of the infrastructure that was built for the original density.
“Is extra density good? Yes,” said Masters”. “But without consideration for the additional infrastructure that’s required — whether that be school sites, whether that be wastewater effluent storm water drainage systems — then we’re not doing proper thoughtful urban planning so in terms of the density motion being considered.”
All that proper, thoughtful urban planning is supposed to be embodied in the OCP. And Harbour Landing achieved most of its famously outsized density before the OCP became a bylaw. The OCP should be guarding us against making those mistakes again.
Masters suggests an upcoming report on the OCP’s density targets is part of a deep dive into how well our OCP’s urban planning ambitions are being achieved.
“We’re not regularly checking in to see how [the OCP] is working and then making adjustments on the trend lines of what’s actually happening,” she said. “I think that’s, I’ll say, a miss on our part and it’s something that needs to be dealt with and administration acknowledges and is clearly aware of.”
Great. Let’s be good urban planners.
But being mindful, logical and deliberate about how we build our city doesn’t let us off the hook from putting climate action at the centre of our urban decision making.
Because Regina — and, more widely, Saskatchewan — absolutely has a responsibility to take the climate crisis seriously.
Ward four councillor Lori Bresciani was another vote against the Race To Zero motion. And while she echoed some the mayor’s language around needing sound policy, she also slipped in a disturbing argument against local climate action.
“I can’t support it as is because I do worry that we’re committed to putting inclusive urban decision making… what does that mean? There’s lots of ways you can do that. We’re different than India and, China and all those other cities that are there. They’re the polluters,” said Bresciani.
“We’re not the polluters, ‘they’ are” is a widely held belief on the Prairies that suggests mobilizing climate action in the Queen City will always be an uphill battle.
But the thing is, Bresciani’s claim isn’t just wrong, it’s an idea that’s an enemy to truth. Because we are absolutely the polluters.
Saskatchewan boasts the highest greenhouse gas emissions in the country, worse even than Alberta. And if we don’t just think about Saskatchewan as Scott Moe’s “nation within a nation,” but just as “a nation,” the Land of the Living Skies would be in the top five for per capita GHG emissions in the entire world.
Meanwhile, the planet has already warmed by 1.1 to 1.2 degrees Celsius since the dawn of the industrial age. And the greenhouse gases that got us to that perilous temperature? That’s mostly North America’s carbon dioxide, baby.
We did this. This is our mess. And sure, you can say that we were ignorant about the science and didn’t know we’d fucking burn the planet.
But the scales have fallen off our eyes. And if we — meaning Canada, Saskatchewan and, yes, even Regina — don’t start acting like our emissions are the problem and get them under control, well…
… that would make us all horrible, garbage people.
We have a shot with the Energy & Sustainability Framework to stop being garbage. We should probably take it.
 Yes, the “by 2050” tacked onto the end of our 100 per cent renewable city goal is more of a flaccid, inadequate COP-style target. But come on! COP was supposed to support podunk cities like ours so that we’d have the resources and moral cover so we could shrink that timeline. Instead, the COP suits rolled over and showed their bellies to the oil barons.
 The OCP currently has a target for 30 per cent of new development to be infill versus the remaining 70 per cent being built in greenfield. We have wildly missed that goal every year since adopting it. Additionally, there is an expectation that new neighbourhoods will average 50 people living in each hectare. That 50 person per hectare goal is currently the most contentious aspect of our OCP.