Carbon-neutral Cities in Canada

Following the Footsteps of Copenhagen

By 2050, it is projected that our global population will surpass 9 billion people. Over 70 per cent of the world will reside in urban areas. Activities in urban regions are a major cause of global warming. The United Nations Environment Programme indicates that buildings, construction, and transportation in cities contribute to over 75 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

This is why a major priority for Canadian action on climate change needs to focus on cities. Successful international examples offer Canada a road map for moving towards carbon neutrality and resource efficiency. By learning from other countries that are successfully leading the green movement, we can accelerate our sustainability efforts. At the same time, we can avoid the detrimental ramifications that the ecosystem and people in Canada might face in the long run as a result of inaction. While all levels of government must work together to meet national environmental goals, there are several opportunities for municipal governments in Canada to help lay the groundwork for the pathway to a green economy.

In particular, we can look to Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark, as they rapidly approach their target of becoming the first carbon-neutral city in the world by 2025. How is the city of Copenhagen so close to becoming a carbon-free city, all the while benefiting from a 25 per cent economic growth over the last two decades? 

Sustainable Transportation

When drafting policies and making investments, Copenhagen always places public transportation, sustainable urban design, and cycling at the core of its approach. One of the key strategies employed by the government for creating a greener city is the “Five Minute City” plan. According to Frank Jensen, Copenhagen’s Lord Mayor, the city plan entails ensuring that most residents in the city are no more than five minutes on foot from public transportation. Specific strategies include revamping the road infrastructure for over half a million cyclists throughout the city and expanding metro lines to encourage the widespread usage of public transportation. 

Cityringen, the city’s metro system built in 2019, encompasses the entire city of Copenhagen. This metro line has a station within 600 metres of 85 per cent of Copenhagen’s households residents, and over 100 million passengers are estimated to have taken mass transit in its first year. 

Thanks to many of these measures, approximately 65 per cent of all trips throughout the city are done either by bike, on foot, or public transit. This is only 10 percentage points away from the city’s goal to reach 75 per cent by 2025. As city officials collaborated with urban planners to install footrests at stop lights for cyclists and build bicycle parking lots in every bus and metro station, these changes have allowed cycling to become the main method of transportation for Danes throughout the city.

In Canada, municipal governments have also undertaken initiatives to expand and encourage cycling in cities, with the first ever Canadian cycling plan established by the City of Ottawa in 2008. The Ottawa Cycling Plan document, published by the municipal government in 2009, details the city’s plan for building long-term bicycle parking facilities, as well as the ways it seeks to partner with other levels of government to achieve the shared goal of a cycling-friendly city. However, it appears that Ottawa has fallen behind on its ten-year old cycling plan, with latest figures reporting 225 cyclist injuries and one cyclist death from road crashes in 2018 alone. After the reports of multiple traffic-related injuries, the city has taken steps to lower speed limits and implement traffic-slowing measures at major intersections. 

However, due to a severe lag in these processes, several advocacy groups argued that an updated cycling legislation must be enacted immediately by the municipal government in order to foster a truly safe and sustainable city. Not a single cyclist should have to wait for an injury to happen to stir the development of protected bike lane expansions. Ensuring proper infrastructure should be considered the default for the government. 

In Calgary, the city council authorized a new cycling strategy in 2011, committing to set up over 30 kilometres of cycling paths by 2020. Over the years, the council’s lack of willingness to fund this project has resulted in only seven kilometres of the track being built by 2019, only 23 per cent of the goal approved ten years ago. In addition, while Vancouver and Montréal boast themselves among the most bike-friendly cities in North America, many cyclists claimed that the busy roadways, heavy traffic, and lack of bike racks for preventing thefts, all failed to foster a true cycling culture in their neighbourhoods. This demonstrates a need to invest in feasible planning projects to actively promote cycling, especially within more populated cities of Montreal, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver. 

The urban population is growing at a rapid pace each year in Canada, proving our ever-increasing need to invest in public transportation. Fewer vehicles on the road not only mean less congestion and faster transit for all, but a huge win for our environment. Currently, public transit is responsible for less than one percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada; whereas, traffic-related air pollution in the Greater Toronto Area alone results in over 1,000 early deaths each year due to lung infections, heart attacks, strokes, and asthma. As such, municipalities must increase funding and establish firm infrastructural timelines for the roll-out of a rapid, modernized expansion of sustainable public transportation. This also means following through on their implementation plans. 

In addition to building fast and reliable light trail transit , cities’ diesel buses must also be replaced with electric buses, following the example in the City of Brampton as they embark on an electric bus integration trial. To enable this municipal action, the federal government must also implement appropriate policies in support of these initiatives, upon consulting with environmental engineers and urban planners to build appropriate infrastructure. These integrated approaches can have a lasting impact on our communities and our environment. 

Renewable Energy Development

Central to Copenhagen’s carbon-free project is prioritizing renewable energy and resource efficiency. Nearly 99 per cent of homes in Copenhagen use a renewable heating system, supplied by Copenhagen’s energy utility company, HOFOR. The central heating structure invented by HOFOR consists of tubes that collect excess heat from electricity production and transfers the energy to be reused and redistributed into households. In addition, the city is known for Copenhill, a waste-to-energy plant that supplies energy to thousands of buildings throughout the city, complemented with an artificial ski slope for residents to enjoy recreational activities on the roof of its building

The Technical and Environmental Administration Department of the municipal government, in partnership with local companies, also established the Copenhagen Solutions Lab, an innovative incubator for driving smart city initiatives. This cross-sector collaboration of the municipal government and local businesses proved extremely successful, resulting in expanded knowledge institutions and data-driven technologies. Their cooperation showed that companies are willing and able to transition into green energy and actively implement sustainable practices in their business plans. 

The renewable energy sector is also a growing industry in Canada. Hydroelectricity accounts for over 60 per cent of Canada’s electricity generation, and continues to become more mainstream as the federal government emphasizes investments in renewable technology and energy efficiency. Nevertheless, Canada’s continued dependence on fossil fuels due to oil-based vehicles, extractive manufacturing, and industrial production led to over 729 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in 2018. Canada’s ultimate plan must be to shift our energy use to 100 per cent renewables and to stop our over-reliance on carbon-intensive energy supply. To do this, the Canadian government must actively look into adopting strong renewable energy solutions to ensure long-term climate resilience of our energy systems. 

This is only possible by electrifying most of the physical structures that we heavily depend on: transportation, home heating, shipping trucks, and so on. To encourage a radical transition into electrification, we must first shift away from fossil fuel subsidies, then expedite renewable production to utilize energy resources more efficiently. For instance, taking on the example of Denmark, we can look to transform the massive volumes of Canada’s wind resources into electric battery storage for the public transportation system, as well as direct wind power into district heating systems. We can also make investments into solar thermal technologies to supply heat directly into our country’s district heating systems. With these steps, we can encourage consumers and producers to see that there is a strong economic benefit to investing in renewable energy technologies.

A Carbon-neutral Transition

Experts from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate reported that investing in clean technologies could bring global economic benefits of over 26 trillion dollars (USD) by 2030. As we continue to witness the expansion of green innovation in many cities around the world, we must urge governments in Canada to fund an ambitious plan for forward-thinking green technologies right here at home. Following the footsteps of Copenhagen in their relentless effort to achieve economic development through sustainable infrastructure, it is now our turn to urgently prioritize green energy that creates stronger, cleaner, safer and more efficient cities.


  • Keira Kang is CPJ's public justice intern - ecological justice.

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