An Appeal to Municipal and School District Leaders: Commit Now to the Goal

Updated: Apr 30

School Districts Need People to Guide the Coming Transition.

(Warning: The Term “Eliminate Fossil Fuel Use” Is Used Many Times in This Article)

We are in the midst of an existential crisis called the climate emergency. Greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase the frequency and magnitude of wildfires, atmospheric rivers, extreme weather events, a disappearing polar ice cap, rising water levels, species extinction and the likelihood of future pandemics. We can expect life on earth to be increasingly impacted by destroyed housing and infrastructure, disruption to critical supply chains, the need to accommodate displaced populations, and a further decline the overall wellness and well-being of people.

In times of crisis we look to science for factual information to guide policy and system change. Fortunately, a scientific body is in place to support a factually informed response to the climate emergency. That scientific body is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) The IPCC has scientifically confirmed that, to have any reasonable chance of a quality future, we need to eliminate fossil fuel use by 2050, with a 50% reduction by the year 2030 - only eight years from now.

Are they SMART?

The development and application of effective goals is a critical component of any change process. Among other things, this is because people need to clearly understand the change effort for which they are being asked to participate.

Do you remember SMART? It’s an acronym that represents the attributes necessary to develop effective goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. There was a time, in education anyway, when SMART was commonplace. Group discussions about improvement planning almost always involved someone saying “that seems like a great plan - but are the goals actually SMART?” So, in the spirit of effective goal setting, let’s take a moment to test the SMART effectiveness of the IPCC recommended goals.

Are they Specific?

Yes. Eliminate fossil fuel use by 2050, with a 50% reduction by the year 2030

Are they Measureable?

Yes. We can measure our progress on the elimination of fossil fuel use.

Are they Achievable?

Yes. We have the capacity to switch from fossil fuel to alternative energy sources.

Are they Relevant?

Most definitely yes. The goal is connected with our survival as a species on earth.

Are they Time-Bound?

Yes. Reduce by 50% by 2030. Eliminate by 2050.

Mitigation vs. Adaptation

Despite their SMART alignment, the scientifically developed goals of the IPCC are currently out of sync with larger public awareness. The climate emergency is not yet being treated as a true emergency. Action is being directed through market incentives and contradictory policy that endorses adaptive practices instead of fossil fuel mitigation. The Canadian fossil fuel industry receives billions of dollars in publicly funded subsidies to continue doing what we need to stop doing; extracting and burning fossil fuel that is causing GHG emissions.

The goal to eliminate fossil fuel use cannot be achieved through adaptive changes. It must involve a mandated and financially supported transition to carbon free communities. To emphasize this critical understanding of the goal, the most recent report by Working Group III of the IPCC focuses specifically on the Mitigation of Climate Change.

“Human-induced climate change is a consequence of more than a century of net GHG emissions from unsustainable energy use, land-use and land use change, lifestyle and patterns of consumption and production. Without urgent, effective and equitable mitigation actions, climate change increasingly threatens the health and livelihoods of people around the globe, ecosystem health and biodiversity.” Working Group III Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Section D.1.1, April 2022

Clarity and Focus for a Just Transition

The IPCC goal, based upon scientific fact, is to eliminate fossil fuel. The IPCC goal is not to adapt to climate change by changing the way we extract and burn fossil fuel. The IPCC goal does not align with obfuscating terms and practices as they relate to “clean oil”, carbon capture and carbon transfer. We need to eliminate fossil fuel. That is the goal.

Polls have demonstrated that there is no shortage of public desire to address the climate emergency. However, in the absence of a clearly communicated goal, good intentions get misplaced. The need to eliminate fossil fuel becomes confused with personal responsibility for the climate emergency. Yes, it’s good to reuse and recycle. Yes, it’s good to buy an electric vehicle if I can afford to do so. Yes, it’s good to solar panel my house if I actually own a house. But placing responsibility for the climate emergency to personal behavior does not effectively address the goal. We need mandated policy to eliminate fossil fuel.

Sarah Burch, one of the lead authors of the latest IPCC report, clarifies in a recent article that it is “important not to pin responsibility for mitigating climate change on the individual. We can only choose low carbon transport if the infrastructure is available and affordable; we can more easily make our homes energy efficient if incentives and building codes support these changes. The link between collective decision-making, at all levels of governance, and individual behaviour is a powerful one.”

Energy use is not equitable. Eliminating fossil fuel, and the necessary transition to carbon free communities, will have the hardest impact on poorer people. This doesn’t only apply to the operational transition to electric vehicles and carbon free heating and cooling systems. It also requires new ways to address job displacement, retraining, a focus on youth and education, elderly support, and mental and physical health support. Leveling the bar on these inequities will be necessary to build a community mobilization effort that can achieve the goal.

A manifesto and framework is available to address the inequities associated with the elimination of fossil fuel and necessary transition to carbon free communities. It is called a Just transition. Building public support for a Just Transition is necessary to ensure that a fulsome mobilization effort to address the climate emergency will ensure that no one is left behind. Central to a Just Transition is an embodiment of Indigenous rights in keeping with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A successful Just Transition requires a mobilization effort of similar scale to the last great war. At that time, the Canadian economy was transformed through the legislated policy direction of no fewer than 23 Crown Corporations. The mobilization effort of WWII showed what Canadians are capable of achieving when an emergency is truly addressed as an emergency - with a demonstrated commitment to a clear goal.

The Challenge of Municipal and School District Leaders

We tend to think about large change efforts and policy development from Provincial and Federal perspectives. But it is local governance and leadership where the real work happens.

Municipal and school district leaders are regularly called upon to implement the legislated policy of their Federal and Provincial counterparts. While municipalities can levy and adjust local taxes and user fees somewhat, this limited lane of revenue pales in comparison to the capacity of the provincial and federal governments they rely upon for transfer payments.

School districts generally have no mechanisms available to generate revenue beyond the fundraising efforts of local school councils. Ontario school districts, for example, receive transfer payments that are modeled in accordance with provincial priorities and policy direction and then proportioned based upon the number of local enrolments.

The inevitability of eliminating fossil fuel and transition to carbon free communities requires every municipality and school district, with assistance from indigenous and community support organizations, to develop and implement climate emergency plans. These plans need to be based upon the goal to eliminate fossil fuel.

From the on-the-ground work they do on a regular basis, municipal and school district leaders understand that a Just Transition is synonymous with robust and flexible funding that accounts for local needs and conditions. A Just Transition must ensure that municipal and school district leaders have the necessary support to oversee this historically significant undertaking. To begin, every municipality and school district requires staff to help guide the transition process.

Committing to the Goal

The elimination of fossil fuel and transition to carbon free communities is inevitable but short of time. People are aware of the climate emergency but confused about what needs to be done. Committing to the goal is a path forward.

At the outset, achieving the goal to eliminate fossil fuel will demand a wide scope of purely operational work just to get started. Municipalities need to understand the conversion needs of buildings and vehicles. Building codes need to be reviewed and adjusted.

School districts need to understand the status of school conversion needs and potential impacts on program locations and student transportation. Community organizations need to understand the health and safety needs of local people.

While we cannot simply turn off the fossil fuel switch, municipal and school district leaders can inform and communicate the scope of the task at hand. Public awareness is key. Local residents need to be informed and engaged of the impending changes to come. Where are the public assemblies? What, specifically, needs to be measured? What can be done right now? Why are we still building infrastructure that extracts and burns fossil fuel? How can we engage youth? What are we waiting for?

Committing to the goal is an avenue for municipal and school district leaders to get ahead of the inevitable call from Provincial and Federal governments for local implementation. Municipal and school district leaders understand the challenges and potential of their local communities. Municipal and school district leaders also have a legitimate claim to make for a robust funding commitment to oversee this massive undertaking. To get started, a dedicated team of staff is required to initiate the planning process.

Achieving the goal to eliminate fossil fuel by 2050, with a 50% reduction by the year 2030, will have an enormous impact on municipal and school district operations. Municipalities and school districts need staff to help develop local plans. Committing to the goal allows municipal and school district leaders to make the legitimate claim for Just Transition support. The time to begin the real work is now.