Edmonton's first carbon budget highlights lack of action and investment

· The Pulse

Despite declaring a climate emergency and aiming to be an emissions-neutral community by 2050, Edmonton's carbon deficit continues to grow, and current investments are not enough to achieve reduction targets, according to the city's new carbon budget.

Edmonton is budgeted to emit a total of 176 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) from 2022 to 2050, based on targets that align with the Paris Agreement. That's an increase from the 135 million tonnes projected in City Plan. But without meaningful changes to the way the city as a whole operates and grows, even that larger budget will be fully depleted by 2037.

Over the 2023-2026 budget cycle, Edmonton's community emissions are forecasted to top 53.4 million tonnes of CO2e. According to the carbon budget, the quantifiable impacts of proposed 2023-2026 budget requests — even if fully funded — would only reduce emissions by 190,000 tonnes.

The new carbon budget will be presented to city council on Nov. 14. Before that, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi will be at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to participate in a panel about municipal leadership in achieving net zero emissions.

"The City of Edmonton is committed to transitioning to a low-carbon future and reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050," Sohi said in a news release. "Sharing ideas and information on projects like these and hearing from other international climate leaders will help us reach that target and preserve Edmonton's environment now and for future generations."

Expectations for city council to make progress on reducing emissions were high following last year's municipal election. Of the 12 members of council who completed Taproot's survey, all but one agreed with implementing the revised Community Energy Transition Strategy or going further. That plan calls for public and private investment totalling $24 billion over the next 10 years including annual spending of about $100 million on capital infrastructure and catalyst projects. Only Coun. Jennifer Rice said it might cost too much money. Coun. Karen Principe did not complete the survey.

And when asked about incorporating the effects on climate into city council's decision-making, nine said every decision has climate implications. Half of the 16,000 voter responses completed in the days leading up to the election agreed.

During its city-wide public engagement on the upcoming budget that took place over the summer, administration heard that Edmontonians "want the city to set long-term plans that take action to improve environmental sustainability and address impacts of climate change."

A chart showing historical and forecasted community emissions from 2015 through 2050, showing a pretty flat line from 2022 to 2050 and a growing deficit as emissions are supposed to trend towards net zero

Without meaningful changes to the way the city as a whole operates and grows, Edmonton's 2050 carbon budget will be fully depleted by 2037. (2023-2026 Carbon Budget: Attachment 1)

Without meaningful changes to the way the city as a whole operates and grows, Edmonton's 2050 carbon budget will be fully depleted by 2037. (2023-2026 Carbon Budget: Attachment 1)

Critics were quick to point out shortcomings in the new carbon budget, with several noting that the document suggests the Yellowhead Trail Freeway Conversion Project might "enable decreases in emissions related to reduced reduction."

"Induced demand is a well-reported phenomenon," tweeted Paths for People, which advocates for active transportation. It said the Yellowhead Trail project "is fundamentally not a project that will reduce emissions" and said it was "embarrassed" by the carbon budget.

Speaking Municipally co-host Troy Pavlek offered a similar critique on Twitter and in Episode 197. He noted that the Gateway Boulevard Renewal project, which will result in the same four-lane roadway without significant changes to support active transportation, was not quantified in the carbon budget.

"Unless city council substantially digs in its heels and pushes back, we're about to see a four-year budget that completely ignores a climate emergency," he said.

In its report accompanying the carbon budget, administration stressed that carbon budgeting is a new field of work and Edmonton is one of the first municipalities in Canada to incorporate a carbon budget into its financial process. It also said that the process of developing the carbon budget — a "significant" step for the city — led to several lessons that will be applied to future work.

In a series of tweets posted on Nov. 4, the city explained that "we still have a lot of work to do and the carbon budget will evolve with experience," adding that it was working to shift the city to more sustainable transportation options. "But we have lots of roads and we need to look at their carbon impacts."

Hear more about the carbon budget and the city's proposed 2023-2026 operating budget on the Nov. 4 episode of Taproot's civic affairs podcast.