Opinion Leader: Successful climate policy requires coherent multi-government alignment of policy, budgets and effective execution

Guest Contributor
November 2, 2021

Readers of Research Money will be familiar with the critique of siloed policy-making and the perverse outcomes it often delivers. The capacity to think systemically and holistically, deploying what some call joined-up thinking, is necessary to confront interrelated existential threats. Some of the gravest of these include the climate crisis, loss of biodiversity and the erosion of trust in social institutions (science, governments, corporations, media).

Post-election, there is renewed hope that finally our federal government has the policy platform and political will assembled to tackle the climate emergency. One of the many ingredients of successful policy is the alignment of policy, budgets and effective execution, the absence of which is endemic in many large cities in Canada.

The lack of a systemic multi-stakeholder, multi-sectoral, transparent and coherent approach by all levels of government — municipal, provincial and federal — confounds federal climate policy formulation and execution.

A few examples drawn from research and experience in Calgary illustrate this point. The examples focus on three sectors governed by complex jurisdictional and sectoral responsibilities — transportation, health and housing.

Improve affordable living and reduce GHG emissions

Approximately 29 percent of the average Canadian household’s spending goes to shelter, while 20 percent goes to transportation.

A Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation-sponsored research report by Sustainable Calgary, Affordable Living: Housing + Transportation, asks the question: “What if a household were not obliged to own, operate and maintain an automobile?” The report demonstrates that delivery of affordable housing can be enhanced by consideration of affordable living — housing and transportation.

For example, in Calgary, if a family with an income of $80,000 could live without a car (or with one less car) and devote that savings to their mortgage, the number of Calgary communities where they could afford the average house increases fourfold. Similar gains are found in both the number of homes and the number of rental units that become affordable to that family.

This analysis holds across a wide range of household incomes. Applying an affordable living lens, federal policy could address the critical issue of affordable housing in concert with reductions in transportation-based greenhouse gas emissions.

Align policy making with real costs

A second example comes from within the transportation policy portfolio. Here we come up against what seems to be a policy firewall between private spending and public spending.

In Calgary, the largest share of the municipal budget is typically transportation — roughly $1.1 billion annually. That money is allocated with no consideration of the private spending of households on the rolling stock of our roadways, the private automobile.

When you add up all private transportation spending in Calgary, it works out to about $5.2 billion annually, dwarfing public spending. Overwhelmingly, private spending is devoted to buying, operating and maintaining our cars. That $5.2 billion is equivalent to the cost of about three southwest light rapid transit lines plus one thousand kilometres of streetcar tracks — all for what we spend in just one year on our cars!

At all levels of government, policy makers deliberate on the efficacy of transit and active transportation policy with little to no consideration of potential private spending savings. In the case of Calgary, 80 percent of the real costs are left out of the calculations, and that makes for ineffective policy-making.

Transparent accounting needed for all costs and savings

A third example focuses on the intersection of health and transportation.

Research on the health implications of sedentary lifestyles encouraged by sprawling, car-dependent cities is well established and compelling, as is the research on the improved health outcomes of active lifestyles.

The issue in this case is that the costs associated with transit and active transportation infrastructure are borne by municipal governments, while the savings are realized by provincial and federal governments, who administer and fund health policy and budgets.

When municipal governments ignore the health implications of transportation options because those savings are realized at other levels of government, they compromise citizens’ well-being. If the cost of a home on a city’s edge is reflected only in the sticker price, then health, transportation and ecological costs of sprawl are externalized and easily ignored, and bad decisions are made.

Integrate innovative policy with effective execution

The lessons for federal policy making with respect to climate change is that effective action requires innovation not only (and perhaps not most importantly) in technology, but also in mechanisms to integrate policy making and execution across all three levels of government, with a full consideration of the public and private budget implications of any policy.

What would this mean for federal action on climate change?

Crucial policies like carbon pricing and net-zero buildings would be augmented with innovative mechanisms for tri-jurisdictional collaboration. This would require full-cost accounting of policy alternatives that make transparent public and private costs and savings, as well as the relative costs and savings of a policy to all levels of government. It would include mechanisms for compensation when spending at one level of government or department results in savings at another.

Dr. Noel Keough, PhD, is co-author (with Geoff Ghitter) of Sustainability Matters: Prospects for a Just Transition in Calgary, Canada’s Petro-City and of Sustainable Calgary’s State of Our City 2020 report. Keough is an Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Calgary and the co-founder of Sustainable Calgary.


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