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Municipal Budgets: The Key to Enacting Climate Action

Written by Emma Bainbridge, 2023 CCH Summer Intern

· General

With every year that passes, the magnitude of the climate crisis becomes more apparent. People across Canada are feeling the effects of climate change, whether it’s flooding, wildfires, tornadoes, or heat waves. It is no surprise that during the 2021 federal election, a poll found one fifth of Canadian voters identifying climate action as one of their top priorities.  

Municipalities influence about half of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore have an important role to play in fighting climate change. Many Canadian municipalities have already declared a climate emergency and have created plans to reduce their emissions. However, making climate promises is one thing for municipalities to do, but following through with them is another thing entirely.  


Why are municipal budgets worth organizing around? 

Climate promises become a lot more reliable when they’re reflected in a city’s municipal budget. Both the Calgary and the Halifax Climate Hubs have recently organized campaigns dedicated to getting climate targets included in their respective municipal budgets. 

For Drew McQuinn, team lead for the Halifax Climate Hub, municipalities are “ground zero” for climate action. The Halifax Climate Hub was heavily involved in garnering support to fund Halifax’s climate plan, known as HalifACT in the 2022/2023 municipal budget. 

“It starts with individuals, but ultimately, individuals will only be as good as the support they're getting from the municipality,” he explained. “Because [municipalities] are the ones doing things like retrofitting and changing transit systems, they’re really the only ones who have the ability to make that change.”  

According to Steve Bentley, from the Calgary Climate Hub, the first step to getting municipalities to start making that change is to put it in the budget. 

“If it's not in the budget, then it’s not going to happen, whatever flowery words anybody says. If they don't put money behind it, then it's nothing,” he said. 

That’s where grassroots action comes into play: citizens have the power to influence municipalities’ decision-making, notably when it comes to budget. 


Preparing for the vote 

In both Calgary and Halifax, it was the preparation leading up to the municipal budget vote that was key to getting the Hubs’ success. During this period, both Hubs worked hard to raise awareness about the budget vote and made their demands known to their councillors. 

The Calgary Climate Hub focused on increasing citizen engagement around the city’s budget session in November 2022. They focused on publicizing that the vote was happening and explaining the importance of speaking up and advocating for climate action. Working with other climate-friendly organizations, the Hub mobilized citizens across networks within the city to show up to the session and make their demands heard.  

Recognizing that speaking to council can be intimidating, the Hub hosted workshops on how to present at city hall. This allowed people to practice what they were going to say, gain feedback in a safe space, and remove reduce feelings of insecurity around public speaking. These workshops encouraged people to tell stories about why they were concerned about the climate, adding an emotional angle to their argument to increase resonance with councillors.  

“That was the largest turnout we'd ever had for a budget session before,” recalled Bentley. “They had quite a lot of folks show up who wanted better climate policy.” 

In addition to mobilizing citizens, the Calgary Climate Hub also worked on convincing councillors to vote for positive climate policies. Their main strategy was to get their members to contact councillors and request to meet with them. They also put pressure on their representatives through social media by tagging councillors in posts describing climate solutions that they want to see implemented in Calgary.

The Halifax Climate Hub used similar tactics when working to get HalifACT, the proposed Halifax Regional Municipality's climate plan, to be implemented in the city’s budget. Through regular meetings with many other climate organizations in Atlantic Canada, they created a marketing campaign with the goal of “informing the public about why the municipality should vote yes on the climate plan,” as McQuinn puts it. They even worked with councillors sympathetic to their cause to better understand the inner dynamics and stances within city hall. After identifying their goals and targets, the next step was “to have people write letters, emails, and phone calls to those councillors and put their feet to the fire.” 

“We basically narrowed down who we needed to put pressure on, and who was already going to vote [yes],” explained McQuinn. “Once we got the fence-sitters on board, the other councillors that we thought were going to definitely say no felt so much pressure that they actually said yes.” 

The Hub found economic arguments, more than environmental ones, were more effective at convincing people to support climate policies. They argued that implementing policies to make the energy system more efficient would save money in the long run. They found that invoking this argument was effective in addressing concerns around climate measures’ compatibility with economic prosperity.  

Having an established plan to vote on, like HalifACT in Halifax’s case, is a big advantage when working with councillors for a climate action to be included in their municipal budgets. If a municipality doesn’t already have a plan, then, a strategic first step is to convince city council to create and adopt one.  


Holding the municipality accountable to their promises 

Unfortunately, getting your city council to vote yes on funding climate promises in their budget isn’t the end of the fight. Once city council has voted in favour of integrating climate policies in the municipal budget, it’s important to keep up the pressure to ensure that they follow through. Municipal governments face various sources of pressure and influence, including from lobbyists that benefit from the status quo or who could be negatively impacted by climate policies. It is therefore key to keep councillors accountable to the promises they’ve made.  

“If they don't feel that pressure, what I can assure you is that they're getting that pressure from other directions. And often those other directions are not conducive to climate [policies],” said Bentley. 

McQuinn agreed that it’s important to keep up the organizing momentum after the budget is voted on, because momentum is hard to rekindle if it fizzles. He recommends continuing to show up to council meetings and events and ask questions publicly to remind councillors that people are still watching their actions on climate. However, he acknowledges that maintaining this momentum is often challenging. 

“For the budget, the messaging was kind of easy to understand for everybody,” they said. “But when you get down into implementation, it's like really a spider web of complexity. And now, you've got this big chunk of money while there's, you know, 100 different things that have to happen within the plan.” 

Once a climate promise has been integrated into the municipal budget, it’s important to follow the money to make sure that the plan is, in fact, being carried out, and that it’s being implemented equitably.  

“If you're not careful, then all the good stuff that's in the budget around climate, they're all going to go to the rich areas of town,” Bentley warned. “It's a continuous process, and with absent citizen input it's just businesses.” 


Building connections  

As with any type of organizing, campaigns around municipal budgets are most successful when working in tandem with others. The campaigns in Halifax and Calgary were both successful in part because they were able to mobilize a large number of people to come out and speak at city hall meetings or pressure their councillors to vote in favour of implementing climate plans. Both campaigns coordinated with other local groups to exert pressure on their municipal governments, combining their respective individual networks to mobilize a greater number of people. 

Relationship building is one of the biggest priorities for the Halifax Climate Hub, especially in terms of building their online presence. Building and consolidating strong networks makes climate organizing more efficient in many ways, notably by improving communication, breaking silos, avoiding duplication, and reducing risks of burnout. 

The Atlantic Canada Climate Network (ACCN) helps to facilitate such connections. The network was co-created by Climate Reality Project Canada’s Atlantic Regional Engagement Coordinator, Ashley Anthony, with Hub leader McQuinn joining the steering committee soon after representing the Halifax Hub. According to McQuinn, their goal is to “maintain strong connections between the big players in the climate action game because there are a lot of silos in this business.” 

“I feel like that's where I can have the most impact,” McQuinn said. “Just taking the work that's already been done and amplifying it through the climate action universe.” 

Integrating climate promises into their budget is one of the first steps that municipalities can take to show a commitment to addressing the climate crisis in meaningful ways. Ensuring that these promises are integrated in the budget and ensuring that the municipality follows through on them is a process that requires active citizen engagement in order to hold elected officials accountable and keep them on track. Building strong networks - such as the ACCN - and collaborating with groups with similar aims is key to mobilizing more people to take action in a coordinated manner to get your demands met.