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Are you an elected official or senior staff member who wants to help your municipality significantly reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? Are you intrigued by the idea pursuing net-zero emissions by 2050? If your community has taken steps to reduce emissions but still needs a climate action plan that takes a decarbonization approach, this factsheet can help.

Read this webpage to learn how local governments can influence their community’s transition to deep decarbonization. You’ll discover:

  • Priority pathways for deep emissions reductions
  • How municipalities can influence GHG emissions reductions
  • How Canadian municipalities are reducing GHG emissions
  • Success factors to reach municipal climate targets

Key terms to understand the deep decarbonization process

Net-zero emissions (or carbon neutrality): Are achieved when human-caused (or anthropogenic) GHG emissions are balanced by an equivalent removal of GHG emissions from the atmosphere over a specific period. Achieving a net-zero balance requires significant reductions in GHG emissions, while the last small percentage can be achieved through carbon sinks (e.g., forests, wetlands, oceans, soil) that absorb more carbon than they emit.

Corporate climate action plan: A plan that focuses on reducing GHG emissions that are directly controlled by the local government (e.g., municipal operations and fleets).

Community-wide climate action plan: A plan that focuses on reducing GHG emissions within the boundaries of the community, requiring commitment and effort from many actors in the community.

Deep decarbonization: The process of reducing carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions at a rate that ensures net-zero emissions at the community level by the year 2050 and significant reductions by 2030.

Deep decarbonization pathways: The electricity, building, transportation, waste, land use and agricultural sectors are priority pathways for establishing policies and other solutions to advance climate action. The relative contribution of each sector toward community-wide emissions can vary significantly depending on the municipality’s economic base, urban form, density, wealth and sources of electricity in the grid.

Deep decarbonization plan: A corporate or community-wide climate action plan that aims for at least 80 percent reduction of GHG emissions by 2050. (Note: Although the word carbon (in the sense of carbon dioxide equivalent) is often used, all GHGs are considered as part of deep decarbonization plans and carbon neutrality goals.)

Embodied carbon: GHG emissions of a material released from the extraction of raw resources to its end-life. In an infrastructure project, embodied carbon includes emissions from raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and emissions associated with construction and demolition practices. Embodied carbon does not include carbon emissions from use and operations.

Backcasting: An approach that focuses on defining a desired carbon neutral future for a community and then working backwards to identify all the necessary actions to achieve this vision.

Municipal carbon budgeting: A tool that tracks GHG emissions with municipal finances, where municipalities create a carbon budget within which their GHG emissions must fit. A carbon allocation is added to each proposed project and ongoing operational cost to assess its climate mitigation potential against the municipality’s remaining carbon budget. This approach holds municipalities accountable for their long-term climate targets and allows for transparent and accurate monitoring of decarbonization efforts.

Climate lens: A perspective that adds consideration of climate impacts into planning and approval processes. Using a carbon budget is one tool to bring a climate lens to municipal decision-making.

What are the priority pathways to achieve deep decarbonization?


Icon of an electricity bolt in a circle.

Consuming renewable energy produced by the electricity sector is an essential alternative to fossil fuels. More electrification and fuel shifts for heating buildings and in transportation can stimulate investment in renewable energy.


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Decarbonization solutions for the building sector include reducing carbon emissions over the life cycle of the asset. This can be done by, for example, increasing building efficiency through good design, decarbonizing heating systems through retrofits of old buildings and ensuring new buildings have low or zero carbon emissions.


Icon of a bus

Shifting toward active (e.g., walking, cycling) and public transportation, and moving to electric vehicles or other zero-emission vehicles can significantly reduce transportation-related GHG emissions.


 Icon of a trash can with the recycle arrow around it

Transformations in the waste sector include reducing waste to landfills and investing in technologies to capture emissions from waste treatment processes.

Nature-based solutions

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Nature-based solutions include increasing carbon sinks through urban forests and wetlands, and adopting sustainable agriculture. As municipalities continue to adopt ambitious emissions reduction targets, many are using local carbon sinks and carbon offsets to achieve decarbonization goals. Effective land use planning for green space and protection of ecological services is a consideration for urban carbon sinks.

  • Sustainable agriculture

    Sustainable land use in agriculture can increase the carbon sink capacity of agricultural land. This includes improving soil management through soil conservation and carbon sequestration practices, implementing crop rotations, decreasing bare fallow and establishing agroforestry systems.

    In addition, using ecological farming practices such as reducing fertilizer inputs, adjusting livestock feed to reduce emissions from digestive systems and capturing methane emissions from manure can significantly reduce GHG emissions.

    Food choices also play a role. Policies and strategies to promote sustainable and local food choices can decrease emissions from waste and transportation sectors and help create equitable access to sustainable food options for low-income citizens.

How can municipalities influence deep decarbonization?

Many municipalities in Canada have developed both corporate and community-wide climate action plans in response to climate change.

  • Corporate climate action plans focus on reducing emissions from activities that are within the control and direct influence of the local government (i.e., the "corporation").
  • Community-wide climate action plans focus on reducing GHG emissions, including industrial and residential emissions, within the municipal boundaries.

The primary focus for most municipalities is on reducing corporate emissions and furthering community-wide deep decarbonization efforts, especially when federal and provincial initiatives are not achieving sufficient reductions on their own. Knowing what they control directly helps municipalities determine how to structure their corporate climate action plan and their community plan. Federal/provincial policies and initiatives as well as business products and services have a direct impact on helping municipalities and local stakeholders achieve corporate and community-wide emissions targets.

This graphic shows municipal spheres of influence over different sources of GHG emissions. It can be adapted to each local context.

Municipal spheres of influence over different sources of GHG emissions

Graphic displaying examples of sources of GHG emissions where municipalities can have influence, divided into three groups: limited/no control, indirect control and direct control. Examples listed under limited/no control are industrial sector, airport and shipping ports, and electricity production and distribution (from outside the region). Examples listed under indirect control are land use, transportation, industrial, commercial and institutional waste, buildings (residential and commercial), and agricultural emissions. Examples listed under direct control are municipal services, municipal-owned utilities, municipal buildings and fleets, landfill and waste management, public transportation infrastructure and carbon sinks (parks and green space).

Which sources of GHG emissions are included in deep decarbonization plans?

When it comes to measuring and reporting GHG emissions, most deep decarbonization plans in Canada focus on two categories of GHG emissions:

  1. Direct GHG emissions generated from within the municipality
  2. Indirect emissions associated with the purchase of grid-supplied energy

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG Protocol) identifies these as Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions respectively. Increasingly, Scope 3 emissions are also being considered. This third category includes all other indirect GHG emissions that occur outside the municipal boundary due to consumption or investment by people within the municipality. The three scopes can be used in corporate and community-wide climate action plans to categorize sources of GHG emissions.

Sources and boundaries of municipal GHG emissions

Graph displaying the three GHG emissions scopes: Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3. Scope 1 emissions are generated within the municipal boundary. This includes emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land use; stationary fuel combustion; waste generated and disposed inside the city; industrial process and product use; and in-boundary transportation. Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions from grid-supplied energy. Scope 3 emissions are generated outside the municipal boundary and include emissions from waste generated inside the city and disposed outside the city, transmission and distribution of energy, out-of-boundary transportation and other indirect emissions.
Graphic is an adaptation. Original image belongs to GHG Protocol developed by World Resources Institute and World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Leading edge deep decarbonization plans are also starting to consider embodied carbon, which is the total GHG emissions associated with a material over the product’s lifecycle. For example, embodied carbon in an infrastructure project includes emissions from the extraction, manufacturing and transportation of building materials, as well as emissions associated with construction and demolition. Embodied carbon is separate from operational carbon, which is GHG emissions resulting from the use and operation of built infrastructure.

What commitments are Canadian municipalities making to decarbonize?

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined that a 45 percent reduction in global GHG emissions is required by 2030 (based on 2010 levels) and carbon neutrality is required by 2050, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The IPCC report, released in August 2021, reinforces the urgent need to rapidly reduce global GHG emissions on a large scale. In Canada, the federal government has pledged to carbon neutrality (or net-zero) by 2050, and a 40 to 45 percent reduction in GHG emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. Across Canada, approximately 500 municipalities have declared a climate emergency, and many have adopted the federal GHG emissions reduction targets (see Random Acts of Green) .

Nearly 500 Canadian municipalities have committed to the Partners for Climate Protection (PCP) program developed jointly by ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability Canada (ICLEI Canada) and FCM. The PCP program’s five-step milestone framework guides municipalities as they take action to reduce GHG emissions. Additionally, over 50 municipalities are members of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy in Canada (GCoM), a collaboration between FCM, ICLEI Canada, the GCoM Secretariat, and the European Union. Like the PCP program, GCoM signatories commit to taking specific action to combat climate change.

PCP member municipalities are required to set locally relevant emissions reductions targets, and many have revised their targets to at least an 80 percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, with varying baseline years. Recently, some have set an even more ambitious goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

What steps can Canadian municipalities take to decarbonize?

To achieve deep decarbonization, we suggest municipalities use the PCP framework and pursue additional steps. This table provides an overview of suggested actions that Canadian municipalities can implement and the current state in Canada as of 2020. Information in the current state in Canada column was partly derived from interviews with 11 partner organizations and 51 local governments engaged in MCIPS’s Transition 2050 (T2050) initiative.

PCP framework (applies to corporate and community-wide climate action planning) Suggested steps for deep decarbonization Current state in Canada (as of 2020)

Sign up to be a PCP member

  • Recognize the urgent need to address climate change and declare a climate emergency.

More than 500 municipalities in Canada have declared a climate emergency. All municipalities that were interviewed recognize climate change as one of the pressing issues in their community.

Milestone 1: Complete a GHG emissions inventory and business-as-usual emissions forecast for the next 10 years

  • Use the GHG Protocol to calculate scope 1 and scope 2 emissions.
  • Identify 2050 community-wide climate targets and work backwards to determine the remaining carbon budget (back-casting approach).

While most municipalities that were interviewed have conducted a corporate GHG inventory, a community-wide GHG inventory, or both, only some have adopted a back-casting approach to determine the allowable amount of additional emissions for the community.

Milestone 2: Set emissions reduction target

  • Set ambitious short- and long-term climate targets, in line with the latest science (i.e., carbon neutrality by 2050, and 45% reduction from 2010 levels by 2030).

Most municipalities that were interviewed have adopted ambitious corporate and community-wide GHG emissions reduction targets and interim targets. Most are aiming for an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, with varying baseline years, or for carbon neutrality.

Milestone 3: Develop a local action plan

  • Identify priority areas and sectors, and significant GHG emissions reduction opportunities.
  • Adopt a back-casting approach using climate scenario modelling to identify GHG reduction trajectories that will lead to carbon neutrality.
  • Align climate action plans with other departmental plans.
  • Engage the appropriate stakeholders and partners during the planning phase.

All municipalities that were interviewed have recently completed or are in the process of developing climate action plans that often include both a corporate and a community-wide plan. Most still need to consider how to align their decarbonization plans and actions with municipal services and operations, budgeting, strategic priorities and direction, and the identified GHG reductions trajectory of the community.

Milestone 4: Implement the local action plan(s)

  • Dedicate a climate change staff person or team to support implementation of the plan.
  • Establish an appropriate governance structure to implement the plan.

Only a few of the municipalities that were interviewed have begun to implement their plans, and most lack a clear implementation plan and have yet to develop appropriate governance structures for the implementation stage.

Milestone 5: Monitor progress and report results

  • Support a cross-departmental entity to oversee corporate efforts and a cross-sector entity to oversee community-wide efforts.
  • Establish a consistent, long-term reporting structure for progress on community-wide decarbonization.

Most of the municipalities that were interviewed need to increase their efforts to formally monitor and report on progress of their community-wide decarbonization efforts.

Ensure continuous improvement

  • Recognize that deep decarbonization requires a cyclical management system that includes updating the plan and interim targets approximately every five years.

The deep decarbonization plans and planning cycles for many of the municipalities that were interviewed build on their earlier commitments and initiatives, putting them in a cycle of continuous improvement.

What are key success factors for deep decarbonization?

Canadian municipalities often encounter multiple barriers as they work to meet their corporate and community-wide GHG emissions reduction commitments. The table below shows key success factors for municipalities in reaching climate targets, as identified by T2050 initiative participants, along with suggested actions to help climate action teams work toward decarbonization. Depending on the municipality, members of the climate action team might include elected officials, senior management and community leaders.

Key success factors Suggested actions for municipal climate action teams
Gather support from senior management and council
  • Encourage participation in networks such as the GCoM, PCP, Climate Caucus, and those of other national, provincial and/or local non-governmental organizations.
  • Share resources and training from FCM, Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, QUEST, and other similar organizations.
  • Identify and support a climate champion on council to encourage climate action.
  • Ensure access to data to monitor progress on the achievement of interim targets.
Build community support
  • Collaborate with climate champions (e.g., elected officials, academics, community activists, business leaders) in the community to promote climate and decarbonization initiatives
  • Ensure equity, diversity, inclusion and meaningful participation of equity-seeking groups in all decision-making processes.
  • Craft messages to convey the co-benefits of decarbonization and the cost of inaction.
  • Support community groups working on climate action.
Understand and communicate the comparative cost of fossil fuel vs renewable energy sources
  • Use scenario forecasting and climate budgeting to estimate long-term cost options, including maintenance and an increasing price on carbon.
  • Calculate the return on investment and savings from potential investments in renewable resources.
  • Calculate the true cost of using fossil fuels, including the health impacts.
Align resources and finances with climate objectives
  • Explore financing mechanisms such as green bonds.
  • Collaborate with neighbouring municipalities to jointly apply for funding and investment.
  • Strategically align climate initiatives with municipal operations and services.
  • Join international or regional networks working on climate change capacity building.
  • Budget for decarbonization actions in upcoming budget cycles to ensure continuity of climate actions and decarbonization efforts.
  • Reduce redundancy in climate-related programs.
  • Adopt a long-term perspective to budgeting and resource allocation, and consider long-term costs for non-action versus immediate acquisition cost.
Align corporate operations with climate objectives
  • Adopt change management strategies and promote change within the corporate culture.
  • Establish a clear mandate to work on climate change.
  • Ensure decision-making considers climate change and aligns with climate targets and actions.
  • Increase cross-departmental collaboration by establishing an internal working group.
  • Use climate action staff or teams as facilitators to bring a climate lens into other departments.
  •  Introduce a climate budget as part of the accounting and auditing processes.
Gather support from other orders of government
  • Increase advocacy efforts to all orders of government and political sectors.

Next steps for municipal climate leaders

Here are some suggestions on how you can get started on the path to deep decarbonization.

  • Sign up to be a member of the Partners for Climate Protection (PCP) program.
  • Review your local GHG reduction targets for alignment with science-based targets.
  • Consult with community members and senior municipal leaders on the decarbonization pathways that are right for your municipality.
  • Use GMF’s Municipal Energy Roadmap to identify targeted solutions to achieve significant GHG emissions reductions in municipal and community buildings.
  • Join municipal climate action networks like Climate Caucus.

Resources for decarbonization planning

Examples of corporate and community-wide plans with ambitious 2050 climate targets:

Examples of PCP compliant climate action plans across Canada

Tools, reports and programs:

Climate networks and organizations:

About this factsheet

This factsheet was created through a partnership between FCM’s Municipalities for Climate Innovation Program (MCIP) and the University of Waterloo’s Dr. Amelia Clarke and Ying Zhou. The information is based on literature reviews and interviews with 11 partner organizations and 51 local governments that were part of MCIP’s Transition 2050 (T2050) initiative. T2050 provided grants to regions of all sizes in Canada to help them reach significant carbon emissions reduction targets.

The factsheet also draws on Deep Decarbonization in Cities: Pathways, Strategies, Governance Mechanisms and Actors for Transformative Climate Action, by Samantha Hall Linton.

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