Climate Exchange

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Cities and Climate Change Mitigation: examples of Toronto and Mexico City

written by Snaliah Mahal


The first cities were the bastions of early civilisations. They were at the heart of commerce and industry of their regions or countries. It is in cities that major developments occurred and as the years have progressed, especially since the industrial revolution, large numbers of persons have migrated to cities in search of a better living. More and more people are quickly moving to urban areas, putting increasing demands on high quality goods and services and increasing energy consumption. It is expected that the global urban population will continue to grow. Presently, urban areas account for more than 50% of the world’s population. UNFPA notes that by 2030 those urban areas will have a combined population of approximately 5 billion and according to ICLEI‘s population will be living in cities by the year 2050. These urban populations (cities and towns) are the greatest emitters of GHGs with more than 70% of CO2 emissions and also account for two-thirds of global energy consumption (IEA 2008). Given current trends these figures are expected to increase significantly in the coming years.  These emissions are primarily caused by transport, industry and other factors.

Figure 1.1 Urban and rural population by development regions, 1950, 2011 and 2050
(per cent of total population)


Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division: World Urbanization Prospects, the 2011 Revision. New York, 2012

It is worth noting that we usually hear that climate change is going to affect developing countries more than developed countries. However, cities in both developing and developed countries are vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. The impact of climate change is imminent and has the possibility of causing grave destruction to an already fragile world system. Many cities are located in areas prone to the adverse effects of climate change, since many of them were born in river basins and near the coast (UN-HABITAT 2012). Cities in coastal zones will have to combat future sea level rise.  We have a clear example of what occurred on the Eastern seaboard of the US a year ago, when Hurricane Sandy brought destruction to parts New York City and New Jersey with some calling this an extreme event caused by climate change. It is therefore essential that clear action be taken to mitigate climate change in our cities.

This article aims to look at cities and mitigation to climate change. It looks at the policies and measures put in place by cities in response to climate change. I will first look at what mitigation is and what it entails and current climate change mitigation efforts and strategies in two major cities (one developed and one developing). I will also endeavour to give a general overview and outline what is being done globally in cities.

For the reasons mentioned above it is not only important to look at adaptive measures for future climate change events but mitigation should be looked to in the present day, to help curb or decrease the potential climate associated impacts that we will face in future. Climate change mitigation according to the UNEP website “refers to efforts to reduce or prevent emission of greenhouse gases”. It involves not only putting new energy efficient policies in place but also, encouraging and facilitating new technologies and innovation, which will usher in a new mode of living. It also requires behavioural change on the part of the general public, governments and businesses alike.

As cities realise the increasing challenges they face because of climate change, they have become quite active and taken on proactive measures to mitigate the effects of climate change.  The creation of local and international organisations such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, the European Covenant of Mayors and ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) and the C40 Climate Leadership Group are all example responses to the ever increasing need for climate change mitigation action across the globe.

However, mitigation options in cities cannot be looked at in isolation but must be considered as multi-layered, through the employment of multi-sectorial and cross-sectorial approaches. It is the best way to better tackle the issue of climate change as it involves all sectors of society; government, private sector and civil society. Because of the high costs at play, stakeholders will invariably look at the economic, political and social benefits of climate change mitigation options. In order to adequately determine which are the most appropriate actions to take on, each city in essence needs to undertake the prescribed risk assessment associated with climate change and outline their individual city priorities and determine which mitigations actions are best (UN-HABITAT).

Figure 1.2 Technological, regulatory and behavioural options that are available in the near future


Source: World Bank Institute 2008, Development Outreach, Low Carbon Growth: Our Ethical Responsibility


Recognising the role that they play in global GHG emissions, various cities have embarked on a number of mitigation activities. From a developed country perspective, the city of Toronto has embarked on a very robust and avant-garde pathway to a low carbon city.  In 2002, the Toronto Renewable Energy Cooperative installed the first urban wind turbine in North America (William Glenn 2010). Additionally in 2007 under its Climate Change, Clean Air and Sustainable Energy Action Plan, the city sought to take up the mantle as the largest city in Canada working actively to reduce GHG emissions. The city set out a list of climate change targets, highlighted in the table below.

Figure: 1.3 Projected Toronto Urban Area GHG Emissions: Target Reductions by Source


Source: Toronto Environment Office 2007, Change is in the Air-Toronto’s commitment to an environmentally sustainable future: Framework for Public Review and Engagement

To further breakdown the city’s desired goal, based on a 1990 baseline, it endeavoured to reduce GHG emissions for the Toronto urban area to:  6% by 2012; 30% by 2020; and 80% by 2050 (Toronto Environment Office 2007). Moreover, under its ‘Live Green Toronto’ program it has put policies into place that make the city one of the leaders in climate change mitigation and provides a clear example of climate change mitigation practices.  The city also has an Eco-Roof Incentive Program, which was initiated in 2009 in an effort to encourage the sustainability of buildings and the creation of green jobs. It was instituted under a bylaw that is the first of its kind in North America. There is also a Better Buildings Partnership which “is a city-to-business program providing expertise, resources to building owners, managers and developers to successfully implement energy efficiency measures in existing buildings and new constructions”. The city has also retrofitted over 200 of its buildings, saving the city in excess of $4 million annually, which also includes a reduction of CO2 emissions by over 15,000 tonnes. Waste diversion has also been embraced, with 70% of waste being diverted from landfills to recycling in 2004, which further increased to 86% in 2012 (City of Toronto 1998-2013).

Toronto’s ChemTRAC Toxics Reduction Grants aims “to protect public health and help local businesses go green by tracking and reducing 25 toxic chemicals found at levels of concern in our environment.” Torontonians are also encouraged to engage in energy efficient practices and are given economic incentives. One example is the use of a Live Green Toronto membership card, which promises offers and discounts on green products and services (City of Toronto 1998-2013).

Mexico City

Developing countries are not immune to the effects of climate change and so must take effective action to mitigate its effects.  Mexico City serves as another example of how cities and more specifically developing country cities have sought to mitigate climate change.  It must therefore be noted that Mexico City became the first in Latin America to implement a Climate Action Program. With the implementation of this programme the city was able to register a reduction of 1,397,942 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent which equates to 4% of the city’s GHG emissions (Mexico City Government).  In 2012 the city also passed a law on Mitigation and Adaptation to Climate Change and Sustainable Development for Mexico City (Official Gazette of the Federal District, 2012).

The Government of Mexico City introduced Plan Verde (Green Plan) under which it pushed to create strategies and actions which would make the city into a hub of sustainable development. As an offshoot to this, 10 very ambitious actions to address climate change were devised under the Climate Action Program. I will highlight 4 of the 10 actions, namely: Transport Corridors / Zero Emissions Transport Corridor, Sustainable Housing Program, Solar Energy Use Regulations and the Green Roofs Program (Mexico City Government).

Under the first action, the need to make public transportation more energy efficient is clear. Mexico City’s Metrobus line became the first transport system to sell carbon credits amounting to €448,331. The city has also pushed the use of electric buses, which has so far reduced 88,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (tCO2e).  Action number 5 is the building of green living spaces by the Federal District Institute of Housing, which will combine education on energy efficient practices and sustainable consumption of natural resources and incorporate recycling as part of everyday life. It is noted that in 2010, 1255 homes were under construction which were expected to reduce by 2012, 4206 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (tCO2e).

Action number 6 aims to encourage the use of solar power in the commercial and service sector, realising the same carbon reduction goal as action number 5. Under action number 8, the Green Roofs Programme seeks to foster the creation of urban green roof systems in an attempt to provide the city with “lungs”, as Mexico City suffers greatly from air pollution.

Other examples

Globally action is not limited to the two cities mentioned above and the following tables provide this evidence:

Figure 1.4 What Cities are Doing on Mitigation

New Picture (10)


Figure 1.5 City-wide emissions reductions targets, by participating city (% planned reduction)

New Picture (9)

Source: C40 Cities– The Rio Numbers: GHG Emissions Reduction Potential

Other efforts by cities which are worth mentioning are South Korea’s Seoul’s encouragement of the construction of buildings through the provision of tax incentives for those built as eco-friendly (UN-HABITAT). Similarly in Stockholm, Sweden it has been noted that the congestion tax has increased public transit and decreased traffic volume (ICLEI 2011). In 2006 Cape Town, South Africa was the first African city to adopt an energy and climate strategy and in its action plan of 2009 looked to work towards the goal of a 10% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2014 from a 2009 level (WWF).


It is clear that our cities cannot be ignored. They are home to more than half the world’s population and in so doing have a major role to play in future climate change efforts. The future of climate change mitigation hinges on the participation of everyone.  Although national governments can circumnavigate and evade the critical issues, and have so far been unable to build consensus and action after years of climate change negotiations as a result of political and economic interests and maybe stubbornness and a lack of trust; cities cannot escape the responsibility of their impact on climate change. They have a moral responsibility to do all within their power to limit the effects of GHG emissions. They also possess the relative autonomy necessary to take actions they see as beneficial without some of the constraints found at the national level. As each city is unique in essence, by putting in measures which suit their individual needs they are better equipped to take local action (The Economist 2011), rather than wait for national governments to decide to act. Given the severity of the possible global impacts of climate change, mitigation is a critical tool that cannot be disconnected from all local, national and regional efforts.

The mitigation efforts undertaken by cities across the globe serve as an example to our heads of state and those directly involved in climate change negotiations. It shows the positive results that can be derived from consultation and collaboration that is employed by the local, regional and international city organisations. Because of the stagnant nature of current climate change country efforts and the inadequacy and ineffectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol in addressing the pertinent issues, it is up to individual city governments to take on the mantle to reduce their carbon footprint for the global good. Cities have already taken the baton to lead the way to a more sustainable future and it is the duty of all to encourage similar actions. It must not be forgotten however, that there is a balancing act in play when it comes to climate change mitigation. What are the benefits for those who do not see the reasons behind these green agendas? Residents of cities do not have to sacrifice high standards of living to contribute to climate mitigation efforts. By encouraging innovation and providing adequate incentives, cities will be able to lead the way in reducing anthropogenic emissions (David Satterthwaite 2010).   Climate change mitigation is everyone’s business. Creating an enabling environment to encourage green living should be a priority for not only cities. The fate of future generations is in the hands of us all.

© Snaliah E.G. Mahal

Suggested citing:

Mahal, S.E.G., 2014. Cities and Climate Change Mitigation: examples of Toronto and Mexico City [Online] Available at:[accessed + date when the website was accessed].


About Snaliah

Snaliah’s main area of interest has to do with (although not limited to) Small Island Developing States, especially those in the Caribbean region, and how they are affected by climate change and environmental issues. As the Vice President of the Caribbean Youth Environment Network (Saint Lucia Chapter) she was coordinator of its GEF SGP funded project on the environment, targeted at youth in marginalised parts of St. Lucia. She lived and studied in Mexico for 5 years where she also did an internship at the United Nations Information Centre. She has experience in teaching at the secondary school level and enjoys the outdoors, reading, listening to music, and of course watching cricket and football.

One comment on “Cities and Climate Change Mitigation: examples of Toronto and Mexico City

  1. JadeGeorge
    February 28, 2014

    Excellent read and thorough research!!!

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2014 by in Climate Change Mitigation, Posts / Themes and tagged .
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