Commentary, Opinion

Climate change requires global thinking and local action

Following a decade of vacancy, the City of Montreal has announced a plan to convert 43 hectares of land, once home to the Bluebonnets racetrack, into the city’s first carbon-neutral neighbourhood. The 10-year plan for the Namur-Hippodrome neighbourhood includes the development of 5,000 housing units, an emphasis on public transit, and the creation of public spaces that encourage pedestrian use. However, for the community to succeed, residents must modify their lifestyles in ways that promotes sustainability.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has emphasized the importance of cooperation and consultation of residents throughout the implementation process, and is committed to designating 40 per cent of the neighbourhood to social affordable housing. Similarly, the proposed neighbourhood will promote mixed land-use, which will be in close proximity to thousands of service sector jobs, and be accessible by transit. While Montreal’s push for carbon-neutrality is a positive large-scale step, progress does not absolve individuals of their responsibility to question their own behaviours and contribution to climate change.

Montreal is no stranger to environmental advocacy: Last month, Plante entered the spotlight at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit for her commitment to sustainability. Since being elected, Plante has emphasized the need for better transit systems, greenspaces, and banning single-use plastics. If successful, the proposed Namur-Hippodrome neighbourhood will serve as a framework for other cities.

The proposed Namur-Hippodrome community is an encouraging example of municipal climate policy. However, government policies implicitly require changes on the individual level. The success of this new community hinges on the open-mindedness and accountability of future residents, just as the success of global climate action relies on universal cooperation. Whether stemming from macro-level or micro-level policies, lifestyle changes are inherent in sustainable climate strategies. Residents of Montreal’s new neighbourhood will be equipped with housing, roads, and businesses to limit their carbon footprint. However, without individual cooperation these sustainable ideals are vulnerable to failure. 

To promote the success of the community, residents must be open to permanently modifying their lifestyles in a way that is conducive to sustainability. In practice, this may not be straightforward. A recurring theme in climate action is individuals’ reluctance to change their behaviour when benefits are intangible or take years to realize. A study from the International Journal of Economic Law elaborates on this theme through the collective action problem, whereby individuals resort to inaction when the benefits they receive from behavioral changes are outweighed by the costs of individual sacrifice. For example, riding a bike instead of driving reduces net greenhouse gas emissions, yet the added time and inconvenience for the individual may be perceived as greater than the relatively small, shared benefits. While gains from abatement are often perceived as inconsequential, they exist nonetheless.

To overcome obstacles of individual cooperation, researchers at Clarkson University have pioneered smart-housing residences, wherein students self-monitor their energy consumption to encourage palpable revisions in their behaviour. Digital dashboards and sensors reveal energy-use data to students as a reminder that consumption patterns have an impact on their environments. Through demonstrating the weight of behavioural changes, projects like this quantify individual benefits and emphasize the power individuals have in shaping sustainability.

The outrage that drew over half a million people to the streets of Montreal on Sept. 27 must be channeled into an effective tool to catalyze change. However, this change may not be as monumental as Montrealers are expecting. While immediate action is necessary to prevent global climate warming and irreparable damage, the benefits of today’s actions will not be realized overnight. 

Raising awareness about the climate crisis is no longer the most pressing issue. The majority of Canadians believe in climate change and many understand that it is an emergency. The issue now lies in how we tackle the crisis. While the onus is primarily on institutions and governments, their plans will fail without unrelenting support on the individual level. Even if small efforts seem inconsequential, they are always more powerful than inaction. Climate change is a universal issue, and by virtue, it must be universally confronted. Macro-level policies, like Montreal’s Namur-Hippodrome neighbourhood, must be supported by individual behaviour to drive consequential change.

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