How Tokyo, Oslo and other world cities are leading the way on climate action

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Cities are on the front lines of climate action
  • Banning plastic bags: Who’s done it?
  • Blue box blues: A closer look at unrecyclable plastic

Cities can be climate champions

(Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty Images)

When it comes to spewing carbon into the air, urban areas are among the biggest offenders.

But cities also lead the way when it comes to taking significant action to get those emissions down, according to David Miller, director of international diplomacy for the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

“With a few exceptions, it’s been the leadership of the cities that’s really been pushing the envelope and moving towards what’s necessary, not just what’s easy,” said Miller, a former mayor of Toronto.

Research by C40, a network of 94 global cities committed to addressing climate change, shows about 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from urban areas.

It’s predominantly from four sources:

  • How we generate electricity.
  • Transportation.
  • How we heat and cool buildings.
  • How we manage our waste.

In a recent interview, Miller laid out which cities he believes are leading the way with innovative ideas — and results.

Oslo, for example, has a climate budget, which ismanaged by the city’s finance department and runs alongside the normal budgeting process. According to C40, Oslo city council can only approve spending plans that have a realistic chance of hitting their emission-reduction targets.  

So if you want to build, say, a new curling rink, Miller said, you have to consider how much carbon that rink will use. “And if there isn’t a carbon budget, the same way if there isn’t a financial budget, you can’t do it.”

In 2010, Tokyo (above photo) became the first city in the world to implement an urbancap-and-trade system for its large buildings. That required industrial and commercial facilities to achieve an absolute reduction of emissions from 2009 levels. The goal was six to eight per cent in the first four years of the program. But research by Cornell University and the Tokyo government found that in the first five years, the program resulted in a 20 per cent reduction in emissions.

And they barely even needed the “trade” part to do it. City records showed only a handful of facilities bought credits to hit their target.

On the transportation front, last year, Shenzhen, China, became the first city in the world to have a fully electric bus fleet. How many buses is that? Sixteen thousand.

Miller gives Toronto, the city he once led, kudos for its Better Buildings Partnership. This agreement, which predated him, among large commercial landlords, managers and developers, the city and the gas company helps make retrofit projects more affordable and encourages the construction of greener buildings.

Since its full inception in 1999, the BBP has partnered on more than 2,600 projects, retrofitted 586 million square feet of floor area and eliminated the equivalent of more than 800,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, according to Toronto’s environment and energy division.

Melbourne, Australia, saw the BBP at work and implemented one itself. Miller said it’s also spread to Sydney and beyond.

Miller’s other “champ cities” of note:

  • Copenhagen, where almost 50 per cent of commuters cycle to work or school every day.
  • Los Angeles, with its adoption of a Green New Deal and plans to completely clean its energy grid.
  • Vancouver, with a new climate plan that covers everything from what construction materials can be used in new buildings to implementing zero-emission zones for vehicles. 

 — Stephanie Hogan


June 17-21: Climate change week at CBC News

We wanted to give you a heads-up about our week-long series on climate change starting Monday, June 17. On, CBC Radio, CBC News Network and The National, we’ll be rolling out stories that examine the effects of climate change in Canada, and what we’re doing about it.

The coverage will explore, among other things, the biggest climate risks in Canada; what we can learn from weather-related insurance claims; an inspiring First Nations solar project in Manitoba; and how the climate fight has galvanized teenagers.

Thanks to all of the What on Earth? readers who responded to our callout last week for personal stories. We can’t guarantee that they will all be used in our broadcast programming, but we appreciate you sharing your personal thoughts and initiatives.

Old issues of What on Earth? are here.

The Big Picture: Plastic bag bans

There has been a tremendous mobilization in the last year or so to tackle plastic pollution. Earlier this year, the European Union voted to ban single-use plastic by 2021, and the Canadian government just pledged the same. Plastic grocery bags are in many ways the ultimate symbol of the problem — but many places recognized this a long time ago. Here’s a sampling of countries that have banned plastic bags outright, and when they did.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • When G20 leaders meet in Japan later this month, one issue the host country will be eager to talk about is the future of hydrogen. It produces zero emissions when it burns and could be used to power everything from cars to trains to homes. And the Japanese have been aggressive in exploring its potential.

  • Pretty much everyone who is concerned about the health of the planet has made some effort to shrink their environmental footprint. This essay in Vox, however, argues that while personal changes are commendable, when it comes to climate action, more energy should be channelled into holding the oil and gas industry accountable.

  • Food choices continue to be a subject of great fascination for the environmentally minded. New findings by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in the U.S. say that opting for chicken over beef will reduce your dietary carbon footprint by half.

The problem of unrecyclable plastic

(David Donnelly/CBC)

This week, the federal government announced it was looking at banning single-use plastics. While environmentalists cheered the move, it wouldn’t take effect until 2021, which, for the time being, leaves consumers to contend with the various types of unrecyclable plastic they encounter every day – at the grocery store, the food court and beyond.

Here’s a look at some of the items flagged as “challenges” by the Toronto-based PAC Packaging Consortium.


Standup pouches, foiled wrappers and other ‘multi-layered laminates’

Problem: There’s no market for these materials, so they’re not accepted for recycling.

Solution? A company called TerraCycle collects and recycles a small amount. B.C. lets people drop these off at depots. It’s doing research on how to recycle it, and looking to turn some into fuel pellets. Others are also looking into turning the materials into fuel or incorporating it into plywood.


Compostable plastic

Problem: It tends to crack and break apart at recycling facilities. It also looks like easily recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic and, if missorted, could contaminate bales of recyclable plastics.

Solution? Optical sorting technology can separate this out. Producers are also looking for ways to recycle it.


Black plastic containers and plant pots and trays

Problem: They can’t be sorted with the optical sorting technology at recycling facilities. There also isn’t much of a market for recovered black plastics.

Solution? An additive could make these plastics detectable by optical sorters. Some cities are encouraging the use of differently coloured plastic containers. Some cities sort black plastic manually.


Coffee and tea takeaway cups

Problem: These aren’t accepted by many recycling facilities because they’re made of paper but lined with a plastic coating — and recycling systems have trouble with items that combine two materials.

Solution? They could be manually sorted and combined with drink boxes and milk cartons, which are also a combination of paper and plastic. But manual sorting can be expensive.


Metallized tubes (for things like prescription creams)

Problem: They contain residue and multiple materials that can contaminate recyclables.

Solutions? Industry is looking at ways to recover aluminum from this kind of packaging.


Coloured PET plastic (for things like energy drink and shampoo bottles)

Problem: Clear PET plastic is much more valuable than coloured PET because it can be made into new products of any colour. Too much coloured PET plastic can ruin the value of the entire load of PET collected.

Solution? Industry is encouraged to stick to clear PET.


Clear plastic bakery and electronics packaging

Problem: These types of containers look like PET, and most consumers can’t tell the difference. It’s also hard for manual sorting to identify at recycling plants.

Solution? If a recycling plant has optical sorting technology, it can identify this material. Some Canadian retailers have committed to using only PET containers for baked goods and produce under their private-label brands to help address this problem.

 — Emily Chung

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty