The famously acrimonious councilors of the City of Toronto recently took a vote on whether to pass a climate emergency. They passed it unanimously, even with the conservatives on council. They usually never agree on anything.

Perhaps it was just past due. After all, hundreds of local governments across Canada have now declared climate emergencies as a starting point in accelerating their climate action. Seemingly every week there’s a new scientific report underlining how dire the situation is and how quickly we need to act. We are all collectively very late to the party.

Locally, both Duncan and North Cowichan have either “declared” or “acknowledged” the climate emergency – some semantics given certain councils have a policy against “declaring” anything, but the point is to have a symbolic statement of importance.

What comes next though is what counts. These emergency statements usually include direction to staff to bring back options to council to accelerate climate action within a certain time period. What those options are, and whether council adopts them define how seriously the emergency is taken.

On Wednesday a citizen delegation will appear before the CVRD regional services committee to ask councillors in person for the CVRD to make a statement of emergency and to ask staff for options to scale up climate action.

The delegation will present a petition of over 1,800 names of local citizens who are asking them to move ahead. This also follows a letter submitted in July by 49 local churches, businesses, unions, and NGOs asking the same thing. Youth climate strikers have twice showed up by the hundreds on the CVRD’s doorstep demanding more action.

It’s not that the CVRD has done nothing. It is a leader, for example, in modeling the impacts of climate change and how we will need to adapt. It has also taken steps for its corporate operations (it’s own buildings, vehicles, etc.) to be “carbon neutral.” It deserves credit for these things and for a desire to collaborate.

And emissions in the valley are going up, not down. Much of this has to do with decisions of successive local governments regarding land use. Urban sprawl is our biggest local climate issue, with the CVRD estimating that 72% of our emissions come from transportation (vs. 58% BC-wide), and that’s because 90% of our trips are taken in personal vehicles.

In turn, this is because our homes and workplaces in the valley are so spread out and car dependent. And, we are still approving more of the same, making the problem worse. The CVRD estimates we’ll see another 25,000 people move here by 2050, which means the pressure will keep coming.

The good news is that tackling urban sprawl not only reduces emissions, but it also costs less. We’ve known for decades that spread out development costs more for local governments to service than compact development. Denser, walkable, bike-able communities well served by transit are cheaper to build and cheaper to maintain. With affordable housing also a big issue locally, this can be a win-win.

It’s instructive that the very first “big move” in response to the City of Vancouver’s climate emergency declaration is “walkable, complete communities” where by 2030 “90% of people live within an easy walk and roll of their daily needs.” We’ll never have Vancouver’s density, but the basic principle is the same in any town or regional district.

While sprawl and resulting transportation emissions is the biggest issue, it’s not the only one. This is why we developed a 10-point checklist for municipal climate action that also includes measures like managing for biological carbon, local food, energy efficient buildings, waste reduction, and community engagement.

We hope the checklist will assist staff in developing options to bring to council and assist the public in knowing whether councils are on the right track. Moving forward aggressively on all of the points will not only reduce our emissions, it will result in more resilient local communities in the face of the impacts that are already baked in.

The bottom line is that climate change IS an emergency and governments at all levels need to act quickly. We hope on Wednesday the CVRD will move forward.