The National Climate League (NCL) is a yearly project of Climate Reality Project Canada (CRPC). We bring volunteers across the country together to collect open data on a set of sustainability indicators relating to Canadian municipalities--things like kilometers of bike lanes, transit ridership, waste diversion rates, housing affordability, climate targets and more!
Together, we organize that data into the National Climate League Standings, published in March every year. Volunteers help write up the data, and create data visualizations. The Standings show how each municipality stacks up in each indicator, and highlights the policies and contexts that allow municipalities to be successful. See the 2021 NCL Standings here.
This post features interview transcripts with the outgoing and incoming National Campaign Manager, and Lead Commissioner of the NCL, as well as a prominant volunteer and Regional Organizer during the data collection period for the 2021 NCL. These questions highlight the learnings and successes of the NCL, its evolution, and feature how you can get involved.
What would you say you are most proud of accomplishing during your time working on the 2021 NCL?
Margo: I think the thing that I'm most proud of accomplishing was to gather and collect data across all provinces across Canada. I think the NCL is a large project and is a benchmarking tool across many provinces. So really, the point is to show where everybody is at, everywhere, and compare. Depending on the indicators, some provinces would do better than others. If you look at Quebec with energy, for example [as a province that would rank high in that category], but then on other topics, we don't know which provinces [are best in] workability or on the local food indicators. So really proud because it took a lot of people to mobilize in order to have people looking for data all across provinces in Canada, and it's an amazing network to be connected with.
Ceileigh: What I was most proud of is that I coordinated a data collection party. I got seven university students and we all got together one night. In a couple of hours, I think we collected hundreds but probably two or 300 data points for the NCL - which is close to half of the data points needed. I was very proud of the fact that I was able to mobilize the people around a cause that will help motivate and inspire climate action, particularly people who wouldn't necessarily be engaged in the work otherwise.
Hannah: I'm excited about a lot of things, but one of them is definitely bringing in and working with new folks that haven't worked on the NCL or anything like it before! This year, there are several new folks that hadn't heard of the NCL until this year that have been some of the most keen and involved, and I'm hoping to continue connecting with more. The NCL relies on the contributions of so many people across the country---last year it was over 70, all coming with their own background, experience, and goals. So it's really a collective effort, and I'm excited about how I'm able to build with and engage this network of people who all care about climate and sustainability and give people an opportunity to participate in something interesting and meaningful, that also provides them with skills, knowledge and tools for further work around climate action---whatever that looks like for them!
What was your favourite indicator in the 2021 Standings? Can you tell us about the new indicators added for 2021?
Margo: In 2021, we added an overall theme with indicators that both existed and added new indicators. The idea of that theme was that sustainability covers, obviously, environmental causes, but it's also about environmental justice. The fact being that it's not just about the environment, it's about how it's linked to a lot of social issues. Whether it's about gender equity or race or even the inequalities that exist between people's different wealth ranges, for example, and different backgrounds. So the idea behind the theme of environmental justice was to try to have some indicators to have some kind of idea of where the municipalities across Canada each stood. Now we like these indicators, but I really want to say that they have their limitations. You can't just talk about incremental justice with justice indicators. It just doesn't give you the whole picture.
Ceileigh: My favorite indicator looking back now is actually the number of municipal employees dedicated to the transition. As someone who's worked for a municipality on climate action, I think that the indicator is interesting. Obviously, it's very important to measure the number of full time staff dedicated to climate action to assess how dedicated a municipality is, but I think it's also a little bit incomplete because there's a lot of people at a municipality that do work on climate change, but it's not part of their full time job description. Like asset management, planning, procurement, people working in those spaces as well. I think it's a very interesting and it's also a very challenging indicator.
Hannah: One of my favourites is public transit ridership. A strong public transit system is such an important climate solution because it lowers emissions as well as making quality transportation more accessible, which in turn has positive impacts on so many aspects of people's lives, especially those who are lower-income. Public transit could be measured in many different ways, but we look at annual trips per capita. I think this is worthwhile to look at because it helps to illuminate the fact that cities with better transit systems also have higher ridership rates. Often, low ridership rates are used for justification for not investing in a public transit system, but obviously it's a bit of a chicken and egg situation---the better the system, the more likely people are to use it!
The hashtag or slogan for the NCL is #MeasureWhatMatters. What does that mean to you?
Margo: I think that what matters when it comes to the NCL is issues that matter and we realize [it’s so broad]. When you look at like 14 or 15 indicators, there are a lot of themes that are important, that [have been taken from] sustainable goals, whether it's food, energy, transportation, all of those. They all matter. It's so broad. But in order to advance in all of these different topics, you need to be able to know your baseline [in your municipality]. The goal of it is to measure where you're at in order to know what are the policies that can be locally implemented in order for there to be an improvement.
There's a double goal in “Measuring What Matters” - our hashtag is the double goal of the NCL. First, what matters is trying to give an idea of that with the different indicators and really putting into context. Each section of the NCL has a “Why is it important?” [section]. Like why is local food important? Why is public transportation important? Why is energy important? Why is walkability important? “Why is that?” puts a context to what matters and then the idea is to measure in order to see okay, what's the baseline where are we now and how can we improve? So I think that's what the hashtag stands for, and I didn't invent it.
Ceileigh: I think the part of #MeasureWhatMatters that speaks to me the most is the variety or the scope of what is measured through the NCL. It does measure biophysical aspects of climate change, but it also measures social and equity aspects of climate change. I think when we're talking about climate action, it's important to measure everything, not just one, not just either of the scopes in isolation. It's really important to see where we're being successful and where we aren't necessarily successful so far, [for example, if our] emissions are falling super rapidly, but our equity lens is kind of failing or affordable housing as well. Then we really need to realize that that part of our environmental response is not sufficient and some adjustment adjustments need to be made.
Hannah: #MeasureWhatMatters to me is pointing to how what we're measuring reflects our priorities and values. If we are to move towards a net-zero future that's also grounded in climate justice goals and making life more affordable and easier for everyone, we need to be making sure there are smartly designed ways to measure those things and that that data is being collected in a coherent and consistent way. We need to know where we are in order to get to where we're going and be able to track our progress along the way!
I also think that it's a really important accountability mechanism---we've reached a time where (thankfully!) more and more municipalities are declaring climate emergencies and setting emissions targets and making climate plans. For us outside the government, we need to make sure we're holding them accountable to following through on those promises, and the NCL is one tool that can help us do that.
What hopes do you see for the future of the NCL?
Margo: The hopes that I have for the future of the NCL is to create more partnerships between municipalities using the NCL and the municipalities that may fear doing the NCL due to apprehensiveness on how they may appear against other cities. With CRPC, [there’s no reason for apprehension] since the role of the NCL is not to [solely to measure if you’re] doing good or you're doing bad - it's a learning lesson, [an opportunity to] all share things.
For example, [examining what happened with] Publisac in Montreal, and the opt-in policy the city created to lessen waste, [shows great potential that can be replicated across municipalities]. Using the NCL was the starting point of the campaign that right now is having a lot of impact. So I want to see more partnerships with that.
[I would also like to see] citizens having the space and the support to create those campaigns to create changes that are meaningful tailored to their context. There's no one way solution for every city. It just doesn't exist. Creating more projects and having more people talking about municipalities can help create specific people to contact to collect data from, so we can have data that makes sense across the country. My hope is that the NCL, and Canada in general, is going to have one good way to measure that information [like greenhouse gases and other indicators] because right now, there are multiple ways that are used and therefore it makes it not easily comparable across municipalities.
Ceileigh: People put a lot of effort into the NCL like the staff members, but I think volunteers also put a lot of effort into the NCL. I hope that it will continue to be circulated in the news but I hope it will be more widely circulated in the news so that it can actually have the intended benefits [of influencing municipal climate action].
Hannah: One of the goals of the NCL is to demonstrate the need for more accessible data for the public. Again, it's a lot harder to hold elected leaders accountable when the information and data that shows whether or not they're living up to their promises isn't easily accessible. So I hope that the NCL might lead to more and more organizations, research institutions, and other bodies seeing the need to step in and make sure this data is a) being measured and b) is available to the public. If there were more organizations that were collecting and organizing this kind of data and making it publicly available, that would make our job so much easier, or maybe it would even phase us out! That would be a good problem to have.
What advice would you give for people who want to join the NCL campaign?
Margo: Don’t get frustrated. Data that you can't find like information that you can't find is still information. It's still data, it means that there's a gap. It means that there's something that we can't know, therefore, citizens don't necessarily know and therefore municipalities themselves maybe don't know which means they're not looking at this they're not finding a solution to a potential problem.
[Also] that information should not, and ideally would not, be missing. If it does exist somewhere, it's not accessible to the public and how do you make informed decisions and create new programs? [The opt-in policy with] Publisac [couldn’t happen without knowing] that tons of waste is created by Publisac every year. You need to know your context and you need to know your data to find solutions to your context and to create an impactful solution.
Ceileigh: Get involved! It's a very effective way to support climate action and is also a pretty low commitment. Like I had seven volunteers all put in two hours, but without their support, the NCL literally would not have been possible so even putting in that very short amount of time and putting in a small amount of effort can really lead to synergistic results.
Hannah: First of all, there is no special knowledge or experience required to get involved, it's open to anyone! The main three ways people contribute are either doing data collection, or helping with the writing or data visualization. All of this is happening between now and the end of 2022. If you are interested, you can sign up here for more information:
Or you can just email me directly at email@example.com!
Margo Burgess Pollet (she/her): Margo is the outgoing National Campaign Manager. She has a Master's in Environmental Assessment from Concordia University. Passionate about climate justice, data and impact measurement/management, she wants to work in supporting the transition of communities toward increasingly sustainable and equitable practices for all. She has a strong interest in mobility, the zero-waste movement, and food systems sovereignty.
Hannah Muhajarine (she/her): Hannah is now the current National Campaign Manager. Originally from Saskatoon, Hannah now lives in Winnipeg (Treaty 1). She has a background in research, organizing, and advocacy. Her past work includes leading community-based conversations across Canada on the connections between climate change and income insecurity with the Green Resilience Project, and campaigning to ban fossil fuel advertising with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. She has also been involved in grassroots climate justice organizing for over five years. Hannah holds a Masters degree in Natural Resource Management from the University of Manitoba, where her thesis research was on traditional Indigenous food systems. Hannah is excited to continue learning and working with others to address the climate crisis by building new systems based on ideas like participatory democracy and shared public goods. In her spare time, she enjoys playing the banjo.
Ceileigh McAllister (she/her): Ceileigh is a former Regional Organizer for Southwestern Ontario. She is a current student in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo. She is passionate about corporate sustainability and the role of municipalities in mitigating climate change. She lives and studies on the Haldimand Tract, land which was promised to the Six Nations of the Grand River.
From left to right: Margo, Hannah, and Ceileigh.