Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Equity in climate plans: a comparison between Vancouver and Montreal

March 2024

Hélène Madénian, post-doctoral fellow at Labo Équité Climat, (INRS), Sophie L. Van Neste, Professor in Urban Studies (INRS) and Director of the Canada Research Chair in Urban Climate Action, Andréanne Doyon, Assistant Professor and Director of the REM Planning Program, Simon Fraser University, Resource and Environmental Management, Ashley Armitage, Planning Consultant (City of Vancouver)


Since 2016, many cities have declared a state of climate emergency and adopted climate action plans for the period 2020-2030. According to the C40’s analysis of the urban plans of 54 cities, the successful implementation of these plans lies in « protecting residents, creating jobs as well as tackling inequalities ». Yet studies suggest that climate-related inequalities and injustices, as well as the issue of climate justice in cities, are still not concretely addressed (Anguelovski et al., 2016; Long and Rice, 2020; Shi et al., 2016).

This research looks at Vancouver’s and Montreal’s approaches to equity and justice in their climate plans, i.e. the definitions of equity and the concrete measures considered by the two cities. Identified as climate leaders, Vancouver and Montreal have targets in line with the Paris Agreement and have committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. They each published a new climate plan in 2020. This comparison is part of a larger work comparing the two cities on other fronts (e.g., urban mobility, social housing, food), as part of an initiative by the Villes Régions Monde network and Simon Fraser University (Breux and Holden, 2023).

State of the art of the scientific literature on the modality of action studied

The urban studies and environmental policy literature is increasingly interested in the emergence of urban leadership in climate change and sustainability (Bulkeley et al., 2014; Emelianoff, 2013; Holden, 2017). Sustainability and the quest for carbon mitigation represent two of the strategies for urban development and a means of distinguishing oneself in a competitive environment (Jonas et al., 2011; White et al., 2010). However, economic development and ecological innovations are often prioritized at the expense of social justice (Haase et al., 2017). So-called « ecological » urban development also engenders phenomena of « eco-gentridication » and « renovictions » (Bouzarovski et al., 2018; Maantay and Maroko, 2018).

The literature also shows that responsibility for climate change and its impacts are not distributed equally among different populations, and that climate change can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities (Barnett, 2006; Steele et al., 2012). Ranganathan and Bratman (2021) speak of intersectional precarity to refer to the fact that climate impacts interact with other factors in cities, such as violence, racial and gender discrimination, difficult access to housing, food insecurity and so on. Climate justice aims primarily to help those most affected by the effects of climate change, which accompany and often exacerbate these other forms of inequality (Lyster, 2015).

Canadian municipalities, like those around the world, therefore face the challenge of engaging in equitable climate change planning, i.e. one that, at the very least, avoids actions or elements that exacerbate existing inequalities (Shi et al., 2016). Such planning « requires an awareness of geographical diversities, adaptive capacities and resilience trade-offs between different scales » (Chelleri et al., 2015, p. 193). Yet the impact of climate plans on marginalized populations is little studied (Shi, 2020; Shi et al., 2016). These populations are also rarely meaningfully engaged or included in climate planning processes (Anguelovski et al., 2016; Hughes 2015; Schrock et al., 2015). Yet a « one-size-fits-all » approach cannot take into account the diverse realities of different populations and meet their different needs.

Climate planning involves examining pre-existing governance models and conditions so that they can be changed (Coaffee et al., 2018). To challenge the status quo and foster transformative change, Anguelovski and colleagues (2016) argue that justice must be placed at the forefront of implementation. Moving beyond the contradictions of « climate-friendly cities » (Rice et al., 2020) and integrating justice and equity into urban climate action means moving beyond the simple observation that injustices exist (Hughes and Hoffmann, 2020). Considering equity in climate action implies taking into account the consequences of climate policies on equity, in addition to pre-existing socio-spatial inequalities and traumas linked to state interventions (Anguelovski et al., 2016).

In Quebec, academic work on sustainable urban policies has focused in particular on the challenges of urban planning (Combe et al., 2012; Morin and Paulhiac, 2017; Scanu et al., 2020) or environmental inequalities in mobility, access to services or greening (Apparicio et al., 2016; Lachapelle and Cloutier, 2017; Pham et al., 2022). In terms of ecological transition, recent research has put inequality issues at the heart of their interrogations, such as studies on ecohousing (Lessard, 2020), energy transitions (Hourcade and Van Neste, 2019), public transit (Kramer, 2018) as well as resilience to climate change (D’Amours, 2023; Van Neste et al., 2023).

In British Columbia, debates on the social impact of sustainable urban policies have long decried unaffordable housing costs (Holden et al., 2019). Issues of gentrification in traditional working-class neighborhoods, linked to densification initiatives in some Vancouver neighborhoods, are also discussed (Questal et al., 2012). Several recent works address perspectives of equity, justice and colonialism in transition initiatives in the province (O’Donnell and Doyon, 2022).

Cases, methods and data from the original research

This research examines how equity is integrated into climate change plans through a comparison of the approaches favored by the City of Vancouver and the City of Montreal for their latest climate plans: the Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP) and the 2020-2030 Climate Plan for an inclusive, resilient and carbon-neutral city. The research consisted of a literature review of these two climate plans, as well as documents related to the broader political context and history of climate policies in Vancouver and Montreal. The authors’ ongoing research into the actions and climate policies of the two cities also provided food for thought.

Specifically concerning the analysis of the Climate Emergency Action Plan and the 2020-2030 Climate Plan, we first looked at how equity was defined in each of the plans and counted its occurrences. We then analyzed the objectives, actions, indicators and partners named in the two plans to ensure equity. We then looked at whether certain equity-related themes were present, discussed in terms of specific objectives and timelines, and illustrated with examples. In particular, we analyzed how the plans address the cost and affordability of housing, transportation, energy and renovations. We also analyzed the extent to which greening, health and food security were linked to climate and equity. And we looked at whether and how the plans talk about communities in vulnerable situations and their resilience, for example the types of people named and the actions to be prioritized. Attention was also paid to equity evaluation and monitoring, and to the similarities, differences, strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches.


Vancouver and Montreal have certain similarities: they are ranked among climate leaders, have ambitious climate plans, have science-based targets in line with the Paris Agreement, are among the first signatories of the climate emergency declaration and have committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050 (C40, 2020). In both cities, income inequality is on the rise (CPA, 2017). In addition, newcomers, indigenous households and visible minorities are identified as being more likely to suffer from climate injustice (particularly in terms of fuel poverty) (CUSP, 2019).


In November 2020, the City of Vancouver adopted its 2020-2030 Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP), which recognizes the city’s location on unceded territories of the Sḵwx̱ wú7mesh (Squamish), sə̓ lílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) and xʷməθkʷəy̓ əm (Musqueam) nations. To develop this plan, the City invited the public to a series of public consultations to gather feedback on the proposed action, mobilize citizens and partners, and increase understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change at the local level. At the same time, the city set up a Climate Equity Task Force – including newcomers, people with disabilities, low-income earners and urban Indigenous people – to ensure a diversity of voices and viewpoints.

The plan includes six workstreams to achieve the City’s new climate goals: changing the way Vancouverites get around (major workstreams 1 to 3), build and renovate (major workstreams 4 and 5) and sequester carbon (major workstream 6) (City of Vancouver, 2020a).

Vancouver’s CEAP argues that a more equitable city would include a low-cost transportation system, equal opportunities to live in zero-emission buildings, equitable distribution of opportunities to participate in a carbon-neutral economy, and equitable distribution of the costs associated with reducing emissions. For low-cost transportation, the city is lobbying TransLink to reduce transit fares during low-traffic hours. To prevent low-carbon renovations from increasing the displacement of rental housing residents, the City is proposing to develop a strategy to mitigate negative impacts (such as evictions) on tenants. CEAP also aims to increase the supply of green jobs and training in the carbon-neutral economy, but there are as yet no specific equity considerations for this action.

While equity is mentioned over 200 times in the plan, there is no explicit definition of the concept. The CEAP is intended to be an « equitable plan », comprising four principles: « minimizing burdens for those already struggling, having higher expectations for those who can afford it, identifying and funding the work needed to go further, and being accountable through equity indicators » (City of Vancouver, 2020). The City also refers to « disproportionately affected groups » when referring to equity-seeking groups, and mentions racial discrimination, poverty, disability, housing insecurity, linguistic isolation and poor air quality as factors amplifying climate risks. The plan proposes three main equity measures. First, the development of a Climate Justice Charter, including equity indicators, targeted economic benefits and equitable budget allocation. Secondly, the City aims to involve those most affected, including low-income earners and ethnic minorities. Thirdly, sustainable development programs will be revised to include equity.


In December 2020, the City of Montreal is launching the 2020-2030 Climate Plan. It is the result of a collaborative agreement between the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the Trottier Family Foundation and the David Suzuki Foundation to respond to the climate and environmental emergency (Madénian and Van Neste, 2023). Unlike Vancouver, this plan does not recognize that Tiohtià:ke/Montréal is located on unceded Kanien’kehá:k Nation indigenous territories, does not mention indigenous populations, and does not acknowledge the current and historical impacts of discrimination and colonization. Development of the climate plan relied on an advisory committee reporting directly to the mayor, made up of some 20 people, including members of other foundations or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the environmental field, as well as the Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux (CIUSSS) de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, a centre that provides health and services and coordinates regional research mandates in Montreal. Despite the emphasis placed on collaboration with external players in developing this plan, there was no open public consultation.

The plan’s objective is to reduce GHG emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. It proposes 46 mitigation and adaptation actions grouped into five areas of intervention: 1) mobilization of the Montreal community; 2) mobility, urban planning and development; 3) buildings; 4) exemplarity of the City; and 5) governance.

The Climate Plan aims to create an inclusive, resilient and carbon-neutral city. One of the plan’s key themes is that « no Montrealer should be left behind » in the ecological transition. In its glossary, the plan defines social equity as « offering every citizen, whatever their economic resources or personal characteristics, fair and equitable living conditions to meet their basic needs (food, clothing, housing, education, etc.) ». It also names groups vulnerable to climate change, which include, among others, « the elderly, children, the homeless and people living in precarious conditions and poverty », and aims to give special attention to these groups. Indigenous communities and racialized groups, on the other hand, are not considered in Montreal’s climate measures.

The term « equity » is used only seven times in the plan, and there is no direct reference to climate justice. However, equity concerns appear in the notions of neighborhood solidarity and community resilience. The terms « community(ies) » and « community(ies) » are used more than 60 times, notably in reference to the role of local organizations and social capital in neighborhood solidarity and resilience. Resilience poles and social capital development are the two main actions linked to social equity: they are rooted in the concepts of communities, social cohesion and neighborhood solidarity, with some support from the state.

Cost and affordability are also discussed as important equity factors for interventions related to housing, renovations, mobility and, more implicitly, community resilience. For example, mention is made of urban planning and administrative regulations to accelerate energy efficiency and resilience for renovations and new construction. But this initiative could also have financial implications for tenants down the line. Housing affordability is seen by the City as an important aspect of social equity in the face of climate change. Mobility is also an area of equity in the plan. The City wishes to develop public and active transportation in all Montreal neighborhoods. Universal access to sustainable modes of transportation is emphasized. Whether in terms of development or pricing, the City must rely on its partners to achieve these objectives.

While equity-related issues are mentioned throughout the plan, there are no specific objectives or timelines for each action or equity-related issue. The Plan does, however, propose the implementation of measures, plans or programs as next steps. For example, the City’s Urban Planning and Mobility Plan will be the cornerstone of mitigation and adaptation efforts. It is expected to include a detailed analysis of climate vulnerabilities across the city to guide urban planning regulations.


Although Vancouver and Montreal have recognized the need to improve social equity in their climate plans, they do not clearly define social equity in the context of climate action. This raises questions of transparency and accountability, as it is not possible to measure progress towards an objective that is not precisely defined. There is also a lack of concrete measures that directly benefit vulnerable populations. Yet, as emphasized by Shi and colleagues (2016), climate change planning should avoid actions or elements that exacerbate existing inequalities.

The absence of concrete measures can be attributed in part to the lack of data or details on strategic interventions. But it can also be explained by the tendency to rely on future actions and results as part of future plans, projects or indicators. This represents one of the pitfalls of planning, which constantly produces new plans and tends to be inherently optimistic about the implementation of major objectives (Abram and Weszkalnys, 2013).

Both cities’ approaches to equity in climate policy can be explained in part by their local culture and past sustainability planning strategies (Bulkeley et al., 2013; Coaffee et al. 2018; Hughes and Hoffman, 2020). Thus, the main equity considerations in Vancouver revolve around tackling discrimination and wealth gaps while achieving a zero-emissions target. This echoes earlier debates in Vancouver about the impact of the Greenest City Action Plan (GCAP) on the city’s equity and affordability (Quastel et al., 2012). In Montreal, while affordability is mentioned, the plan favors a horizontal approach to community resilience and neighborhood solidarity. This community-based approach can be explained by the vast network of community organizations that have been involved in the city’s social, health and environmental interventions for decades (Germain et al., 2004).


This research studied the place of equity in the 2020-2030 climate plans of Vancouver and Montreal. We have shown that both cities, which present themselves as climate leaders, take certain aspects of equity into consideration. However, they fail to propose concrete and immediate actions to address this issue. Social justice and participatory processes are the two cities’ blind spots.

Both plans include commitments and actions to ensure the affordability of housing and public transport. However, they rely on other public players, and the details have yet to be worked out.

We conclude that both cities can learn from each other. For example, Montreal can learn from Vancouver’s work in linking its climate plan to its strategy of reconciliation with indigenous communities, and in clearly defining disproportionately affected populations and actions related to income inequality. For its part, Vancouver can draw inspiration from Montreal’s integrated approach to mitigation and adaptation, which includes partnerships with civil society and local community organizations, the enhancement of social capital and the development of links with the policies of the next urban and mobility plan aimed at improving quality of life.

To cite this article

Madénian, H. (2024). Equity in climate plans: a comparison between Vancouver and Montreal. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

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