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Rethinking Scale to Drive Down Carbon: A Conversation with Mary Pickering

Nikky Manfredi

Nikky Manfredi

Communications & Content Specialist

CSI Climate Ventures Conversations are a chance to hear from leaders working for climate solutions. This event series is a part of CSI’s Climate Ventures initiative.  

“More and more, [cities] have become a centre for knowledge and action around climate,” Mary Pickering reflects. And she would know. Mary is the Vice President of Strategy and Partnerships at The Atmospheric Fund (TAF) and Senior Advisor of Low Carbon Cities Canada (LC3). In March, she sat down with CSI’s Community Manager, Stefan Hostetter, to discuss how TAF and LC3 are investing in low-carbon solutions across Canada, why this work has her rethinking scale, and how we can all be part of the solution. We’ve highlighted a few ideas that really stuck with us below, and you can watch the full conversation here:

In 2004, Mary joined The Atmospheric Fund (TAF), an organization founded on the concept that a city should have a climate agency — something she says was “unheard of” in 1991 Toronto when TAF began. Thankfully, attitudes have changed and with attitudes, so has TAF’s name: TAF originally stood for the Toronto Atmospheric Fund before the organization expanded its mission to drive down carbon all across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

TAF is on a mission to help cities in the GTHA region (and now others, through LC3) become carbon neutral by 2050. The agency invests in low-carbon solutions and supports their scale-up for broad implementation. Scale is everything to TAF. The organization is a bit of a “swiss army knife,” as Mary points out: they are a city agency supported by a government endowment, working inside communities to test and scale a lot of models, all of which give them unique perspectives on the work and frankly, what works.

Low Carbon Cities Canada is an ambitious partnership that brings TAF’s model and learnings to major cities across Canada. LC3 is focused on enabling accelerated scale-up of low carbon solutions while also unlocking community benefits by co-creating with the communities they work in, in an equitable way.

Redefining Scale: Meeting Urgency with Interconnection 

LC3’s mandate is to enable climate action at scale. What does “scale” really mean? For a traditional accelerator or business, scale likely means creating processes that generate growth in product and profit. At TAF, scale means increasing impact. We have so many climate solutions already, yet most of them struggle to scale. Scale looks like reducing more carbon, and quickly. Except, as Mary reflects, it’s not that simple: 

“One the one side, we are on this threshold. If we don’t get this cracked in ten years, forget it. We have to position the scale for us to reach these targets by 2050. […] Incrementalism hasn’t been working. We need these bigger jumps, [and] this is where scaling ideas come in. There’s this urgency, on the one hand. 

On the other hand, it’s about this interconnection. More and more, we understand how Indigenous principles come into play. Everything is connected. […] We need to look at things more broadly. We have to think about multiple outcomes. We talk about multi-solving. […] Not just because we have to solve everything at once. Because if we don’t consider all the different elements, our single issues are likely to fail. Maybe we get one win; maybe we lose it at the next election. We didn’t build broad enough support. We have to design to make these climate issues relevant. And that’s not fast. That’s slow. That takes all kinds of skillful management.” 

TAF and LC3 are rethinking scale by understanding that climate solutions cannot just serve carbon emissions; they must also be rooted in equity and prosperity for all. Gone are the days where every answer to an implementation problem is “faster and bigger”. Local governance, relationship-building at the grassroots level, and prioritizing community benefits are all part of designing for scale. 

Applying Four Lenses for a Low Carbon Future

LC3 focuses on finding local solutions that are proven to work, and positioning them to scale and replicate their success across Canada. As we mentioned, creating solutions requires an interconnected, multi-outcome approach. In our conversation, Mary broke down the four lenses LC3 applies when evaluating projects for this kind of impact: 

1) Significant carbon reduction opportunities 

Mary explains: “Looking out twenty years, we are looking at the potential of something at scale to give a significant reduction. We know what those things are: it’s about buildings. It’s about waste reduction. It’s about the electrification of everything.”

2) Designing for Scale 

She continues: “We analyze [carbon reduction opportunities] but we [also] think about how the activities on those high-impact, low-carbon pathways are being positioned for scale. When you are designing for scale, what’s different about that? We’ll be assessing the ability of the project at hand to scale.” 

3) Community Benefits 

She emphasizes: “We are building broader constituencies of support. We can’t get away anymore with different silos. […] We are always going to be looking for: how can we design these climate actions to do more than the sum of the parts? Contributing to some issues in our cities that are frankly more top of line to people than reducing carbon. So, it makes [the project] more relevant.”

4) Equity 

Mary concludes: “When we find these opportunities, we are going to be applying a fourth lens, which is: how can these benefits be most equitably distributed? Those are the four lenses we will be applying.” 

We Need Everyone 

Working together requires what Mary calls “skillful management,” and as she emphasizes throughout the conversation, it’s worth it. We are stronger together. And while building trust can be a slow process at first, networks save time in the long run. We’re inspired by the work of TAF and LC3, who take these truisms to heart, working hard on the ground and at the national level with seven different organizations in seven very different cities and towns. 

Mary said it best with her call to action at the end of our conversation: 

“Let’s keep trying to unlock these possibilities together because we need everybody on deck. This isn’t something that happens alone. We’ve got to all pull in the same direction – not in the same ways necessarily. […] This is about mobilizing the energy and the ideas we need to really jump ourselves into this new phase. And it’s going to be much better. It’s going to be low carbon and there will be lots of other benefits, too. Let’s create this exciting vision together. 

Our next Climate Ventures Conversations with Dr. Melissa Lem, a family physician, Director of PaRx, and President-Elect of the Canadian Associations of Physicians for the Environment, is next week on April 20. Get your tickets!

The Centre for Social Innovation’s Climate Ventures fast-tracks the success of early-stage entrepreneurs, innovators and leaders developing and implementing solutions to the climate crisis. We also collaborate with governments, large companies, investors and other partners to solve challenges and scale solutions to meet climate targets. Learn more at 

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