Kicking our carbon addiction

by Theresa Peluso

Images of smogIn my last article I explained my concerns about the increasing weather-related disasters causing destruction and death to people all over the world, including Canada. While numerous government leaders, including our own prime minister, are basically paying lip service to the proven theory that human behaviour is largely responsible for the global warming that is triggering these extreme climate events, other leaders in smaller jurisdictions are taking active steps to address the problem.

San Francisco, for example, has reduced its carbon emissions (as of 2010) by 12 percent below 1990 levels even though the city’s population has grown from 715,674 to 815,000. How did they do it?

A 2010 data analysis shows that San Francisco’s citywide carbon footprint totaled 5.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2010. This compares with 6.2 million metric tons in 1990. The analysis, conducted by the San Francisco Department of the Environment (SFE), covered the three primary sources of carbon emissions: buildings, transportation and waste.

“Our citywide carbon reductions – the equivalent of taking 128,000 cars off the road, or avoiding the burning of 1.5 million barrels of oil every year – are the result of the hard work and collaboration of many City departments, private sector partnerships and San Francisco residents,” said SFE Director Melanie Nutter. “This shows us how far we have come and will be critical in developing plans to continue on our clean and green path.”

This information was taken from the article San Francisco’s leadership in carbon emission reduction on The Global Compact website (http://citiesprogramme.com/archives/1426 (date October 2011?))

As Ontario has done, San Francisco got rid of dirty power by shutting down two gas-burning power plants (in Ontario’s case, the problem was coal-burning plants, which are even more polluting), and now obtains its energy from hydro-electricity or from solar projects on municipal facilities. San Francisco has also invested locally in technologies that can improve energy efficiency in commercial, residential and municipal buildings (e.g., automated lighting, heating and cooling), and is providing rebates to people and companies who build or retrofit buildings that incorporate these features. (Similar rebates are provided in Canada, the provinces and territories.)

San Francisco is also encouraging the development of renewable sources of energy, improving its waste diversion through recycling and composting (in 2010 they had an impressive 78 percent diversion/recycling rate, and in 2013 it was 80 percent!), and promoting cleaner modes of transit (biking, walking, electric vehicles). For the record, the City of Ottawa’s waste diversion rate last year was only 49.6 percent.

Now let’s look at a different city on a different continent, and at a different latitude – Helsinki. According to the Guardian Weekly (Helsinki by Adam Greenfield (theguardian.com, Thursday 10 July 2014 15.20 BST), the city plans to get rid of its car-choked streets by encouraging its residents to get rid of their cars. How? By implementing a point-to-point “mobility on demand” system by 2025. Anyone with a smartphone can purchase a ride in real time. In Greenfield’s words: “Subscribers would specify an origin and a destination, and perhaps a few preferences. The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses (called Kutsuplus) to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility.” Only one payment would be required for the whole trip, no matter how many connections are involved. Although it costs more than using a regular city bus, it is cheaper than going by taxi. Perhaps when people factor in the cost of buying, insuring, maintaining, and parking a car, the cost of this new system works out in their favour.

Now let’s zoom in closer to home. What about the city of Ottawa? Ottawa was one of the first municipalities to join Partners for Climate Protection (PCP) in 1991. The partners in this program are Canadian municipal governments that have publicly committed to reducing greenhouse gases and acting on climate change. Since the PCP program’s inception in 1994, over 240 municipalities from all provinces and territories are now members. In total, these municipalities comprise more than 65% of the Canadian population. Perth is a PCP member, but Mississippi Mills isn’t — yet. For more information on this program, refer to http://www.fcm.ca/home/programs/partners-for-climate-protection.htm.

Since that time, what has Ottawa accomplished? According to Samir Ibrahim, Director of the Advocacy Committee at the Canada Green Building Council, the results (according to his July 21, 2014 report) are mixed. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mainly generated by air-conditioning (heating and cooling) (49%) and fossil-fueled transportation (40%), have not decreased, partly because of a 10% population increase between 2005 and 2012. However, per capita emissions have decreased by 20% during that time. They are now 5.8 tCO2e per year, compared with a North American average of 24 tCO2e per year (quite a difference!). Most of Ottawa’s decrease in per capita emissions was the result of Ontario’s elimination of the coal-fired power generating plants, and it will now be difficult to maintain this rate of improvement. Now Ottawa’s plan is to reduce its GHG emissions to 4.8 tCO2e by 2024 – a further 17% reduction — through several initiatives: improving the cost effectiveness of City operations; educating residents in making informed decisions; providing opportunities to residents, as well as to the construction industry, with the goal of making their buildings and communities more energy efficient and sustainable; and developing a stewardship program to manage and secure land to serve as natural water reservoirs, wind breaks, air filters and carbon sinks. For more information on this analysis, refer to http://cagbcottawa.ca/cagbcorc/index.php/read/green-blog/45-overview-of-air-quality-and-climate-change-management-plan-2014-city-of-ottawa.

 Clearly, the carbon emission issues and solutions in Mississippi Mills aren’t comparable to Helsinki or San Francisco, or even Ottawa. But let’s look at what our municipality has been doing. Keeping in mind that we have a small tax base, and our population is widely dispersed, with homes that mostly predate the 1990s, we are somewhat constrained. That being said, our Town has taken some great initiatives: our waste diversion program has improved dramatically in the last few years, our Community Official Plan continues to promote dark night skies through efficient downward-focused lighting, this summer we have decreased the use of bottled water by providing municipally-sourced water stations at some public events, and we are implementing a Complete Streets policy when repairing municipal roads to encourage walking and cycling. But we can do more! We need to protect our woodlands, wetlands, and waterways by treating them as a cohesive whole, and ensuring that any future building development doesn’t fragment them. We need to improve our waste diversion rate further – let’s try to match San Francisco’s! We really need to get more cars off the road by promoting carpooling whenever possible. Perhaps we could build a park and ride lot at the edge of town and encourage people to use charter vans or buses? We need to get creative about that.

We need to let our government representatives at all levels know that reducing carbon emissions is important to us. We can also lend our support to the many organizations trying to influence policies and attitudes at a macro level: Ontario Nature, Greenpeace, Environmental Defence Canada, World Wide Fund for Nature and Bird Studies Canada are just a few such groups. Let’s do what we can to reduce our impact on the planet.