Here’s looking at you, Perth!

by Theresa Peluso

Perth - homebridge
Perth Ontario Photo courtesy of http://www.town.perth.on.ca

Let’s explore how smaller communities are addressing the problem of climate change. Cities like San Francisco, Helsinki and Ottawa, which I discussed in last month’s column, have resources and opportunities at their disposal that aren’t available to smaller communities like Mississippi Mills. I thought it would help to look at the initiatives the residents of Perth are taking to reduce their impact on the natural environment. For one thing, Perth signed on to the Partners for Climate Protection in 1998.

The Partners for Climate Protection program, which receives financial support from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Green Municipal Fund, empowers municipalities to take action against climate change. This program consists of a five-milestone process that guides members in creating GHG (greenhouse gas) inventories, setting realistic and achievable GHG reduction targets, developing local action plans, and implementing these plans using specific, measurable actions to reduce emissions. More information about the Partners for Climate Protection program can be found at www.fcm.ca/home/programs/partners-for-climate-protection.htm.

What has Perth done to tackle the challenge of climate protection? In 1997 Perth created a non-profit organization called EcoPerth, primarily to address climate change issues in its community with the help of funding from the Climate Change Action Fund. With EcoPerth in place, the municipality then signed on to the Partners for Climate Protection program. EcoPerth have undertaken projects such as energy retrofits of municipal buildings (which saves the town about $50,000 per year in energy costs annually), tree planting, bulk purchases of solar heaters, initiatives to encourage cycling and carpooling, environmental awareness campaigns, and marketing to encourage people to buy local produce. (I’m sure we’ve all heard about their Lanark Local Flavour campaign, which our municipality promotes as well. After all, it makes business sense, as well as nutritional and environmental sense.)

The key element of EcoPerth’s approach is to involve the community from beginning to end through on-line discussion groups and public meetings, and to include a feedback loop to get ongoing responses from the community and keep track of the results. Because they use a grassroots approach, they can implement small actions quickly.

One of the reasons EcoPerth are so effective is because they point out the economic and health benefits of their initiatives, which also happen to be environmentally beneficial; for example, when they sold CFLs as stocking stuffers during the 2002 holiday season, they emphasized both the economic and environmental benefits. When EcoPerth completed community energy and GHG inventories for the Town of Perth, they found that about $19 million was spent on energy-related activities annually, with almost 90 per cent of that amount leaving the community. That statistic helped EcoPerth to convince town councillors of the need to implement programs for reducing energy use. One important factor in starting any kind of program is to find key supporters, or champions. Politicians, staff members, stakeholders and individuals can all fill this role. EcoPerth’s champion, when they started their environmental program, was a local environmental consulting company, REIC Perth, which actually originated the EcoPerth idea. REIC was able to convince the municipality to sign on to the Partners for Climate Protection program. Perth then used the guiding principles of PCP to articulate its vision and approach to address the problems of climate change. Including the local newspaper editor in their activities was instrumental in keeping the public informed of their accomplishments on a regular basis.

EcoPerth make sure that their program is sustainable by monitoring and evaluating their action plans from beginning to end, and modifying them as needed to ensure they don’t go off course. Finally, they have ensured that their programs continue from year to year by including a large number of stakeholders, especially municipal politicians and staff, as well as residents, who refer to this environmental approach to guide their actions.

There is a lot to be gained by making our municipality more sustainable: lower energy costs, more community participation, more efficient buildings, cleaner air and water, and more efficient, less polluting transportation are just some good reasons.

Having said that, we need to keep in mind that, although Mississippi Mills and Perth are both considered small municipalities, there is one huge difference: their geographical area and population density. The total area of Mississippi Mills is more than 43 times the area of Perth (519.53 km2, compared with Perth’s total area of 12.25 km2). According to the 2011 census (http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/), Mississippi Mills has a population of 12,385, compared with Perth, with a population of 5,840. The population of Almonte, the main centre in our municipality, is about 5,000, about the same size as Perth’s. (Pakenham, the other significant centre in Mississippi Mills, has a population of about 2,000 (based on the 2001 census; all other numbers for the two municipalities are based on the 2011 census).)

Another significant difference between Mississippi Mills and Perth is the impact of carbon emissions from vehicles – a significant problem for us. About 1,500 Mississippi Mills residents are younger than 20, and about 2,180 are older than 64. In the Town of Perth, about 1,040 people are younger than 20 and about 1,670 are older than 64. If you do the math, that means about 8,700 Mississippi Mills residents, and about 2,710 Perth residents are of working age. The fact that our municipality is located close to a major centre, unlike Perth, plus the fact that about 7,000 residents live in rural areas, compounds the problem of carbon emissions from transportation for Mississippi Mills. The Town of Perth also needs to spend a lot less and produces fewer carbon emissions relative to building and maintaining infrastructure and providing services such as garbage collection, policing, snow clearing and grass cutting.

Despite our differences, we have a lot to learn from Perth’s environmental efforts. There are initiatives that we need to address specifically to take advantage of our vast wealth of wetlands, woodlands, rivers, streams, and farmland , and to reduce the high levels of carbon emissions from transportation. In my next column, I will compare specifics about what Perth and Mississippi Mills are doing, and suggest ways we can learn from each other.