Edmonton could be a hero in the history of climate change. While our provincial and federal politicians have only been paying lip service to the reality of a warming planet, municipal leaders know it’s serious and they’re doing something about it. Edmonton has the political will and the talent to do great things—but often lacks support from higher governments.
Scientists are as sure that humans are causing climate change as they are that cigarettes cause cancer, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This is not news. The world has known since at least the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that we need to kick our addiction to cheap and dirty fossil fuels. The consequences were, and still are, well understood: it’s more damaging economically, environmentally and socially to do nothing than it is to control our collective CO2 output.
Our response? According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change co-chairman Thomas Stocker, there’s been a 61-percent global increase in greenhouse-gas emissions since world leaders committed to tackling their carbon habits back in ’92.
“A two-degree rise in temperature has become extremely ambitious because we’ve lost time—this info was available 20 years ago,” Stocker said in Edmonton last week. “If we wait another 10 years then 2.5 degrees will be ambitious. The message is that we need to start now.”
The high-ranking Swiss climate scientist was in town as a keynote speaker at Zero 2014, a three-day conference focused on the transition to a low-carbon future hosted by the City of Edmonton and Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation. The conversation at the event was not if we’re causing climate change, but what we’re doing about it.
The fact that this conversation was happening in Edmonton is significant. The city has not historically been green, its policies often more reactionary than visionary. Edmonton’s GHG emissions climbed 38 percent between 1990 to 2008 when many other North American municipalities were working aggressively to cork their emissions. Much of Edmonton’s carbon gain can be attributed to a near 25-percent population increase, a boom in business thanks to the oil sands and a corresponding lack of political will to seriously regulate emissions.
Mayor Don Iveson, following Stocker’s detailing of the hard facts of climate science, signalled to the assembled crowd of business and political leaders that Edmonton is making a sharp turn in their carbon course.
“The questions of climate change must be on the mind of leaders in government, business and civil society—they’re very much on our minds,” Iveson said. “We’ll be transitioning Edmonton to a low-carbon future. We understand the role that fossil fuels play now, but we know we have to transition.”
He listed Edmonton’s ambitious projects: its world-class waste-management system that generates enough electricity for 4600 homes and will soon divert 90 percent of trash from landfills with the waste-to-biofuels facility; the Blatchford development at the old City Centre Airport will house up to 30 000 people as well as being carbon-neutral and powered 100-percent by renewable energy; the expanded LRT system will have six spokes from downtown to the city edges by 2040; an ambitious switch from coal to natural gas and eventually solar for electricity generation.
Right place, right time
Alberta’s capital city is in the right place at the right time to be a world leader in climate innovation. The leadership is in place. Iveson and the newly-elected council seem to have the appetite to invest in long-term infrastructure, like improved public transit and carbon neutral developments, that could make Edmonton a greener city for decades to come. These kinds of investments take guts as well as public support—things Edmonton’s new council and mayor seem to have a healthy supply of.
“We have to be willing to make that initial investment—to put some skin into the game,” said Edmonton City Manager Simon Farbrother at Zero 2014. “We have to make decisions that won’t have an immediate payoff; the benefits will be decades later. And that takes leadership and social commitment.”
Edmonton has aggressive goals to halve emissions from city operations by 2020 and be carbon neutral by 2040. The city also aims to slash all emissions, both public and private, by 17 to 20 percent by 2020. Efficiency—like retrofitting older structures and making sure new developments match Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards—will play a big role, as buildings use two-thirds of energy in Edmonton compared to just a third for transportation.
But the most ambitious move is weaning off fossil fuels. Edmonton currently gets 95 percent of its energy from non-renewable resources, mainly coal. Coal is twice as dirty as natural gas, so moving away from it would be a big step. Although electricity only counts for a fifth of energy used in Edmonton, it accounts for 43 percent of all GHGs. More than 70 percent of Alberta’s electricity comes from coal—emissions from this alone are nearly equal to all oil sands production.
Iveson raised some eyebrows at Zero 2014 when he said we could make the switch from fossil fuels to solar power. But it’s not as far-fetched as you might think. Edmonton is Canada’s third-sunniest city, just behind Winnipeg and Calgary. And, somewhat counter intuitively, solar panels work most efficiently in cold temperatures. Sun? Cold? Check and double-check.
Edmonton’s Renewable Energy Task Force, part of the city’s 2012 The Way We Green environmental strategy, conservatively estimates that current renewable energy technology, mainly solar, could generate 20 percent of the city’s energy needs. Coupled with strict energy efficiency for both new and existing buildings, big investments and innovations in solar could help Edmonton transition from fossil-fuel electricity.
Along with solar power, Edmonton seems to be focusing on the right targets. The ambitious, $3-billion LRT project would have the dual benefits of reducing transportation emissions as well as encouraging denser population growth in the core. Growing the city inwards and upwards uses much less energy than planning the city like you’d pour a pancake.
Farbrother says it can be difficult to make those gutsy long-term investments when working with the city’s “archaic” tax system. Edmonton gets nearly 60 percent of all revenue from property taxes, a system that encourages urban sprawl as the city is all but forced to approve additional suburban properties to add cash flow to the city. The city manager also noted that provincial funding is split one-third each for Edmonton, Calgary and the rest of province. That’s a simple system that’s convenient politically, but doesn’t make much sense in a complex world.
Edmonton and Calgary have been struggling to get a big-city charter finalized with the Alberta Government that would, among other things, give cities more independence to generate revenue besides the current property tax and provincial funding models. But dealing with the politically unstable Alberta PCs—with their revolving door leadership and hyper-partisan ways—has made this a lengthy chore.
Provincial and federal leadership lacking
It’s that uncertainty in commitment—from the Progressive Conservative’s foot-dragging on the city charter to their federal counterpart’s reluctance to take real steps to cut national GHG emissions—that makes Edmonton’s challenge doubly difficult.
Canada lacks a unified GHG reduction strategy, a strong framework that provides clear policies and targets. Alberta, as part of their 2008 Climate Change Strategy, promised to create both an Energy Efficiency Act and a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. We’re still waiting on those. This uncoordinated approach means that towns and cities don’t have access to best practices and, more importantly, focused federal and provincial leadership and funding for green initiatives.
“Lack of coordination between governments in Canada has hindered both the effectiveness of efforts to reduce GHG emissions and their efficiency (the cost per unit of reductions),” states a 2011 report by The Conference Board of Canada titled “Greenhouse Mitigation in Canada.”
The carbon elephant in the room is that Edmonton’s growth, both in population and GDP, is driven largely by the oil sands. Oil-sands growth disproportionately influences both the environment and public policy. Last year the oil and gas sector, thanks to aggressive oil-sands expansion, became the leading emissions source in Canada for the first time.
The federal government has admitted it will badly miss its Copenhagen commitment to reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels. Stephen Harper has repeatedly delayed regulating the oil and gas sector, only vaguely saying we’ll see standards “in the coming years.”
Alberta is by far the biggest polluter in Canada with GHG emissions nearly equal to the rest of the country combined. The province has outlined a carbon mitigation strategy, but it only plans to reduce emissions 14 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. That’s well below the 80 percent reductions recommended internationally.
And 70 percent of Alberta’s reduction is supposed to come from carbon capture and storage technology that would pump GHGs from oil-sands production deep underground—a “business-as-usual” win for industry that doesn’t factor in that 80 percent of CO2 from fossil fuels comes from the tail pipe, not production, so real reduction in GHGs would be minimal.
There are bits and pieces of good news. National regulations on coal power-plant emissions will hopefully take a bite out of Alberta’s dirty energy output by 2015. And there have been signs that Alberta, with some political will, could make the switch to natural gas plants within a decade. But the provincial and federal governments have stated clearly that their priority in Alberta for the next few decades is not to take steps to reduce the worst polluting province in the country—but to make sure there are enough workers to develop the oil sands.
Edmonton looks to other cities
While leadership may be lacking from higher governments, Edmonton’s still has to accommodate the 52 people who move to the city every day. To do this efficiently, they’ve had to look at other cities. Boston and Portland, despite bulging populations, have slashed their GHG emissions and aim to reduce their carbon output 80 percent by 2050 through efficiency programs and renewable energy.
Vancouver, which already has one of the lowest GHG emissions per capita of any city in the world, has the audacious plan to be the world’s greenest city by 2020.
“Boston moved beyond question, questioning the [climate] science a long time ago,” says Brian Swett, Chief of Environment and Energy with the City of Boston. “If presented with the evidence that the do-nothing scenario is unacceptable, I can’t see how any mayor or legislator would want their legacy to be that they were informed but didn’t act.”
Climate change is by far the most complex problem humanity has ever faced. It requires coordinated international efforts. But cities like Edmonton simply can’t afford to wait for that effort to come from above.