Recently I attended a global forum in Vancouver called Renewable Cities. This three-day meeting brought together scientists, industry representatives, academics, politicians and policy advisers to consider how together we might accelerate the shift to a renewable energy-based economy. It was noted that while upper levels of government have a critical role to play in setting a supportive policy and tax environment, much of the actual work takes place at the municipal level.
Municipalities in countries demonstrating leadership on climate change, notably Denmark and Germany, have made huge strides in adapting to the coming realities of a carbon-restrained society.
Through a mix of enabling national policies and tax frameworks, municipalities have been encouraged to be innovative, early adopters of alternative energy generation and have successfully promoted a widespread switch to electric and active transportation models. Decades of focused and supported transition has resulted in reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, cleaner air, healthier residents and more diversified and resilient economies.
Things are not as far along in Canada where a coherent policy framework and supportive tax regime are still lacking at the top. Fortunately, municipal leaders have been stepping up to fill the gap. Vancouver recently announced it is working towards 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050. It’s a daunting goal but leaders are encouraged by the fact that half of commuter trips are already made by people using public transit, walking or cycling.
Municipalities in the Toronto area have introduced minimum canopy bylaws that encourage homeowners and developers to preserve large mature trees rather than replace them with small trees. The goal is to offset GHG emissions with sufficient vegetation to sequester carbon while also cleaning the air, mitigating heat and generally improving the overall health and well-being of residents.
Nelson has achieved a 30 per cent reduction in its corporate GHG emissions since 2008 through a combination of initiatives ranging from energy conservation (e.g. putting timers on heating/cooling and light systems in city buildings), and energy diversification (e.g. heating the sewage treatment facility with energy from sewage biogas).
As the highest contributors to GHG emissions, attention to conserving and using buildings to generate energy is enormously important but more needs doing. Little attention has been given to how Nelson and surrounding communities will transition from a fossil-fuel-based transportation system to a renewable-energy-based one.
The most common answer to the question of renewable-energy-fuelled transportation is to retain our private vehicle-dominated culture and simply switch to electric-powered vehicles. However, there are already serious indications that electrical generation will be insufficient to power the private-vehicle status quo.
I believe this warrants some critical reflection in Nelson where residents are increasingly required to gas up and get on the road to access services, most notably health care. Interior Health — without a coherent national or provincial energy policy to guide decision-making otherwise — continues to centralize health services with the result that more people are travelling longer distances more often. At the same time, BC Transit has frozen operational funding for public transit at levels that are insufficient to provide reasonably convenient access to these centralized services.
Rather than waiting for action from upper levels of government, I believe that Nelson needs to prepare now for a new and innovative transportation system that meets the specific needs of our community and our region well into the future.
While there is currently little funding for implementation, the time is right to envision, innovate and get “construction-ready” in anticipation of an unavoidable, coming reality.
Whether you believe that we are on target for catastrophic temperature increases or are skeptical that climate is changing at all, cleaner, greener energy and a transportation system that reduces urban congestion and diminishes rather than increases the amount of land devoted to roads and parking is good for us all.
Nelson city councillor Valerie Warmington shares this space weekly with her council colleagues.