Why urban greenhouse gas emissions matter

Runaway emissions aren't the sole purview of oil sands upgraders and power plants

December 01, 2010

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Illustration by Michelle Thompson/agoodson.com

Smokestacks at power plants and oil sands upgrader complexes don’t stand alone as Canada’s chief greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) culprits. There are accomplices in the release of the offending substance. They range from the nation’s millions of personal vehicles to sparsely populated downtown cores and aging building stock. Runaway emissions of the unwanted byproduct of industrial and consumer behavior is as much an urban concern as it is a perceived black mark of fossil-fuel production, suggests a 300-page report compiled by the Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow initiative, or QUEST for short.

The layout and design of cities, modern transportation networks and urban infrastructure together account for as much as 40 per cent of Canada’s current GHG-emissions output, QUEST says. Current reduction targets set by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government pledge to shave emissions nationally by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, and by 60 to 70 per cent by 2050. “Any serious effort to achieve Canada’s GHG emission targets will require substantial emissions reductions from these urban sectors,” reads a report released in mid-2010 under the title The Capacity for Integrated Community Energy Solutions Policies to Reduce Urban Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

QUEST is not an exercise in partisan politics. The initiative is led by former B.C. premier Michael Harcourt and driven by a cross-section of government, industry, environmental, academic and urban institutes from the Canadian Gas Association to the Canada Green Buildings Council, through to BC Hydro, the Ontario Power Authority and Natural Resources Canada.

The collaboration asks straightforward questions rooted in disciplines from architecture to construction, urban planning and tax policy. What would happen to Canada’s emissions output if density was prized above sprawl in urban areas? Could toll roads in city centers force more Canadians to use transit? How can district heating and cooling systems be deployed to greater effect? Is there a bigger role for waste heat, solar power and biomass schemes in densely populated zones?

Answers on each count can be found in so-called integrated community energy solutions, QUEST says. Canada could save as much as $29 billion on the national ledgers and shave yearly emissions of CO2 by 12 per cent by 2050 by breaking down policy silos, according to the report, which was published in August and prepared by Vancouver consulting firm MK Jaccard and Associates Inc. The components that make a city run – neighborhood design, transportation systems and energy supply – too often fall victim to haphazard planning, the authors contend.

Practical steps for policy-makers begin with implementing sustainable land-use practices. Municipal zoning frameworks should be updated to encourage development of mixed-use residential and commercial districts, the authors say. New building developments should be steered towards underdeveloped or forgotten pockets within city limits. Transit planning should lead new construction rather than get stuck as a perennial afterthought. “Many of these policies are ideally enacted by local governments,” QUEST says. They allow “substantial GHG emission and energy use reductions to be achieved even in the absence of significant federal action.”


Edmonton’s civic election turned on the city’s decision to shutter its downtown airport. A mixed-used urban development is planned for the site
Photo courtesy of Mack D. Male – http://mastermaq.ca

The ground-up approach has implications for Alberta’s two major cities. Edmonton residents heaved a sigh of relief when fall election results confirmed that incumbent Stephen Mandel won a third term in the mayor’s chair. The win was viewed by many as an admonishment of David Dorward, Mandel’s chief opponent in a bitterly fought campaign. A chartered accountant, Dorward was a latecomer to an election that turned on the city’s decision to shutter its downtown airport. To date, plans to build a mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhood for up to 30,000 people at the industrial site have been hamstrung wherever possible by a group of airport supporters calling themselves Envision Edmonton.

Mandel declared his election win a victory for the city and its future – a subtle jab at Dorward, whose role as an advocate for the pro-downtown airport faction was at best thinly disguised. But the challenge that the Edmonton mayor confronts is the same one faced by civic leaders everywhere and flagged by QUEST as key to cutting urban emissions.

Much of Canada’s building stock dates back to the post-Second World War economic boom. “As a result, a large portion of Canada’s buildings have shell efficiencies that are well below current construction standards.” Density is also a challenge in the Alberta capital city. Edmonton commuters can choose from more than 45,000 parking stalls in the downtown core, according the city’s Downtown Business Association. The total stands in contrast to a QUEST recommendation to increase downtown parking fees and eliminate free stalls at offices and shopping malls in the hope that motorists will choose transit instead.

Moderate and comprehensive policy changes range from better planning of new municipal services and public transit to the seamless integration of renewable energy systems such as biomass and waste heat into the existing building stock.

A Calgary development sponsored by Enmax Corporation fits the efficiency model. The $31.8-million Calgary District Energy Project is a stroll away from downtown skyscrapers. The system uses natural gas boilers to generate heat – enough to warm 10 million square feet (900,000 square meters) of office space – that gets distributed via underground pipes to nearby buildings. The city-owned utility is also rolling out a suite of natural gas-fired power plants close to load centers where electricity is used.

Alberta stands to benefit more than its provincial peers from integrated energy planning, QUEST says. Much of the energy province’s electricity is derived from coal-fired plants. Boosting efficiency in urban centers means less of the carbon-heavy material is burned. As much as two-to-three units of primary energy are saved for every unit of energy conserved at the end of the line, QUEST calculates.

Rethinking urban landscapes on a macro scale “may appear daunting and in some cases represent a substantial departure from business as usual,” QUEST says, but the stakes of inaction are high. Each year that the culture of automotive transportation and the sprawling suburbs which have grown up around it continues unchecked “locks in emissions and energy use for up to 100 years or more.” 

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