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'Act locally' remains a good bet

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The 2012 UN Climate Change Conference wrapped up last week, with few new global strategies for reducing carbon emissions. While these conferences have happened annually for the last 18 years, over that time CO2 levels have only continued to rise. It is therefore not surprising that once again, not much changed.

With progress continuing to stagnate in the implementation of international accords, Canadians may want to reconsider their own approach to cutting atmospheric greenhouse-gas levels. Though it is not often framed this way, climate change can quite rightly be seen as a predominantly urban problem. With their large populations and heavy industry, the world's cities are responsible for 80 per cent of all carbon emissions. In Canada, about 25 to 30 per cent of our pollution comes from transportation, while buildings generate an additional 35 to 40 per cent -- mostly for heating and air conditioning.

Obviously, the solution to climate change is not to eradicate urban areas. On a per capita basis, urbanites have a smaller environmental footprint than rural residents. Still, implementing measures that reduce the energy demanded by cities and their citizens will have a huge impact on national carbon output.

So far, the biggest emphasis when it comes to improving energy efficiency has been at the individual level, as engineers propound the benefits of cars and houses that consume less power. No doubt, going green technologically does make a difference: according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, buying hybrid vehicles and installing better insulation can reduce a family's energy demand and carbon emissions by about one-third.

Yet, if that same family forgoes green insulation and efficient cars but moves to a house with better access to transit, the EPA notes their energy savings are even more impressive, at around 39 per cent. If they then also buy a car with better mileage and improve their home's heating efficiency, a family's total emissions reductions jump 54 per cent.

Though it may come as surprise, building cities more efficiently at the macro level has a greater impact on a country's environmental footprint than applying technological solutions while maintaining conventional land-use patterns. Even more positively, designing such communities may also be what many Canadians want. A study conducted earlier this year by the Royal Bank of Canada found that, if cost were not a factor, eight in 10 homebuyers in the Greater Toronto Area would give up a large house and yard for a modest or attached dwelling where they can walk to amenities and take rapid transit to work.

Even when housing prices were taken into account, a substantial 54 per cent of residents would still choose walkability and convenience even if it meant paying more for their home or giving up square footage.

While no such study has been done in Manitoba, Winnipeg's latest master planning document notes that most of the participants in the Speak Up, Winnipeg initiative expressed a similar desire for complete, mixed-use communities.

Unfortunately, while preference for location-efficient living may be high, this type of housing remains scarce. Existing development and pricing policies in Canada -- including property taxes, development charges, and service fees -- often favour low-density sprawl construction while making it onerous to build location-efficient neighbourhoods. Because it is cheaper and easier to build in greenfields, developers continue to push cities out instead of designing transit-friendly urban communities. This lack of location-efficient housing supply means most citizens are forced to the fringe, which literally drives up their energy demand.

To effectively reduce Canadians' contributions to climate change, local governments need to balance tax and pricing distortions, and offer incentives to developers to make it more appealing to design walkable, mixed-use communities over suburbs.

Moreover, as the annual expense associated with travelling back and forth to a greenfield community has been found to be greater than the mortgage savings on a suburban home, officials can help homebuyers understand the full life-cycle cost of different neighbourhoods, so they can make more informed choices when deciding where to live.

Citizens concerned by a changing climate should continue to lobby Ottawa to adopt a responsible approach to curbing pollution at the national level. Yet, they should not ignore the effect of their own energy choices, which cumulatively have a significant impact on Canada's carbon footprint. It is clear international conventions offer more talk than action. Encouraging local governments to implement a regulatory and incentive structure that makes it easier for Canadians to make the environmentally responsible lifestyle choice -- which also seems to be the choice many homebuyers want to make anyway -- might, therefore, be the most advantageous strategy to stopping climate change.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2012 A10

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