Heading to the Field: the Urban Decarbonization Research Project

Westminster and Big Ben in London, UK by  Stefano Montagner .

Westminster and Big Ben in London, UK by Stefano Montagner.

As my PhD research season approaches, I'm preparing to head off to visit cities with some of the most aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in the world. Over the next eight months, I'll visit London, UK, Stockholm, Sweden, and San Francisco, USA to talk to policy makers about trying to transform each city's built environment in order to achieve deep greenhouse gas emission cuts. Governments from all three cities have signed up as members of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, which is a group of cities striving to achieve ambitious long-term GHG reduction goals approaching carbon neutrality. This is a group of cities that says it is aiming for transformative decarbonization, but what does that look like as it unfolds? What are the politics of striving for transformative decarbonization? What does striving for carbon neutrality really looks like on the ground? What can other cities learn about these experiences?

I'll be reaching out to interview policy makers and other people involved in carbon management through buildings in each of the three cities to help me develop answers. As I describe in the summary of this research project below, this research project will build what we know about policies that have the best change reducing greenhouse gas emissions long-term.


Urban Decarbonization: Practices and Politics of Urban Carbon Neutrality

Cities are increasingly adopting ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, such as 80% reductions by 2050. To make that ambition a reality, people in cities are trying out new initiatives ranging from local government’s financial incentives for solar energy to community group’s efforts to develop alternative, low-carbon economies using sharing. However, research has shown that these attempts are experimental and uncertain in their long-term impact. We don't know if these efforts are getting at systemic decarbonization of social, economic and technical systems, as opposed to approaches that slightly decrease emissions without tackling the drivers of carbon pollution. 

With the growing role of city action on climate change, we need more information about city-scale policies that have the best chance of long-term greenhouse gas abatement, especially understandings that take both technical and political potential into account. To fill this gap, this research project focuses on cities where people are trying to tackle deep greenhouse gas emission cuts. The project focuses on London, Stockholm and San Francisco because they are known as members of a small group of cities called the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance with relatively aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

More specifically, this project seeks to understand how people are changing urban buildings to achieve decarbonization. It asks what kinds of low-carbon built environment initiatives are working to fundamentally shift society and the economy away from fossil fuels. The research will collect information about both the physical ways people are changing buildings and the politics of making those changes. This combination of technical changes and political processes will allow us to develop an understanding of the direction that the city is headed, as well as whether or not decarbonization policies are likely to keep scaling up and become more durable over time.

What do you mean, 'Decarbonization'?

Copenhagen plans to be carbon neutral by 2025. Photo credit:  John Anes

Copenhagen plans to be carbon neutral by 2025. Photo credit: John Anes

All of the sudden, the idea of decarbonization is all over the news. 

Industrialized countries are no longer talking about merely making carbon reductions, they are finally admitting that in order to solve the climate crisis they must cut fossil fuel use entirely.

At last week's G7 summit, Germany's Angela Merkel leaned on the other G7 leaders to commit to a goal to decarbonize their economies by 2050.  Canada and Japan fought hard to water down that target, but even still Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper eventually agreed to deep greenhouse gas emission cuts by 2050 and a commitment to decarbonization by 2100. The targets may be weak, but decarbonization is officially on the table.

The concept of decarbonization is big in climate policy circles, but in practice what does it really mean?

It sounds deceptively simple: decarbonization means no more fossil fuels. But reframing the discussion to talk about zero carbon emissions and ending our dependence on fossil fuels is incredibly significant.

Modern society has evolved with fossil fuels intricately embedded into every facet of our daily lives. Decarbonization is about untangling that dependence to build a world that is fossil fuel free. To so many of us, this is a shocking idea. Fossil fuels are so bound up in our lives that overcoming the addiction sounds as likely as a providing unicorn for every household, but many countries and cities around the world are already blazing that trail.

It's significant that we're talking about decarbonization because that's what a real response to climate change has to look like. Zero carbon emissions has to be our goal. This hadn't penetrated very deeply into political discussions about climate change response until recently. Now, we are starting to see decarbonization written into international political statements and embraced as a practical goal by jurisdictions ranging from European countries to groups of mega-cities.

Decarbonization changes how we think about solutions to climate change. Instead of end-of-pipe solutions that try to tinker with minor reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, we're talking about restructuring society and the economy to end fossil fuel dependence. 

This approach has real practical implications on decisions being made today. Instead of making short term decisions that incrementally reduce greenhouse gas emissions while further entrenching fossil fuels (like building natural gas plants to replace coal), a focus on decarbonization requires investments in zero carbon solutions now.

We're talking about divorcing fossil fuels from our lives and meeting our needs with other sources of energy. We're talking about evolving our economies so they depend on modern energy sources. We're talking about societal transformation.

So keep trying to wrap your head around it - the 'D' word is on the rise.

Community Energy Planning: From Visioning to Implementation

Image credit:  Jose Pedro Costa

Image credit: Jose Pedro Costa

Originally published in ReNew Canada: The Infrastructure Magazine.

Communities across Canada are grappling with concerns about energy security, global warming, and environmental impacts of energy. In the search for ways to plan for their energy future, more and more municipalities are turning to community energy planning. It is no small effort since communities account for almost 60 percent of Canada’s energy consumption. Community energy planning can be a very useful tool to address energy issues and global warming, but there is a lot to learn from Canadian municipalities that have already moved past the visioning stage into the implementation of community energy plans.

Community Energy Planning

Community energy plans are long-term plans made by local governments to try to improve local energy management by increasing energy conservation and sustainable energy generation as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They are about strategically planning for a community’s energy use now and in the future. Community energy plans are frequently used as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but municipalities also choose to think proactively about energy because of benefits like increased community liveability and improved air quality. Some communities put energy goals into broader environmental plans, while others create dedicated energy plans.

From Plans to Implementation

Municipalities that have pioneered the implementation of community energy plans in Canada have encountered some common barriers and reasons for success. Barriers such as lack of jurisdiction, cost of energy measures, lack of capacity and experience related to energy in municipal staff, as well as difficulties in inspiring behavioural change in the absence of regulatory tools have all been experienced by the pioneers. Key reasons for success include political support from the city council and the mayor, and it has also been helpful to integrate of community energy planning principles directly into the municipality’s decision-making processes. Extended experience and capacity beyond a city’s municipal staff has been important for success, as well as an emphasis on inter-department communication across the municipal corporation. For municipalities just starting down the path, the short payback time of many of the projects that can be tackled early also helps in the beginning of implementation, but actions that fall into this category will only take a community so far.

Early adopters of community energy plans in Canada varied in their continued commitment to the original community energy plans when moving into the implementation stage. One method that early pioneers used was to take an approach where the principles outlined in the community energy plan were developed into a broader policy that took advantage of opportunities that arose rather than following a strict menu of activities. Others ended up not using the community energy plan as a day-to-day guiding document, instead using a series of plans that build off of one another and moved the municipal corporation towards a decision-making mentality that incorporated community energy planning principles. Nonetheless, some municipalities did use their original community energy plans as touchstone plans that guided day-to-day implementation and shaped activities in both short-term energy management and long-term transformation of local energy systems.

The implementation path is often reflective of how long the energy topic has been on the table. If a municipality has been tackling energy and global warming issues already, the development and implementation of a community energy plan is less of a learning experience than when energy issues are being considered for the first time. Though the plans and implementation experiences vary, early adopters of community energy planning in Canada have learned lessons that are important for municipalities just starting down the road.

Learning from Pioneering Communities

Municipal Operations vs. Community 

The early adopters of community energy planning principles in Canada have implemented projects that affect energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in municipal operations, but implementation hasn’t been as successful in the community at large. So far, many communities are working on incremental changes rather than re-thinking their energy system in ways that would result in a transformation of the local energy system. Nonetheless, there is a clear appetite for improved local energy management among municipalities in Canada.

Integrated Approach

Community energy planning in the early adopters moved away from the identification of specific projects at the outset and more toward an integrated approach that recognized unanticipated opportunities, affected all decision-making, and made all municipal expenditures reflective of the community energy plan principles. When the goals of the community energy plan are broadly integrated into decision-making and municipal expenditures instead of being considered extra expenses above and beyond the budget, community energy plan implementation is more successful. In particular, an integrated approach establishes a base for long-term transformation of the energy system.

Jurisdictional Challenges

Jurisdictional challenges are a significant barrier in energy planning. Community energy pioneers often had to rethink the methods with which they achieved aspects of their community energy plans since many of their original ideas were outside of their jurisdictional reach. It is important to note that although there are significant energy actions that a municipality can tackle, there are issues that are beyond the jurisdictional control of municipalities in Canada. Aggressive federal and provincial greenhouse gas reduction and energy policies are necessary to achieve swift and extensive change, and municipalities may be influential in asking other levels of government for this support.

Transformative Change

Pioneering communities discovered a distinction between efforts to implement activities that are financially cost-effective in the short-term and efforts to make long-term transformational changes to the local energy system. Not all of the pioneers had reached a stage where they considered both incremental and transformative energy planning. Transformational change incorporating major infrastructure investments will shape local energy systems for decades into the future, but these efforts have only just begun. Municipalities just starting out in community energy planning that want to lay the groundwork for significant change should keep both short-term and long-term energy planning in mind.

Looking Ahead

Municipalities in Canada that want to meet the challenges of global warming and energy security concerns can use community energy planning as a tool. The implementation of community energy plans will encounter barriers, but municipalities can find ways to circumvent obstructions, often with the help of strong political leadership.

Community energy planning will not be effective in Canada if municipalities only focus on municipal operations and quick payback actions.  While some pioneering municipalities made strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from municipal operations, there was less of an emphasis on the broader community. If community energy planning is to have a major effect on greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, it will be essential that municipalities take a community wide focus that builds toward transformational change to local energy systems.

For a full report on community energy planning in Canadian communities from Decarbon Strategies, please click here.

Powering the Energy Revolution

Kortright 037.jpg

This article originally appeared as a guest article in Enabling City: Enhancing Creative Community Resilience Volume 2. Read the full book here.

In 2012, overlooking the West Bay on beautiful Manitoulin Island in Canada, the community of M’Chigeeng First Nation celebrated the grand opening of their 4 MW wind power project. It was the first 100% First Nation owned wind project built in the Canadian province of Ontario. The community spent many years bringing it to fruition, but the opportunities for local economic development, community job creation, and environmental leadership pulled the project to completion. On a summer’s day in 2012, the community celebrated their success with a traditional sunrise ceremony in the shadow of the pair of wind turbines that are now a part of their community.

In 1997, a windy island in Denmark home to about 4000 people entered a government contest to become a 100% renewable energy powered island. They won. Residents in the community bought into the idea – particularly excited about the prospect for local job creation – and they eventually erected 21 wind turbines on the island. Everyday citizens co-own 20 of them and earn more than $8 million in revenue per year. These days, the residents of the island of Samsø export surplus green energy, they’ve built straw or wood-burning district heating systems, they’ve started producing biofuel, and they have installed solar panels and heat pumps.

These are stories of community energy resilience.

There is an urgent opportunity to remake the energy systems on which our communities depend. Communities’ energy support systems are based on tenuous supply chains that stretch across the globe and pump huge amounts of global warming pollution into the atmosphere. As communities have recognized the unsustainability of this system, some have begun remaking their communities to increase energy resilience, like the M’Chigeeng First Nation and the island of Samsø. 

In order to succeed, community energy resilience has to be pursued co-operatively by diverse players. Local governments, community groups, and citizens can all make huge strides for their communities, but it is also critical that they are enabled by regional and national governments.

Energy management at the level of the local government covers a broad scope: from the efficiency of the built environment to transportation to energy generation infrastructure. In Canada, many cities are developing municipal energy, sustainability or environment offices to meet these needs and are creating plans to help drive energy resilience efforts. Some local governments create dedicated Community Energy Plans, like Guelph, Ontario, while others fold energy management policies and targets into larger sustainability initiatives, like Vancouver, British Columbia. So far, Canadian cities are not yet making the strides in greenhouse gas emission reduction that is required to avoid catastrophic climate change, but their are cities across the world that are starting to make progress. 

Another big player in the field of community energy resilience is community owned renewable energy (‘community power’ or ‘community energy’), which are renewable energy generation projects that are developed and owned by groups of citizens. In a nutshell, people co-invest in the energy infrastructure that will power their homes and businesses and make a return on their investment. In Germany, over half of the country’s renewable energy capacity is owned by citizens. Many projects are owned by rural co-operatives that have pooled investment of over $1 billion USD in private capital to invest in renewable energy projects. 

Regular citizens can contribute to their community’s energy resilience on their own too. Most people know that significant energy savings can be made through efficiency upgrades to homes, but citizens can also be generators of electricity. Solar photovoltaic panels can be installed by farmers who diversify their operations to harvest not just wheat and soybeans, but also energy from the sun itself. Homeowners can take advantage of local natural resources like never before to produce enough power to meet all of their needs. 

People in a community can overhaul their energy support system, but they can only go so far on their own. The policies enacted by regional and national governments are critical enablers of action for truly transformative change. Farmers can’t feed renewable solar power into the electricity grid, for example, without policies that pave the way. Policies like feed-in tariffs for renewable energy allow communities to build an electricity generation grid that is decentralized, distributed, renewable and resilient.

A community that acknowledges its energy vulnerability and takes steps to address the glaring chinks in its armor moves towards a more stable and resilient support system. It’s a community with more local economic opportunity. It’s a community that is meeting needs efficiently without squandering resources. It’s a community that is reaching for sustainability.


Canadian Cities' Vulnerability to Climate Change Apparent after Alberta Floods

Flooding swept over Southern Alberta, Canada from Calgary to Canmore in mid-June. Evacuation orders were issued in towns and cities as rivers like the Bow and the Elbow swelled and spilled over their banks. Historic water levels were reached in Medicine Hat, downtown Calgary was emptied and underwater, and towns like High River were completely evacuated for days as police patrolled the flood ravaged streets. 

The Alberta flooding is one of the many climate change impacts already being felt around the world, but it also foreshadows the rise in extreme events that is on the way. The frequency of weather disasters will continue to increase as long as we keep recklessly pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As the climate warms, we will see extreme events like the flooding that push the boundaries of our built infrastructure. Since it has hit so close to home this time, in Canada it should be a call to arms.

In the flooding that hit Alberta, the resiliency of Albertans has taken centre stage. The stories pouring out of the province have been full of neighbours helping neighbours. One water engineer and entrepreneur that I met in Alberta last week was nearly sleeping as he stood after a soggy, scary and sleep-deprived week. He had been setting up basement pumps across downtown Calgary, helped by roving bands of volunteers descending on homes and businesses to help clean up the mess. It's clear that the social fabric of society is the key to our ability to respond and rebuild. However, that's not the only factor affecting vulnerability to climate change.

The emergency has called into question the resiliency of our cities' built infrastructure. In addition to energy infrastructure that is still too waterlogged to turn back on in downtown Calgary, the most drastic infrastructure failure was the collapse of a rail bridge in Calgary that was undermined by the flooding. When a train crossed it days after the flooding started, the crumbling bridge caused several train cars full of petroleum products to derail and hang perilously over the swollen river. The incident stressed the emergency services of a city already stretched to the edge. It is obvious that a failure to adapt to climate change will continue to result in incredibly costly impacts on Canadian cities.

Adaptation is immensely important. We have already committed ourselves to some degree of global warming and we must prepare for the climate change impacts that are already on their way. It will be particularly important to protect the most vulnerable in our societies. Canadians are the lucky ones compared to the entire globe; the country has the resources, support systems, and wealth to deal with emergencies. However, to adapt without addressing the cause of the problem would be like bailing out a boat without plugging the gaping hole in the bottom. We have to do both.

We need to stop the rapacious growth of greenhouse gas emissions in order to truly protect our cities from climate change impacts. Canada's greenhouse gas emissions are still rising and the commitment to the expansion of the tar sands promises even greater greenhouse gas emission growth.

No amount of resiliency can protect from catastrophic climate change. Our best defence is a good offence.


Toronto Hits Its 2012 Climate Change Target


Source: Urban TorontoTom Ryaboi

In 2007, Toronto adopted Canada's Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas emission reduction targets as its own. The city would strive to reach a 6% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 1990 levels by 2012. A recent progress report from city staff shows that the city met the target with flying colours.

In fact, Toronto is already halfway to the 2020 target of 30% below 1990 levels.

Toronto’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 15% from 1990 levels and per capita emissions have fallen by 26%. Meanwhile, the city has grown and expanded, demonstrating that greenhouse gas emissions can shrink while a city grows.

Toronto’s success so far has largely come on the coattails of the largest climate change initiative in North America; the province of Ontario is shutting down all of its coal-fired power plants by the end of 2014. As the coal plants have been mothballed one by one, the electricity used in Toronto has gotten cleaner.

The phase out wouldn't have been possible without the conservation measures that have caused per capita electricity use to drop 10% in the last 20 years, but new renewable energy and gas-fired power plants have also come online to fill in as the coal plants have been turned off. Natural gas is still a greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuel though, and the progress report warns that natural gas is set to become “the new coal” unless something changes. 

Waste management was the other major player in Toronto's success, especially methane capture from landfills. Greenhouse gas emission from waste are down 52% largely due to better capture of methane at landfill sites.

More and better data on GHG emissions is fundamental.

As the city moves from the low hanging fruit to deeper emission reduction strategies, it would be helpful to see more regular updates on the city's greenhouse gas emissions. However, some challenges appear to stand in the way. The progress report explains that its release was delayed five years due to difficulties in obtaining updated and more detailed data from the city's major energy providers on energy consumption and related emissions. This data is fundamental. The challenges will have to be addressed as the city moves deeper into GHG emission reduction so that there can be closer feedback between the city’s GHG trends and its policies.

Interestingly, the emissions of the city were calculated using “end of pipe” methodology rather than “lifecycle” methods. Some experts say that lifecycle analysis offers a more comprehensive look at greenhouse gas emissions(1), but the city report argued that there is no standard methodology for lifecycle analysis.

To hit the 2020 target, energy efficiency and transportation measures will be key.

As Toronto forges ahead to a 30% GHG reduction by 2020, a focus on efficiency and transportation is essential. Building efficiency must be improved both by retrofitting existing buildings and by building new ones to high standards since natural gas and electricity used to heat and power Toronto homes currently accounts for 53% of greenhouse gas emissions in the city.

Transportation emissions are up 15% from 1990 levels and the Toronto Atmospheric Funds warns that transportation is now the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Toronto. To reach the 2020 target, it's obvious that there needs to be a focus on transportation and the current climate of political gridlock on the issue needs to be overcome. The city needs major investments in public transit and changes to policies to support active transportation like walking and cycling. 

It is fantastic news that Toronto exceeded its climate change target for 2012, but the city still has 4 million tonnes of greenhouse gases to go in order to reach the 2020 target. It’s time to dig deep in efficiency and transportation to keep Toronto on track in the fight against climate change.


(1) Kennedy, Christopher, Julia Steinberger, Barrie Gasson, Yvonne Hansen, Timothy Hillman, Miroslav Havránek, Diane Pataki, Aumnad Phdungsilp, Anu Ramaswami, and Gara Villalba Mendez. "Methodology for Inventorying Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Global Cities." Energy Policy 38.9 (2010): 4828-837.