Energy Transition Strategy involves citizens in new ways

Meeting the growing obstacle of climate change is a tough assignment. It’s a task made tougher still by the differing viewpoints and interests that govern the day-to-day operations and long-term growth of a city.

Edmonton's Energy Transition Strategy
Edmonton’s low-carbon plan was tabled in April.    image courtesy of City of Edmonton

Edmonton’s direction for the challenge of climate change was set earlier this year with the adoption of the Community Energy Transition Strategy. City council approved the plan unanimously in April. A recently developed governance structure and terms of reference were also passed Aug. 25.

The goals are ambitious, and include lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 35 per cent below 2005 levels, and generating at least 10 per cent of the city’s electricity locally, both by 2035. The strategy outlines the challenges climate change poses and details approximately 150 specific actions in everything from electricity generation to transportation to construction.

Diverse leaders in industry, business, communities and government will need to come together in a unified way to see the Energy Transition Strategy through. The story of how the strategy was shaped offers a glimpse of how that collaboration can happen.

David Kahane, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, bases much of his work on deliberative democracy, a type of decision making using in-depth citizen consultation and involvement. During a meeting with fellow researchers in Washington in 2007, he proposed using this model to address climate change with Albertans.

Kahane said he views the issue as important for Alberta so it can remain competitive globally.

“Energy transition has all these spillover effects that have to do with walkability, public transit, air quality and health, security, economic vibrancy and diversification,” he said.

Funding from one of the National Research Councils and a group called the Deliberative Democracy Consortium helped consultation begin with government, industry and NGOs in 2008 and 2009 about how policy could be shaped by citizens.

“We made the strategic decision that the conservative government of the province was not going to want to do anything particularly bold around citizen involvement and climate change, so we would focus on municipalities,” Kahane explained.

The City’s broader environmental strategy “The Way We Green” was still in development at that time, though largely only consulted with traditional stakeholders for its formation. Council and administration were interested in the possibility of the deliberative model allowing citizens to shape the implementation plans, particularly around climate change.

In 2012, 56 citizens, recruited to represent diversity of age, walks of life, income, location in the city, and attitudes about climate change, met for six Saturdays for a total of 42 hours of information sharing and deliberation. The group nominated some of its members to write a report with their agreed on recommendations, many of which informed the Energy Transition Strategy. Ninety-two per cent of the panelists, including many who were climate change skeptics, supported the recommendation that Edmonton become a low-carbon city.

Kahane noted that most who came as climate change skeptics lefts as skeptics, but still supported the recommendations based on in-depth exploration of participants’ values.

“To broaden the discussion we made it about other dimensions of people’s lives. This happened very dramatically within the citizens’ panel,” he explained. “It’s about all those dimensions about health and quality of life, rather than just ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to be good when it comes to [greenhouse gas] emissions.'”

Kahane noted how delving into these other aspects of carbon-reduction helped panelists gain understanding of each other’s views, something he hopes the public-at-large will consider in evaluating their own actions.

“I do value being able to get things done efficiently in my life. I also value leaving a healthy environment for my child. Do I value one of those more than the other? Even though I often consume in ways that favour immediacy and efficiency, and short-term gratification, when push comes to shove I want a government to act according to these deeper values,” he said. “We are all stuck in that set of contradictions of what we value and how we live our lives. It can be helpful to bring that kind of value reflection in how we message about policies like this.”

Jim Andrais, with the City’s environmental strategies section and the Energy Transition Strategy project lead, credits the citizens’ panel with demonstrating to council that Edmontonians support actions that reduce carbon.

“If you look at the work that was done from the Way We Green to where we are today it looks brilliant, but it wasn’t designed that way,” Andrais said, referring the input from the citizens’ panel, which ran independently during the City’s own research.

“[The panel] was a good opportunity to take some of the modelling work we did saying carbon reduction was possible, then asking average Edmontonians, ‘Are you guys even interested in going down this low-carbon path’?”

The result was a surprise to Andrais.

“I was amazed that they recommended what they did, that council take actions to make the city low carbon by 2050. They didn’t have to, we didn’t even suggest a range of recommendations,” he said. “We asked they just write a report, tell council whatever you want, or even [that] this whole thing was a waste of your time.”

Kahane said he hopes the deliberative model can continue to be improved upon for many large problems facing our communities, showing governments that citizens are interested and engaged.

“[Climate change] is an issue that ought to be completely centre stage for politicians at all levels, but for complex psychological, cultural, political and economic reasons, it’s not,” he said.

“There’s a lot you can do with infrastructure of deliberation that moves us away from a pattern of one-off or ad hoc processes … . Involving citizens differently is an important part of the solution.”