Energy transition investment begins locally

Part 1 of the Energy Transition series is available here.

Globally and locally, the future impacts of climate change are being talked about — in November 2015, Edmonton hosted the Community Energy Forum while the World Bank stated its belief that 100 million more people will be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030 if trends continue. Additionally on the world stage,  the United Nations Climate Change Conference begins in Paris at the end of November, despite the terror attacks in the city on Nov. 13, 2015.

Edmonton's Community Energy Forum took place November 14, 2015
Edmonton’s Community Energy Forum took place Nov. 14, 2015. Photo: Nick Dehod

Municipal governments, as the closest order of government to the front lines of day-to-day life for citizens, is in a good position to address energy consumption. To this effort, Edmonton approved an Energy Transition Strategy in spring 2015.

Mitigating the effects of climate change requires action from these different scopes; from a high level to maintain competitiveness between countries, to provinces and smaller jurisdictions  (e.g. a company can’t avoid green power requirements by moving to another province). At a municipal level, in-depth expertise of local processes, public attitudes and needs is invaluable. 

For Jim Andrais, manager with the City’s environmental strategies section and the Energy Transition Strategy project lead, the ability for municipalities to effect change is why the strategy is so important. The City is responsible for land-use planning, transportation networks, utilities, green space, waste management and many other functions that impact a community’s carbon footprint.

“Inertia is a very dangerous thing,” he said. “Once we live in a certain way [and] we’re comfortable with it, change is hard, even if the other option is better. People would prefer to stick with a comfortable, old, bad solution than move to an outstanding new one.”

Convenience and familiarity with established methods are just a couple of the hurdles for an issue such as climate change. It is difficult to get people mobilized against effects that worsen gradually, such as more frequent heavy rainstorms, or at other times, drought. The complete costs to municipalities are not always communicated in connection to climate change, such as the millions spent each year to increase capacity of drainage systems.

Andrais pointed out that a larger investment upfront will pay for itself, but selling people on the business case is tough. The Energy Transition Strategy predicts energy cost savings to building, industry and vehicle owners will be at least $2.5 billion greater than their net investment cost by 2035. This predicted benefit rises to $3.4 billion once the impact of greenhouse gases is factored.

“[We’ll see if] society is capable of doing something for the benefit of a future generation if there isn’t something immediately in it for them,” he said.

While the strategy was approved in full in April 2015, budget deliberations at city hall will take place in December 2015. The outcome will determine which parts of the strategy will be funded during a time of economic slowdown and fiscal restraint. The intangibility of climate change (at least in the short-term) may make energy transition difficult to prioritize.

“One thing I appreciate more at this end of the project than the beginning is how incredibly complex and tiny step-wise it is getting policy change within the city. It’s not one big dramatic decision and smooth sailing.” said David Kahane, a University of Alberta political science professor who contributed to the strategy’s formation by leading the Citizens’ Panel detailed in Part 1. Kahane specializes in deliberative democracy, a growing field for citizen engagement.   

Kahane said he hopes that citizens’ demonstrated willingness for action will translate to more than just symbolic support from decision makers.

“It’s not inconceivable that [the strategy] will look like yet one more inspirational document, because when it came time to fund new positions, to invest money, council had other priorities,” he said.

There are a number of ways people can take steps in their own homes, businesses and communities to reduce energy consumption that are supported through the municipal government currently, outlined here.