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Localizing Roadmaps


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The impact of global warming was made local to me a few years ago, during an unusually warm winter, when the CBC interviewed a climate specialist on whether the unusual warmth of this winter could be attributed to climate change. He said that it was not possible to attribute unusually warm weather to climate change. However he said that it was quite predictable that by 2050, rather than not being able to skate on the canal one year in ten, as we have today, we would only be able to skate on the Canal one year in ten. A global reality was suddenly tangible in my own back yard.

An increasing number of petroleum geologists are confronting the likelihood that we will not be able to indefinitely increase our production of oil. Significantly, the International Energy Agency (IEA), after conducting a more extensive investigation than they ever had before, concluded that oil production would peak in 2020. The implications for the world community are profound. Not only would transportation fuel become scarce, but we would start to experience shortages of oil for heating our homes, and petroleum-based fertilizers for growing our crops. Since renewables do not have nearly the energy density of carbon-based fuels, we need to find ways of reducing our demand for energy, since, if they are right, in the not too distant future, we will face a declining supply.

Fortunately, these twin problems—climate change, and the peaking of the production of oil—have similar solutions. Find ways of solving or ameliorating one problem, and we have already substantially reduced the impact of the other.

Canada is still in a state of political tension about the implementation of the Kyoto protocol nationally. A 7% reduction in greenhouse gases is seen by some as economically unfeasible, by others as not nearly confronting the magnitude of the problem. Many cities have taken the task upon themselves. The City of Ottawa can too, and it has an excellent base on which to begin.

Ottawa has the largest number of bicycle commuters, per capita, in North America. This is partly the outdoor culture, and partly a result of our 200 kms of bicycle paths. For many years we had an aggressive green-belt program, and many of those green spaces have been preserved. Ottawa has abundant local agricultural resources.

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Why not, I thought, build on what we already have, and take some of the roadmaps to building sustainable societies that exist, and figure out how to effectively localize them in a way that takes advantage of existing local strengths?

George Monbiot’s book "Heat" proposes ways that we can make not 7% cuts in carbon emissions, but 90% cuts (by 2030), and still retain much of our urban character and way of life as a society. When Monbiot started writing his book, he did not think that a 90% cut (which is what many scientists now believe is necessary to avoid a runaway greenhouse effect) in first-world countries to be possible.

Unlike many books on global warming, and/or on the peaking of oil production, Heat offers solid solutions using existing technology, and more importantly, runs the numbers to show why these solutions would genuinely allow us to make the cuts required, rather than being simply more green-washing. Monbiot’s suggestions are innovative, and in many cases quite radical.

Here's my summary of his key suggestions:

  • cap carbon emissions per person, but allow individual carbon rations to be bought and sold, so that people have incentives to reduce their emissions. Concentrate the rations on a couple of key sectors which drive all the rest, and use a credit-card-like system for convenience.

  • legislate that all new houses be built to German passivhaus standards (entirely solar-thermally heated, but they look like normal houses, and are only 7-10% more expensive--essentially you insulate all "heat-bridges" to the outside, and use triple-paned glass). Create mechanisms that require that existing housing stock be be systematically upgraded for energy efficiency whenever sold or renovated.

  • Move freight onto rail, make intercity buses (which, amazingly, have lower carbon emissions per passenger than trains) faster, more comfortable, and more reliable than automobiles. Do this by moving bus stations to the places where the major freeways meet (so that buses don't have to lose time by coming into towns), by providing dedicated bus lane on freeways (so the busses can whiz past the cars), and by improving the amenities (seating, workstations, internet access and power) so that people can work and play and genuinely feel that they gain hours in their day by foregoing car transport.

  • Trade in the traditional grocery store (which uses an unbelievable amount of energy for heat and lighting) for warehouses and delivery services. This also means many fewer cars making trips to shop, and more convenience for consumers. It also means that the eye-candy to attract people to buy products can be on the web, and the packaging itself can be minimized.

  • For the remaining trips (maybe 20%) that are genuinely necessary to do by car, create an infrastructure where filling stations recharge car batteries by night when the demand is lower, and then swap batteries (Similar to what is now being proposed in Ontario).

  • Use high-voltage direct current cables (which have an effectively fixed current loss, rather than a current loss that increases with distance) to make possible the delivery of electricity from large off-shore wind farms. Use the electricity to generate hydrogen for combined heat-and-power systems for homes and businesses at far greater efficiencies.

  • Harsh but necessary: cease building new road capacity and airport capacity—whatever regulations or carbon caps we set, whatever incentives they have to use attractive alternatives, people will use new roads and runways if they're built, regardless of legislation to the contrary.

I've only hit the high points here, but I found his suggestions well-argued, with consideration at all points given to their political salability. He has a slightly longer summary on his site of these and other suggestions. There's also an excellent interview interview with Monbiot on TVO with Allan Gregg, which substantively summarizes the ideas of the book.

I am going to concentrate on Monbiot's ideas because they apply particularly well on a local level, but this question of localization could equally apply to other roadmaps, say, Lester Brown’s Plan B 3.0 (WC interview), the Rocky Mountain Institute's Winning the Oil Endgame (WC interview), and David JC MacKay's Sustainable Energy Without All the Hot Air (WC review).

These plans are not universally agreed upon. They doubtless have their flaws. But they represent a way forward, and in many cases, offer nuanced, thoughtful, and compelling ways forward. They do, however, need an body of concerned citizens to think carefully about their application. (See Steve Easterbrook's excellent blog, Serendipity, for thoughts on modelling these).

Let us consider three of the more radical suggestions that Monbiot advances. How might these be applied in an Ottawa context?

I am thinking in this way because I live in Ottawa, and I know the city. The real challenge presented by these roadmaps is that they need to localized for quite different contexts—for Vancouver and PEI, for Calgary and Toronto—and for other cities across the globe—New York, Mumbai, Beijing. For those not living in Ottawa, consider how these suggestions might apply to your own local context.

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I don’t have all the answers, nor do I pretend to. In fact, I suspect that it is beyond the cognitive limitations of a single individual to come up with, or think through, all the answers. However this is the strength of coming up with answers collectively.

For three of Monbiot's suggestions, let’s for a moment consider the difficulties and opportunities involved in rolling these out in an Ottawa context. I place my summary of Monbiot’s ideas in bold, with some hopefully suggestive questions and comments following:

Suggestion 1: Cap carbon emissions per person, but allow individual carbon rations to be bought and sold, so that people have incentives to reduce their emissions. Concentrate the rations on a couple of key sectors which drive all the rest, and use a credit-card-like system for convenience.

One of the questions we might want to ask is: how could we implement a carbon cap independent of the wider Canadian or North American economy? Are there ways of doing this while retaining, even using it as an impetus to enhance, the competitive edge of Ottawa's high-tech and manufacturing sector?


Suggestion 2: Legislate that all new houses be built to German passivhaus standards (entirely solar-thermally heated, but they look like normal houses, and are only 7-10% more expensive—essentially you insulate all "heat-bridges" to the outside, and use triple-paned glass). Create mechanisms that require that existing housing stock be be systematically upgraded for energy efficiency whenever sold or renovated.

It is clear to anyone who has ever tried to build a passive solar, or off-the-grid, or hygrid house within Ottawa City limits that much can be done to upgrade current building codes and zoning regulations to meet the new reality. Until recently, it was not legal to build homes with solar hot water heating it Ottawa. We’ve been able to modernize and adapt here, and there are many other regulations, obstacles, and “green-tape” that could be similarly updated and modernized to make it possible (and attractive) to, for instance, build passively or geothermally heated homes in Ottawa. A database which tracks and makes visible these regulations, and the opportunities for upgrading them, would provide a great deal of value to policy makers, builders, and homeowners alike.


Suggestion 3: Move freight onto rail, make intercity buses (which, amazingly, have lower carbon emissions per passenger than trains) faster, more comfortable, and more reliable than automobiles. Do this by moving bus stations to the places where the major freeways meet (so that buses don't have to lose time by coming into towns), by providing dedicated bus lane on freeways (so the busses can whiz past the cars), and by improving the amenities (seating, workstations, internet access and power) so that people can work and play and genuinely feel that they gain hours in their day by foregoing car transport.

What would be the implications of putting inter-city bus lanes on the 417? Is it sufficient that the bus station is already next to the 417? Could we move the Bus station to the inter-city Transitway (that only city busses can travel on), and run both coaches and city-buses on the transitway instead? What would the implications be of these kinds of schemes? What incentives or subsidies could be given (or would be appropriate to give) to a private bus company, to upgrade their existing inter-city coach stock? How could OCTranspo (the municipal bus service) be most effectively connected to the Greyhound station?


The world needs a low carbon economy. The city of Ottawa could set an example in this regard, not only as the capital of a progressive and forward thinking nation, but as a community of people who are concerned about their quality of life, and especially about the quality of life of their children. The phrase “think globally, act locally” has never been more poignant.


Photo credits: Mark Tovey

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