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Education for Tomorrow

How affordable housing can reduce emissions

Why Canada needs climate policies that go beyond a carbon tax.

Possible Canadas

What do you want Canada to be? This is the question 10 student journalists posed to their campus communities. They interviewed hundreds of students on 10 campuses, then produced in-depth investigations into how Canada could start to realize these visions. What did they learn? That despite all the stereotypes of disengaged millennials, young people have a lot to say about the future of our country. Explore the 10-part series from the Possible Canadas fellowship about how we, as a country, can get to that future.

With delegates set to land in Paris for the United Nations’ 2015 Climate Change Conference next month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a lot to make up for.

Despite the attempts we’ve made thus far — pricing carbon in Ontario and British Columbia, carbon capture implementation, and the closure of coal-fired power plants — Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions have almost tripled in the last 20 years. Canada has been unable to meet even modest targets to lower carbon emissions, and on the track we’re currently on, analysts say we’re likely only able to scale emissions back 21 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Trudeau has promised to implement a cohesive vision for how Canada can work with the rest of the world to combat climate change. He has promised to create a pan-Canadian framework on climate action in the 90 days following the conference and will work with the premiers — whom he is bringing with him to Paris, along with Green Party leader Elizabeth May — to develop a meaningful climate strategy. The new government hasn’t set emission reduction targets yet, but has pledged to put a price on carbon and invest millions in new clean tech ventures.

What that will look like, exactly, remains to be seen. But experts say an effective strategy has to prioritize social policies along with the market- and industry-driven approaches Canada has historically leaned on. By investing in a systems-wide restructuring of our social housing and transit infrastructure, tackling urban sprawl and affordability, we can usher in nationwide emissions reduction.

Questioning "eco-modernism"

The dominant ideology driving climate action in Canada so far has been one of “eco-modernism,” says Gwendolyn Blue, a University of Calgary geography professor who specializes in the relationship between science and society. “The solutions that are there tend to be market-based, and the issues tend to be framed as science-based.”

Blue describes eco-modernist solutions as the notion that scientific answers and the experts who develop them will lead society to a more prosperous future.

Implicit within the eco-modernist perspective are two routes to a better world. The first is technology-based — say, totally converting Canada’s vehicle fleet to electric cars or transitioning from carbon fuel sources to renewable energy sources. The second covers market-based solutions: policies like cap and trade or carbon taxes, which target the end-consumers of fossil fuels. But they don’t question the systems that make vehicular transportation and fossil fuel consumption necessary.

Eco-modernist pricing solutions are a necessity, says Jennifer Winter, environmental policy director at the University of Calgary’s school of public policy. She says policymakers don’t have the luxury of removing existing systems from the equation when proposing solutions.

“It’s far better to work within the existing institutions than to try and propose radical change outside of them,” Winter says.

These eco-modernist solutions have produced results.

Ontario embraced renewable energy production and lowered its emissions 19 per cent below 2005 levels. They also instituted a cap and trade system this year, which the province estimates will result in a hike in gasoline prices of between two to three cents per litre.

British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008. At $30 per ton as of 2012 — which works out to about 6.6 cents per litre of gasoline at the pumps — the tax has reduced carbon emissions in the province and didn’t hurt the economy.

Many people, from those in the oil industry to those in the environmental sector, have suggested Canada implement carbon taxes to help reduce carbon emissions across the country. Oil companies like Shell, Cenovus and Suncor — all of which have a large presence in Alberta — have said they’d support a carbon tax to help reduce carbon emissions. The Pembina Institute has suggested Alberta “implement an economy-wide price on carbon,” among other things, to achieve “real greenhouse gas reductions while providing cost benefits to consumers, driving innovation, stimulating job growth and fostering a more diversified economy.”

Winter said a nationwide carbon tax can change Canadians’ consumption patterns by putting a price on “bad” commodities, which has the added bonus of having the smallest cost on the economy.

“With that, we can change incentives and incentivize investment in greener technology so the government isn’t required to pick winners or decide what technologies we want,” says Winter.

But the science says we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 85 per cent to avoid catastrophe. Emissions targets in and around 30 per cent below 2005 levels don’t even come close. Traditional approaches — like tightening regulations on vehicles and industry — haven’t gotten us any closer to hitting that number, or even the reduced targets we’ve set for ourselves.

These approaches also tend to be “very conservative and keep the status quo in place,” says Blue. She argues that meaningful action on climate change requires a combination of eco-modernism and social justice. Who is going to be the most vulnerable to climate change, and how can we can lessen that vulnerability?

The big point here is systems change: altering our societies to better reflect social equity and environmental justice. That often means emphasizing social welfare over economic growth. Blue says the social justice framework is far from dominant and often gets cast aside in policy discussions because the changes it proposes — say, converting a city into a carless transit paradise — are too grand or unscientific.

An affordable housing fix

Canada’s housing strategy is a good example of where the country could make big strides from a social justice and climate perspective. Canada used to have robust cooperative and affordable housing programs. But we’ve trimmed those programs down to near non-existence. The remaining government-funded affordable housing projects are in disrepair, and many will see their contracts expire soon.

Byron Miller, head of the urban studies department at the University of Calgary, says that in the absence of an affordable housing strategy, the de facto housing strategy in times of austerity is urban sprawl. As urban real estate values shoot up, developers are forced to build housing on the fringes of the city, where property is cheaper.

“When we neglect the social problem and leave it to markets we’re actually making the environmental problem worse,” Miller says.

A 2014 study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that suburban homes account for around 50 per cent of household emissions in the United States, even though fewer than 50 per cent of the population lives in suburban areas. By building cheap, mass-produced housing on the distant edges of our cities, we wind up burning more fossil fuels reaching the places we want to go — like work — which are often closer to the centre of town.

Plus, in the absence of strong market regulations, housing is designed cheaply and is far less energy-efficient than it should be. A 2011 study of Toronto’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions published in the journal Environment and Urbanization found that the Greater Toronto Area’s suburban neighbourhoods emitted far more GHGs than their inner-city counterparts. The report found that the main causes of suburbia’s higher GHG emissions were heating and transportation.

Some cities, including Copenhagen, Denmark, have avoided the emissions problems associated with sprawl by heating their homes using waste heat from power plants and offering viable alternatives to automobile travel. Canada hasn’t implemented an efficient way to mitigate these problems yet.

And that’s costing everyone money. A University of Ottawa report found that cities spend around $3,400 per year maintaining an average suburban household. That includes upkeep of roads, increased transportation distances for transit and waste collection. The average per-home cost to the municipality of maintaining urban housing is less than half of that: around $1,400. Although housing on the outskirts of cities may be cheaper to buy into, even for individual homeowners, there are external costs.

While housing costs may be lower on the outskirts of Canadian urban centres, high transportation costs often offset the savings. In Metro Vancouver, the most suburban areas are actually some of the most expensive to live in when housing and transportation costs are combined. Source: The Metro Vancouver Housing and Transportation Cost Burden Study
While housing costs may be lower on the outskirts of Canadian urban centres, high transportation costs often offset the savings. In Metro Vancouver, the most suburban areas are actually some of the most expensive to live in when housing and transportation costs are combined.

Making transit easy

Like transportation, which accounts for about 23 per cent of Canadian emissions, providing proper alternatives to driving, like rapid mass transit and improved bicycle infrastructure, could put a significant dent in those emissions and in the costs people pay to commute.

According to Statistics Canada nearly 90 per cent of Torontonians have easy access to public transit, yet only 59 per cent use it. Most people who responded — 75 per cent — said the main reason they didn’t take transit was because they had access to a car.

European countries have traditionally taxed their car owners more heavily than Canada has. Germans pay around $4.88 in tax per gallon. Danes pay around $5.44. Canadians tend to pay around $1.40. But in many European cities, heavier taxes have been applied in tandem with investments in transit. In Germany, where 88 per cent of people live within one kilometre of public transit, heavily taxed fuel, low transit fares and easy access all encourage the use of public transit.

Copenhagen — a city slated to go carbon-neutral by 2025 — used what’s called Transit Oriented Development. Housing, work and public spaces are focused around centralized hubs serviced by “frequent, high-quality and efficient intra-urban rail services.” In what came to be known as the Finger Plan, Copenhagen focused its development into five lines of satellite suburb corridors, all of which are served by public transit. This helped them avoid a haphazard, directionless, sprawling suburbia.

The Montreal Urban Sustainability Experience, a student-led project in the University of McGill’s School of Environment that uses Montreal as a case study to develop sustainable alternatives to urban environmental problems, described the Copenhagen experience as a lesson in the “power of good city planning,” given it experienced a similar “car invasion” that Canada did in the decades immediately following the Second World War.

“Alterations to the planning for public and active transportation in the city need to be a priority for city planners and politicians,” the report reads. “However, it is important to keep in mind that making sustainable lifestyles an accessible option is only half the battle, and there is much to be done to address the culture and mindset that influences people’s individual choices.”

Cities that have fallen victim to unregulated urban sprawl can’t simply invest in transit infrastructure, they have to work to change attitudes surrounding its use.

According to the Pembina Institute’s 2014 analysis of rapid transit in Canada’s major cities, Calgary has 53 kilometres of rapid transit lines per million residents — the highest in the country. Calgary has opened more transit lines than any other major Canadian city in the last 10 years.

But only 21 per cent of Calgarians live within one kilometre of rapid transit service. And while Calgary has the lengthiest mass transit infrastructure per capita of any major Canadian city, it has the fourth fewest annual transit trips.

According to the Doable City Reader — a digital media project that looks at how cities have implemented solutions to urban design problems — cities that spend billions on developing mass transit systems often “fail to develop strong connections to fill the space between them.” Driving in a sprawl-stricken city like Calgary has become a social necessity. That means we can’t just throw money at transit. We have to intelligently invest in the usefulness of public transit too.

Balancing factors

According to Miller, emissions reductions will follow when people ditch the automobile and rely on public transit. All we have to do to address the interplay between social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability is look at things we’ve done before, find ways to improve, and fund them.

The newly-elected Liberal Party of Canada pledged to boost investment in affordable housing, devote $200 million into developing strategies to innovate in the clean technology sector and invest $20 billion in public transit over the next 10 years.

“That’s the crucial thing. Both of those [investing in transit and affordable urban housing] require significant public investment,” Miller said. “We can call it utopian, but these are things we’ve been doing historically. It’s just a matter of returning to what we’ve done before.”

Possible Canadas is a partnership of diverse organizations that share the goal of supporting forward-looking conversations about the future of Canada. The project is produced by Discourse Media and Reos Partners, in collaboration with RECODE and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. Partners’ support does not imply endorsement of the views represented.