Low carbon cities contribute to our wellbeing

April 20, 2016

healthy populations

Part of my presentation yesterday at the Big Ideas, Better Cities conference on climate change focused on the many co-benefits that come with the transition to low carbon cities.  The theme was echoed by several others presenters.

When I talk about wellbeing, I like to use to the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) as my starting point.  The CIW is a Canadian policy innovation.  The CIW regularly reports on the quality of life of Canadians – nationally, provincially, and locally – and advocates for social change that reflects our values and places wellbeing at the heart of policy. They have identified eight domains (see below) that are fundamental to our wellbeing as Canadians.


Top of mind when we think about reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the Environment and the importance of protecting local food systems, ecosystems and biodiversity from the impacts of climate change.

Reducing fossil-fuel consumption also improves air quality. Promoting active transportation gets us moving. Protecting our urban forest supports our mental health (the poets knew this long before the neuroscientists).  Access to local food promotes healthier lifestyles. Healthy Populations also lower health care costs.

Time Use is another domain of wellbeing. The productive time we lose to traffic congestion is senseless – both for the economy and our wellbeing.  It takes us away from family, friends and community, from activities for Leisure and Culture, all of which are crucial to our sense of connection to community.

Providing more transportation options also means enhanced mobility and connection to community life for all ages. And when we harness local energy, our cities enhance their energy security and resilience to climate change impacts like extreme weather events.  Both contribute to Community Vitality.  When the ice storm hit eastern Ontario in 1998, the Town of Markham sent crews to help restore power to thousands of people.  Seeing the impact on their neighbours, they considered how they could make their community more resilient and reduce the risk of extreme weather events. Today, Markham District Energy, in addition to providing clean, reliable and affordable thermal energy to numerous buildings, can maintain heat and power to several critical buildings and community centres in the event of a major grid failure.

With greater energy literacy (Education), consumers have more control over how much energy they use and what energy source they choose.  In Germany, almost half of the renewable energy produced is owned by individuals, communities and co-operatives.  Their energy transition has nurtured the growth of the prosumer – an individual who consumes and produces energy.  Germany has found that an informed and engaged population is a valuable partner in the transition to a low-carbon economy (Democratic Engagement).  It represents our best chance of ensuring a democratic and just energy transition.

We spend a lot of money on energy.  Most of these dollars leave the city. Imagine what it would mean to the Living Standards in a community if more of those energy dollars stayed in people’s pockets and circulated in the local economy. Improving the efficiency of buildings and transport as well as harnessing local energy resources does just that.

Cities are also leveraging their energy strategies to promote economic development. Energy efficiency retrofit programs create local jobs by creating markets for energy products & services. Community energy plans promote the growth of the green economy.  Retention of existing jobs is often an important local priority. For instance, in Guelph, energy prices were putting pressure on a company to relocate.  With the support of the local utility and the provincial government, the company now produces its own heat and power saving $2 million annually on their energy bill.  The project protects over 400 local advanced manufacturing jobs which were at risk of going south.

There are many more co-benefits. The particular energy priorities and co-benefits a city chooses to pursue will be largely influenced by their own local story and regional strengths.

We will need to accelerate the transition to low-carbon and climate-resilient cities to respond to climate change and meet international commitments. Maximizing the co-benefits of becoming a climate-friendly city is an important strategy to do just that.  Better living with less carbon.