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What a Global Pandemic Shows Us About Sustainable Energy

Over course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many articles have been published, stating how the pandemic has resulted in a large decrease of global CO2 emissions. The sudden and serve lockdowns that took place around the world in the spring of 2020 forced changes to behaviour, most notably restrictions on movement and the imposition of working from home for many in North America and Europe. The Los Angeles Times notes that reductions in these regions were the largest, about 12% compared to the global 6% drop in emissions. This is largely attributed to lockdown orders that resulted in less travel and energy demand from offices and business.

Many have lauded this reduction, the largest drop in emissions since World War II, as proof governments can take drastic and meaningful actions towards a low-carbon future and combatting climate change, since they were able to mobilize efforts to combat COVID-19 quickly and efficiently. Yet, the consensus is that these reductions will not be permanent. As restrictions ease and communities adapt to changes brought on by the pandemic, energy consumption and emissions are on track to return to pre-pandemic levels. In an era where reducing the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is essential to mitigating climate change, and energy is responsible for 78% of global emissions, how can we alter our energy consumption without government mandated lockdowns in a global pandemic? One set of answers comes from how we plan, build, and use our communities.

When most people think of land-use planning or urban planning, they imagine a dreary city council meeting where the height of a new home or merits of rezoning land for a proposed business are being discussed. How could this process ever influence energy consumption? While these meetings may seem insignificant, they are important conversations around what sort of development and future are valued and desirable in a community. The process of land use planning, of determining a what a community values and how to implement those values, is just as important for the built environment as it is for energy consumption.

Community energy planning (CEP) is the process of defining a future direction for a community’s energy system. It is a locally led set of long-term initiatives that aim to improve local energy management with the goal of reducing emissions and increasing local control over the energy system. Just as cities and towns have official plans which guide their long-term vision for how they will develop and use their resources (most often land), CEP does the same, but for energy. CEP typically implements energy efficiency, energy conservation, and renewable energy generation solutions at the local level. With energy consumption directly linked to how we live and how much CO2 our communities emit, CEP can be a positive tool for climate action and emissions reductions.

In Canada, one of the first communities to implement CEP was Guelph, ON in 2007. This energy plan was created through a comprehensive process of establishing baseline energy consumption, drafting a vision for a more sustainable future, and determining goals to achieve this future. Significant stakeholder engagement was also done to ensure the community’s values and desires were included in the CEP process. Now, nearly 250 communities have undertaken their own CEP processes. This includes major cities such as Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto, but also small isolated First Nations like Faro, YK or Lac Brochet, MB.

CEP has enabled communities large and small to prioritize the installation of renewable energy technologies and use land-use planning processes to increase population density and improve the energy efficiency of new homes and buildings. Lac Brochet, MB is a remote First Nation in Manitoba’s far north, reliant totally on diesel generators. Through their CEP process, they installed a new integrated energy grid that combines district heating and cooling from biomass and geothermal systems with over 1,000 solar panels. This project has reduced the community’s reliance on diesel by almost half and has reduced emissions by 800 tonnes annually. In Calgary, AB, CEP has led to development of a brand new low-carbon light rail system, the Green Line. This is Calgary’s largest infrastructure project ever and will save over 30,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases annually.

Planning for sustainability and climate change mitigation has become increasingly important over the past 20 years. With the rising impacts of climate change, reducing emissions has never been more important. Yet, transitioning to a low-carbon future and reducing global CO2 emissions is still a difficult task. The current pandemic has shown we can change our behaviour, but it can done more effectively over the long-term. Changing our communities to be more sustainable and less emitting should be achieved with long-range planning that results in tangible actions, like in Calgary and Lac Brochet. CEP is a proven planning tool for long-term, positive action on climate change that needs to be more widely embraced.

Michael Kvern
Planning Intern at Narratives Inc.