Calgary is Canada’s oil capital. But it can become a climate leader

The Calgary skyline. Image: Pixabay.

Home to the head offices of Canada’s oil and gas firms, Calgary owes much to the energy industry. So does that mean it should fear a low-carbon future?

The city of Calgary has made strong commitments to climate action: A goal of an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 using a 2005 baseline. An analysis by the Climate Smart Cities team at the University of Leeds and the University of Calgary show that meeting this target is not only possible, but can be achieved in ways that yield substantial and broad-based economic, social and environmental benefits.

The economic case for action

Climate action is sometimes associated with massive, costly and futuristic investments. Fleets of autonomous vehicles, solar roads and mechanical “breathing” trees are just some of the ideas being put forward.

But going “low carbon” can also be achieved by a wide set of more prosaic actions that are often individually minor in their impact, but massive when considered collectively.

Upgrading to the highest efficiency lighting and appliances, installing insulation in roofs and walls and double- or triple-glazed windows could save more than one-third and one-fifth of Calgary’s domestic and commercial carbon emissions respectively, while generating economic returns for investors.

Electric vehicles represent an immense opportunity to reduce carbon emissions in the transport sector, especially as the province of Alberta reduces the carbon intensity of its electricity grid.

But electric vehicles are currently relatively expensive. Hybrid vehicles, on the other hand, are only marginally more costly than conventional cars. If every new car purchased in Calgary was a hybrid from 2018, and from 2025 was an electric vehicle, emissions would fall more than two thirds and savings on fuel would be worth approximately $600 annually per person.

In the industrial sector, widely employing best practices and regular maintenance in energy processes could reduce emissions 7 per cent, and more than $100m could be saved in energy bills.

In the waste sector, diverting waste from landfills to facilities where garbage is burned to generate heat and electricity could reduce emissions from the sector by four-fifths at no net cost to citizens.

And across the city, making sure new developments are built for density and urban connectivity could cut an additional 5 per cent of emissions, while reducing the Calgary’s required investment in new roads and utilities by almost $30bn through 2050.

Citywide, actions that generate economic returns (at an eight per cent discount rate) could reduce emissions 41 per cent and generate average economic savings of $4.2bn in energy bills each year, a savings of $1,100 per person. This suggests that total investment of $12.4bn through 2050 would pay back in approximately three years.

But with a target of reducing emissions 80 per cent by 2050, these actions alone won’t be enough for Calgary to meet its targets.

New technologies could create new ways of lowering emissions and reducing energy bills, but depending on these would put the city at risk of missing its targets. Perhaps more importantly, actions to address climate change also spur a wider set of benefits that should encourage us to do more than only those initiatives that generate economic returns.

The broader case for action

Investments in homes that reduce carbon emissions can also make them more liveable and reduce energy poverty. Investments in offices can improve productivity and provide savings than can reinvested in businesses.

Investments in the transportation system can improve mobility and urban air quality. And investments in all of these sectors can create jobs and stimulate the local economy.

These benefits, rather than global climate efforts, are typically the driving forces of urban low-carbon actions.

Our research shows that impacts to the local labour market may be particularly significant.

Investment in actions that generate economic returns would create 70,000 job years of employment in Calgary — or full-time jobs for 2,000 people through 2050. On the other hand, investment in a broader set of actions that collectively break even would create more than 800,000 years of employment in the city — or full-time jobs for more than 20,000 people through 2050.

High-energy can be low-carbon

Cities like Calgary, where the energy industry is central to the economy and emissions are high, need not fear a low-carbon future. In fact, even more than other communities, cities like Calgary may be well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead.

A low-carbon future will require construction and engineering know-how, access to capital and finance and the experience and ambition of policymakers who know that cities can, and must, change, to be prosperous — characteristics Calgary has in abundance.

Previous research from the Climate Smart Cities team has found that cities with the fastest growth rates and highest energy use are often also the places where the greatest opportunity for low-carbon investment exists.

Across the city — from commercial buildings downtown to single-family homes outside the city’s core to the cars on the beltway — significant opportunities were identified to reduce emissions, generate energy savings and create jobs.

The best time to go low carbon is today

Shifting to a low-carbon economy will take investment, changes to the workforce, and most importantly, time — in Calgary and elsewhere.

Faced with the challenge ahead, a host of other urban priorities, and uncertainty around energy prices, future technologies and federal and provincial climate and energy policies, policymakers may conclude that the best course of action is no action at all.

But to wait would mean missing out on a host of economic, social and environmental benefits, and risk shifting substantial costs to the future.

This is particularly the case in some sectors. In transportation, vehicles are typically replaced every 14 years, meaning that a purchase of a “gas-guzzler” instead of the latest Prius locks in higher emissions for somewhere between one and two decades.

Buildings, on the other hand, last for 40 years or longer, and choices around land-use planning can last for hundreds. Building standards and land-use policies therefore need to be prioritised.

Canada has committed to cutting GHG emissions 30 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

The ConversationOur research and analysis shows Calgary can not only meet this target, but exceed it with actions that generate returns to investors, jobs for workers and large-scale benefits for society, the environment and businesses. Will Calgary’s policymakers seize the opportunity?

Andrew Sudmant, Research Fellow in the Economics of Climate Smart Cities research programme, University of Leeds and Andy Gouldson, Professor of Environmental Policy and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Interdisciplinary Research), University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.