Smog Smarts

By Tooker Gomberg, Toronto, Canada.

As we choke our way through downtown traffic, is there hope for a sustainable city? (Originally published in NOW Magazine.)

As we choke our way through downtown traffic this summer feeling suffocated by the poisoned air in our lungs, it’s discouraging to realize that the nations of the world are frittering away any chance of an atmospheric cleanup. At international meetings on climate change starting July 16 in Bonn, they’ll try once again to find a consensus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent. But don’t hold your ozone-addled breath.

At last November’s climate meetings in the Hague, our nervy country argued that we should get credit for all the trees we’ve planted and nuclear power plants we’ve built and be exempted from cutting back on burning fossil fuels. I burned my passport in disgust. I’m not sure what I’ll do if they blow it this time.

But there is cause for hope at the local level. Two weeks ago, reps from the world’s most sophisticated cities met here in the midst of our first smog alert of the year for the Best Practices Exchange, organized by the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. They called for governments to aim for a 50-per-cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Here are some carbon-cleaning tidbits from conference delegates.

SAARBRUCKEN, GERMANY — Jurgen Lottermoser, director of the city’s department of sustainable development and health, got a jolt when he discovered T.O. energy pigs. “I was astonished the air-conditioning system in my hotel room had been working at maximum speed. It was not a very comfortable temperature. I reduced it to a low level and turned it off at night. The next morning it was turned on again! “Lottermoser’s city expects to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2020. They have already switched coal and oil heating systems to biomass, burning wood scraps from forestry to generate electricity and heat for buildings.

Use of photovoltaic solar panels is growing exponentially. Three out of four outdoor swimming pools are heated by solar energy. All electricity users pay a slight surcharge of 0.3 Canadian cents per kilowatt-hour to support renewable energy.

VAXJO, SWEDEN — Sometimes outsiders just can’t figure us out. Sarah Nilsson, director of that city’s environmental group, the Local Agenda 21 program, is completely bewildered that with its huge forestry industry, Canada doesn’t use sawdust and wood chips to produce urban energy. Her small city of 73,000 has agreed to become entirely fossil-free in municipal services. As well, the city centre is a pedestrian precinct where walkers and cyclists have priority over cars.

The city has joined a group that’s trying to prod Ford into manufacturing ethanol-fueled cars.

“We have cycle ways that are cleared of snow before the roads for cars. In Toronto, I am told, they put the snow on the cycle paths,” Nilsson says.

LEICESTER, UK — This British city of 294,000 is doing its bit to clean up the world’s oxygen supply by renting out solar panels to residents. “If you were a customer and wanted to access solar energy, you could come to the Energy Efficiency Advice Centre,” says its manager, Don Lack. “We would install it, make sure it was working properly and service it every year, and you would pay a rental based on your hot water or energy use. “In addition, if you were a bike-riding city employee in Leicester, you could be reimbursed for the same gas-mileage amount that car users receive.

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK — “Everyone in Denmark has a bicycle, even at the age of 80,” says Jorgen Madsen, deputy director of the city’s Environmental Protection Agency. In this Scandinavian city of 1.75 million, one-third of work-related trips are made by bicycle, one-third by public transit and one-third by car. More than 90 per cent of all households and companies are connected to the district heating system, where waste heat from electricity generation is used to heat buildings. A few weeks ago, the city opened the world’s largest offshore windmill park, which meets more than 3 per cent of Copenhagen’s energy needs.

HELSINKI METROPOLITAN REGION, FINLAND — Finnish cities are largely independent of the national government, so there’s a lot they can do. This northern city of 1 million has an integrated land use and transportation strategy that concentrates new housing, jobs and services along main rail corridors. For $75 a month, one can buy an automated smart card for all forms of transit including buses, trains and ferries. Says Juhani Paajanen, executive director of the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Council,”If you concentrate new land use along rail corridors and compare it to urban sprawl, the difference is about half the total CO2 emissions.”