Can T.O. be a green city?

Suzuki says there’s hope but we must start now

A FEW YEARS ago, the editors of this publication asked me to write about how Toronto could become more sustainable. Since writing that article, my thoughts haven’t changed much. I still believe that, as the largest city in Canada, Toronto has the opportunity to become a role model for other urban areas in Canada and even around the world. There are some signs that the city is on the right track — but city leaders, homeowners and residents must stay the course and remain committed if “Toronto the Good” is going to live up to its reputation and become an environmentally sustainable city.

“Sustainability” has become quite a buzzword these days. I’ve always taken it to mean living within the natural limits dictated by the biosphere. But doing so requires huge change at all levels: personal, social, economic and political. We have to engage in a discussion of what our real basic needs are and how society can flourish without compromising them. And we have to act fast.

Scientists are learning that global warming is affecting the planet faster than predicted. No longer can we bicker and discuss abstract theories of sustainability. Now is the time to make things happen.

Human beings are as dependent as any other living entity on Mother Earth. We cannot have healthy people without a healthy planet. And considering that more than 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities, it behooves us to make our urban areas healthier. Because of Canada’s large urban population, seemingly simple things, like the way we live, how we get around and the food we eat, have huge impacts on the rest of the country and the rest of the planet.

First the good news: there are important signs that Toronto is making changes. The Ontario government tabled the Green Energy Act, which includes regulations that can empower municipalities to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. With the manufacturing sector in free fall, the act sends a signal to clean technology businesses that Ontario — and Toronto — are well placed to take advantage of the coming clean energy revolution.

“ First the good news: There are important signs that Toronto is making changes.”

Countries such as Germany are at the forefront of this revolution, and the industry is providing thousands of jobs. They provide Canada with a model to follow. Torontonians also seem to be adopting a can-do attitude to environmental responsibility. On the streets, I see throngs of people using reusable shopping bags. I also appeared (for no pay) in a series of advertisements for the Ontario government’s energy conservation program to encourage Ontario residents to decommission their outdated and inefficient beer refrigerators. This year was incredibly successful, with more refrigerators being returned than previous years.

And here’s another reason for Torontonians to take pride: Toronto is the only city with an atmospheric fund that provides loans to ecofriendly projects and businesses. By making these projects work, we can influence other jurisdictions. Unfortunately, despite the good signs for Toronto some challenges need to be overcome to make this city as sustainable as possible.

One of the worst things we do to the planet is drive. Burning fossil fuels is like smoking cigarettes. The more we cut down on our dependence of fossil fuels, especially from driving cars, the better we’ll all be. Burning fossil fuels creates air pollution that causes health problems and produces greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

Most cars on our highways and streets carry one person, so a single bus, streetcar or train would replace dozens of cars. Making transit more affordable and convenient will take more cars off the road.

European cities have developed incredibly efficient systems to whisk people from city to city, and the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor is the ideal location for fast and convenient intercity rail options. By improving the quality of the trains and reducing the times, frequent travellers would opt for rail instead of taking more polluting planes for short runs.

Another challenge faced by residents is that the province’s “standard offer contract,” which pays more attractive rates for renewable energy from solar and wind, was suspended earlier this year. This was a groundbreaking piece of Ontario legislation that allowed smaller providers of renewable energy to get a fair price for the electricity they fed into the electricity grid. This innovative program has the potential to increase the number of small energy producers who could usher Ontario into a renewable energy future. Although Ontario could reinstate and strengthen the law as part of the province’s new Green Energy Act, the government must ensure that progressive legislation is not stalled again.

Torontonians have an opportunity to get involved in making their city a sustainability leader. I challenge every resident to get involved. There are many places to start. But perhaps the most critical part requires a fundamental shift in our personal priorities.

One important option is to stop wasting energy. That means turning things off at home when we aren’t using them, driving more fuel-efficient cars, improving home insulation, purchasing energy efficient appliances and using renewable energy.

The government must also make decisions that will benefit us in the long run. Although the provincial government has introduced the Green Energy Act, intended to promote solar, wind and biomass electrical generation, it is still hellbent on replacing its aging nuclear fleet with new reactors. The cost? An estimated $26 billion. That’s an incredible amount of money that could be used to encourage innovation in efficiency and renewable energy. Investing in nuclear will likely have the opposite effect because there will be little money or space on the grid left for new renewable energy projects.

Torontonians need improved building codes that require proper insulation and natural lighting. Buildings account for an incredible amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Toronto could require that all new buildings meet LEED standards. Bringing about these changes requires the co-operation of municipal and provincial authorities, but these options will provide benefits. It also means providing low-interest loans so Torontonians can put solar energy systems in buildings.

Our urban planners have to think about building up instead of out. High-density communities are far more efficient for living than sprawling cities. Cities that are pedestrian friendly and dense mean that residents don’t have to drive to large stores on the outskirts of town. Getting people out of their cars leads to cleaner air, and there’s evidence that pedestrian-friendly communities are also safer and better for our waistlines. (One research study has found that residents of suburbs weigh much more than their urban counterparts.)

I’ve outlined just a few suggestions to make Toronto more sustainable, but there are many more things we can do.

The most important thing is to change the way we see our place in the world. It’s vital for each one of us to get involved in helping the city meet its potential.

Toronto has been at the forefront of social changes before, and it can be again. But the clock is ticking.

Post City Magazines’ environmental columnist, David Suzuki, is the host of the CBC’s The Nature of Things. David is also the author of more than 30 books on ecology.