Climate change starts at home

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Reducing the size of your own footprint on the planet can garner impressive results

Head down to St. Albert’s Madison Avenue and you’ll see a house that could help save the Earth.

It looks just like most homes in the Mission area. But look at the brass lamps on the front path and you’ll spot something odd: fluorescent bulbs. Step inside and, after goggling at the 19th century architecture, you might notice extra thick walls, windows and insulation, as well as a high-efficiency furnace.

When they bought the home, say owners Bev and Dave Halisky, it was liveable, but hadn’t been renovated in 50 years. They brought in an engineer and got to work. Now, they’re keeping tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide, out of the air and saving $2,000 a year on utilities. “That’s like a vacation, right?” says Bev.

The Halisky’s aren’t eco-experts or engineers. The carbon-saving tricks they used have been known for years and anyone can do them. What makes the two exceptional is that they actually bothered.

Individual Canadians are the third largest source of greenhouse gases in the developed world, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, making us a significant driver of climate change.

A recent Globe and Mail survey found that 83 per cent of Canadians thought climate change was a major problem. Canadians could address that threat by making simple improvements to their homes — so why aren’t more of us doing it?

Little things, big results

Brian Mitchell has been peddling those simple improvements for a long time. He’s been doing energy audits of homes for 25 years, helping people to maximize efficiency and minimize waste.

“I used to do building simulations on a Commodore 64,” he says.

A lot of people want to do something about climate change but don’t know where to start, Mitchell says. That’s why he and the City of Edmonton designed the CO2RE program, Edmonton’s plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020. He did energy audits of 4,000 Edmonton homes and distilled the results into a series of simple, do-it-yourself booklets that spell out how to make your home use less energy and cause fewer greenhouse emissions.

Individual Canadians add about five tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions to the air a year, according to the federal government’s One-Tonne Challenge guide, making us directly responsible for 28 per cent of Canada’s emissions. Half of those emissions come from transportation; the other half is from homes.

“If you followed everything that [the CO2RE guides]said about your home,” Mitchell says, “you’re probably going to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by at least two to three tonnes per person.”

In other words the average Canadian could theoretically meet their personal obligations under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change simply by making their home more efficient. That agreement requires Canadians to reduce their emissions by 34 per cent by 2012 (that’s six per cent below 1990 levels plus the 28 per cent growth in emissions since then), or by 1.7 tonnes apiece. Mitchell’s manuals reduce emissions by about 2.5 tonnes. If everyone in Canada achieved that reduction, it would keep about 80 megatonnes of greenhouse gas out of the air and meet a quarter of Canada’s overall Kyoto goal.

Those big reductions come from a whole bunch of little improvements, Mitchell says. Take light bulbs, for example. Replace six 60-watt incandescent bulbs with six compact fluorescents and you keep 4.4 tonnes of greenhouse gas out of the air over five years and save $381 on electricity.

Or take heating. Thirty to 40 per cent of the heat lost in Alberta homes is due to air leaks, Mitchell says. Seal a third of those leaks with caulking and weather stripping, the CO2RE guides say, and you prevent about three tonnes worth of unneeded emissions over five years and save $650.

By making these and other home improvements, Mitchell says, you can save money and the environment while still living as comfortably as before. Best of all, all the improvements he suggests pay for themselves after three years at most.

“We don’t have to alter our lifestyles,” he argues. “We just have to be smarter about how we use energy.”

Climate changes, people don’t

Despite the payoff, Mitchell admits it’s still tough to convince Albertans to make these home investments. “I’ve talked to people driving great huge SUVs. I ask them, why do you drive [that]to get around the city, and they say, ‘Because I want to.’ “

They can afford the gas bills, he says, so they don’t bother to reduce their use.

That hints at the main reason why people don’t invest in energy efficiency and climate change: money. Buying energy efficient homes and cars takes money and not everyone is willing to spend it.

Bad government policy is one of the main reasons for that, argues Mitchell. Gas rebate cheques, for example, shield consumers from the full cost of natural gas consumption and discourage conservation. Likewise, low building standards discourage owners from spending extra money on efficiency.

Long return on investment is another problem. Home upgrades do pay for themselves eventually, but until they do, the homeowner is stuck with a big bill.

Say you wanted to install a solar heating system, for example, says Fred Walters, program manager for Climate Change Central (an Alberta-government supported environment group). The system would save you about $500 a year on gas by harnessing the sun for heat, but cost $5,000, meaning it would take 10 years to pay off. A lot of folks would sell their home before then, meaning they wouldn’t get their money back, discouraging them from buying such a system.

However, a survey of 1,000 Canadians commissioned in mid-January by the Globe and Mail found that 83 per cent of Canadians (and 76 per cent of western Canadians) thought climate change was a major, possibly life-threatening, issue, and that about half were willing to make major sacrifices to do something about it.

Bringing climate change home

Government can and should take the lead in helping homeowners address climate change, argue Mitchell and others.

They can start by making it easier to buy green, says Ian Bruce, climate change specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation. If governments raise greenhouse gas emission standards, Bruce says, they could create demand for green products like hybrid cars (which produce about half as much greenhouse gas as normal ones), lower prices and raise use.

California, for example, passed a law a few years ago requiring all cars to use less gas.

They sell about 18 times more hybrid vehicles as a percentage of new vehicles sold than Canada does as a result, he says, and their cars now produce less carbon dioxide. Higher building efficiency standards could have a similar effect on home improvements, he says.

Governments can also offer cash to make upgrades cheaper. The federal government recently said it would give homeowners $300 million over the next four years to make their homes energy efficient. The City of Edmonton doled out $89,000 last year for participants in its CO2RE program and Lethbridge is offering residents of its newest subdivision up to $3,500 if their homes get a high efficiency rating.

As for homeowners, the Haliskys say, they can find all the motivation they need to invest in energy efficiency by looking at their bills. High efficiency and low greenhouse gas intensity makes sense, Dave says.

“I wasn’t going to throw my money into something not attractive and energy efficient. Why waste it?” he says of energy. “It’s more comfortable when you do it right.”

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.