December 15, 2015 8:00 am

Low-carbon Canada: What your life might look like in an eco-friendly environment

A bike courier in Vancouver. A lower-carbon economy will mean more biking, say experts.

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Canada and nearly 200 other countries pledged to keep global warming to under two degrees on Saturday.

Details have yet to be determined. But if Canada follows through on its low-carbon plan, you may notice some differences in the way your home, neighbourhood and transportation systems look 20 or 30 years from now.

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In short: Many more things will run on electricity. And although some things will change, Canadians shouldn’t expect to have to abandon the conveniences and comforts of modern life, experts say.

The efficient house

The bits you interact with – light switches, ovens, washing machines – probably won’t change much, says Stewart Elgie, founder of Sustainable Prosperity, an Ottawa-based environment and economic think tank.

“It’s all the things behind them that make them work that will change significantly.”

All appliances, including your home heating, will largely run on electricity, says Dan Woynillowicz, policy director of Clean Energy Canada. And because electricity prices will likely fluctuate throughout the day, you’ll know much more about, and have much more control over, how and when your home consumes energy.

“You can have access to data about how your house is consuming energy, when it’s being consumed, what price you’re paying for it, and the ability to actually make changes in your house’s energy use from your smartphone,” he said.

Because energy demand is lowest at night, Elgie said, that’s when “you’ll be recharging your car. Your washer and dryer will be set to run at night. You’ll be spreading power out so we don’t have to have the same massive level of power generation.”

Homes will also be designed to consume less energy, period and to consume it more efficiently – using better insulation, for example, he said.

They may also be producing energy of their own.

“Instead of having big plants in a few places generating electricity, you have much more distributed energy [production],” said Dale Marshall of Environmental Defence.

“You’ll have electric power that’s being created on every building top, in rural environments, on farms and also in cities.”

This could mean solar panels and wind turbines, for example.

Your house could also do double-duty as a battery.

“We could well live in a world where each of us has our own energy storage system in our homes, either in batteries that we have in our homes or the car that’s parked in your garage,” Elgie said.

The efficient neighbourhood

Say goodbye to suburban sprawl.

“We are going to have to have more compact cities so that people live close to where they work, where they shop,” Marshall said.

“Much more mixed use neighbourhoods so you don’t have the suburbs where to get a carton of milk you have to get in your car every time.”

Single-family homes might become less popular too. That doesn’t have to mean a tiny apartment in a sea of towers.

“[In] Paris, every building is six stories high in the downtown core. You still have lots of green space. Lots of places are out, cafes, it’s a vibrant urban environment with still quite a bit of green space,” Marshall said.

“It’s not packing us in like sardines, it’s actually allowing us to be close to our neighbours, being much closer to where we want to go on a daily basis.”

The efficient vehicle

Fewer cars, and cleaner ones.

“What we will see is quite an emphasis on more active transportation,” Woynillowicz said. “So walking, cycling, better accessibility to efficient public transit. And, for those people that are still going to be relying on personal vehicles, you’re going to see a technology transition and more choices available to them in terms of electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and hybrid vehicles.”

To make that a reality you need government buy-in and long-term urban planning.

The choices governments are making right now will determine whether Canada can meet its future obligations, Elgie said.

“If we want to live in a low-carbon economy in 2030, it’s really the infrastructure and technology that we’re building today that will determine the kind of society and economy that we have in 15 or 20 years. We have to make far-sighted choices today if we want to live in a low-carbon economy in the future.”

The cost of efficiency

Some of the costs of an energy transition will probably hit your wallet, said Anthony Heyes, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Economics at the University of Ottawa.

But he doesn’t think it will necessarily break the bank. “The amounts of money we’re talking about are maybe a couple of percent of people’s income.”

Buying gas under a system where carbon is priced at $30/tonne could add six or seven cents per litre at the pump, he said. In Australia, which briefly had a carbon tax for two years, studies estimate it added about two per cent to the cost of building a new house.

“It’s not to be sneezed at but it’s not a huge amount of money, I think,” Heyes said.

Governments often make money on a carbon tax or other pricing schemes, and can use that money to help smooth some of the costs of an energy transition, he said, by investing in infrastructure or giving some money to lower-income taxpayers.

And the impact will depend on where exactly in Canada you live. As with energy prices today, hikes will hit rural households more.

Someone in energy-efficient, hydro-powered downtown Montreal will not see much of an impact, he said. Someone in coal-powered Saskatchewan might.

“Households that have a very carbon-intensive way of doing things will end up getting hurt or will end up having to change their ways a bit and really that’s the purpose of the policy, to get people to change their lifestyles a little bit.”

With files from Jacques Bourbeau

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