Ambitious pilot project aims to transition two Toronto neighbourhoods to carbon neutrality
When it comes to carbon footprints, it’s no secret that cities wear some of the biggest shoes around. Canada’s largest city, known to some as the Big Smoke, is certainly no exception. Home to nearly five million people – and the smog that they produce – the Toronto region has at times had a tough time shaking its gritty moniker. While it is easy to single out urban centres as a contributor to climate change, it can be just as easy to overlook the work that is done by groups to dampen the impact that they have on the environment. One ambitious group of volunteers is looking to do just that, by assisting two Toronto neighbourhoods in their quest to become Canada’s first urban carbon neutral neighbourhoods.
Project Neutral is an initiative led by members of CivicAction’s Emerging Leaders Network, working in partnership with the University of Toronto Sustainable Infrastructure Group, University of Toronto Climate Lab and funded in part by LiveGreen Toronto, a program of the City of Toronto. The project team has developed a three-stage pilot that will transition two Toronto communities toward carbon neutrality. Project Neutral will be largely neighbourhood-driven and success will hinge on the ability of each neighbourhood to motivate and inspire its residents. In April, the neighbourhoods of the Junction and Riverdale were selected from a pool of 23 applicants on the basis of their demonstrated enthusiasm, strength of leadership and ability to mobilize residents to take action.
The concept of carbon neutrality is one that has garnered much attention in recent years. The threat of climate change has brought the need for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the forefront. As a result, many new developments and major redevelopments now incorporate sustainable planning in their design. While it’s a step in the right direction toward reducing environmental impact, the team behind Project Neutral says that there is still more work to be done.
“Currently, 25 million Canadians reside in established neighbourhoods,” says Karen Nasmith, co-chair of Project Neutral. “In most Canadian cities, these mature residential neighbourhoods are responsible for more than 25% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. By targeting these neighbourhoods and helping them reduce their carbon footprints, we could achieve a significant reduction in emissions.”
Carbon neutrality refers to the successful balancing of greenhouse gas emissions with the amount sequestered and offset, with the ultimate goal of a net-zero carbon footprint. Critics of carbon offsetting suggest that the tactic does little to change actual greenhouse gas emissions and only serves to alleviate some of the associated guilt on the part of the polluter. In order to effect substantive environmental change, Project Neutral will focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions through behavioural change and zero to low cost retrofits.
The three-step approach that Project Neutral has developed will begin with a survey to establish baseline emission levels of individual households. From there, the results will be analyzed and Project Neutral will work closely with local leadership to develop a specific strategy that will reduce emissions and energy use. By encouraging small changes at the household level that are either free or low-cost to implement, the possibility for success is greatly improved.
“It’s an ambitious goal and certainly one that won’t happen overnight, but it is most definitely feasible,” says Julie Dzerowicz, co-chair of the project. “If you look at the communities of Eden Mills, Ontario and Ashton Hayes in the UK, you’ll find two examples of projects that have successfully reduced their greenhouse gas emissions through behaviour change and retrofits.”
Both Nasmith and Dzerowicz are confident that change in Toronto is possible, but emphasize that it is a long-term commitment. Within three years, the group hopes to have a replicable model that can be expanded to other communities in Toronto and eventually to other parts of Canada. “Everyone is looking to play a role in tackling climate change,” says Dzerowicz. “Project Neutral provides the framework to do this by enabling communities to make transformational change at the neighbourhood level.”
While cities like Toronto still have a long way to go before their carbon footprints are significantly reduced, initiatives like Project Neutral will go a long way toward clearing the air.
Jackie Medeiros is a communications intern with the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance. CivicAction is a multi-sectoral coalition of thousands of civic leaders committed to acting collectively to tackle tough issues and big opportunities in the Toronto region.
The Emerging Leaders Network (ELN) is a group of more than 350 engaged civic leaders who in their own spheres are becoming known as “city-builders”: people who mobilize action, laying the groundwork for the city of tomorrow. As a result of the myriad of talent and commitment to taking action on issues, members of ELN are pursuing city-building projects of their own. Project Neutral is one of the innovative and bold projects incubated by ELN.