Innovative Low-Carbon Urban Infrastructure: A View from Vancouver

Marc_books-Oct08Marc Lee is a Senior Economist with the British Columbia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and researcher with E3 Network’s Future Economy Initiative. Marc joined the CCPA in 1998, and is one of Canada’s leading progressive commentators on economic and social policy issues. Since 2008, Marc has been the Co-Director of the Climate Justice Project (CJP), a research partnership with the University of British Columbia, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. 

The narrative on climate change this fall is a familiar one: global greenhouse gas emissions hit another record high last year; extreme weather events are causing record damages; and yet we face an impasse in global negotiations for a new climate treaty, and a relentless push for ever more fossil fuel extraction – seemingly because there is no alternative. On the other hand, demands for action at events like the Peoples’ Climate March, and the growing calls for divestment from fossil fuels, there is a growing movement joining the climate scientists in their call for humanity to change course. But this movement needs more good news stories to counter-balance the gloom, and to start reimagining a sustainable and equitable future.

Around the world cities have asserted a leadership role in wrestling with climate action. Where I live, in Vancouver, British Columbia, my federal and provincial governments are deep in denial, enamoured by fossil fuel riches, but my city aspires to be the greenest of them all. Cities ostensibly have a more limited policy toolbox than senior governments, yet decisions on land use planning, buildings and urban infrastructure can have a powerful long-term impact on their carbon footprint.

My case study looks at Vancouver BC’s Neighbourhood Energy Utility, and its repurposing of district energy as a key ingredient in urban planning and greenhouse gas mitigation.  At its core, district energy is primarily the use of centralized boilers to provide heat and hot water to multiple buildings. It’s comparatively technocratic and boring, with appeal among engineers and energy economists. And it’s old, with examples of steam systems (powered by fossil fuels) in downtowns across North America going back more than a century. Continue reading…


Nuclear Power Not the Solution

The emerging nuclear crisis in Japan has brought the future of nuclear power in the U.S. to the fore. The Obama administration supports nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels. But is it really the solution? Frank Ackerman addressed this question in a post this past summer for Real Climate Economics. We’ve copied that orginal post below.

If carbon emissions from energy production are the problem, is nuclear power the solution? After all, nuclear reactors split uranium atoms to generate heat; no fossil fuels are used on site, and no CO2 is released into the air from the power plant itself. Plenty of voices can be now heard advocating construction of nuclear plants in order to save the environment. The Obama administration supports new loans and incentives for nuclear power, as does the Kerry-Lieberman climate and energy bill.

It’s not quite that simple. The nuclear power life cycle includes many steps, from mining and enriching uranium, building the reactor, operating the plant, processing and disposing of the spent fuel, through, someday, decommissioning the plant when it can no longer be used. Many of these stages are quite energy-intensive, so there are life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power. The best available data show the life-cycle emissions from nuclear power to be much lower than from fossil fuel-burning power plants, but equal to or higher than the emissions from renewable energy, such as solar, wind, and hydro-power. Continue reading…