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Behind the curtain

Government policies on sustainability are opaque and inconsistent. But Halifax city staffers say they value your input, and are working to better share information with you

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Soon, our addiction for fossil fuels will be too costly to maintain. What will Halifax do then? 
Illustration: Derrick Chow

Soon, our addiction for fossil fuels will be too costly to maintain. What will Halifax do then? Illustration: Derrick Chow

You can’t fight City Hall, the old saying goes.

But if you want to lessen the environmental impact of 413,000 souls, sprawled over 5,500 square kilometres of seaside rock, tree and farm, your best bet might be to get to know the people behind the plans and programs that make this city tick. They say they want to meet you.

Hopefully, you already know your Mayor and Council. But few of us have the time or opportunity to meet our city’s middle and upper management. Fewer of us are likely to understand how they take ideas, sometimes their own but often those of experts or average folks and turn them into bike lanes and solar panels.

I invited myself behind the curtain and met with two of the city’s most important employees: Halifax’s first ever chief planner, Bob Bjerke, and a man with two hats, Richard MacLellan, who manages energy and environment, plus facility development.

MacLellan has been working on Halifax environmental issues since 2006, when he was helping the city buy greener supplies and materials. But he took a giant mental leap when the city sent him to “sustainability boot camp” at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “There were some PhDs, scientists, and I was sitting there thinking I’m going to be the buffalo at the back of the herd,” he says.

Ken Cameron, the former chief planner for Vancouver, gave them a talk on climate change. At first MacLellan wasn unfazed. “I’m a fairly self-centred person so I don’t look at a lot of world things in the newspaper,” he says.

Cameron pointed out that if climate change isn’t mitigated, life on planet Earth may still flourish but humans won’t. “I have a daughter who was two or three at the time and I’m hoping she’s still around, or her offspring anyway,” he says.

So he was motivated. And he was good at recognizing good ideas and implementing them. The most tangible example of MacLellan in action is Solar City, a pilot program that’s equipped about 500 Halifax houses with solar hot-water panels, saving each homeowner $425 annually. The city does all the legwork, connecting the buyer with affordable financing options and installing the panels.

MacLellan drove the project, though he modestly credits a long list of people and one key document: the Regional Plan. It’s the framework that sets out how Halifax will grow as a region and identifies renewable energy as a key objective.

Home solar didn’t enter the picture until 2010, when an architect and an engineer presented a solar map of Nova Scotia, quantifying the enormous contribution the sun could make to our power grid, to a committee of Councillors.

“They were shocked with how much opportunity there is,” MacLellan recalls. Political will was born, empowering him to investigate how to make solar a feasible component of any homeowner’s power supply. Mountains were moved to create cooperation among the city, province and private solar companies.

None of that would’ve been possible without political confidence that the community was ready for such a program, that it was in fact wanted. Citizens, or at least council and staff’s perceptions of them, can and do influence City Hall’s environmental performance.

Residents would likely have greater influence if we understood how these things happen. Maybe a flow chart of municipal change making would help, but there is no single, predictable process. It depends on the issue and the people working on it.

The key thing, says Bob Bjerke, is to be consistently engaged, thinking long term about what kind of city Halifax should become while tracking individual issues as they arise. “We’ll sit down with anybody and look for real opportunities,” says Bjerke, who the city recruited from Edmonton to be its first chief planner.

The citizens who have most impressed Bjerke belong to the Our HRM Alliance, a collection of more than 50 organizations from rural, suburban and urban parts of the municipality. Its general collective mandate is making Halifax “more livable and more sustainable.”

As individual organizations they represent business, environment, health, youth and community interests. The Alliance has pushed for a “greenbelt” of connected protected land around the urban core (resulting in the creation of a “Greenbelting and Open Spaces Priorities Plan”) and improved water protection, greater investment downtown and better public transit.

“The Alliance’s key strength is its diversity,” explains Our HRM’s Geoff Le Boutillier. “It represents the municipality from all angles.” Members formed the coalition out of frustration with the public engagement process. Members of rapidly developing communities like Tantallon felt left out.

“Development was proceeding at breakneck speed, while approval of the community’s vision was moving forward at a snail’s pace,” Le Boutillier says. The people responded by putting together their own plans for a greener future, and this work eventually grew into Our HRM and its list of “seven fundamental solutions to the municipality’s planning challenges.”

“We went to every meeting,” Le Boutillier says. “We met with the media repeatedly and built and sustained our membership and argued for each of their particular causes too. We met councillors and staff. We were involved every step of the way on every level.”

It’s rare that a broad coalition comes together and works cohesively enough to have such influence. Its ability to do so is representative of a high level of interest and engagement from Haligonians in general. Halifax’s attendance levels and passion at public meetings on environmental policy have surprised Bjerke. And residents repeatedly emphasize environmental features like water quality and natural spaces over property values or taxes. “That’s atypical,” he says. “People want that connection” to their environment.

He acknowledges that it would be easier for staff and ultimately Council to plow ahead without public input, but that’s not feasible as long as residents are paying close attention. Bjerke says staff need to “engage and seek different perspectives” on environmental challenges, emphasizing process over council decisions.

In Le Boutillier’s experience, Halifax’s community engagement has gone from “seriously wanting” to “incredibly rewarding” with plenty of ups and downs along the way. But Bjerke himself says the city still must get better at communicating how things work and what exactly is happening, so that every resident can be involved in shaping a sustainable, healthy future.

Essay: Time for a revolution

Once upon a time the world waited breathlessly for someone to perfect the horseless carriage. But soon the gadgetry proved less significant than the infrastructure around it.

A German named Benz built what we now think of as the first car. But it was Henry Ford who came up with efficient means of production to make automobiles affordable for the masses.

And then you had the oilmen. These dollar-eyed dreamers had made fortunes supplying black gold for captains of industry. Now every man, woman and child would need the bubblin’ crude. They’d need places to buy gas. They’d need more and smoother roads.

Lo and behold these visionaries built a loose network of gas stations that eventually numbered in the hundreds of thousands worldwide. Starting with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921, they and several successive governments saw to the construction of a $400 billion US, 75,000-kilometre interstate highway system in the United States. In total there are more than six million kilometres of roads in the U.S.

These were staggering achievements that humble white collar creatives of my day. What’s stopping us from similar accomplishments more suited for modern challenges, especially staving off climate change?

After all, there’s money in solar power, to take one lower-emissions example. Solar is worth about $115 billion globally and has annual growth rates in double figures. The applications are endless. A couple in the U.S. have invented solar roads. Imagine six million kilometres of energy-producing roads in the U.S. alone!

But solar revenues pale compared to the multi-trillion-dollar petroleum industry. Can the modern fleet-footed solar dukes ever catch the dinosaur oil barons? You might think. But if you read a recent International Monetary Fund’s report called Energy Subsidy Reform you might think otherwise.

It says governments spend nearly $2 trillion US, or eight per cent of their entire budgets, in annual subsidies on the energy industry, most of it on petroleum. Axing these subsidies would cut global carbon emissions by 13 per cent.

Canada spends 20 times more on petroleum subsidies than it does funding Environment Canada. In case you’re wondering, the IMF is displeased with these subsidies. They are so un-capitalist.

The Canadian government would rather you didn’t know that this Hoth-like winter we had (to paraphrase This Hour Has 22 Minutes) might be the new normal thanks to a warming Arctic. If you knew that, you might consider it just a touch insane to extract more oil from Alberta and pump it 4,000 kilometres to a Saint John export terminal to further carbonize the atmosphere from abroad.

At the moment, a national review of the eastern pipeline refuses to account for climate change at all. They’re just pretending it doesn’t exist.

Knowing this, you might even wonder why your various levels of government and the new captains of industry, the literal and figurative descendents of the original oil barons, aren’t doing more to bring renewable energy home? Like they did for oil energy a hundred years ago.

History shows us that if those with great power want something, they’ll make it happen and by Jove they’ll get rich in the process. But at this point the oil money is easy. Everything’s already in place. And oil is choking out the political will, innovation and new infrastructure we need for a renewable energy revolution.

The only alternative is to keep the oil in the ground. Without the behemoth teat-sucking of the oil industry’s one-trick pony, it shouldn’t take long for techno-visionaries and those savvy enough to back them to get every home and vehicle humming along, emissions-free.

Governments spend nearly $2 trillion US, or eight per cent of their entire budgets, in annual subsidies on the energy industry, most of it on petroleum. Axing these subsidies would cut global carbon emissions by 13 per cent.

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