Montreal discovers it's not easy going green: New Economist Green Cities Index

An article that I wrote on the new Green Cities Index (.pdf) released last week by the Economist Intelligence Unit is out in today's Montreal Gazette. It was an interesting one to write.  The focus of the piece was Montreal's poor performance, and the fact that it has everything it takes to become a much bigger player on the urban sustainability scene. You can read the full piece here, or after the jump where I've reposted the full text.

Near the end I make a point that I think is worth emphasizing -- regardless of whether you are in Montreal of Minneapolis.

This index, like all indexes of this sort that I've seen, grades on a curve. It tells you which city is in the lead, but doesn't give you any sense of whether the leaders (or the rest of the pack) are moving at the right speed.

To be blunt: that's not good enough. The problems are serious enough, and current rates of emissions and energy use are rising fast enough, that I think it is time for high profile research houses (like the EIU) to design indicators that give us an idea of how cities' efforts measure up to the challenges they aim to address.

There is value to rankings like this one.  They give top performing cities a boost, and they create a sense of friendly competition that can increase performance across the board. They are also packed full of interesting data. But there is also value to putting that data, municipal efforts more generally, in perspective.

Leading city's are already starting to acknowledge that their efforts have yet to reach the scale needed to make a dent in the combined challenges we face. There is also work being done by the World Bank and the Clinton C40 that could help cities expand their carbon inventories (and corresponding policies) to address emissions associated with the energy, good and services that cities consume (known as scope 2 and scope 3 emissions - see here for some discussion of this).

This is what is needed if cities are going to have a real impact. But it will also mean much more ambitious urban policies and programs. Having a metric of some kind that compared the impact of current municipal programs to what would be needed to reach (say) 80% by 2050 would be an valuable way of engaging both policy makers and the public in setting the bar at the right height.

The EIU's green cities indexes are a wealth of great information. There really isn't anything else like them.  As they continue to refine them, here's hoping they add something that gives us a sense, not just of relative performance, but of scale.

[here's a video interview with Tony Nash, head of the EIU]
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Montreal discovers it's not easy going green:
We're last among Canadian cities on an index that measures how well we treat the environment.


MONTREAL - Loving Montreal in the winter takes practice; loving it in the summer is easy. Festivals crop up everywhere, café tables spill out onto the streets, and parks overflow with people taking in the beauty of the days. This is the season when we show off our colours to the world. But according to a new Green Cities Index produced by The Economist, one colour that is not on display is green.

Released last week, the index evaluated 27 North American cities in nine key areas ranging from carbondioxide emissions to how they govern environmental issues. Montreal ranked 19th overall, and last among the four Canadian cities in the index - trailing Calgary by four spots. Other Canadian cities fared much better. Vancouver was ranked second overall, and Toronto also finished in the top 10. That a city as dynamic and creative as Montreal should have ranked so low raises important questions.

It is not all bad news for Montreal. We earned high marks in transportation, thanks to our high rate of non-automobile commuters (second only to New York,) and investments in public transit and cycling infrastructure. In total 29 per cent of us leave our cars at home when we head to work every morning. That's more than double the index average of 13 per cent, and well above Detroit's laggard four per cent. Our ranking was also bumped up because of our low per-capita carbon-dioxide emissions (thank Hydro-Québec for that one) and our high recycling rates.

You could probably have guessed that Montreal would have done well in those areas. They are all the result of decades of municipal and provincial investment. Where we've ranked poorly is more telling: Montreal has among the fewest per-capita LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified green buildings in the index; we use more energy per capita than the index average; and the carbon and energy efficiency of our local economy is abysmal. For every dollar of local gross domestic product, Montreal uses almost three times more energy than the index average.

The municipality could address these issues individually, but that would miss a key point. The areas where Montreal is weak (green building, environmental certification, and measures of carbon and energy intensity) are all indicators of a new integrated approach to urban sustainability that has become standard practice among leading green cities. Cities that topped the index, like New York and Vancouver, have stopped seeing environmental issues as things that can be dealt with independently. Instead they are integrating them into decision-making and project design across the entire city. And they are doing it on a large scale that is only possible if cities creatively expand the reach of the tools at their disposal, and build strong partnerships with communities, non-governmental organizations, and businesses. The days when cities could get kudos for installing a few energy-efficient traffic lights are rapidly coming to an end.

Let's look at some realworld examples.

--In Vancouver, developers applying for rezoning (say, to build a taller condo tower) now need to meet LEED Gold standards. This will help cement the city as a leader in the green-building sector while bringing it closer to its goal of having all new construction be carbon-neutral by 2020.

--In Portland, Ore., the city's Clean Energy Works program is retrofitting residential buildings on a massive scale. This will generate 10,000 stable jobs over 10 years, train a workforce within marginalized and low-income communities, and help reduce the 46 per cent of the city's emissions that come from non-industrial buildings. Energy Works exists thanks to clever use of the municipality's financial tools and a partnership with Green For All, a national NGO that uses green-collar jobs to lift people out of poverty.

Similarly ambitious projects may be on the horizon for Montreal. The city is currently drafting a new Climate Change Action Plan, and has already committed to reducing its emissions by 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. A new Urban Development Plan is also due out in 2013. Those are both high-profile opportunities for the city to position itself as a real innovator in urban sustainability.

There is no question that we could. The kind of energy and creativity that have earned Montreal recognition as a UNESCO "City of Design," and our healthy hightech, manufacturing and research sectors, give us all the ingredients that we need. So does the exceptional work being done by locally based NGOs like Équiterre, Santropol Roulant and the Urban Ecology Centre (something, incidentally, that The Economist's Green Cities Index overlooks).

The question is whether the city will give the same kind of resources and support to the green portfolio as it has to building our reputation as a centre for the arts and culture.

There's also something important that needs to be said about green cities rankings - any green city ranking, not just this one. They always grade on a curve. They tell you who the greenest city is at the moment, but not whether that city is doing enough to meet the challenges we've got ahead of us. In fact, even among top performers, few cities are enacting policies ambitious enough to address the environmental problems we face.

The most recent research, for 2010, shows that greenhouse-gas emissions are increasing faster than ever before, temperatures are at their highest in recorded history, and these stresses are starting to jeopardize ecosystems and food supplies around the world. Closer to home, the flooding, droughts and fires that have hit Canada and the United States this summer have given us a taste of the impacts of a more unruly climate.

Cities control the lion's share of world energy use and carbon emissions (up to 70 per cent, by some estimates). They are also the places where the majority of people now live. But to turn that potential into action means dramatically stepping up our game. The severity of the challenges only makes it more important that cities like Montreal - that have all the ingredients needed to find innovative, unexpected and brilliant solutions - take the lead in integrating sustainability into the fabric of our cities.

Alex Aylett is a Montreal-based urban sustainability researcher. He is also Trudeau Scholar in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia, and senior research associate at Sustainable Cities International in Vancouver.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.