Recap: The Way We Green Panel Discussion

Today the City of Edmonton hosted a panel discussion with environmental experts at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Part of The Way We Green, the panel featured five local subject matter experts and was attended by more than 150 people. The event was also streamed live online (an archive is available here). For those of you new to The Way We Green, here’s what Councillor Iveson wrote about it when he helped launch the project last month:

It’s picking up after the 2006 Environmental Strategic Plan, which was good but more internally focused on the city and not very high-profile. The project is building on the widespread consultations in 2008 that led to the city’s 30 year vision and 10 year overall strategic plan, The Way Ahead. Now it’s time to drill down and focus specifically on the environment – the services we get from it, the impacts we have on it, and the value we place on it.

As part of the project, the City commissioned a collection of discussion papers to help stimulate thinking and dialogue, and those papers formed the basis of today’s panel. The five panelists were: Debra Davidson, Pong Leung, David Schindler, Daniel Smith, and Guy Swinnerton. The panel was moderated by Ed Struzik.

The Way We Green

The panelists covered quite a range of topics, and I thought Ed did a great job of keeping the discussion moving. Here are a few things that stood out for me:

  • Most of the panelists used the word “comprehensive”. They generally agreed that a comprehensive approach is required to tackle the environmental issues we face. I’m not convinced. I think you need to break the problem down and work in parallel from a variety of angles.
  • I found myself disagreeing with David quite a lot. Near the start of the panel he said something like “A sustainable Edmonton, in an unsustainable province, in an unsustainable country, doesn’t work.” I think Edmonton should lead by example, rather than relying on other orders of government to agree on policy and regulations. If we can make Edmonton the model sustainable city, why wouldn’t other communities in Alberta want to follow suit? And if they did, guess what, we’d be on the road to a sustainable province. Start local, and bubble up.
  • Pong, who I thought was the best of the panelists, said in response to David, “We can’t be paralyzed waiting for the perfect political environment to show up.”
  • Guy talked at length about density, pointing out how vital it is for us to address sustainability. He also mentioned some of the negative impacts our continual sprawl has had on the environment.
  • David then talked about population growth, noting that Edmonton is roughly doubling every 30 years. He basically said that we can’t keep growing and be sustainable. Again, I disagree. The issue isn’t how many people we have, it’s where and how those people live. Population density is far more important than population growth, at least here in Edmonton. Debra said as much in response to David.
  • The one thing David said that I did agree with was that we need some economic diversification. Everyone laughed and applauded when he said that Alberta “relies on one very oily teat.”
  • Ed asked the panel about taxes, everyone’s favorite topic. Debra said that affordable housing in the core would help reduce urban sprawl. I would talk about it more generally. Incentives are what drive behaviour, especially financial incentives. Right now, it’s too easy a decision to live on the edge of the city than to pay more and live near the core. The incentives are not aligned with the vision. Tax breaks for sustainable decisions and tax increases for unsustainable decisions might be one tool we can use to address that.

I thought the panel had some interesting thoughts and discussion points, though I’d have preferred if there was more opportunity for the audience to ask questions. You can read more about today’s event here.

“City Council gave us a 10-year goal to become a national leader in setting and achieving the highest standards of environmental preservation and sustainability,” said Jim Andrais, project manager for the Way We Green plan. “Now we have to find out from Edmontonians and environmental experts which environmental challenges are most important and areas where we can make the greatest difference. This panel debate, discussion papers, workshops and the online consultation are all part of that process.”

The second public survey for The Way We Green is now online – you have until August 20 to fill it out. The two questions being asked are about the challenges we face and the major changes we may have to make to address them.

You can learn more about The Way We Green here. On Twitter, follow the #yegeco hashtag.

5 thoughts on “Recap: The Way We Green Panel Discussion

  1. Mac, as always, good notes! I appreciate the overview with a note of the ‘message’ that the panel was trying to achieve. I agree with the vast majority of your assessment as well. There are two things I would like to note, however. I notice that the panel did not talk about consumption – I think that consumption is a driver to our level of sustainability, and it is a major hurdle. The natural step as a business model fails if the business tries to reduce consumption (the Ikea model, not the Interface Carpet model)

    And, I DO think that absolute population is a big deal given how we currently live for two reasons:
    1. From http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/magazine/06fob-wwln-t.html?scp=7&sq=risk&st=cse

    In reference to risk analysis and the BP oil spill “These are precisely the kinds of events that are hard for us as humans to get our hands around and react to rationally,” Robert N. Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard, says. When an event is difficult to imagine, we tend to underestimate its likelihood.

    I think population is important because the downside is so huge. As a risk, we cannot simply state that just because population has never been an issue that it, therefore, will not be a future issue. BP fell into that assessment trap and their liability is going to be in the billions. The potential consequences if we are wrong on the population front potentially include resource shortages (in Alberta water is looming as we live in an arid environment).

    Population is also an issue in Edmonton because we import much of our consumption from other places. In my mind this is equivalent to exporting waste. If a TV is make in Korea, Korea has to deal with the industrial pollution associated with its production. Heavy metals, industrial emissions, etc. If in Edmonton we demand more TVs, because we have more and more people living here, then there is more ‘export’ of these pollutions. This is unjust. Furthermore, we are already running into conflicts between uses in the mountains (bears and people in Canmore – a Gap in Banff…in a National Park?!?!). Until we can live with a MUCH smaller ecological footprint, I think that population density and absolute population are of equal importance.

    Have a look at: http://motherjones.com/environment/2010/05/population-growth-india-vatican

  2. Good work on the summary! Opinions are great for stimulating debate.
    Thanks for getting more people involved in this discussion – one that will shape how we will behave for generations. And thanks for pointing to the new Survey http://TheWayWeGreen.ca and the ability to comment on all papers referenced in the debate.
    The input from experts and Edmontonians of all interests willo be incorporated into a plan that will guide City decisions and affect behaviours of all residents for years to come.

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