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Local Power Key to Fighting Global Warming: Poll

Municipal officials have citizens' trust, but lack money.

By Colleen Kimmett 27 Sep 2007 |

Colleen Kimmett is on staff of The Tyee.

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Mike Harcourt: towns 'groaning under weight'

[Editor's note: The Tyee is publishing reports from the Union of BC Municipalities Convention all this week.]

British Columbians are ready and willing to make "green" changes in their communities, and they want local elected officials to lead the way.

But delegates at the 2007 Union of B.C. Municipalities convention say they can only do so much without more funding and province-wide standards from the B.C. government.

"Municipalities are groaning under the weight of inadequate funding," said Michael Harcourt, chair of the Centre for Civil Governance advisory board.

The centre, which is part of the Columbia Institute, a non-profit organization that supports community activism, commissioned a poll of 606 B.C. residents last spring. The results showed that 65 per cent of respondents felt local government should take strong action on climate change even if it meant higher taxes.

Right now, municipalities receive eight cents of every tax dollar.

Sixty-nine per cent of respondents wanted provincial and federal governments to provide local governments with more regular and flexible funding, and 34 per cent said they would expect their local councillor to be the most responsive government representative in dealing with a problem.

'Money in hands most trusted'

"It shows absolute support for movement on global warming," said Charley Beresford, executive director of the Columbia Institute. "I think it also sends the message that they want to see the money in the hands they trust the most, and that's the local politicians.

"Local government actually have control over pivotal decisions when it comes to climate change...they don't have the dollars to put those in place."

The province recognizes the power of change at a municipal level. B.C.'s climate action charter calls on municipalities to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy efficiency.

Local governments that sign the non-legally binding document commit to measure and report current levels of emissions, and (with the help of carbon credits) work towards reducing those to zero by 2012.

This means energy audits, education and additional administrative work, says Central Saanich District Councillor Zeb King, and that's a burden for small, often understaffed municipal governments.

"They've asked municipalities to sign on to this, but they also need to come forward with funding," he said. "We need help with capacity issues. Just piling more work on to us isn't going to help."

King said Central Saanich received a $50,000 grant from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, used to hire a consultant who is helping develop a community energy plan. However the consultant only provides directives, says King, and councillors and staff must carry out those directives on top of "traditional" duties.

"We need to see the bucks," said King. "Coming up with pronouncements and goals is not enough."

Building code: behind curve?

King said municipalities also need province-wide policies that reflect and expand what some forward-thinking communities are already doing.

He said he was disappointed by recent proposed changes to the provincial building code. The Ministry of Housing has proposed new provisions that would require all new buildings to rate a 77 on the EnerGuide scale (a national standard that measures buildings' energy efficiency).

But some B.C. communities already meet and exceed this standard. Central Saanich requires that all new buildings score EnerGuide 80.

"If this is truly a green code, then we need them to actually lead with it and not just simply come up with a rating that's already behind what the municipalities are trying to get at," said King.

Another example of where some municipalities are leading the way is in solar water heating. It has been described as the single most cost-effective way to reduce residential energy use. It requires installation of the solar panels, usually on the roof, connected through a heat exchange pump to the home's hot water tank.

Solar potential

Dawson Creek has installed solar hot water systems in its city hall and fire station. Kelowna has two hotels with solar heated swimming pools.

According to Nitya Harris, project lead for the B.C. Solar Roofs Roadmap project, a provincial initiative to see this technology installed on 100,000 roofs across the province, solar heating has "huge potential" in B.C.

Although it's expensive to retrofit, it costs only between $300 and $500 to put in the infrastructure during construction. Harris said getting homes "solar ready" is very important even if panels aren't installed right away.

"If we start today, by 2025 when energy prices are going to be pretty high, we'll be really well set to take solar as one of our major energy sources," said Harris. "The technology is ready could be done today."

Municipalities can educate residents about the benefits of solar water heating, they can provide incentives for developers to build solar ready homes and they can install systems in municipal buildings -- but they don't have the mandate to require solar heating systems, or at the least the capacity for such, in new buildings.

The province can do this through its building code, but it hasn't.

'We should be leaders'

David Finnis, district of Summerland councillor, says he was frustrated that the proposed green code provisions didn't address solar heating specifically.

He said it would help places like Summerland, which are excellent candidates for solar heating systems, but lack the political will to make it happen.

"I wanted to see regulations that say you must be at least solar ready when you build a house," he said.

"It should be a really good option for us...we should be leaders. We just need to move."

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