Preserving and protecting our environment is a core value for people in Edmonton. Has been for a long time, since people lived off the land here traditionally, prior to European settlement.
For a century, we’ve been preserving our glorious river valley. First, it was for practical purposes to move development out of the flood ways. Then it was for beauty — thanks to the vision of people like John Janzen, Superintendent of Parks and Recreation in the ’60s and ’70s and namesake of the John Janzen Nature Centre. Now, we understand how important the river valley is both for biodiversity and as a migration corridor for wildlife of all sorts, and an important recreational destination for Edmontonians of all stripes.
Then, a generation ago, we faced a test — our city encountered a hard limit for how much waste we could bury in the ground: our city landfill at Clover Bar was filling up fast and none of our neighbours were willing to take our trash. Sometimes hitting a limit can be a good thing — it spurs creativity, as it did for us. We started to recycle: the first city in Canada to take it seriously. We slowed down the pace of landfilling, reducing by about 30% the volume of material being buried, which bought us some time. Then we built the composter, and got our waste diversion rate up above 60%. And now we’re partnering with Enerkem to complete our biofuel reactor. Waste became a resource — and there was a business case. Either pay to bury it in increasingly costly and increasingly distant regional landfills, or invest in technology to harvest value from this resource.
It can take a generation to really do the right thing, as we have with municipal solid waste, but persistence is paying off. Credit is due to prior Councils for their leadership on this. Thanks to them, and our continued work, Edmonton is now widely acknowledged as an industry leader, and Council recently approved establishing a new, arms-length company to offer to the world our expertise and package up our partners who helped build the Waste Management Centre. This is environmental leadership meeting entrepreneurship. This is a chance to shift perceptions about our city and, potentially, create a return for the city on our cumulative innovations and investments in waste. These kind of endeavours are an opportunity for the city to generate more commercial revenue.
As with these prior examples, Edmontonians are strongly supportive of continuing to lead on the environment when we redevelop the airport into the Blatchford neighbourhood. It’s a chance to build a truly walkable community, one with more energy-efficient buildings, low-impact infrastructure, walkable jobs at NAIT and convenient LRT access — a real low-carbon, low-energy option for families of all shapes and sizes. But we can really show leadership with creative approaches to cleanup of site contamination and innovative construction techniques for homes and infrastructure. This is yet another chance for Edmonton researchers and entrepreneurs to shine — and for Edmonton to be seen as an innovator for solutions to environmental challenges in our part of the world.
The same opportunity exists in our resource industries, especially in the oil sands, for Edmonton researchers and entrepreneurs to lead with innovative technology that reduces energy requirements, water requirements, labour requirements, or increases durability and yield. In other words, innovate to do business cleaner, greener, cheaper, faster and safer. This, again, is how we earn a reputation for being part of the solution, which is good for Northern Alberta’s social license to carry on with business and get our products to market in the shorter term. In the longer term, I trust the innovation that occurs here will form the basis for new companies that help in other parts of the world and in other sectors.
Meanwhile, in the short term, the city has work to do to continue to lead by example through implementing practical environmental initiatives like LED streetlight conversion, natural gas buses, energy efficiency in our buildings, and greening our fleet.
And for the longer term, as we did with municipal waste, we must work towards increasing our energy efficiency, reducing our reliance on non-renewable energy, thereby reducing our greenhouse gas footprint. This is important to Edmontonians too, as we saw with the recent “deliberative democracy” project the City did with the University of Alberta: the Citizens Panel on Energy and Climate Transition in Edmonton. A representative sample of Edmontonians, given a lot of different perspectives and the chance to deliberate over six weeks, came to the conclusion that action is needed to reduce our city’s reliance on non-renewable energy, and recommendations on how to proceed.
Many of these changes will take time, but Edmonton has the opportunity to show continued leadership while making practical decisions with a view to the long term, just as we have been for generations.