Cities are huge generators of greenhouse gas emissions and many are on course to sprawl even further and create more pollution. Toronto is one city trying to buck the trend by introducing schemes to retrofit its older properties to give residents a shot at a more energy efficient future. 

People are drawn to cities for the prospects of better education, better opportunities and better infrastructure – however the human benefits of city living usually have a negative impact on the planet. 

Cities account for between 60 and 80 per cent of global energy consumption, generating some 70 per cent of all human induced greenhouse gas emissions. A huge portion of these emissions are caused by the consumption of fossil fuels for energy. 

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Between the years of 1950 and 2005, a time during which urbanisation increased from 29 per cent to 49 per cent, global carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels increased by almost 500 per cent.

One of the most persistent challenges posed by sprawling cities is how to limit the impact constantly expanding has on the natural environment. The obvious solution is to build environmentally-friendly cities that integrate better with the natural world – such as Supertree Grove, an urban jungle in the busy business district of Marina Bay, Singapore.

However, such projects require time, infrastructure and forethought, necessities that cannot always be afforded to the fast, disorganised and often unforeseen phenomenon of sprawling urban growth. In just the last 20 years, the human population in urban areas has increased by over a third. During this time, the number of people on earth living in cities surpassed the non-urban populace for the first time in our history. 

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So, if you can’t control how cities expand, how can you limit the impact they have on the environment? It’s a quandary the city of Toronto hopes to address through two retrospective loan schemes.

Home Energy Loan Program (HELP) and High-Rise Retrofit Improvement Support Program (Hi-RIS), of­fer homeown­ers an af­ford­able op­tion to ret­ro­fit their prop­erty to improve energy ef­fi­ciency and wa­ter con­ser­va­tion. Many of the houses built in Toronto sprung up prior to 1980, when no energy ef­fi­ciency re­quire­ments were included in the building code. The residential building sector in Toronto currently accounts for 44 per cent of the greenhouse emissions of the city. Launched in 2014, Toronto’s loan programs are helping to combat this. $5.4 million in loans have been committed to 11 energy projects, resulting in an es­tim­ated en­ergy sav­ing of 25 per cent and 28 per cent for HELP and Hi-RIS par­ti­cipants, re­spect­ively. Each year after the full rollout of Hi-RIS alone, greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by 3.2k metric tons.

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In addition to environmental benefits, the programs can offer financial incentives to participants. The low interest loans are offered with no upfront costs, and the money is repaid over time via fixed instalments. Cru­cially, the loans are linked to the prop­erty tax bill, mean­ing the debt is tied to the land not the owner, in case of sale. For the vast ma­jor­ity of com­pleted HELP and Hi-RIS pro­jects, the fu­ture en­ergy cost sav­ings are greater than the up­front cap­ital bor­rowed and fin­an­cing costs. Participants of the schemes also get access to utility incentives, energy advisors and customer support.

With the increase of urbanisation showing no signs of abating, schemes such as HELP and Hi-RIS could be vital in allowing current and future cities to align more harmoniously with their natural surroundings – watch this space.

Cities100 is a mission shared by Sustainia, C40 and Realdania to find the 100 leading city solutions to climate change. Read the 2016 publication here, and follow the conversation online using #Cities100

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