If you've hung around some of the wackier, more conspiratorial parts of the internet you may have heard of Agenda 21. According to former Fox News host Glenn Beck it is a radical plot that will "put their fangs into our community and suck all the blood out of it."
The truth is a little more anodyne. It turns out that Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations that's concerned with sustainable development.
The organization responsible for getting people excited about things like energy conservation, public transit and carbon accounting in the name of Agenda 21 is called the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives or ICLEI. So when I had the opportunity to head to Toronto to participate in what's called the Canada European Municipal Exchange Program, an initiative of ICLEI, I jumped at the chance.
It was a fascinating mix of people from Estonia, Portugal, Spain and Germany and folks from Halifax, Ottawa, Edmonton and Saanich from Canada. They discussed green spaces, clean transportation and the evolution of energy efficient urban design.
Free transit and super cooled rocks
Tallinn is the capital of Estonia and borders Latvia, Russia and the Baltic Sea. Tallinn was paired with fellow port city Halifax, Nova Scotia. With more than 400,000 residents it did what no other city its size has ever done. It made its public transit system free to residents in 2013.
"The purpose is to reduce the car dependence in the city center," says Tonu Laasi, a nature protection specialist with the city of Tallinn. "It helps, they say it's about 15 percent less cars and more people in public transport after doing this."
The idea has been popular with residents and while the results have been mixed there have been positive social and civic consequences. Ridership has improved in poorer areas and because riders have to be registered residents to get free transit the city has broadened its tax base. These new tax revenues brought in 10 million euros helping to make up for the lost revenue at the farebox of 12 million euros.
And while Tallin's partner city of Halifax might not be giving out free transit any time soon they do have some innovative and successful sustainability initiatives of their own.
They installed 388 domestic solar hot water systems that are expected to save the residents $5.5 million over the next 25 years as part of a two-year pilot. City council has already approved phase two of the Solar City program, which will support solar hot water, solar air heating and solar PV technology.
Solar thermal hot water heating has become less sexy with cheap solar PV and natural gas but solar thermal hot water makes sense in Halifax for one big reason - heating oil. A lot of residents still use this highly inefficient, pollution producing heating fuel.
Halifax also has the one of a kind Alderney 5 district cooling system, the first large-scale application of geothermal seasonal cold-energy storage anywhere in the world.
"We super chill a rock and ice mass under the parking lot there, right by the ferry terminal and we super chill it during the winter months so that we can use that for cooling our buildings all through the summer," says Shannon Miedema with the Halifax Regional Muncipality.
The $3.6 million dollar project saves $350,000 a year in energy costs and avoids $800,000 in replacement costs while reducing maintenance for heating and cooling systems.
Super efficient neighbourhoods and an ambitious goal
One of Ottawa's delegates was city councillor David Chernushenko who campaigned on a platform to have Ottawa go 100 per cent renewable by 2050. As chair of the environment committee he's developing a renewable energy strategy right now.
"When you set yourself a target that's 100 per cent, that's a holy smokes moment of, 'What? You've got to be kidding. You can't do that.' To which I respond, 'Yeah, if you can't do it then why can I list off a number of German municipalities that have already done it,'" says Chernushenko.
"People immediately think, 'Oh, that's a lot of wind turbines and solar panels if you're going be 100 per cent renewable.' I would say, 'No, that's a lot of conservation and efficiency. That is a lot of retrofitting your public housing, and your apartment buildings, and your homes, and your office buildings, and your malls just to start with.' That's an awful lot of urban intensification as opposed to continuing to sprawl," says Chernushenko.
Speaking of energy efficient buildings, the city of Hannover, a northern German city with a population of more than 500,000, was paired with Ottawa.
Their big success story is the district of Kronsberg. The city took the last significant parcel of undeveloped land within the city limits and made it a test case for sustainable living. An energy efficient natural gas fired district heating system heats the homes of 7,500 residents. Light rail transit connects the entire community to the city centre. The community also has extensive solar thermal hot water systems, two wind turbines, lots of solar PV and 32 passive houses. On average the homes in this community use 60 per cent less energy than a typical German home.
And while Ottawa figures out how it's going to be 100 per cent renewable by 2050, Hannover already has a climate change master plan developed in 2012 by 240 experts and 5,000 citizens, says says Astrid Hoffmann-Kallen, head of Hanover's climate protection unit. Hannover expects solar and wind to play a big role in getting the city to 100 per cent renewable energy.
It's great to see civic governments lead the way on sustainability, often ahead of their provincial and federal counterparts. Maybe Glenn Beck and Fox News do have a reason to be scared.