British Columbia

Citizen's Cool Kit: How individuals and neighbourhoods can lower their carbon footprint

"People think about climate change as sort of a big general thing and what can I do about it. In reality, everybody has to do a lot."

West Vancouver's Eagle Island neighbouhood an example of how neighbours can work together

The City of Vancouver is undertaking a thermal imaging program to identify heat loss in single family homes in five Vancouver neighbourhoods. (City of Vancouver)

While climate change can seem like an overwhelming challenge, experts say there are proven ways individuals and neighbourhoods can do their part and make a difference.

Stephen Sheppard, a professor in forestry in the University of British Columbia's Department of Forest Resources Management, has spent a lot of time thinking about ways people can change their own behaviours to have an impact on climate change. 

He's one of the developers behind Delta Future 2.0 — a video game that imagines the climate future of Delta, B.C., depending on what individual actions people take in the present. 

"People think about climate change as sort of a big general thing and what can I do about it. In reality, everybody has to do a lot," he said.

Working at the neighbourhood level is one of the most effective ways of creating change, he added.

"We're much more effective if we work together. There's research that if neighbours know what their neighbours are doing, they will start to do what the neighbours are doing. We've seen it with solar panels. The more visible, the more people want them. With the blue bins, you know everybody's got a blue bin now."

Eagle Island's success story

A great example, he says, is the Eagle Island neighbourhood in West Vancouver. About 25 of 30 households in the neighbourhood retrofitted their homes to reduce their environmental impacts.

This West Vancouver neighbourhood underwent dramatic changes to retrofit its houses for greener technologies. (Google Maps)

Tarah Stafford, a former resident of that neighbourhood who helped pioneer the grassroots movement, said it started at a neighbourhood party. 

"It was social. Everyone wanted to come. It wasn't a meeting. We weren't sitting around with a blackboard or anything," she said.

After talking about what they could do, Stafford said different households invested in actions to reduce their environmental impacts: caulking ceilings, increasing insulation, replacing windows and retrofitting heating systems.

"These aren't things like stopping a pipeline — they're small things. But if a whole bunch of people do them, they make a huge difference," she said.

Stafford says in the City of West Vancouver, for example, nearly half of the city's greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings and reducing those emissions can have a dramatic impact.

Her model has been used in North Vancouver, Bowen Island, Squamish and other neighbourhoods in West Vancouver.

"People were all very different from each other. There was no guarantee that any of this was going to happen, for sure," she said.

"I never told anybody to vote a certain way or that they had to do anything with these things. I just gave them the information, and it was always based on friendship and neighbourliness."

Get started today

Here are Stephen Sheppard's suggestions for what you can start doing today to help mitigate climate change:

Individual actions

  • Walk or cycle to work or work from home.
  • Although this may not be possible for everyone, try to move closer to work or move your job closer to home.
  • Use car shares, particularly hybrids or electric vehicles.
  • Use thermal imaging to look at ways you can retrofit your home to prevent heat loss and improve efficiency.
  • Eliminate dependency on natural gas by retrofitting your house with an air source heat pump.
  • Plant a deciduous tree on the south side of your house for shade.
  • Reduce the amount of paving in the backyards, if they don't need it.
  • Conserve storm water, make sure it doesn't just run off the pavement into a sewer. Make sure it goes into the the ground where the tree roots are. Put in a rain garden. 

Neighbourhood actions

  • Grow more local food on every block. 
  • Invest in renewable energy: channel heat from sewage waste or industrial heat; install solar power on roofs.
  • Share your tools through a communal tool shed, so each household doesn't have to purchase multiples of the same tool or machine.
  • Pool together to buy supplies in bulk to retrofit homes to save costs.

Listen to 2050: Degrees of Change, a CBC Vancouver podcast