Toronto

What the widespread use of outdoor heaters means for Toronto's carbon footprint this winter

Outdoor patio heaters are a surprising source of emissions, so what can Toronto restaurants do to keep their carbon footprints small this winter?

Heating an 800-square-foot patio all winter causes the same emissions as a car circling the earth 3 times

Propane patio heaters are considered the worst option by environmental experts, who say restaurants should opt for electric versions when possible. (Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

After a relatively busy summer at his cafe and restaurant in Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works, Brad Long started looking ahead to winter, and didn't much like his options for staying open.

Since reopening his business, Cafe Belong, after the spring shutdown, Long has offered outdoor dining service and takeout exclusively.

To keep that up through the late fall and winter, Long knew he'd have to start relying heavily on inefficient outdoor heaters. It's a move that goes against many of the sustainability goals that underpin his business philosophy.

"I don't feel great about it, I really don't," he told CBC Toronto.

"There are some things that we're forced to do to keep people comfortable. We're going to have to use some propane, some electric heaters."

Patio heaters are expected to be a crucial part of efforts to encourage outdoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic, and demand for the devices has surged as businesses try to entice customers to keep eating outside as temperatures begin to drop.

But those heaters — especially the type that runs on propane — carry a significant carbon footprint.

"I need people to come, and they need to be comfortable in order to come," Long said. "How do you do that without burning fossil fuels and everything else? I don't know."

Brad Long, the chef and owner of Cafe Belong, is installing outdoor heaters but says guests should still expect cool temperatures on his patio. (Jodi Pudge/Submitted)

Long has already installed several electric heaters that are integrated into the base of his tables, and he plans to install high-output propane heaters to provide additional warmth.

Still, he said the temperatures on his patio will not be as comfortable as an indoor restaurant, and he's asking guests to dress appropriately.

"We have to be more Canadian, we have to dress warmer," Long said. "We have to be kind of cheerful about this. We have to sit outside in the cold and like it."

Outdoor heaters significant source of carbon emissions

A study by the French energy think-tank Negawatt, published in July, found that using five propane heaters to heat a roughly 800-square-foot patio from November to March emits as much CO2 as a car circling the Earth three times.

The Atmospheric Fund (TAF), a Toronto-based environmental non-profit, said that's equal to about 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

"Any new or expanding use of fossil fuels is a concern and something to be mindful of in the age of climate change," said Bryan Purcell, TAF's vice president of policy and programs.

While the figures may be surprising, Purcell noted that even a widespread increase in the use of propane heaters this winter would likely account for less than one per cent of Toronto's total annual emissions.

Purcell said businesses have a few options to maintain relatively comfortable winter patios while minimizing their carbon footprints.

Diners wrap themselves in thermal blankets on a patio in Toronto's Danforth neighbourhood. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

Installing windbreaks and using fabric furniture with greater insulating properties are options, he explained, though perhaps the best investment a business can make is to choose electric heaters over propane versions.

"An electric patio heater will cost a bit more up front but it's going to be cheaper to operate," Purcell said.

City extends CafeTO, encouraging winter-long outdoor dining

Restaurants, cafes and bars in Toronto will be allowed to resume indoor dining service starting Nov. 14, when the provincial government places the city back under its Stage 3 reopening conditions.

But Toronto is poised to continue promoting outdoor dining as an effective and potentially safer option during the winter months through its CafeTO program. City council voted in October to extend the program, which waives certain fees and allows a wider range of outdoor eating areas, into the spring of 2021.

"As we move into the winter months, we want to find ways to help give our businesses as much adaptability as possible," said Toronto Mayor John Tory.

Whether businesses can reliably and consistently fill their outdoor patios when winter arrives remains to be seen.

Despite the provincial government's move to allow indoor dining in Toronto later this month, Long said he doesn't plan to open his indoor dining room anytime this year. 

He said the decision is based in part on protecting the health of his workers, but he's also concerned that regulations will continue to change over the coming months, threatening his ability to plan and stay afloat.

"You'll go out of business going up and down. So I'm going to stay [with outdoor dining]," he said. 

"And if you see me in May, you'll know that we survived."

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