I want to cut my carbon emissions. Living in Canada's hinterlands doesn't make it easy
In my city, I can't rent an EV, join a car-share or get rid of my fossil-fuel furnace
This First Person column is written by Heather Kitching, a part-time CBC reporter and producer in Thunder Bay, Ont. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
Eighteen months ago, in the midst of the fall-out from the climate-themed satire film Don't Look Up, I experienced what some people would call a climate epiphany — the moment where the gravity of the climate crisis hits you like a ton of carbon emissions.
Faced with the sobering reality that we have less than a decade left before we exhaust the remaining carbon budget to keep the planet under 1.5 degrees of warming, I was overcome by feelings of helplessness and impending doom.
The only way to fight those feelings was to do everything in my power to eliminate my carbon footprint.
But I don't live in Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto, with their access to EV rentals, car sharing, expansive transit systems and extensive interurban rail and bus networks — or to their somewhat warmer climates.
I live in Thunder Bay, a small northern Ontario city located about 700 kilometres east of Winnipeg and 1,400 kilometres northwest of Toronto.
And I've discovered that those of us in colder and more sparsely populated regions face unique challenges in our quest to do the right thing.
Home heating and cold financial realities
Living in one of Canada's coldest winter cities, I have found myself in a conundrum when it comes to low-carbon heating options. Air source heat pumps, the widely touted alternative to fossil fuel furnaces, typically have a minimum outdoor operating temperature of between –15 and –25 degrees. The adviser who performed my home energy audit said I'd need to keep my natural gas furnace for really cold days, meaning I'd be paying to maintain two costly pieces of equipment instead of one.
Another option, he said, is a heat pump with a built-in electric resistance back-up heating element, which could be pricey to operate. According to estimates from Manitoba Hydro, which offers among the lowest electricity rates in the country, an average homeowner would pay around 25 per cent more with such a heat pump than with the highest-efficiency natural gas furnace.
That got me looking at ground source, or geothermal, heat pumps, which can heat an average home without requiring a secondary heat source.
One company that makes the units told me the total installation cost would be upward of $40,000 because of the work involved in placing the underground pipes that transfer heat into the home. On small city lots like mine, the only option is to drill deep bore holes at a similar cost to that of drilling wells.
The federal government's Greener Homes loan offers homeowners precisely $40,000, interest free, to fund these kinds of upgrades. However, the 10-year repayment period results in.a monthly payment of more than $300 —more than I can afford.
And living far from a major urban centre appears to have limited my access to other options. I tried to sign up for a program through Enbridge, my natural gas utility, that would see the company install a ground source heat pump with no up-front cost in exchange for a lengthy monthly contract. Unfortunately, the company isn't yet able to offer me a ground-source system on a city lot in an out-of-the-way place like Thunder Bay.
So for now, I'm left sitting on the fence, waiting for either a better way to finance a ground source system or improvements in air source technology that negate the need for a backup.
Responsible options for getting around town
Here's something you won't hear in downtown Vancouver: my agonizing about the emissions from my gas-powered car came to an end last month when my girlfriend collided with a deer and totalled it.
Unfortunately, $30,000 or more to replace it with a new electric car is out of my price range, even with incentives.
Perhaps more importantly, I don't really need a car that often. And everything I've learned about climate change suggests that we should be trying to adopt less energy-intensive lifestyles.
What I'd really love is an EV car-share. But small cities like mine lack initiatives like EVO, the hybrid and EV car-share run by the British Columbia Automobile Association in Vancouver and Victoria.
In fact, Thunder Bay doesn't even have EV rentals available yet.
The upshot of living in a smaller community is I can walk and ride my bike to many places during the warmer months, though the shortage of safe cycling infrastructure has me detouring down side streets or riding on sidewalks more than I'd like.
When the weather's not so good, public transit will also get me to many parts of town.
But, as is the case in many less-populated places, service is sparse in some places and non-existent outside the city limits.
If a better solution doesn't arrive by winter, I might need to buy a used internal combustion-engine automobile just to visit the aforementioned girlfriend in a neighbouring community.
Learning to appreciate slow travel
When I decided to visit my dad on the West Coast last summer, I had visions of taking a leisurely trip on the Via Rail train.
I was shocked to read a paper, by University of Ottawa associate professor Ryan Katz-Rosene, who found that taking the train from Toronto to Vancouver is substantially more carbon-intensive than flying.
After trying in vain to rent an electric vehicle so I could drive across the country, I ended up booking a plane ticket after all — and feeling defeated.
Since then, I've been encouraged to discover that bus service across the country continues to expand in the post-Greyhound era. Last fall, I travelled from Thunder Bay to Ottawa via the Ontario Northland transportation company.
After an admittedly rough first night trying in vain to sleep, the concept of "slow travel" has started to grow on me.
I relished using the return trip to read, catch up on work and admire the scenery of a region I've lived in for nearly a decade but now realized I'd never actually seen.
Taking steps like this to cut my carbon emissions has given me back a sense of agency in the face of a possible climate catastrophe I'm powerless to prevent.
But I can't wait until we have more solutions that respond to the realities of the Canada of Canadian lore: the parts that are cold, isolated and sparsely populated, and where its residents can't always benefit from economies of scale.
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