Shame, shame Calgary. A recent UN report exposed our city as the fifth-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, with each of us sending a whopping 17.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Our sprawling ways and car addiction share some of the blame.

To be fair, the culprit for most of our emissions comes from coal since that’s where most of our electricity is sourced. Our landfills also must shoulder some responsibility since our lack of citywide compost collection generates a stench of methane, creating tonnes of emissions.

But that doesn’t let two chronic Calgary contributors to our overall emissions picture off the hook — urban sprawl and car usage.

Calgary has a population density of 1,360.2 inhabitants per square kilometre. Compare that to a city like Barcelona, Spain, with more than 10 times our density and you get lower emissions at 4.2 tonnes per person.

University of Calgary Prof. Max Foran helped explain how we got ourselves into this sprawling mess in his book, Expansive Discourses: The City of Calgary, the Land Developers and Residential Urban Sprawl, 1945-1978.

Foran takes us back to 1954 when the municipal government relinquished control of new roads and utilities to developers as a cost-saving measure (those costs just got tacked onto home prices). The result? Urban planning basically got turned over into the hands of developers, which meant single-family dwellings ruled.

Mixed-used development emphasizing higher density would not only lower our emissions but also lower ongoing infrastructure maintenance costs borne by taxpayers. The city’s new integrated Municipal Development Plan (MDP) and Calgary Transportation Plan (CTP), Plan It, outlines smarter growth practices, if implemented.

Existing growth patterns help explain our car dependence. Sparsely populated suburbs are difficult to service with public transit. Add to that years of transportation funding largely dedicated to roads and you’ve got yourself a situation.

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who is also an MP for Calgary, pointed to Calgarians’ heavy use of vehicles to explain our high emissions.

Eighty per cent of us own cars — one of the highest rates of car ownership in the country. Meanwhile, 55.7 per cent of New Yorkers don’t even have a car. With a far superior public transit system, their emissions were lower than ours at 10.4 tonnes per capita.

Calgary can design its way out of this shameful international exposure — better public transit and smart growth pave the way forward.

– Adrienne Beattie is a Calgary-born writer who has covered urban issues since 2001 and has an English degree from the University of Calgary.

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