When it comes to planning, we really need to be thinking about the lifespan of what we are building, and the changes likely to occur during the course of it. For vehicles, that means thinking about efficiency standards and probable future developments in fuel types, prices, and availability. For buildings, it means thinking about efficiency and the payback time for different low-energy technologies. For all areas, it means thinking about what successful climate change mitigation and adaptation will involve.
New building construction is one of the areas where this can be most easily accomplished. Many different governments have levers through which they can influence private decisions. Governments build and renovate their own properties and, to a considerable extent, set the terms under which private actors do so. That power can be used to build a society that is both more economically and ecologically sustainable.
Federal, provincial, and municipal governments should be thinking about mechanisms like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards and the effect they can have on the economic and environmental sustainability of future built environments. In a climate like that of Canada, there are a huge number of situations in which high building efficiency standards are rapidly repaid in the form of decreased energy use. At the societal level, they are repaid even more richly, since the externalities associated with that energy production are also eliminated. Simple initiatives like painting roofs white can reduce the urban heat island effect and reduce energy use associated with cooling in summer: achieving mitigation and adaptation simultaneously.
On the adaptation side, planning is similarly crucial. While many of the downscaled effects of climate change remain uncertain, there are a few we can already be pretty clear about. We are, for instance, going to see smaller glaciers and less winter snowpack. That affects how cities should be doing their water planning. Smart governments should be thinking about how communities can be grouped, in terms of the probable climate impacts they will face. Along with the insurance industry, governments can then encourage cost-effective preemptive adaptation measures.
There are those who argue that taking these kinds of action is inappropriate or counterproductive: that governments should just introduce carbon pricing and let the market respond. There are several reasons for which that is not an appropriate attitude. For one thing, these kinds of standards help address other non-climatic externalities. For builders, there is an incentive to build shoddy, poorly insulated homes. The societal welfare arising from durable, well-insulated homes is significantly greater. Setting standards can help close the divide. Also, there is no real prospect of an appropriate carbon price emerging in the next few years. There is, by contrast, hope for one that will escalate to a sensible level. By starting to build today the kind of buildings that will be sensible in that environment, we can both get ahead in the process of building a low-carbon society and preemptively address accusations that carbon prices places an unacceptable burden on ordinary people.
The ongoing financial crisis, which is so deeply connected to building construction and financing, provides governments with even more levels through which to push sensible standards. Doing so judiciously is one way through which a victory can be gleaned out of this catastrophe.