First-time visitors to Terrell Wong’s house in Toronto sometimes raise their eyebrows at an unusual setup in her kitchen: an “all refrigerator” – which does nothing but cool its contents – paired with a separate chest freezer.
“It weirds people out, but the two appliances together have twice as much space and use half as much energy,” says Ms. Wong, an architect whose award-winning firm, Stone’s Throw Design Inc., is focused on sustainable design and “passive house” principles. “Also, we save money because then we can go and buy discounted products at the grocery store and put them in the freezer.”
While the latter benefit is important to Ms. Wong, what motivates her most in the decisions she makes when designing her home – and the homes of her clients – is a growing concern for the environment. Ms. Wong says she’s worried about climate change and wants to do whatever she can to reduce carbon emissions.
She’s part of a growing majority. A September, 2023, Leger poll – conducted after the country’s worst wildfire season in recorded history – found more than seven out of 10 Canadians are worried about climate change.
Alongside these fears, there seems to be a strong desire to be part of the solution. In another recent survey, by the research firm Ipsos, close to 70 per cent of Canadians said they believe small behavioural changes to decarbonize their daily lives could move the needle on climate change. Jack Bruner, co-founder of Carbon Neutral Club – which gives companies an online platform where employees can track their actions to reduce emissions – says a lot of small actions can make a big difference.
“You have a huge amount of power with the decisions that you make,” says Mr. Bruner, whose Toronto-based company now has more than 100 clients including Kraft Heinz and a leading bank. “Consumers are really the ones with power. Companies work on a profit motive based on bringing to market goods and services that consumers respond to, so consumers are really the only ones influencing top-down decision making.”
Canadians can take actions every day to decarbonize their lives. Mr. Bruner points to one activity that’s part of many Canadians’ daily routine – getting to and from work – that could be more environmentally friendly. Instead of driving, take public transit or, if distance and weather allow, cycle or walk.
Reducing meat consumption can also make an impact, Mr. Bruner says. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 40 per cent of agricultural emissions in Canada come from methane, with as much as 90 per cent produced by cattle and sheep.
For his part, Mr. Bruner says he minimizes air travel and chooses, whenever possible, to take the train or another available form of mass transit when he has to go out of town for business. When he drives, it’s behind the wheel of a low-emissions vehicle.
“Those are the big levers that I’ve chosen to tackle but I also do a number of small things, like never using plastic wrap and always bringing reusable bags to go to the grocery,” he says. “Reduction of our energy and water consumption is also something we’re very diligent about in our household. We take short showers, don’t let the tap run when we’re washing dishes, and I recently bought a smart power bar.”
This recent purchase – also known as a power strip, with multiple outlets to plug in electronic devices – features circuitry that automatically shuts off certain designated outlets so that the devices plugged into them stop drawing power.
“I started using this because I learned that 25 per cent of the energy used in households is what’s called vampire power – from devices that are not used but are plugged in and in idle state and continue using power,” Mr. Bruner says.
Some Canadians are combining small actions with bigger ones. Dr. Nate Charach, a Toronto psychiatrist, is working with Ms. Wong on a long-term project to build a net-zero home. The plan involves tearing down his family’s 1940s home – the existing structure has deteriorated badly and there’s mould in several places – and building a passive house that will use little to no electricity and be able to heat and cool itself.
Dr. Charach also plans to install solar panels on his future home, which he says will be built in stages to make the cost more manageable for him and his wife.
In the meantime, he’s created a fast-growth “edible forest” in his backyard, using a carefully chosen combination of fruit and nut trees. Everything can be eaten by humans, animals and insects, Dr. Charach says, and the strategic mix of plants is meant to accelerate the growth of the forest.
“I worked with an arborist who is a specialist in this [area] and I also studied permaculture, where I learned about guilds of plants that work really well together,” Dr. Charach says. “As a result, [in the summer] my garden is just beautiful – lush, green and flourishing – and I don’t have to water it much.”
While planting fruits and vegetables in the backyard or on the balcony can help consumers reduce their reliance on foods that need to be transported hundreds of kilometres before they get to their dinner table, there’s another good reason to grow trees and other greens, Ms. Wong says.
“First of all, anything growing is going to be sequestering carbon,” she says. “But the other thing that it does is it creates shade and moisture retention. It keeps the ground cooler – by changing what’s called the albedo – so it’s creating a lovely microclimate.”
In addition to planting his edible forest and planning for his future passive home, Dr. Charach also leads a community group of like-minded thinkers who want to make a difference for the planet.
Jessica Pellerin, a neighbour who joined the community group after she and her husband met Dr. Charach in a park, says it’s been helpful to hear what other people are doing to help the environment.
Ms. Pellerin says she and her husband already undertake climate-friendly actions – such as growing a vegetable garden, buying secondhand clothes and furniture, taking transit and cycling – but are now building a list of ideas they plan to apply in the near future.
“We definitely want to look into our cooling and heating system – we’re thinking of putting in a heat pump – and our community group is also working on starting a swap-and-exchange platform where we can share and reuse items within the community,” she says.
One community group member has highlighted local vendors who sell products in containers that customers can bring back to refill and reuse. Other members have shared their experiences about what’s worked and hasn’t worked in their efforts to decarbonize.
Mr. Bruner says that, even with best intentions, not every action will work or make sense for the environment. For example, people who buy electric vehicles may think they’re decarbonizing their transport, but if the EV draws energy from an electricity grid that isn’t low-emission, then that action won’t have the desired impact.
“But if you drive an EV in British Columbia, which has a 90-per-cent green-energy or low-emission grid, then you’re moving the needle forward,” he says. “So, for people who really want to make a difference, the important thing to figure out is what small things you can do every day that will have a real and meaningful difference.”