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CTV News and Canadian Architect

New Research Reveals Surprise: In Edmonton, Houses, Not Cars, Pollute More

University of Alberta Professor Agrawal's groundbreaking study reveals Edmonton homes emit significantly more greenhouse gases than cars, challenging long-held assumptions about urban pollution

When you think about big carbon polluters, you probably envision a gas-guzzling monster truck as the culprit. 

You’d be wrong! 

Sandeep Agrawal, a professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, studied whether cars or houses in Edmonton produced more heat-trapping pollution.

Their results were a surprise. Agrawal and postdoctoral researcher Nilusha Welegedara’s study, published in ScienceDirect, shows that in Edmonton, homes produce significantly more greenhouse gases than cars.

This finding challenges the common perception that gas-powered vehicles are the primary source of polluting emissions in our cities.

The focus on carbon pollution in our cities is usually on cars | Unsplash
The focus on carbon pollution in our cities is usually on cars | Unsplash

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Agrawal found that buildings are responsible for approximately 45% more heat-trapping carbon pollution than personal transportation. 

This disparity is particularly evident in single-family detached homes, which consume much more energy than other housing types.

In the suburbs and neighbourhoods on Edmonton’s outskirts, houses are generally more energy-efficient because they were built more recently than in mature and inner-city neighbourhoods. 

However, per capita greenhouse gas emissions are significantly higher in the suburbs. 

This increase is because suburban homes are larger and, therefore, require more energy overall for heating and cooling. 

On average, suburban single-family homes in Edmonton are around 1,900 square feet, compared to 1,400 square feet in more mature neighbourhoods. 

This 40 percent increase in size results in higher energy consumption and, consequently, more greenhouse gas pollution.

Large suburban homes have a bigger carbon footprint than older inner city homes despite being more energy efficient | Unsplash
Large suburban homes have a bigger carbon footprint than older inner city homes despite being more energy efficient | Unsplash

A Changing Climate Affects Us More

Professor Agrawal was curious about what causes most of the greenhouse gas pollution in cold cities like Edmonton. So, he started a study to find out.

These cities, situated around 52 or 53 degrees parallel north, are experiencing accelerated effects of climate change, warming at twice the global average, and facing more extreme weather events. 

Agrawal compares Edmonton’s situation with other high-latitude cities like Helsinki in Finland, Oslo in Norway, and Stockholm in Sweden.

Despite many people’s efforts to make homes more energy-efficient through solar panels, heat pumps, and better insulation, Agrawal emphasizes that the trend towards larger homes is counteracting those efforts. 

Larger homes have become more common partly because of changes in our lives. 

For example, the pandemic led to a need for home offices, and the housing crisis has made it necessary for extended families to live together, requiring more rooms. 

However, larger homes with more residents have led to higher energy needs for heating and cooling and more pollution.

Making homes more energy-efficient, will save energy, lower electricity bills and help drive carbon pollution down.

Agrawal also advocates for the construction of smaller homes, retrofitting existing buildings, and utilizing more green resources. 

Additionally, Agrawal highlights the importance of reducing dependence on personal vehicles and improving public transportation systems to further lower emissions.

The past focus on cars as the primary driver of carbon pollution isn’t an accurate picture of the sources of urban carbon pollution.

A more balanced approach is required. We also need to consider the size of new homes, energy-efficient building upgrades, and the obvious impact of personal vehicles.

Studies like Agrawal’s give us better information to make changes where it matters most. Maybe upgrading our homes is where most people need to put their ‘energy into reducing carbon pollution.

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