What would a net-zero Albertan city look like?

Along with the rest of Canada, Alberta has committed to a 2050 net zero emissions goal, but the province may end up lagging behind the rest of the country.

Part of the net-zero emissions goal is the net-zero grid goal that Canada committed to for 2035, however Alberta will be 15 years behind the rest of the country after the provincial government pushed for a 2050 net-zero grid goal. The extended goal was set after the Alberta Government's invocation of the Sovereignty Act

Premiere Danielle Smith, Environment Minister Rebecca Schultz and the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) all advocated for the 2050 extension, citing Alberta’s strong dependence on natural gas as a unique disadvantage and that pushing for the 2035 goal could result in an inability to provide reliable power in the province. 

The provincial government’s unwavering refusal has caused controversy and frustration on a federal level particularly from Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault who expressed that granting Alberta an exception would be unfair.

Regardless of whether the net-zero goal is 10 or 25 years away, what’s clear is that Alberta is going to have to adopt significant policy and technological changes to meet the combined 2050 net-zero grid and net-zero emissions goal. As it stands, Alberta has the highest provincial emissions in the country. 

While a significant amount of those emissions are produced by industry, a new study by Sandeep Agrawal and Nilusha Welegedara highlighta the contribution of residential neighborhoods to the province’s emissions.

The study compares the emissions of different neighbourhoods in Edmonton and looked at different factors such as square footage, age of the neighbourhood and transit. Prior to the study, transportation was generally considered a higher contributor to emissions than households, but Agrawal and Welegedara’s study found that in Edmonton, household emissions are 45% higher than those from transportation.

That’s not to say that neighborhood emissions are equally high across the board. Edmonton’s high neighbourhood emissions are directly related to the high latitude of the city. 

“High latitude cities have higher household energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions because these cities face opposite temperature extremes that need heating in cold winters and cooling in warm or hot summers” says Welegedara.

Currently, most of these cities rely primarily on fossil fuel for power.

Agrawal and Welegedara’s recommendations for how cities like Edmonton can reduce neighbourhood emissions give us an idea of what our cities may look like in a net-zero Alberta.


High density

When it comes to emissions reduction, density is the way to go. Condos, apartments, row houses and townhouses share walls which helps to reduce energy spent on heating and cooling which means attached units have lower emissions than detached homes. Additionally, the study found that square footage impacts emissions since more energy is required to heat or cool a larger home. Simply put, net-zero areas are more likely to look like downtown edmonton than any of the suburbs on the outskirts of the city.


Robust public transportation

Although emissions from residences were higher than emissions from vehicles, vehicles still play a large role in contributing to emissions. Transportation emissions were highest in neighborhoods farther from the center of the city. Less public transportation means people have to rely on personal transportation to get around. These same areas also tend to be farther from necessities which means walking or biking to nearby amenities is not an option. A net-zero city would require abundantly available and safe transportation in all areas. Mixed use zoning that allows amenities to be built in residential zones would also decrease reliance on personal transportation.


Clean energy

A lot of people don’t care for high density living for various reasons. Single detached residences still may have a place in a net-zero city but because detached residences have higher emissions, the emissions would have to be offset. Agrawal and Welegedara suggest that this could be achieved by adopting renewable energy. Detached homes in a net-zero city can utilize extra space for clean energy generation such as using roof space for solar panels.



Many older houses lack the energy efficient engineering that goes into newer houses. This means that heat or cooling escapes through windows and doors, meaning more power is required to compensate. Fortunately, older homes can be retrofitted to increase efficiency. Older homes in a net-zero city will be retrofitted to conserve power use.


Green cover

Reducing emissions is important but another avenue for reducing carbon is carbon capture. Trees and greenery have the ability to capture and store carbon. Net-zero cities are likely to look a lot greener throughout than our current cities.


Collective action and community programs

One key to encouraging citizens to adopt emissions reducing action is community programs. Community programs can help spread awareness and knowledge and, as Agrawal and Welegedara found, individuals can be influenced to adopt emissions reducing behaviour by peer effects. This means that individuals are more likely to adopt clean energy technologies if their peers are doing the same. Encouraging one another to take action and implementing educational programs will help us achieve net-zero cities.


Both Edmonton and Calgary have taken action to increase density and housing availability and improve transportation. However, support for renewable energy in Alberta may be a bit of a roadblock. Following a debilitating moratorium that lost the province over 30 billion in investments, the Alberta government's renewable energy restrictions are discouraging and may hinder the province’s progress towards the 2050 net-zero goals.

The provincial government has also announced a grant program to encourage carbon capture with the province though the program has faced criticism and concern from multiple groups including first nations groups.

However the government has laid out a plan for emissions reductions which will hopefully keep the province on track. You can read the Government of Alberta’s Emissions Reduction and Energy Development Plan here.

For more information about neighbourhood emissions, you can read Agrawal and Welegedara's study and listen to our latest podcast episode.