Gorillas and Windmills

Stu Campana explores the potential for mutually beneficial partnerships between renewable energy infrastructure and greenbelts.

Canada has some very successful greenbelts. They promote urban density, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offer a host of recreation possibilities, among other benefits.

Canada has some very successful greenbelts. They promote urban density, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offer a host of recreation possibilities, among other benefits.

Expansion of these green spaces, however, is not always met with enthusiasm. At an Ottawa community meeting on the potential expansion of the National Capital Greenbelt, there was clear public opposition to the proposal.

“Once you put [the greenbelt] on private property,” said one resident, “the value immediately goes down.”

While some Canadians may require further convincing on the economic benefits of greenbelts, renewable energy technologies may be able to help – more on that in a moment. For an example of a country that has put a high dollar value on the preservation of green spaces, consider the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The population of the DRC is expected to double between 2005 and 2020, reaching 120 million inhabitants by the end of this decade. Even with a wealth of natural resources, the country has been struck by relentless drought and famine, forcing its citizens to explore the limits of what we know about human endurance.

Under such conditions, few could afford to be sentimental about the beauty of nature. Yet somehow, the DRC’s protected environmental areas are getting larger. It’s been good news for the local gorilla population, which has withstood years of encroachment and fighting in its territory. With eight per cent of the country already protected, the government has announced plans to increase that number to somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent.

Fifteen per cent of Canada is Quebec. Or, if you prefer, BC plus all of the Atlantic provinces.

I love gorillas as much as the next guy, but do I love them so much that I would sacrifice the equivalent of five provinces for their preservation while I was suffering from severe hunger?

Notwithstanding the fact that it’s probably very dangerous to tell a 400-pound gorilla where it should or shouldn’t live, and the fact that Africa and Canada have vastly different socioeconomic challenges and conflicts, the DRC is driven by more than mere sentiment in making such expansive declarations.

It seems that there is money in protected areas. Tourism money, in particular, which may explain why residents of newly declared protected areas have been evicted at gunpoint. The government appears to believe that the value of environmental services provided by these areas – food and timber, mainly – is less than the value of their preservation. Additionally, entire countries have shown a willingness to put a dollar value on the DRC’s rainforests. Through the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, Western countries have promised something on the order of $3-billion for the preservation of forests in developing countries, having determined that the benefits of these forests are of international importance.

Nobody is going to pay Canada to protect its green spaces. It would be like offering real-estate subsidies to Donald Trump. Although we often mismanage the land we have, Canada has so much of it (as well as enough wealth to look after it) that we don’t typically garner much sympathy for the environmental cause. But the principle – that there is money in protected spaces – is one that we should take seriously.

Like the DRC’s protected regions, Canada’s greenbelts border urban areas that would otherwise likely expand to absorb the greenbelts into development. Meanwhile, one of the biggest impediments to renewable energy uptake in Canada is the not-in-my-backyard problem. Because greenbelts are not entirely composed of people’s backyards, they can be paired especially well with alternative energy production.

Obviously it would be neither possible nor advisable to plunk an enormous windfarm down in the middle of a protected area. By putting a windmill or solar panel here and a micro-hydro system there, Canadians could begin to incur more tangible economic benefits from the inherent value of nature. Few opponents to renewable energy have ever complained about the economic value of the energy produced – just the inconvenience of having the technology to harness it in the way of their view.

The environment has value in and of itself, but protected areas can yield financial gains as well – be it via gorilla tourism or energy producing windmills – without damaging the environment as intensive farming or forestry tends to do.

In the DRC, green spaces pay for themselves. Canada, with fantastic quantities of undeveloped land, is still working to identify a universally compelling argument against those who look at greenbelts and then back at the bottom line. Pairing these spaces with renewable energy could benefit everyone and tiptoe around the NIMBY problem.

Alternatively, we could import gorillas.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, currently working with Fern Ridge Landscaping and Eco-Consulting in Milton, Ontario.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.