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The practicalities of going green

Conestogo’s Paul Parker sets a good example for green living – he was an early adopter of solar panels, long before the technology was as economical as it is today, for instance – but he knows it takes more than an individual effort to make a difference.

Recently awarded an Environmental Lifetime Achievement Award by Green Communities Canada (GCC) for his decades of leadership in ecological conservation measures, Parker is quick to credit others for running with his early efforts.

A professor and associate dean in the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, Parker was a cofounder in 1999 of the Residential Energy Efficiency Project (REEP) – today known as Reep Green Solutions – which also won a GCC award last month as Green Community Member of the Year.

Without others joining in and expanding on the Reep philosophy, there would be no achievements to recognize, Parker maintains in sharing the credit.

“I’m just a local farm boy who just grew up and thought ‘this kinda makes sense,’” he said of his own foray into environmentalism.

“Likeminded people made everything else possible.”

Parker said his has always been a practical approach to environmental issues, looking at ways everybody can take part in the movement. With Reep, the first step was offering home energy audits and suggesting improvements such as upgrades to windows and insulation. Such steps not only reduced energy loss, but put money back in homeowners’ pockets, the very definition of practical.

From the initial energy audits, Reep expanded its environmental offerings over the years, all with practicality in mind, be it reducing waste, dealing with rainwater runoff, planting trees or reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.

“We’re all about action – practical action that each of us can take in our lives and in our communities,” said Mary Jane Patterson, executive director of Reep Green Solutions.

“We started with a pretty specific focus – home energy evaluations – and expanded from there,” she added, noting many of the new services were driven by feedback from the community.

“You need to be lean, responsive and strategic, and we try to do all of those things.”

Changing technologies and evolving public attitudes have also help expand Reep and other environmental groups, Parker notes.

“It’s a more sophisticated population these days – people know things are changing … that we’re having to worry about things,” he said. “Most people accept that the climate is changing around us.”

The public is generally in agreement that mitigation efforts are needed, though such efforts have been limited to date. That being the case, adaptation is now emerging as the next hurdle: we’re seeing more extreme weather, particularly flooding, and we’re going to have to make changes to deal with that, says Parker.

Again, there are practical steps that can be taken to help communities to adapt to shifting weather patterns and increased risks of flooding, he suggests, pointing to the likes of Reep’s rainwater management techniques.

“Each of us can only do a little, but if more of us do something, it does add up.”

It’s an approach he sees being used by many environmental groups, promoting action rather than just advocacy. Green Communities Canada, on whose board he once served, is an umbrella organization that promotes hands-on options, allowing diverse groups to share what works with each other.

“It looks at what are the actions that are practical for you and me,” said Parker of GCC. “It’s good to be sharing stories across the country … so groups are on the same page, rather than reinventing the wheel.”

In working with municipalities and larger groups, Reep, too, has become more collaborative.

As part of Climate Change WR, the group is working with others to reduce the region’s carbon footprint. Transportation is the biggest single emitter in these parts, but issues such as food waste come into play, says Patterson.

Here, too, there are practical steps and commensurate programs such as planting trees, which help reduce the need for air conditioning and retain water, for instance. With that in mind, Reep has a program that assists homeowners in developing a landscape plan for their properties.

Long before solar panels were as economical as they are today, Paul Parker had them installed on the roof of his Conestogo home. [Steve Kannon]
“It’s a neat opportunity for people to have someone come to your home and evaluate what is right for your home,” she said.

The new offerings are part of Reep’s evolution over the past 20 years, a milestone that will be celebrated at Fresh Air Fest, an anniversary celebration set for September 14 at Waterloo Park.

When Parker cofounded Reep in 1999 – a joint initiative of the  University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment and the Elora Environment Centre – he didn’t know how it might evolve, but he remains involved and committed to making a difference.

“It’s fantastic to have Paul on our board of directors. He still has that passion for sustainability,” said Patterson.

The passion remains and there are more likeminded people than ever, but is the pace of change enough to ward off the worse impacts of climate change, for instance?

“We are doing some steps in the right direction, but we’re not moving fast enough – our emissions are still going up,” said Parker, noting inertia may be working against us.

“These are certainly interesting times,” he added, referencing the old Chinese curse.

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