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Launch an international movement to shift thinking around climate change and enable neighbourhoods to track and reduce GHG emissions.



Over 80% of Americans and Canadians now live in urban areas where the residential sector is the source of 25-60% of greenhouse gas emissions. To date, the majority of sustainable design projects have focused on developments in urban expansion areas – either greenfield or urban infill projects. As a result, established communities are underrepresented in their efforts to reduce environmental impact. In these mature residential areas where the housing stock is aging and inefficient, potential reductions of 20 – 50% of GHG emissions per household are possible with zero to low cost retrofits and behavioural change. The potential is significant.

In Project Neutral’s experience, we often encounter individuals that are overwhelmed by the complexity of climate change and frustrated by an inability to link actions to impact. Energy conservation and greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets (at the municipal, state/province or federal level) are not translated to the household level. As a result, citizens are lacking the tools, knowledge and resources to enable a systemic change in response to one of the most pressing societal challenges of our time.

What if every household tracked its own GHG emissions?

What if neighbourhoods competed on how many GHG’s they reduced every year?

What if citizens were the leaders of the climate change movement?

This is the future we are building with Project Neutral.

Project Neutral (PN) is an ambitious initiative to transition neighbourhoods to carbon neutrality.  A primarily volunteer-led, grassroots initiative, PN works with community leaders to establish a greenhouse gas baseline, create spaces and tools for knowledge sharing, and inspire actions that reduce energy use and carbon emissions. PN is developing a scalable model for different neighbourhoods, communities and cities, working at the juncture of homeowners, neighbourhoods, municipalities and the energy sector. PN is a project of Tides Canada Initiatives Society (TCI).   

Key actor

Grassroots neighborhood organizations

What actions do you propose?

Project Neutral has developed a flexible model that can be scaled up across different size neighbourhoods, communities and municipalities.  We are seeking the financial and community support to make Project Neutral an international movement that can be adapted by and applied to neighbourhoods around the world. 

Working with neighbourhood partners as well as local utilities, residents associations, school boards and municipal staff, Project Neutral will lead a collaborative process to adapt its household greenhouse gas benchmarking, reporting, engagement and on-going feedback tools for use in other communities.

The model will provide thousands of households with a tool for (1) reducing household greenhouse gas emissions, (2) increasing resource (water, energy, materials, etc) conservation (3) contributing to local, national and international greenhouse gas reduction targets and (4) building local capacity and engaging in efforts to build awareness about climate change and inspire action.

By engaging numerous, diverse stakeholders in a grassroots climate change dialogue, the project will build capacity by increasing the ability to gauge greenhouse gas emissions and inspire action at the individual, household and neighburhood; exploring the effort and impact of a range of climate change actions; and collaborating on how to most effectively act as a catalyst for systems-wide change. The project will result in an improved network of neighbourhood-focused climate change action organizations, leading to overall greater impact by leveraging local initiatives, building partnerships, and creating opportunities for spin-off climate change action initiatives.

Our strategy is based on the following 5 steps:

Step 1:  Engage neighbourhood leaders.

PN is responding to residents and neighbourhood leaders concerned about climate change who want to do more to address the problem. Since 2010, PN has successfully brought together and catalyzed passionate and influential local leaders and volunteers in two Toronto neighbourhoods to initiate this project. To address the complexity of climate change, PN engages with neighbourhood groups, working with existing community leaders. By introducing a personal (neighbour to neighbour) connection, barriers to behaviour change are overcome.

Step 2: Develop a GHG baseline and track progress.

Over 400 households completed the second annual Household Carbon Footprint Survey ( Unlike other carbon calculators, our survey does not use citywide averages. We collect household level data to enable residents to track real impact and progress. The survey examines waste, food, energy, water and transportation to provide a comprehensive picture of carbon emissions

Step 3: Provide a Resident Action Plan. 

Participating households can view the results of their survey on-line.  A dynamic interface shows residents what behaviours and actions are producing the most greenhouse gas emissions, how this effects the environment and choices that are available to reduce their footprint. As part of our feedback strategy, PN uses a community based social marketing strategy to create “norms” (neighbourhood averages). Residents can compare themselves to similar households in their neighbourhood, fostering a culture of sustainability and climate change action.

PN will be launching the Household Challenge in September 2013. The goal of the Household Challenge is to enable households to transition to a lower carbon lifestyle by providing the tools (information) to help prioritize opportunities and inspire action. Having completed the Household Carbon Footprint Survey and viewed their baseline, the user can take the Household Challenge, beginning with setting an emissions reduction target of 10 or 20%. To reach that target, the user can then view and select from over 50 actions and behaviour changes. The potential emissions reduction for each selection will be shown, allowing the user to prioritize and create a plan unique to their household and emissions profile.

Step 4: Build Neighbourhood Capacity. 

We have developed various strategies to raise awareness and enable change at the individual, household and neighbourhood level.  Workshops, canvassing, school and community events have brought neighbours together to engage in a grassroots climate change dialogue. To enable deeper reductions PN launched – a community wide retrofit initiative based on a collaboration with an ENGO and gas utility.

Step 5: Act as a Catalyst. Champion ideas, and leverage partnerships and innovative practices.

Project Neutral creates spaces for neighbourhood leaders, experts, innovators and solutions providers to brainstorm, challenge paradigms and test new ideas.  Project Neutral has been involved in many creative collaborations to ennable deeper greenhouse gas reductions, including Gettingto80 – a community wide retrofit initiative based on a collaboration with Windfall Ecology Centre and Enbridge Gas.

Getting to 80 is about developing ways to engage and efficiently retrofit entire communities in order to achieve Toronto’s GHG emission reduction target of 80% by 2050. The goal is to galvanize stakeholders around offerings for electricity savings, renewable energy, and water conservation opportunities.  Getting to 80 is a way of connecting residents with ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Within a month of its launch, Getting to 80 is showing early signs of success, including increased program uptake compared to other similar programs.

The first phase of this program focuses on natural gas savings by providing easy one-window enrolment in a comprehensive package that includes home assessments by Certified Energy Auditors, gas saving measures, and access to trusted contractors.

We anticipate that community partners (environmental groups and neighbourhoods associations) will lead Step 1 (selecting neighbourhood leaders/champions to work with), and Step 4 (promotion and coordination of local engagement efforts) activities. PN will act as the lead organization for all other activities, with a new focus on a larger collaborative, capacity building effort: connecting stakeholders, building and strengthening partnerships and creating knowledge sharing opportunities.

Project Neutral’s Community Based Social Marketing Strategy:

Project Neutral is challenging individuals to consider the longer term implications of their actions. This kind of thinking requires a societal shift from a profit driven economy to a low-carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive economy.  But how do we achieve this shift? Research shows that information alone does not change behaviour. If you want to reduce household fossil fuel consumption, it’s not enough to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change, or the benefits of making your house more energy efficient.  Behaviour is much more likely to change if there is an emotional connection – if, for example, the message is coming from your neighbour. 

Project Neutral’s model also emphasizes the importance of shared responsibility – that in recognizing that “we are all in this together”, whether it is climate change or poverty reduction – there is greater meaning in both achieving and journeying towards a shared goal.

In response to the need to work at the local level and operate from a shared value perspective, PN uses a community based social marketing approach to create “norms” or neighbourhood averages using the data from our household carbon footprint survey. We compare your household carbon footprint to others in your neighbourhood.

The idea is that if you aren’t doing as well as your neighbours, you’ll be inspired to do more.  And if you are one of the leaders, this recognition will encourage you to keep up the good work. The results are only disclosed to you, but the message is a neighbourhood one.  And in this way we are creating a paradigm shift.

Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s book “Fostering Sustainble Behaviour: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing” (CBSM) contains dozens of case studies that show how CBSM strategies can achieve significantly greater program uptake.


Specific Proposed Actions / Immediate Next Steps:

(1)    Create a web-based hub for neighbourhoods interested in transitioning to carbon neutrality. The site will include current and planned tools offered by Project Neutral, including the Household Carbon Footprint Survey and reporting features, and the Household Challenge. Neighbourhood group administrators will be able to modify their micro site content, including survey questions and emissions factors, and select their level of service, including access to engagement and Neighbourhood Change modules, and coordinate coordination with local utilities and municipalities.

(2)    Competitive selection process of 2-3 neighbourhoods from across North America

(3)    Gradual scaling up to additional neighbourhoods

(4)    Explore innovative funding mechanisms: In order to ensure long-term sustainability, we are researching and testing ways to generate revenue related to our mission. 

Success is a positive feedback loop set in motion using new social norms based on household carbon emissions: neighbours inspiring neighbours to reduce their footprint.

Environmental impact will be measured by the reduction of tonnes of CO2 emissions for participating households, as well as kilowatt hours of electricity, cubic meters of gas and water, litres of oil, tonnes of waste and kilometers travelled by car, plane and transit.

Economic impact will be measured by demand for household retrofits, energy auditors, contractors, and energy efficient materials (using survey data and retrofit program participation rates), and consumer response to partnerships with green solutions providers.

Social impact will be measured by survey participation, neighbourhood engagement in retrofit programs, workshops and other events, stakeholder feedback and spin off neighbourhood initiatives.

Learn more about Project Neutral at:

Who will take these actions?

Project Neutral will work with community organizations, leaders and the following stakeholders to establish a similar initiative in their neighbourhoods:

  • Residents who want to learn more about their environmental footprint, how to set priorities and where to focus their efforts, who are passionate about the environment and meaningful change. We have initially engaged with the ‘early adopters’ and will continue to engage a greater portion of the population.
  • New or existing community organizations and community leaders.  We are currently working with over a dozen local neighbourhood groups. As operations are expanded to new neighbourhoods, new partners will be involved in local efforts.
  • Towns/cities and local elected officials.
  • Local business, educators and students
  • Utilities, green service providers
  • We are also looking to develop partnerships with organizations around a neighbourhood financing mechanisms to ensure long-term sustainability and testing strategies for deeper engagement to enable greater impact.

Where will these actions be taken?

Currently, Project Neutral is working in two Toronto neighbourhoods. We would recommend continuing to select neighbourhoods based on a competitive selection process - ensuring strong, grassroots support and increased likelihood of success. As explained below, once the model is ready for expansion, new neighbourhoods will be added based on resources available to sustain an appropriate rate of growth. Where this happens (Canada, the US or elsewhere) will be determined during the initial 12 month refinement and expansion preparation phase. The expansion strategy will consider where and how it makes the most sense to expand and the rate of expansion.

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

Research shows that community based social marketing strategies (social norms, feedback mechanisms) can increase energy conservation 10-15% over business as usual. In addition to energy, PN's approach applies to transportation, water, food, and waste, resulting in additional reductions of 10-15% per sector. In addition to positive behavioural trends in preliminary survey results PN is seeing higher uptake for a recently launched energy retrofit program called Getting to 80. In just two neighbourhoods in the city of Toronto, the uptake for this program is matching the average uptake across the entire province on Ontario. Results indicate (1) change requires an emotional (neighbourhood) connection, (2) people are inundated with information; a trusted, neighbourhood voice breaks through the noise and (3) we have an attentive audience that is passionate about the environment - it makes sense that uptake will be greater. This demographic = the tipping point. To scale up = systemic change.

What are other key benefits?

  • Community engagement:  We have seen a significant increase in household survey participation (over 200% in one year), and neighbourhood events (over 700 households have directly participated in PN activities). To date, 250 volunteers have contributed over 14,000 volunteer hours resulting in greater neighbourhood resiliency, increased awareness of resources, strengthened relationships, and skills development and awareness building.
  • Support for local economy:  over $300,000 raised to date = local employment opportunities and community building events, and contributes to enhanced workforce participation
  • Volunteers: Skills development for youth and newcomers contributing to greater workforce participation.
  • Students: relationship building opportunities with local groups, meaningful community service opportunities,  increased awareness of climate change
  • Municipality, utilities, green service providers: promotion of collective goals, piloting / exposure of services or products

What are the proposal’s costs?

We are looking to raise $85,000 for IT upgrades, video production, administration and HR costs.

This funding will address current IT challenges, support process optimization and development of a sustainable funding model, and create a streamlined approach for neighbourhood engagement and action to finalize a model ready for scaling up.

Additional funding will need to be secured for scaling up, OR, preferably, all expansion efforts to new neighbourhoods will be achieved on a cost recovery basis determined through development of a funding model. For example, households may pay a user fee to access on-line tools, or municipalities/cities or other stakholders/champions could pay an annual licensing fee for Project Neutral tools to be modified for local use.

Time line

Project Neutral has been operating in two Toronto neighbourhoods for over two years (we are in our 3rd year of operation as an initiative). We propose taking an initial 12 month period to refine our process / change model and tools, and then begin a gradual scale up of operations, expanding to new neighbourhoods that are chosen based on a competitive selective process. The rate of scaling up will depend on the funding model selected and/or addditional funding that is secured.

Related proposals

Cool City Challenge


Feedback Mechanisms: Smart Grid Optimization: The Effectiveness of Feedback on Energy Consumption”, produced by Janeen Stodulski, CGA, MBA – PowerWatch (September 23, 2011) summarizes the untapped potential of feedback mechanisms (published as part of the Province of Ontario’s Green Button Initiative). Stodulski notes, “The process of giving real-time energy feedback on consumption motivates consumers to save energy through reduced waste; the paper reviews the effectiveness of real-time energy feedback to domestic consumers via direct feedback in the home. The paper concludes that feedback has a significant role to play in raising energy awareness and in bringing about reduced consumption of the order of 10%-15% and at times as high as 20%; and that opportunities exist for designing it into energy-related systems which have yet to be realized.”  The findings are based on a review of 38 feedback studies carried out over a period of 25  years.

Ashton-Hayes: Located in Cheshire, England, Ashton Hayes is a community of about 1000 people that is aiming to become England's first carbon neutral community. Ashton-Hayes initiated their project in January 2006.Findings: 23% reduction in household emission within 5 years.  Electricity use has dropped from 6202 to 5789 kWh, (6.6% decrease), attributed to a rise in efficiency of the residents through the implementation of energy saving measures and behaviour change 

Eden Mill Going Carbon Neutral: Eden Mills is a rural village of approximately 350 people located east of Guelph in the Eramosa River valley. As a small village with an ambitious goal, Eden Mills is engaging in a grassroots initiative to tackle the urgent issue of a warming planet. In 2007, Eden Mills launched their project with the goal of becoming the first village in North America to achieve carbon neutrality.


A short video on Project Neutral:

Video testimonials: David Miller:, Vincent Lam,

Presentation at Federation of Canadian Municipalities Sustainable Communities Conference:


1.    Household Carbon Footprint Reports:

2.    Saving Money and Energy: A Home Upgrade Primer:

3.    8 Easy Weekend Projects:

4.    Growing a More Sustainable Neighbourhood: