Vancouver bids to be world’s greenest city

Last week, the City of Vancouver’s task force, the Greenest City Action Team, issued a plan for the city with short and longer-term goals and policy advice on achieving them. The report covers more than climate change, a good thing as it is important to identify win-wins that lead to improvement on other environmental, health and social objectives as we develop and implement climate plans.

Overall, there is a lot to like in this report, but consistently I found it lacking on the social and economic side of green policy-making. Context matters, and we need to recognize that Vancouver is a diverse city ranging from astonishingly wealthy people (who have some of the largest carbon footprints in the world) to desperately poor people (who already live close to carbon neutral lives). I’d encourage the authors to go back the table one more time and think through the implications for low income households to ensure that the plan does not unwittingly punish the people who have the least blame. If we do not build in principles of social justice into these plans, they will inevitably widen a gap that is already way too large.

The full report takes a while to find its legs. The summary and intro read like countless other reports with desirable but vague commitments to green jobs and a low carbon economy. But then comes this on page 23, and thereafter the report really gets rolling:

The Greenest City Action Team recommends that Vancouver commit to eliminating fossil fuels by 2040, a realistic goal given the pace of technological and behavioural change as well as capital investment cycles.

One can quibble with the time line, but it is rare these days to see anyone committing to a 100% reduction in emissions. And 2040 seems plausible in getting there. Next up, they put their fingers on the number one long-term issue, land use:

Land-use patterns are probably the single most important determinant of people’s greenhouse gas emissions and their ecological footprints. If Vancouverites lived in complete communities—with a mix of housing types, jobs, schools, daycares, shopping, and recreational opportunities within a ten-minute walk—they would rarely need cars and when they did, most trips would be shorter. Mixed-use neighbourhoods bring jobs closer to homes and allow for live/work space that eliminates commuting entirely. Done right, they are safe, vibrant, people-centred communities that are beautiful and healthy places to live and work.

One thing that is missing in this section, however, is any notion of affordability in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Our Climate Justice Project made a submission to the last council, called Affordable EcoDensity, to rectify this oversight, and I’m disappointed to see no reference at all to things like “inclusionary zoning” that would add to the affordable housing pool or the need for greater social/nonprofit/cooperative housing.

Similarly, I like the gist of this recommendation but again the plan’s call for an integrated approach to planning falls short of addressing social and economic context:

If Vancouver is to become the greenest city in the world, it must integrate planning for land-use, transportation, energy, waste, water, green space, and urban food systems. We need to look at our city as an integrated system in which waste is a resource (e.g. compost feeds urban agriculture), density is the key to the development of new transport and renewable energy systems, and those systems help us meet our targets for greenhouse gas reductions and green buildings.

The issue of food must be tackled more fundamentally. The report recommends a 33% reduction in food-related GHG emissions by 2020, which sounds good but does not amount to much given that Vancouver imports half the food we eat, and has little control over farming practices even when the food is local. Yes, we need more local and organic food, as the report argues, but given what we know about climate change we need to set some targets around self-sufficiency in food, and secure those supplies by building connections with Fraser Valley farmers. This could be a win-win for food security and income security for farmers. But even with abundant and cheap fossil-fuel-produced food, hunger is a big problem in Vancouver, and its elimination should be part of an integrated plan.

On water, the report recommends metering and volume-based pricing. While this makes sense at a certain level, this additional bill for low-income households is bound to be regressive, unless a basic “sustainable” amount is provided for free to all households. The report acknowledges the problem but does not make any specific recommendations. The abuses of water tend to come from the houses with the biggest gardens and most cars, so sure, let’s go after them but we must think through the design to avoid adverse distributional consequences. And let’s face it, conserving water seems a relatively low priority for me in one of the wettest cities in the world.

The plan does a much better job when addressing the financial barriers facing households who may want to upgrade their home’s energy efficiency. I like that they endorse on-bill financing where upfront capital would be provided for upgrades with it paid for on a BC Hydro or property tax bill. Energy efficiency improvements will save more money than the repayment, and any costs and benefits will be transferred if the owners move, so this is a win-win for all concerned. The report rightly presses for improvements to existing stock, while ensuring superior performance from new developments, although it is not clear at all what ensuring “all new construction to be carbon neutral by 2020” actually means in practice.

However, the report also calls for on-bill financing on natural gas bills, which suggests to me they do not fully get that burning natural gas (aka methane, itself a potent greenhouse gas) produces carbon dioxide. As a matter of policy we want to move people off using natural gas in order to meet the longer-term target for GHG emissions. There is some confusion out there as switching to natural gas is often encouraged in other jurisdictions that burn coal for electricity, since natural gas is more efficient per unit of energy produced, but in BC’s abundant hydropower world, switching to natural gas takes us in the wrong direction.

Ultimately, the viability of the plan hinges on two unavoidable things. First, the City is not the Metro region. The City of Vancouver can pull out all the stops from Boundary Road west but a real plan relies on other municipalities making similar commitments, in a way that reduces single occupant commuter traffic in favour of more walkable and bike-able regional hubs and neighbourhoods, connected with a much more expansive public transit network. Nothing new in that vision but action has proven difficult.

The second is financial in relation to a “municipal fiscal imbalance”. The City and the region need to be able to tap better tax bases (like income or consumption), either directly (New York City has its own income tax, for example) or via dedicated transfers from senior governments. This is identified in the report but its significance cannot be overstated:

[M]unicipalities need expanded revenue-raising powers and/or an increased portion of provincial/federal tax revenues (through a long-term revenue sharing agreement) [or they] will be hard- pressed to finance the changes necessary to remain livable, let alone grapple with the unprecedented demands of addressing climate change.

The report pitches about $450 million in additional funding to improve transit Metro-wide. This and other aspects of the report are going to need a lot of cash to deliver on the promise.


  • An interesting report. Thanks for summarizing it!

    I just finished Superfreakonomics over the weekend, and was interested in a mention they made about local foods. Basically, they say that most of the emissions from food production are on the production side, and that large productions are way more environmentally efficient than smaller firms when it comes to food, so eating local would actually increase emissions. They reference a study in Environmental Science and Technology (

    Since you’re arguing in favour of more local food here, I’m wondering what you think of the argument it would hurt the environment.

  • Hi David,

    The bulk of emissions are from the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and livestock — both of which relate to big industrial ag’s large footprint. Are you thinking about efficiencies related to transportation? Transport emissions are important but much smaller, though mode of transport matters as much as distance (air, in particular, or truck are more intensive). So my sense is that local and organic would be best, as long as there is a relatively efficient distribution system.

    The authors of Superfreakonomics like to make cute and counter-intuitive arguments. I have not yet read it and may not given their utterly stupid arguments about climate change, which seem to prove to me that they are just interested in making money through cute and counter-intuitive arguments.

  • The bulk of emissions are from the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and livestock — both of which relate to big industrial ag’s large footprint.

    Why would 10 small farms use less chemical fertilizers and pesticides then one big one? I seems to me a big farm would better be able to invest in the technology needed to use less fertilizers and pesticides then 10 small ones.

  • Marc,

    Do you happen to know what kinds of financial tools would be available to Vancouver vis-à-vis affordable housing? Looking through the “Affordable EcoDensity” report (and also at “Creating Market and Non-Market Affordable Housing”), I was surprised to find no mention of existing financial tools that can be used to create affordability. I’m thinking specifically of things like targeted grants, various forms of soft debt, and tax credits. I agree completely that housing affordability represents a key issue in a city going green, but I was rather surprised at how financially unsophisticated these reports seem to be. Am I just missing something?

  • Darwin, not sure I follow you. If you have a technology in mind that uses less chemicals and fertilizers, let me know. The technology I have in mind is organic production and/or no-till methods with cover crops. Whether that system is more efficient in large form than small form I have not seen studied, but I have been collaborating on a report on all of this, so any references are appreciated.

    JP, the point about affordable housing is that existing tools are not doing the job.

  • If you have a technology in mind that uses less chemicals and fertilizers, let me know.

    Precision agriculture where mapping software and GPS are used to vary the amount of chemical fertilizers and pesticides sprayed in different parts of a field based on need. While a small farm could use this as well, most of the costs to set this up are fixed, so a large farm could better afford it.

    Why do you think that many small farms will use less chemical fertilizers and pesticides then one large farm?

  • Hi Darwin,

    I will check that out. That type of approach may well lend itself to economies of scale that would benefit small farmers, too, if done as public utility.

    But the bigger issue is the emissions associated with ag production, period. We need dramatic reductions from the ag sector for climate reasons, and this means moving away from chemicals from fossil fuels (peak oil will eventually make this a sure thing, I suspect).

    So that means organic to me, though I confess to not being great at growing much of anything, so I’m open to anyone’s suggestions on how we get there. I’ve also seen permaculture practices suggested as an alternative organic and higher yield system but never seen conclusive evidence.

  • “Ultimately, the viability of the plan hinges on two unavoidable things. First, the City is not the Metro region.”

    I agree, and this surely means that amalgamation of the GVRD is a necessary, though not sufficient, first step.

    The notion that transportation infrastructure costs, and the attendant tax and debt implications, can be neatly obviated by some strategy of eliminating all commuting runs contrary to the basic purpose of metropolitan regions where commuting across the region is part of the efficiency of bringing together a multiplicity of industries and workers.

  • “this surely means that amalgamation of the GVRD is a necessary, though not sufficient, first step.”

    Dream on! If you lads think the small minded idiots that call themselves the local bourgeoisie are going to throw in the towel to their exclusive rights to own their local municipal governments your delusional. OTOH I like it. Just do not pretend it is less revolutionary than a proposition to nationalize the commercial banks. Good on y’all for dreaming out loud.

  • David,

    Just checked out the reference you cited. Turns out I’ve read that paper before. It is a good one but there is nothing in there that supports the conclusion you attribute to the Superfreaks.

    The one major conclusion of the study is that transportation is a relatively small factor in GHG emissions from food, and that changes in diet away from meat may have greater impact that a fully localized food system.

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