Vancouver’s place in the global climate emergency, versus the new Climate Emergency Action Plan: Some comments.

Vancouver and mountains. Credit: David Fine

CityHallWatch has received this contribution from David Fine, a local filmmaker who also moderates the VanPoli Facebook group and is involved in local politics. Vancouver City Council adopted the Climate Emergency Action Plan on the Nov 17, 2020, after hearing staff presentations and speakers on Nov 3, 5, and 17. (See our post here for links and text of the adopted motion.) This commentary below follows David Fine’s earlier comments prior to the discussions in Council (“City should hit pause on controversial Climate Action Plan,” Nov 2).

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What is The Climate Emergency Action Plan really about?
By David Fine

Mike Howell, a reporter for Vancouver Is Awesome, posed some excellent questions about the just-passed $1.7 billion (plus!) Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP) in a recent interview with the City of Vancouver’s Climate Change Policy Manager, Matt Horne (read full article here, 19-Nov-2020).

The answers are revealing, as Matt confirms that addressing emission levels in Vancouver will, in fact, have no impact on global climate issues, thus effectively confirming that the CEAP is not actually about emission issues themselves. I have provided further comments on his answers to illustrate some of the misrepresentations in the plan.

To be clear, mitigating pollution in Vancouver and making life healthier and more liveable are all laudable pursuits and there is no doubt about the fact that we do have a climate crisis which needs to be addressed, but the question is the way City staff, and Mr. Horne’s office in particular, have represented Vancouver’s role in addressing the global climate crisis.

Below, Mike Howell’s questions are in bold, followed by Matt Horne’s answers, and then my comments with some graphics. I have abbreviated some of the answers to focus on the material points.

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Excerpts of Mike Howell (Vancouver Is Awesome) interview with Matt Horne (Climate Change Policy Manager, City of Vancouver), with my comments.

Q: How much carbon pollution is produced in the city every year?

Matt Horne: Right now, we’ve got about 2.5 million tonnes of carbon pollution. And that’s from buildings and transportation, almost entirely.

COMMENT: But what is 2.5 million tonnes? Is it a whole lot, or very little? Is it a truck load of sand at Kits Beach or a couple of grains? There needs to be context to fully appreciate the value of all this effort in Vancouver (see below). It’s also worth noting that the City’s GHG inventory does not include the emissions from heavy port or cruise ships, which are significant sources of GHGs. One cruise ship emits the equivalent of a million cars every single day, but the city’s measures will have no impact on these big contributors.

Can you put that 2.5 million tonnes of carbon pollution into context — is Vancouver more polluted than other cities?

Matt Horne: In a North American context, on a per capita basis, we would be one of the lowest emitting cities. In a global context, there’s certainly a number of cities, in Europe in particular, that are ahead of us —Scandinavia, Amsterdam. There you’ve got higher levels of walking, cycling and transit, and it’s also quite common to have district energy systems running on some mix of renewable energy.

COMMENT: This graph I prepared (below) helps put Vancouver’s emissions and efforts in perspective.

Comparison of GHG emissions. Global, selected countries and cities. Note the relative size of Vancouver’s emissions.

It’s good that Matt confirms we are one of the lowest emitting cities per capita, because this is not mentioned in the report. We are actually doing really well, but no, it’s all about a crisis level emergency. In fact, in the context of the entire province of British Columbia, Vancouver’s 2.5 million tonnes (mt) is merely 3.85% of the province total of 65 mt. We are not even a big player in our own province, and compared to other Canadian cities, Vancouver is also very small. Toronto and Calgary are at 18 mt each. Montreal, 14. Chicago is 33 and NYC is 49 mt, In fact, Vancouver has one of the lowest outputs of any major city on the planet, and BC is trending down, not up.

In the last 20 years, BC has reduced its per capita output by about 25% and per GDP output by almost half. (See graph below. Source, Government of BC, Sustainability page, link here). Vancouver emits just .0077% of global emissions. In other words, about a 10th of a 10th of a 10th of 1%, but City staff rarely point to this context. The second graph below shows the share of global emissions since 2000. Canada is trending down, despite a population increase of about 27% over that same period (Source: Our World in Data based on Global Carbon Project (2018)).

So here is a question that should be asked: If we are one of the lowest emitting, and dropping, why is Vancouver taking some of the most dramatic steps in the name of the global climate crisis?

Trends in Greenhouse Gas Emissions in B.C. (1990-2017). Source: Sustainability page, Government of British Columbia.

Share of global emissions since 2000. Canada is trending down, despite a population increase of about 27% over that same period. Source: Our World in Data based on Global Carbon Project (2018).

 

Q: Some critics have questioned why council and city staff are considering a climate plan during a pandemic, with so many people sick, out of work and businesses just hanging on for survival. What do you say about the timing of this plan?

Matt Horne: I think fundamentally we can wrestle with both challenges, and that’s what council has asked us to do. And I think it’s what the public is expecting us to do. There’s definitely lots of people in the city and across the country and the world that are really struggling right now. We’ve tried to be cognizant of those challenges, which is why you’re not seeing changes day one in terms of additional charges and things like that.

COMMENT: Council approved the declaration of a climate emergency well before the COVID-19 crisis we are in now, and the impacts of both will not be short term. How is it that the City does not recognize these unique circumstances and put the CEAP on the shelf until we are better equipped to deal with the consequences? Is it really important for people to have to worry about new taxes and fees in what is already one of the least affordable cities on the planet? Besides the huge cost of the plan itself, City staff will be putting some considerable time and effort into working on implementation proposals right now, and yet we are told that staff are stretched to crisis point and finances are dire, with taxes needing to be increased triple inflation rate.

Q: The staff report says it will cost $500 million over the next five years to implement the plan. But many of the goals in the plan such as cutting carbon pollution in buildings by half of what it was measured at in 2007, extend to 2030. So does that mean it will cost another $500 million or more to keep the plan in play from 2025 to 2030?

Matt Horne: We have not done that costing work, but I think it’s safe to say somewhere in that ballpark [of $500 million] for the second half of the decade. I think part of those costs will be improvements for walking, cycling and transit because we wouldn’t be done that work in 2025.

COMMENT: Ding! Another $500 million on a plan which is already said to cost an unbelievable $1.7 billion to implement. (On page 7 of the CEAP, “The resident and business investments in solutions, such as electric vehicles and heat pumps, that occur between 2021 and 2030 in response to the Climate Emergency Action Plan and CleanBC are estimated at $1.27B.”)

Q: The plan will cost $500 million over the next five years, with funds expected to come largely from existing and future capital plans, new fees and charges and rely on contributions from senior governments. How much is expected from senior governments?

Matt Horne: Out of the $500 million, approximately $25 million is counted on coming from senior governments. It’s a conservative estimate, but it’s actually pretty well aligned with what we’ve been able to secure from senior government grants in the past.

COMMENT: So only $25 million from senior government. How is it that the City has a spare $475 million kicking around considering all the other extremely urgent matters? Is it actually more important to fund this cities costly response to a global climate crisis than deal with critical issues we actually can address right here?

Q: Critics have said no matter what measures Vancouver takes to fight climate change, that it won’t really have an effect — that real change will only come if countries like China and India make efforts to cut pollution. What do you say to that?

Matt Horne: On the one hand, it’s accurate. We fundamentally need every jurisdiction to be taking significant action to solve a global crisis. The way we look at in Vancouver is we do have a role to play in managing our own emissions. We also have lots of evidence of where we’re figuring out successful approaches, and those get picked up in different forms by other jurisdictions around the world. So we think there’s sort of an add-on effect from the work we’re doing, and it justifies it, as well.

COMMENT: This has to be one of the most significant realities, which, incredibly, Matt confirms. He agrees it is accurate that Vancouver will have no effect on climate change, but then he qualifies it by saying that we “play a role” (more on that in a moment). So Matt confirms that all this expense, all this effort at the local level actually means nothing in terms of emissions. So what is this whole thing about if it’s not about our actual emissions?

Matt says “we have a role to play in managing our own emissions”. Yes we do, but that’s a far less hyperbolic way of representing this than asserting that we have to act urgently to avoid what will otherwise be certain climate disaster. So it’s less an “emergency” and more about Vancouver initiating programs which “get picked up in different forms by other jurisdictions around the world”. So why doesn’t the City represent this plan in this more measured and truthful way?

And what about these programs? Is Vancouver really inventing ground breaking technologies and systems that the world is beating a path to? In a Reddit AMA (link to that discussion here), Matt explained that the emergency plan is about such things as installing charging stations in parking lots and he said “Our work on protected bike lanes that are safe for all ages and abilities isn’t unique, but I think they are leading examples in North America in particular.”

So to recap: Matt says it’s accurate that our minimal emissions have no effect at all, but he says it’s about us managing our own emissions anyway (which is a good thing) and “having a role to play” and sharing ideas about “successful approaches” such as charging stations and bike lanes.

Can it really be that other cities are sitting on their hands waiting for Vancouver to teach them how to install a charging station in a parking lot or build a bike lane?

Q: I know many people who want to “go green,” but can’t afford an electric car, or a heat pump, or put solar panels on their roof. So what do you say to those people who are just trying to get by and don’t have the money to invest in upgrades?

Matt Horne: We’ve tried to speak to that with the climate emergency action plan, and definitely realize the challenge for many people. But what council has now approved, and what you see in the [provincial government’s] CleanBC plan, are increasingly significant incentives [to retrofit homes and buy electric vehicles]. Electric vehicles have provincial and federal incentives. Interestingly, the NDP in their election platform committed to shifting those incentives to a means-tested incentive. So if you’re a lower income household, my understanding is you’ll be able to access a bigger incentive for an electric vehicle. For things like heat pumps and energy efficiency upgrades, the province through Better Homes BC has incentives, and the city is topping those up. We also now have council approval to top up those incentives for electric vehicle charging in existing buildings. I don’t want to give the impression that it solves all those challenges, but there are a good number of incentives. We’ve also put forward a number of ideas where we can remove some barriers that the city is putting up to these transitions. Heat pump permits would be a good example there. It is still challenging to get a heat pump permit relative to what should be a pretty simple thing to do.

COMMENT: If you dig into these incentives, they sound impressive, and they certainly help, but they still mean considerable cost. You can get $2,000 for a high efficiency boiler, but you have to spend about $10,000 to get it. This is a cost many cannot afford, even with the assistance of a rebate, and the fuel cost savings will be minimal. Fortis quoted me about $58/year savings with a new high efficiency boiler. Electric cars are still far more costly than gas models, even with rebates. If you can afford one, do it, but not everyone can and that’s the problem. All these measures will download so many expenses on to residents. Yes, we need to move in that direction and encouraging and helping people do that is wise, but that’s what we are doing now. The rebates exist already.

Q: I heard the term “equity” mentioned several times during the council meetings on this plan. What does equity mean in this context and how is it achieved in this plan?

Matt Horne: I would say we’ve achieved a good first step in incorporating equity into the climate plan. We’ve tried to be clear with council that there’s quite a bit more work we’re going to need to do there to really meaningfully incorporate it. Council said they wanted a strong equity lens placed on the climate work, and that was quite clear in the climate emergency declaration in January 2019, and they’ve reaffirmed that a number of times. The general approach we’ve taken is to really try to minimize or avoid burdening people who are already struggling. A good example there would be the carbon pollution surcharge on parking permits. We’re only proposing that apply on new, more expensive vehicles. So if you are driving an older vehicle, or purchasing a lower cost vehicle, we’re not going to be applying that surcharge.

COMMENT: Equity is a buzz word to sound like no one who cannot afford these new taxes and charges will have to pay, but no matter how you slice it, every car owner will be paying for a parking permit they did not pay for before. It will be more costly to own a car in what is certainly the most expensive place in North American to own a car in terms of taxes, insurance and parking costs. We are one of the least emitting major cities in North America and yet we pay more than anyone to own a car.

Q: But many people are still going to need to use their car, whether it’s electric or gas-powered, to get to work or live their lives. It’s simply more efficient for many, including people who have to commute after hours and don’t feel safe waiting at a bus stop. In addition, residents in certain parts of the city don’t have access to reliable transit options. How does the plan affect those people?

Matt Horne: We want walking, rolling, cycling and transit to work for more people. We want to try to remove barriers so it becomes an option more of the time for more people. But it won’t work all the time. Many people will still be in that situation [where they drive]. In the plan, we look to support that transition to electric vehicles because we want the vehicles on our roads to be less polluting. And with the work to shift more people to walking, cycling and transit, and introduce transport pricing, we think we can reduce congestion on our roads so that the people who do need to drive, make those trips a little bit faster and a little bit more reliably. That’s the experience we’ve seen in other jurisdictions that have moved forward with some form of transport pricing.

COMMENT: There are absolutely no jurisdictions with road pricing which can in any way compare to Vancouver in terms of population density, scale of the problem or the level of existing transit. The references to other cities doing this are entirely spurious. It’s true that many people will still drive, so that means that for many people, doing so will be more expensive. Shifting people out of cars is made to sound like an easy thing, but people drive in Vancouver for a good reason. We have good transit, but it is lacking compared to other major cities and so for many cars are a far more efficient and convenient way to get around and that is not going to change in five years, and so the impact will mean more cost to drive or choosing other destinations outside the zone. Remember, in Metro Vancouver, the bike mode share is less than 2% now, and we talk about Metro because cars in Vancouver are coming from Metro as well as the City of Vancouver.

A fee charging zone cannot help but impact businesses, especially those just inside the zone. Traffic will also increase on roads which just skirt the zone. When you have to go from A to B, like Kits to Commercial drive, one will still drive there, but avoid the zone, so more driving, more emissions, not less. The problem is moved somewhere else and so people either pay more or are inconvenienced by longer journey times.

Q: Not every resident has had time to read the 371-page climate plan, or pay attention to the debate around the plan, or follow the news coverage. So what do you say to those people who want a simple breakdown on how the plan could affect or benefit them?

Matt Horne: For people who are new to this and have some anxiety around the degree of change, I would emphasize the changes aren’t happening overnight. There will be more engagement around the individual actions in the plan. If people are interested in those, they’re welcome to sign up for the Greenest City newsletter, or at Shapeyourcity.ca and learn about those individual pieces. If people are interested in making some of these shifts — whether it’s more walking, cycling and transit or shift to an electric vehicle or heat pump — we’re trying to get more and more information out there, and provide more support in making those shifts easier for people. So whether it’s a look at the plan, or reaching out to staff, we’d be happy to have those conversations. There’s a lot we can do to make these transitions easy for people, and we’ve included our ideas. But if there’s other examples where as a city we’re in the way, we’d love to know more about that so we can get out of the way.

COMMENT: There is nothing on those websites Matt mentions which answer the question asked. Parsing the 371 page climate plan dropped on council mere days before it was voted on is anything but simple. It’s going to be costly for every resident in one of the least affordable cities on the planet and, as Matt Horne himself confirms, will not benefit climate issues at all, given the meagre emission levels in Vancouver.

We have a global climate emergency. We have to act, but these actions are punitive and ultimately counterproductive, because they are so costly and yet ineffectual that they create backlash and resistance instead of cooperation and support.

The fact is, in BC, our per capita emissions have already fallen 25% over 20 years and our emissions relative to GDP are almost half. We have carbon pricing and fuel taxes and they are working. We are investing in more transit and we need to continue to do so, and there are initiatives in the plan which are positive and sensible. However, the plan also contains onerous and costly measures which are misguided, and yet Council and the public had no chance to provide input on priorities which are manageable and appropriate.

The CEAP document asserts that all the measures are vital if we are to save the planet, but the data and science simply does not support this hyperbolic representation.

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3 thoughts on “Vancouver’s place in the global climate emergency, versus the new Climate Emergency Action Plan: Some comments.

  1. Excellent post – many thanks as always. So Matt wants us to spend a couple billion $ reducing 0.0077% of global GHG to maybe 0.005% – while completely ignoring the mitigation costs of predicted sea level rise around Vancouver – seawalls, etc etc. Let’s cost out everything before we commit $2B+ to a miniscule contribution to GHG reduction. Local wallets are not infinitely deep, despite perceptions of City Hall.

  2. Cash grab pure and simple.. Excellent questions and comments.. Sadly with an NDP Mayor and the GROPE councillors, they will do anything to help their like minded and very vocal and yet small special interest groups..

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