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A Climate Report Card for Vancouver’s City Council

A biologist ranks the climate voting records of parties vying for city council seats.

Auston Chhor 15 Sep 2022TheTyee.ca

Auston Chhor is a biologist, photographer and community organizer living in Vancouver.

If you’re anything like me, climate change has been on your mind recently. In just one year we’ve lived through a deadly heat dome and a month’s worth of rain in a day. Individually, it seems like we don’t know what we can do about it. Do we need to recycle more? Switch to electric vehicles? Ban grocery bags? The media landscape is saturated with infographics, Instagram posts and articles touting 10 ways to “go green,” but most are missing a key action that almost everyone can do: vote in the municipal election.

Say the words “municipal politics” or “city hall” to the average Vancouverite and you might receive an eye roll. Vancouver has the special distinction of being the only major Canadian city with an “at-large” electoral system, which means all voters can vote for every seat up for election. This is different than the ward system in other major Canadian cities like Toronto, where voters elect a representative for their neighbourhood rather than the city at large.

This means that in Vancouver, there’s a parade of political parties with confusingly similar names vying for your vote. In 2018, voters were tasked with picking one mayor, 10 councillors, seven park board commissioners and nine school board trustees out of a basket of 158 candidates. Voter turnout was 39 per cent. With a ballot this intimidating, it’s no surprise that many choose to sit out.

And I think this is a missed opportunity.

Every day, Vancouver’s city council makes decisions on transit, land use, neighbourhood density and building code regulations, areas that have vast potential to combat climate change. Suburban sprawl, car dependency and inefficient buildings are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

In Vancouver, emissions from vehicles and buildings account for 81 per cent of the city’s total emissions. Council has the authority to implement pollution taxes that discourage car use while funding transit or bike infrastructure, or rewrite building codes that require builders to install low-emission heat pumps. They can also create tax incentives for homeowners to make the switch from fossil fuel-powered appliances such as gas stoves and furnaces.

These policies are sometimes controversial but have the potential to make a real dent on our city’s collective emissions. In my work as a biologist, I’ve learned of the threats climate change poses to fish populations, but as we’ve seen, those threats extend to us and our cities too. Therefore it’s important that, as voters, we ensure that our city council is using the tools it wields to address this crisis.

My goal here is to provide a climate report card for Vancouver’s 10 municipal parties. For this report card, I focused on each municipal party’s voting records for motions related to active transportation, green buildings and pollution taxes. I chose these categories due to their impact on reducing emissions and only included votes that did not result in a unanimous decision.

From these categories, I selected six major climate votes from the current council:

  1. The Climate Levy;
  2. The Climate Emergency Parking Program;
  3. Supporting a lawsuit against big oil;
  4. A vote to delay zero-emissions requirements for new buildings;
  5. The amendment to include bike lanes in the Broadway redesign; and
  6. Including a separated bike lane on Commercial Drive.

The scoring system was simple: parties received one point for supporting a motion, and zero for opposing, with the exception of vote #4, where support equated to zero points. If a party didn’t have a seat on the current council (Vision, Progress, Socialist), information was gathered from their platforms and interviews with candidates to form a broad idea of where they stood on climate issues. The scores of these three parties should be taken with a grain of salt though, as some have not released platforms yet.

I know what you’re thinking: What about housing? While it’s clear that building dense, transit-friendly neighbourhoods is key to fighting the climate crisis, housing is too complex of an issue for the scope of this exercise. For those interested, CBC’s Justin McElroy and council candidate Russil Wvong both have comprehensive lists on where each councillor has stood on major housing votes since 2018.

The Tree-Huggers (Score = 6/6)

Two parties supported all six motions: OneCity and COPE. OneCity’s Christine Boyle has been a leading voice in city hall for improved bike infrastructure and this year, she introduced an amendment to the Broadway Plan to include separated bike lanes in the future redesign of the street. She also introduced a motion declaring a climate emergency and led the charge on passing the Climate Emergency Action Plan.

Boyle is up for re-election this year and is joined by three OneCity candidates for council. A focus of their climate platform is to require heating equipment at the end of their useful life to be replaced with emissions-free alternatives. I interviewed Boyle at Car Free Day Vancouver under a haze of wildfire smoke and asked her to sum up OneCity’s climate goals. She had this to say: “We need to be more ambitious.”

COPE Coun. Jean Swanson has also supported all six motions, including the controversial Climate Emergency Parking Program, stating “We can’t let perfect be the enemy of better.” COPE’s climate platform also contains ambitious goals of free transit and stopping the Kinder Morgan pipeline — a project that city government has questionable influence over.

It’s clear that both parties take climate change seriously and support bold — yet sometimes contentious — ideas to tackle it.

VOTE Socialist is a new party on the scene, and their climate platform contains goals of free transit throughout Vancouver — an ask that TransLink has already pushed back on — as well as increasing urban meadow space, a tax on cruise ships and incentives for homeowners to convert their lawns into food gardens. While lofty goals, council candidate Sean Orr hopes their more radical ideas can contribute to “shifting the Overton window” of public attitudes towards drastic climate action.

The Paper Straws (Score = 4-5/6)

To some, Vancouver’s Green Party has fallen short of its namesake. While supporting five out of six of our identified motions, the Greens notably blocked a proposal for separated bike lanes on Commercial Drive.

Their platform includes providing tax incentives for electric vehicle chargers and overhauling the city’s building code to require solar panels. They also seek to expand the controversial single-use plastic ban. Green Coun. Adriane Carr introduced a motion to allocate $1 per Vancouver resident towards West Coast Environmental Law’s “Sue Big Oil campaign,” a plan to litigate the oil industry for damages incurred by disasters related to climate change.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart and council hopefuls Russil Wvong and Dulcy Anderson are running this year under the Forward Together banner. This past year, Stewart introduced a progressive climate levy which established annual funding for climate infrastructure projects outlined in the Climate Emergency Parking Plan. Much to the dismay of environmental activists however, Stewart was the deciding “no” vote on the Climate Emergency Parking Program, which would have increased the cost of street parking permits for high-emission vehicles. Forward Together has not outlined any climate initiatives yet. When I reached them for comment, they said they have plans to do so in the coming weeks.

Vision has historically been a leader in environmental policy, with former mayor Gregor Robertson building the foundation for Vancouver’s better-than-average network of separated bike lanes. In 2008, Robertson also kicked off Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan, with the goal of Vancouver becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020. The campaign has resulted in some significant achievements, including increasing the percentage of non-car trips within the city and reducing carbon emissions from new buildings.

Most notably however, the campaign has fallen short of its target to reduce Vancouver’s overall CO2 emissions by 33 per cent, with total emissions falling just nine per cent between 2008 and 2019. It’s been four years since Vision was in city hall, and it’s unclear how much of a priority continuing the goals of the Greenest City Action Plan are to their current suite of candidates.

I also interviewed mayoral candidate Mark Marissen of Progress Vancouver. Marissen emphasized the importance of taking a housing approach to climate action, with “de-suburbanization” central to their platform. Progress is also seeking denser, transit-oriented housing closer to the city’s core, and aims to encourage cycling through infrastructure investments like separated bike lanes and secure storage facilities. When asked about the climate parking program, Marissen expressed his personal support but was unsure about its feasibility given opposition from the province.

Bags in the Wind (Score = 0-1/6)

Mayoral hopeful Ken Sim’s ABC Vancouver party is making a strong case with climate action on their platform, outlining steps to plant 100,000 trees in their first term in office, and build world-class pedestrian, rapid transit and cycling infrastructure. These are solid ideas, but ABC still lands in the last category for one factor: their voting record. Of the six votes analyzed, incumbent ABC councillors Rebecca Bligh, Lisa Dominato and Sarah Kirby-Yung voted against all but one — the proposal for bike lanes on the redesigned Broadway. This voting record doesn’t inspire my confidence in ABC’s ability to live up to their ambitious climate goals.

TEAM’s voting record is also at odds with their climate platform. They support tax incentives for green building retrofits, yet councillor and mayoral candidate Colleen Hardwick voted to delay zero-emissions requirements for new buildings in a motion last summer. They state they’d like to reduce driving by creating “practical, walkable neighbourhoods,” yet Hardwick is a vocal advocate against bike lanes in Stanley Park, Commercial Drive and on the redesigned Broadway. Interestingly, TEAM is the only party that mentions climate resiliency in their platform, however it’s hard to take this promise at face value given Hardwick’s record at city hall.

The NPA recently caused a stir for vowing to “take back” Stanley Park and remove the bike lane on Park Drive. I was unable to find a climate platform on their website, but they have stated on social media that their campaign is “committed to ending the pouring of raw sewage into False Creek.”

The NPA has also gone through some internal turmoil. Mayoral candidate John Coupar ended his bid earlier this month, and park board candidates Tricia Barker and Kumi Kimura jumped ship to run under the TEAM banner.

A quick browse of the online presence of the two parties makes one thing clear: climate action is not a top priority for them.

What I’ve learned

This analysis has made one thing certain: municipal politics, especially in Vancouver, take a lot of time and effort to navigate. Coupled with the complexity, scale and distressing consequences of an issue like climate change, trying to make an informed vote can feel overwhelming.

I hope this piece has made it clear that the people in city hall have the power to make decisions that directly combat climate change, and therefore, who we pick to sit on that council is of the utmost importance.

So on Oct. 15, go vote.

Tell your friends. Tell your second cousin twice-removed. Accompany your grandpa to the ballot box, translate this piece for your uncle who can’t speak English, and help your aunt send in her ballot by mail.

If you care about climate change, I think it’s one of the best things you can do.  [Tyee]

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