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Climate Fixes: How Local Governments Matter

Here are three things cities can do to reduce emissions (even if senior levels of government undercut their gains).

Michelle Gamage 19 Sep 2022TheTyee.ca

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. You can find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

It might feel like David lining up his shot at Goliath when local governments pass regulations to take on climate change.

But experts and advocates say municipalities across British Columbia are taking the lead when it comes to creating initiatives to mitigate and adapt to climate change — often showing up their provincial and federal counterparts on similar policies.

When asked to highlight some examples, experts pointed to Vancouver, for banning natural gas hookups; Gibsons and Victoria for recognizing and protecting green space; and North Vancouver for its land use planning around densification.

That’s important to remember as British Columbians get ready to head to the polls on Oct. 15 for their region’s general local elections. Municipalities aren’t helpless when it comes to climate change.

But the positive steps local governments take to mitigate climate change is often undone by provincial and federal policies in similar areas, says Jens Wieting, senior forest and climate campaigner with Sierra Club BC.

“It’s so painful to realize some of the local initiatives are directly undermined by weak provincial and federal policies where government seeks to reduce emissions with one hand and increase emissions with the other by building fossil fuel projects,” he says. “It’s so important for municipalities to increase pressure on senior levels of government to stop pursuing policies that are destructive and undermine local progress.” 

With that in mind, here are three municipal-level initiatives readers could use as examples to call on political wannabes to bolster lacklustre climate platforms.

1. Municipalities can reduce a building’s carbon footprint.

Over half — 1.38 million tonnes — of Vancouver’s total carbon pollution comes from natural gas use in buildings, according to the city’s Climate Emergency Action Plan, followed by gas and diesel in vehicles at 39 per cent.

To combat those emissions the city has required all new homes built after January 2022 to have zero-emissions heating and hot water systems which effectively bans natural gas hookups in new buildings.

Banning natural gas hookups and replacing natural gas furnaces and water heaters with electric heat pumps is one of the best ways a city can fight climate change, says Peter McCartney, a campaigner with the Wilderness Committee. (The second and third best things a city can do is discourage the use of private vehicles and enable land use that supports walkable communities, he says.)

Prohibiting natural gas hookups reduces the burning of fossil fuels and also means buildings won’t have to be retrofitted at a later date as the country works towards having net-zero emissions by 2050.

As of July 1, 2021 the City of North Vancouver has required new homes to be built using low carbon energy systems for their heating and hot water systems or to produce net-zero emissions.

The environmental think tank Pembina Institute has been calling on the provincial government to provide legislation to help British Columbians access long-term financing on projects that switch people to more efficient energy and water systems. An institute spokesperson says while the province and local governments are still in talks over what this could look like, the District of Saanich launched its own version offering up to $12,000 in zero-per-cent-interest financing to swap out oil furnaces and boilers for electric heat pumps.

A silver electric heat pump water heater sits in the closet of a tidy home with green walls.
The upfront cost of an electric heat pump water heater can be high, so the District of Saanich is offering zero-interest loans to residents who want to swap oil furnaces for electric heat pumps, an incentive that combines with rebates from BC Hydro and the province’s CleanBC. Photo via NRDC.

Electric heat pumps can cost between $6,000 and $18,000, according to BC Hydro.

BC Hydro, CleanBC (the provincial climate strategy) and the federal government also offer heat pump rebates.

The Pembina Institute spokesperson said they were also keeping a close eye on the City of Vancouver’s proposed 2023 changes to a building bylaw which would require new buildings to use materials with half the embodied carbon of a typical home built today. Embodied carbon looks at emissions created during logging, cement mixing, transportation of building materials and end of life emissions for that building, for example, instead of emissions that would come out of a smokestack from a heating system.

But Sierra Club BC’s Wieting says this progress on emissions reduction is undone by provincial and federal fossil fuel expansion projects.

“It’s extremely frustrating that LNG Canada and the Coastal GasLink project will completely undo all of this progress if it goes online in 2025,” he says. “The methane leakage and total emissions from fracked gas will massively increase. Then there’s the close to 70 million tonnes of emissions which will be exported and burned overseas if both phases of the project go ahead.”

The provincial and federal governments do not count emissions on exports. In a recent Tyee interview federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said that’s because the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells countries they only have to count emissions at the point of combustion.

2. Protecting green space and using it as infrastructure.

Metro Vancouver gets its water from three watersheds — Capilano, Seymour and Coquitlam — which cover over 58,000 hectares and provide drinking water for 2.7 million residents. Victoria’s water comes from 20,550 hectares to the northwest of the city in Sooke, Goldstream and Leech watersheds.

Initiatives to protect these watersheds date back to the 20th century, Wieting says. “The cities wanted to protect watersheds to protect drinking water. But these initiatives also had the early-action benefit of protecting the watersheds and the cities from flooding,” he adds.

Many watersheds in B.C. have been clearcut which means the landscape can no longer absorb mass amounts of water. When clearcuts are combined with extreme weather due to climate change it leads to severe flooding, he says, pointing to the November 2021 atmospheric river floods that impacted Merritt and Penticton after the surrounding area was heavily logged.

“It’s a reminder we need a dramatic reform of forestry practices,” Wieting says. This is another thing local governments are leading on, he says, pointing to the 2016 resolution from the Union of BC Municipalities which called on the province to protect the remaining old-growth forest on Vancouver Island.

B.C. says it’s working on reforming its forestry practices and two years ago commissioned a strategic review on how it manages old-growth forests. And while the review’s 14 recommendations are often talked about by politicians, environmental organizations like Stand.earth say what old-growth forests remain in B.C. are still in imminent risk of being logged.

While forest management is generally organized by provincial and territorial governments, the federal government says it’s protected 24 million hectares of forests, or just under seven per cent of the country’s total forested area, on its website. Two-thirds of that area is covered by provincial and national parks or wildlife reserves.

Gibsons, on the Sunshine Coast, says it was the first community in Canada to create an Eco-Asset Strategy which crunched the numbers on the value of its natural assets, like the Gibsons aquifer which filters and purifies water, and compared it to the cost of an engineered asset like a water filtration plant, that would do the same task. This helped the town decide what money to set aside to protect these “natural assets” and, according to its website, will hopefully inspire municipalities across North America to adopt similar asset management strategies.

3. Densification for the nation.

Wilderness Committee’s McCartney says the second and third best thing local governments can do to mitigate climate change is to reduce personal vehicle use and to promote walkable communities. That means creating denser neighbourhoods, which is done through zoning.

A tree lined boulevard with vibrant orange and red-coloured leaves and green bushes along the edges.
In Vancouver, industrial lands previously home to a brewery were rezoned to high-density residential use, including a linear greenway and pedestrian and bike-friendly design. The resulting Arbutus Walk neighbourhood is far more dense than surrounding neighbourhoods, without towers. Photo via Facebook.

Around 80 per cent of Vancouver is zoned for single-family detached homes. This sprawl takes up 80 per cent of the city’s total land base but makes up 30 per cent of its households, McCartney notes in a recent pamphlet about how local governments can combat climate change.

Sprawling neighbourhoods are more energy-intensive because people need vehicles to get around and a single detached home uses more energy for heating than a single apartment does.

Condensing that neighbourhood reduces emissions. McCartney says by doubling urban population density cities can almost half the pollution created by household travel and drop heating emissions by 35 per cent.

Sprawling neighbourhoods of single-family detached homes are also “fiscally unsustainable” for local governments says Alex Boston, executive director of Renewable Cities and fellow at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University.

As the Canadian population ages, sprawling neighbourhoods are being “hollowed out” as houses that were bought for families transform into houses lived in by one or two seniors, he says.

Zoning that prohibits active densification has “petrified development,” he says. It’s also made neighbourhoods more expensive for local governments because they have to maintain emergency services, like firefighting crews, and infrastructure like public transit, roads, water, sewage and electricity, he adds. These municipal costs stay the same to serve an ever-shrinking population.

“We need to get every municipality thinking about putting two homes on every land parcel — even better go for four,” Boston says. “It’s vital for affordability and will help combat social isolation too. If we do nothing by 2040, 50 per cent of single family homes will have just one person living in them.” 

Densification helps local governments justify building out public transit which gets people out of personal vehicles, he says. That’s important because the last internal combustion engine, or ICE vehicle sold this year will likely come off the road in 2050, he adds.

The federal government has banned the sale of ICE light-duty vehicles by 2035 — but if we’re selling ICE vehicles until 2035 they’ll still be on the road in the 2060s, blowing the federal government’s goal of being net-zero by 2050, Boston says.

Densification isn’t just about public transit. Boston says Vancouver’s Broadway Plan could also include turning the off-Broadway bike lane (which runs along 10th Avenue and Eighth Avenue) into a car-free green strip for gardens, bikers and pedestrians.

Many local governments struggle with densification, Boston says, but he points to the City of North Vancouver’s neighbourhood of Moodyville as a successful example.

Moodyville started as a sawmill community in the 1860s and later turned into a neighbourhood of post-Second World War bungalows. But by rezoning the entire neighbourhood the city is transforming the community of around 500 units and 1,000 people into a hub of 1,900 units and 4,000 people. The community plan focuses on “transit-oriented and energy-efficient development,” according to the city’s overview.

Boston says Vancouver and B.C. should also be applauded for their “leadership” using regulations and guidelines to improve the energy efficiency of new construction. Vancouver’s energy code (introduced in 2014) and the B.C. Energy Step Code will help keep energy use and emissions down even as densification ramps up, he says.

Thanks to the Energy Step Code it’s likely that natural gas will be completely phased out of new buildings by 2030, Boston says. The one exception will be hospitals because they are complex buildings that operate 24-7 with “no easy way to unbuild the gas infrastructure in them,” he says.

On Oct. 15 McCartney says he’ll be keeping an eye on several municipalities where local elections could have big climate impacts. Read his Twitter thread for more information here.  [Tyee]

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