OPINION: The City of Vancouver’s Climate Action Plan won’t make a cat fart’s difference

By David Fine

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David Fine is an Oscar-winning Vancouver filmmaker who manages the VanPoli Facebook page, contributes regularly to various social media discussion groups and helped form Housing Action for Local Taxpayers (HALT), which advocates for measures to address Vancouver’s housing crisis.

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Climate change/Shutterstock

Can Vancouver’s Climate Action Plan save the planet?

What could be more important than saving the planet from the ravages of human caused climate change? Nothing, really. This is literally about the survival of the planet, or, kind of selfishly, the survival of us on this planet. Earth itself isn’t really going anywhere. In this pursuit, there is understandable emotion and anger. We absolutely must do something. That is the demand which has driven the City of Vancouver to proclaim a “Climate Emergency” and for city staff to propose dramatic and ambitious plans to make Vancouver carbon neutral by 2050.

The climate report states, “In January 2019, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a motion recognizing the climate emergency that the planet faces; acknowledging that Vancouver needs to do more to reduce carbon pollution in response to that emergency.” There is no question that we have to deal with a climate emergency and Vancouver wants to help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and clearly conflates the city’s efforts with this global issue, so how could we do anything else?

What does it mean to reduce this city’s carbon footprint? How much do we emit and how much of that impacts rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and the contraction of the polar ice caps? The report is clear in it’s view that Vancouver’s efforts will help, but… will they?

We have to know this because the cost of implementing these plans are not small. In a city where housing and affordability is already a major challenge, we would be piling on more onerous costs related to building new homes or retrofitting old ones. Banning of natural gas will require considerable investment. Heat pumps are great, but they don’t come cheap, so clearly we should know what difference all these efforts will make.

While our planet certainly has to take action, the fact is that all of Canada’s GHG output is about 1.6% of all global emissions. That includes the oil sands (or tar sands, if you like). Alberta’s emissions make up a huge portion of the national total of 717 megatonnes (Mt), so if we exclude Alberta, then our national emission total drops by almost 40%. Just 1.2% for the entire country outside of Alberta. Of that, BC’s contribution is only 62 Mt, and Vancouver’s alone is even smaller at 2.5 Mt. In global terms, that’s 2.5 out of 45,261 Mt. Vancouver’s current total GHG output represents 0.0055% of global GHG. That’s approaching homeopathic dilutions!

The fact is, nothing Vancouver does on its own can possibly have any impact whatsoever on climate change. I know that’s a big fat downer, so proponents will say, “yes, but we set an example. We lead, others follow and that’s how we make an impact. We are a beacon of climate action.” Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say the “Vancouver Model” is not just about money laundering, empty houses and the fentanyl crisis. No, it’s about climate leadership! You know, Greenest City and all that.

“By choosing to act, Vancouver is choosing optimism and hope over despair and darkness. May the Force be with you.” (The first sentence is in the report. I added the second one.) I would super appreciate the city laying off the emotive religious cult like statements and just come out and say: “We are not going to make a cat fart’s difference to anything, but if other cities follow our lead, well, then maybe the cumulative effect will have some purpose.” Don’t see that in the brochure, only emotive statements about the need to take action to halt global climate change. Would people feel differently if they were fully aware that all the efforts and expense is only about positioning and hoping that if enough cities copy us, we might make a small difference? And if they do, what then?

If every city in Canada copied Vancouver and reduced emissions by 2050, all that action would still amount to something akin to a rounding error in the calculation of global GHG. That’s because such a great portion of emissions are industrial, agricultural and transport. Okay, so what if the whole world copied Vancouver? Are all the great cities of the world sitting on their hands just waiting for Vancouver to take action? To coin a phrase, “please”.

So what are we supposed to do? Just carry on and blame China (which has it’s merits given that they contribute 26% GHG to our 1.6%). No, first of all, we should all be moving away from fossil fuels, but in a measured and practical way which does not have secondary consequences which make this city even harder to live in. Moving towards electric vehicles doesn’t just help our GHG output, but it’s also better for our immediate environment. Natural gas, on the other hand, is a relatively cheap and low emission fuel source for heating. Leave it alone. Don’t make building code so onerous that the cost of building is even more prohibitive than it is now and drives people away.

Do something about affordability. Crack down on money laundering and building massive concrete towers which are marketed overseas (still!!) and so which inflate the cost of housing in Vancouver and cause people to have to live further away and commute. Stop tearing down older houses which go to landfill and are replaced by so many empty mega homes.

How about looking at Vancouver’s role in the cruise ship industry. One cruise ship can contribute as much emissions in a day as a million cars. How about setting an example by stopping them from docking here? Would the city have the guts to pull the plug on that, or is it just too much of a money spinner? No mention of it in the climate emergency paper.

We need to advocate for truly world solutions, where the biggest offenders are taken to task and encouraged in the strongest terms to make a difference. Still, that’s no easy task because China has a huge population which wants to be lifted out of poverty and into the lifestyle we enjoy in Canada. That means that inevitably, they will consume like us too. Much better for our climate crisis if these people learnt to love poverty, but are you going to tell them that? Of course not. They deserve to have a better life too, and there’s the rub.

This is just not any easy problem to solve, but initiatives like Vancouver’s climate emergency strategy, although well meaning, can actually serve to distract from the real solutions while doing pretty much nothing to address this crisis. We need bold action, but the right kind of bold action that will make a real difference in the global context. It should come at a Federal level and the city should do its share, for sure, but focus on what will have meaningful impact and with due consideration for the affordability and liveability of this city.

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