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The port in the storm: Climate change and the Port of Vancouver

As the biggest port authority in the country, how the Port Of Vancouver addresses climate change is imperative
How does the shipping industry tackle climate change? We take a look at some of the projects the Port Of Vancouver is undertaking in its quest for the sustainability crown.

Climate change is a threat not only to our environment but also to the way in which our economy and interrelated infrastructure function. The Port of Vancouver (POV), a critical artery to the flow of trade in and out of the country, needs to be at the forefront of any defense against climate change.

As the biggest port authority in the country, how the POV addresses climate change is imperative; I do not just mean the dollars and cents aspect, but in planning for, collaborating, and advancing mitigation strategies.

Covering a watery swath of area from Roberts Bank, the Fraser River, and the Burrard Inlet, bordering 16 municipalities and the traditional unceded territory of the Coast Salish First Nations, the POV is the heart of Vancouver. As far as commerce goes, anyway.

Overseen by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (VFPA), the POV had an operating revenue of $275 million last year. Ship upon ship, containers of varying size and destination stream in every day. That translated into 1.46 million tonnes of cargo in 2021. Since last October, a total of 1.7 million containers have flooded in and out, a drop of four per cent from 2020. Grain, coal, metals, produce, processed food, car parts, and wood pulp are some of the key products that snake through the port and beyond. Tonnage has been rather consistent year to year, and shows no sign of decrease; growth in container trade could “exceed west coast port capacity” within three years.

Port of Vancouver's sustainability goals

Port authorities across the globe are not taking climate change lightly. And with 80 per cent of the world’s trade moved about via ships, they should be proactive. Per a 2020 report from the International Maritime Association, nearly three per cent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are due to global shipping. (You can find the full IMA report here.)

Laid out in its vision statement, the POV strikes an ambitious, laudable note: to be the world’s most sustainable port. Authors of its financial report for 2021 write: “We believe a sustainable port delivers economic prosperity through trade, maintains a healthy environment, and enable thriving communities through collective accountability, meaningful dialogue and shared aspirations.”

The report goes on to state that “planning for and adapting to climate change impacts is critical to avoid disruptions ... and to minimize impacts on coastal communities and marine ecosystems.” Here we take a look at some of the projects the POV is undertaking in its quest for the sustainability crown.

Northwest Ports Clean Air Strategy (NWPCAS)

Implemented in 2007, this collaboration between the various port authorities of the Pacific Northwest is gunning towards a lofty goal: the complete phase-out of “tailpipe emissions” by 2050. That is, the offal of gas, diesel, and biofuel. This phase-out is not limited to sea-faring vessels, either. All port-related machinery, trucks, and trains will undergo a similar weaning-off of fossil fuels. With ports releasing a significant amount of GHG, soot, and other emissive properties, pledging to clean up their act is a sign of industrial accountability. The technology for the aspirations of zero-emissions vessels, however, is not yet clear; some potentials are synthetic fuel and battery electric. For the time being, one port improvement is the use of shore power, or electric grid power, by cruise ships and container ships while in berth, thus limiting overall diesel emissions. Shore power is not available yet for cargo or tanker ships.

EcoAction Program

This incentive-based program rewards participating clients with savings on harbour dues. To receive the benefit, clients have assorted criteria to choose from, including the use of renewable energy to limit emissions, the reduction of underwater noise pollution, and the use of shore power while in port. They can receive up to 47 per cent off their dues if they meet certain requirements. Among the clients of the EcoAction program are BC Ferries, COSCO shipping, and Seaspan ULC.

World Ports Climate Action Program

Vancouver is part of the World Ports Sustainability Program, a collective using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a guide for improving the world’s ports in terms of infrastructure, climate, and marine stewardship. Specific programs related to Vancouver include the Maplewood Marine Restoration Project, which repaired a section of damaged marine ecosystem. Central to this project was the creation of a rock reef, tidal flat, and a 1.5-hectare eelgrass bed, eelgrass being vital to a healthy local ecosystem and biolife.

Estimates which put a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees C in the next thirty years as “likely” would mean havoc for coastal communities, ecosystems, and economies. The shipping industry, like all that spew toxic GHG, must continue to be a leader in the development of technologies, incentive-based practices, and ideas to lessen, or dare I say it, eliminate emissions altogether.