British Columbia

A tale of 3 cities: B.C. municipalities take action on climate change

"The rubber hits the road at the city level. That's where you actually see change happening and see it being implemented."

Vancouver, Prince George and Fort Nelson: 3 B.C. municipalities implementing climate change actions

Municipalities can be an important place where climate action begins, says Stephanie Cairns, the director for cities and communities for environmental think tank Smart Prosperity Institute. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Climate change may know no boundaries, but action on climate change may well depend on where you live.

Stephanie Cairns, the director for cities and communities at the Smart Prosperity Institute (an environmental think-tank based at the University of Ottawa), says climate strategies require partnerships between all sectors.

Cities play a key role, she added.

"Cities are really important change drivers, even if formally the provincial and federal governments have authority," she said.

"The rubber hits the road at the city level. That's where you actually see change happening and see it being implemented."

For example, cities have control over infrastructure, transportation and have immense buying power. Cairns says they are also more directly connected to individual citizens than any other level of government.

Municipalities across B.C. have implemented innovative actions, but there are challenges, depending on the size of the region, political momentum and industry relationships.

Three different municipalities across B.C. — Vancouver, Prince George and Fort Nelson — illustrate these successes and challenges.

Vancouver | 49.3° N, 123.1° W

One of Vancouver's biggest gains since implementing its ambitious Greenest City Plan has been increasing the use of bicycles and public transit. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The City of Vancouver adopted its ambitious Greenest City Action Plan in 2011.

In it, the city sets out ways to reduce its biggest challenges: reducing vehicle traffic by increasing bike and public transit usage, reducing waste going into landfills, building greener buildings and improving air and water quality.

According to Doug Smith, the city's director of sustainability, B.C.'s largest city is on its way to meeting some of those ambitious targets.

"We have hard targets that we measure every year, and we report publicly to make sure there's accountability and things are moving forward. Some of them, we're not going to hit. Some of them are going to be very difficult and some of them, we've already surpassed," he said. 

Smith points to the target to have a 50 per cent mode split for active transportation like walking, biking and transit.

"We already hit that in 2015," he said. 

So far, the city has also introduced greener building codes, committed to using only renewable natural gas by 2050, committed to expanding the electric vehicle ecosystem and implemented an organics ban, he said. 

Mark Jaccard, a professor of sustainable energy in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, says while he's not sure whether Vancouver will meet every single climate target, it is making a commendable effort.

Jaccard said the city has stepped in admirably when provincial and federal leaders failed to act.

"You know, we could have sat here and complained all we want that Stephen Harper [at the federal level] and Christy Clark at the provincial government level were doing nothing or we can do our best as a city to try and do something."

Prince George | 53.9° N, 122.7° W

Prince George has experienced climate change in a very visceral way — through three massive flood events and the decimation of its forest industry by the pine beetle. (Simon Charland-Faucher/CBC Radio-Canada)

Prince George, B.C., a city in B.C.'s north with a population of 74,000, might not immediately seem like a contender for greenest city in B.C., but in the early 2000s, three major flooding events and the pine beetle crisis inspired the city to create one of the province's first major green strategies.

Dave Dyer, the city of Prince George's head of engineering, said the events made climate change real for the city's residents and inspired them to start thinking about how to respond to it.

"Now that we know that climate change is happening and this could happen more often, [we started thinking about] how this affects our operations and how it affects our response to try and make sure people in the community are able to move around," he said.

One major focus, Dyer said, was on the city's roads.

The city did a study to see how changing climate conditions could affect roads and what impact that would have on safety.

All of these municipalities are trying to deal with it on their own- Professor Ian Picketts

It then came up with a pilot project to incorporate special paving into some of the city's infrastructure which would help with flood mitigation and the lifespan of the concrete.

But Ian Picketts, a physical sciences professor at Quest University Canada who helped shape the city's plan, says the plan has sometimes struggled to maintain momentum through subsequent municipal administrations.

"There was a local political shift towards [the idea] municipalities should only offer basic services. [It was like] we shouldn't be spending this superfluous money on plans, and we should just be doing what we need to do and nothing more," he said.

"All of these municipalities are trying to deal with it on their own."

Fort Nelson | 58.8° N, 122.7° W

Fort Nelson is implementing climate change projects, while balancing its reliance on the oil and gas sector for jobs. (Simon Charland-Faucher/Radio-Canada)

No municipality quite embodies that sentiment of going at it alone better than Fort Nelson, which is part of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality.

The small community, home to 3,900 residents, lies fairly isolated in B.C.'s northeastern corner, 800 kilometres north of Prince George.

"We are far away and we are not a heavily populated area," said Mayor Bill Streeper.

"We're not included in a lot of the [climate action] plans that come in. We've taken it upon ourselves to introduce some of these plans."

Streeper says his municipality has looked into projects like using worms for composting, heat sharing infrastructure projects and community tree-planting campaigns.

However, with the oil and gas sector being the community's most important industry. there is tension over these climate change actions, 

Streeper, who has been involved in the sector himself for the past 45 years, is pragmatic about the relationship.

"They've got to work together. Everybody still wants to fly on an airplane to go on holidays. They're not walking. We want a lifestyle, but we're not prepared to give up our lifestyle. Don't condemn the oil industry because behind their back, you're still using their products."

Listen to 2050: Degrees of Change, a CBC Vancouver podcast 


Roshini Nair is a digital/coordinating producer with CBC Podcasts, working on series including Nothing is Foreign, The Secret Life of Canada, Kuper Island and more. She is based in Vancouver, and has previously worked on Party Lines: Party in the U.S.A., Unreserved, Unforked, and with CBC News Vancouver's digital news team.