British Columbia

'It's going to take a little political courage': Vancouver council to debate climate emergency recommendations

Taken individually, the actions proposed in the report aren't groundbreaking. Approval by council this week would mean staff has to create specific policy and bylaw changes. 

There are 51 recommendations to make Vancouver carbon neutral by 2050

Traffic crosses over the Lions Gate Bridge from West Vancouver into Vancouver. The city's climate emergency response recommends that two-thirds of trips will be made on public transit or active transport — like biking and walking — by 2030. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Christine Boyle knows that some people's eyes glaze over when the question of climate change policies come up.

"I think one of the big challenges ... is people being able to imagine what it looks like in their lives," the Vancouver councillor said.

"All of that talk about parts per million and emission numbers can get a bit wonky."

On Wednesday, the city could take a big step toward turning wonky goals into tangible action.

Three months after Boyle's motion to declare a climate emergency passed unanimously, staff have come back with a number of recommendations to make Vancouver carbon neutral by 2050. 

Taken individually, the actions proposed in the report aren't groundbreaking and approval by council this week would simply mean staff will create specific policy and bylaw changes. 

But taken collectively, Boyle believes they form the bedrock of how Vancouver can be a global leader in tackling climate change. 

"There's a reasonable concern from skeptics that just declaring a climate emergency doesn't get us anywhere," she said. "What really matters is how we act on it. And so I think it matters that Vancouver set this precedent."

Coun. Christine Boyle, who put forward the climate emergency motion earlier this year, says electrification of hot water heaters and furnaces is potentially the most significant recommendation. (City of Vancouver)

Carbon neutral heating systems

Boyle believes the plan's strength comes from how extensive it is: six "big moves" and 53 "accelerated actions" focusing mainly on transportation and building policies — two areas where municipalities have more jurisdiction. 

The six big targets are:

  • 90 per cent of people to live within an "easy walk/roll of their daily needs" by 2030
  • Two-thirds of trips in Vancouver to be done by walking, cycling or transit by 2030
  • Zero-emission vehicles to be responsible for half the kilometres driven on Vancouver roads by 2030
  • All new and replacement heating and hot water systems to be zero emission by 2025
  • Emissions in new buildings and construction projects to be reduced by 40 per cent by 2030
  • Restoration work on forest and coastal ecosystems

"I think all of them together are important in the picture that they paint of the kind of city that we could live in," she said, highlighting the proposal on heating and hot water systems.

A move to zero-emission space and water heating could cut 552,000 tonnes of carbon pollution per year, approximately 46 per cent of the targeted reductions.

Anne McMullin, president of the Urban Development Institute, agrees the city has to take action to reach its goals and praised the suggestion to reduce parking requirements in apartments.

At the same time, she cautions that some recommendations come with drawbacks.

A 'big move' recommended in Vancouver's climate emergency response is for 90 per cent of residents to live within an easy walk or cycle of their daily needs. (David Horemans/CBC News)

"When we're looking at bringing in more green building policies we have to recognize that that is going to add to the cost both in time and ... a longer-term shortage of homes," she said.

"It's not to be critical of bringing in energy-efficient policies, but we need to be mindful of what this means."

Regional solutions

While Vancouver is the biggest municipality in B.C., it's just one city in a complex arrangement of local and regional governments in southwest B.C., each pursuing climate change goals on different timelines.

"Our biggest challenge is actually regional coordination," said Coun. Jessica McIlroy of the City of North Vancouver. 

Last month, she put forward a motion that called on her municipality to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 — the previous goal was 2107 — and is now awaiting recommendations from staff on how to achieve that target. 

"Having each municipality working on its own climate targets in setting its own goals ... is, I would say, not as efficient or really meaningful if we actually do have a better regional coordinated action," said McIlroy. 

Waves crash against the Stanley Park seawall during a high-tide storm event in 2012. Projections from the City of Vancouver say many current shorelines will be underwater by the end of this century due to rising sea levels if no action is taken. (CBC)

Still, several municipalities are moving forward with plans, including the District of North Vancouver, New Westminster and Richmond.

But Vancouver is the first to come forward with detailed suggestions. And is the region's biggest city. Which makes Wednesday's vote all the more interesting.

"There are very strong recommendations and it's not going to be easy for everyone on this council to could get on board with them," said Boyle. 

"I think it's going to take a little political courage. So we'll see how that goes."


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.