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Vancouver council approves $500m ‘climate emergency action plan’

Transport pricing report not expected before end of 2022
Vancouver council approved Tuesday a “climate emergency action plan” that includes discouraging vehicle use to reduce carbon pollution | File photo: Dan Toulgoet

Vancouver city council has approved an ambitious $500 million climate fight plan that aims to cut natural gas heat in existing buildings, discourage vehicle use and find less polluted ways to produce and transport construction materials.

But staff emphasized Tuesday the plan simply provides “a road map” for more analysis, consultation and reports to council in the years ahead as each element of the 371-page “climate emergency action plan” is solidified.

“Every single one of the recommendations in this report will not actually be implemented any time soon,” said Doug Smith, the director of the city’s Sustainability Group. “The intention here is to give us direction to move forward and to give us plenty of time to work with the public.”

The plan sets targets over the next 10 years to reduce carbon pollution and aims to have two-thirds of all trips in Vancouver made on foot, bike or transit by 2030.

In addition, 50 per cent of kilometres driven on Vancouver’s roads are to be by zero emission vehicles and carbon pollution from buildings is to be cut in half from 2007 levels.

Embodied emissions from new buildings — which is the term for production and transport of construction materials — is to be reduced by 40 per cent.

Coun. Christine Boyle, a vocal supporter of the plan since it was released last month, said it was important to recognize the plan was based on science and rooted in equity and justice for all people.

“This is the sort of climate action that we need at every level of government to truly rise to the climate emergency,” Boyle said. “This is the sort of leadership that young people have been calling for, and that health professionals and faith leaders and parents and many, many other folks and residents across our city have been calling for.”

To meet the plan’s targets, it will require the current council and the one in place after the 2022 election to push through a series of policies, bylaws, regulations, fees and surcharges.

The plan will cost $500 million over the next five years, with funds expected to come largely from existing and future capital plans, new fees and charges and rely on contributions from senior governments.

It also requires investments from business owners and residents estimated at $1.3 billion over the next 10 years on such things as heat pumps and electric vehicles.

Staff suggested the long-term savings would be $2.2 billion and lead to positive behavioural changes on how people live and get around the city.

The dominant issue leading up to council’s vote Tuesday was the plan’s recommendation for a transport pricing system, which would see motorists charged a fee to drive into the city centre.

London and Stockholm were cities mentioned as examples of where transport pricing — also known as congestion or mobility pricing — has been successfully implemented.

At the request of Coun. Rebecca Bligh, a majority of council directed staff Tuesday to first assess the feasibility of such a system in the city and outline its cost and benefits.

A staff report is expected before the end of 2022.

Bligh pointed to Stockholm’s experience in implementing its system, noting it first ran a seven-month trial before residents voted 72 per cent in a referendum to make it permanent.

“This is where major cities are going across the world, and it is because we have to work together as cities,” she said before dismissing critics who say Vancouver can’t have an impact on global pollution. “You can’t just look at Vancouver and say, well this is our population and this is our impact on [greenhouse gas] emissions, and therefore we shouldn’t do anything because we’re too small.”

Bligh’s motion is expected to cool the temperature of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and business associations in downtown and Yaletown, which complained to council that consultation was needed before implementation.

But Charles Gauthier, president and CEO of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, also warned council that a Vancouver-only solution was not the answer.

“If Vancouver is going it alone, there is no guarantee that you’re going to get regional cooperation on this, and it just doesn’t create a level playing field,” Gauthier told council at a previous meeting to discuss the climate plan. “Downtown Vancouver relies on a regional customer base, they don’t rely on a Vancouver customer base exclusively.”

The business groups also said a tax on motorists would further devastate businesses struggling from revenue loss related to the pandemic, and the years it will take to recover.

Other aspects of the plan tied to vehicles include a city-wide residential parking permit fee system and drivers charged on the carbon intensity of their vehicle.

The measures correspond to staff’s evidence that 39 per cent of Vancouver’s carbon pollution is generated from the burning of gas and diesel in vehicles, second only to emissions from burning natural gas for heat and hot water in buildings.

To pass the plan, council voted on more than 35 recommendations and amendments, with Coun. Colleen Hardwick voting against several of them.

Hardwick acknowledged the gravity of climate change but said there has to be a sense of proportion in Vancouver’s role to reduce carbon pollution.

“Here’s the deal, we’re 115 square kilometres between Boundary Road and the University Endowment Lands — 115 kilometres against the globe’s 510.1 million square kilometres,” she said. “So we really have to be careful about what we do to move the needle in impacting the planet, and what we can do in the next few months.”

Added Hardwick: “There’s much in this climate action plan which is positive and sensible that I support, but I am very concerned about the timing of this and the financial implications for a city that’s health and well-being is seriously under stress.”

More than 70 people registered to speak to council over three meetings, with an overwhelming majority in support of the plan.

Speakers included several medical doctors, young environmentalists and parents, film industry leaders, housing activists, developers and faith organizations.

Kevin Liang, a medical resident training to become a family doctor, described climate change as the number one global health crisis of the 21st century.

He urged council to support the plan.

“If we don’t take bold and effective climate action today, my colleagues and I will be the ones on the front lines fighting this once-preventable battle and treating patients devastated by climate disasters one after another,” he said. 

Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom told council he was speaking on behalf of more than two dozen faith leaders who supported the plan.

Moskovitz opened his remarks by acknowledging he was speaking on the unceded traditional territory of the Coast Salish people.

He said humans are indebted and morally bound to not abuse the land on which we live, but to guard it and protect it “because it’s not really ours.”

“The climate emergency action plan is a courageous and crucial step towards honouring this sacred responsibility,” he said in praising council for its leadership. “I know the plan is complex — the financial and economic implications are dramatic. But I would point out that while we may have to pay more today…we are paying for the environmental negligence of those that sat in positions of leadership like yours and ignored this problem when it was not yet the crisis that it is today.”

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