(This is longer than most articles on media websites.)
Ever since the Romans figured out how to create concrete, this substance has come to define the landscape in many cities.
The material used to build the Colosseum and the Pantheon—along with Roman arches and later dams, roads, and buildings—reduced their reliance on stone and brick.
It’s no different in Vancouver, where concrete high-rises dot the landscape. Whether it’s in the viaducts, at the airport, or in the sidewalks, concrete abounds.
But there’s a problem with this building material. According to Montreal author Mary Soderstrom’s 2020 book, Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future, one of the key ingredients in concrete—cement—accounts for four to six percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
The City of Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan, which passed last year, acknowledged the scope of the problem. It called for a 40 percent reduction in embodied carbon in new buildings and construction projects by 2030.
“Typically, underground parking structures can account for 12% to 20% of the embodied carbon in a new building, ranging up to 40% in extreme cases,” the report states.
In the document, city staff say that reducing the number of parking levels from six to three in a high-rise can lower a building’s overall embodied carbon by three to five percent. Fewer parking stalls also has other positive impacts on the environment.
“This can also support lower rates of private vehicle ownership, which reduces embodied carbon,” it notes.
There has been a great deal of public discussion about the City of Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan, particularly the transportation measures. But there hasn’t been nearly as much attention paid to what it means for the built environment in Vancouver.
How will the Climate Emergency Action Plan change the look of the city in the next decade? And what will that mean for residents?
In 2019, OneCity councillor Christine Boyle introduced a motion declaring a climate emergency, which passed unanimously. That set the stage for the ambitious Climate Emergency Action Plan, which included a long list of recommendations endorsed by city council.
So in advance of Earth Day on Thursday (April 22), it seemed appropriate to check in with Boyle to find out what people can expect to occur with buildings and heating and hot-water systems.
Boyle told the Straight by phone that concrete in parking garages is both a building and a transportation issue.
“Council has already given the direction to reduce parking minimums in new buildings,” she noted. “That’s one important step.”
Boyle supports sharply reducing construction of concrete-reinforced underground basements. It might result in slightly taller buildings, she acknowledged. However, she added that creating ground-floor units rather than partially or fully underground suites could improve accessibility for people with disabilities.
Secondly, she called for the use of lower-emission concrete when there isn’t a suitable alternative.
“When the plan came to council, we actually had a number of folks from the building sector come and speak in support of both of those approaches,” Boyle said. “So it was great to see that.”
We’re running out of time
According to the Climate Emergency Action Plan, the world is on track for 3° to 4° C of warming by the end of the century if bold action isn’t taken.
That would likely set off climate feedback loops—such as the melting of alpine glaciers and ice caps in Greenland, the West Antarctic, and the Arctic Ocean—that would result in greenhouse-gas emissions ratcheting up higher under the so-called Hothouse Earth scenario.
That’s because white ice, which reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere, would be replaced by more dark water, which absorbs heat.
This was outlined in a scientific paper published in 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
“If the threshold is crossed, the resulting trajectory would likely cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies,” the scientists wrote. “Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state.”
Vancouver is among 1,700 jurisdictions that have declared a climate emergency.
“The first thing I would say is that this is an ambitious plan in that it’s in line with the science,” Boyle declared. “And of equal importance to me, it’s really rooted in an approach of equity and justice.”
Boyle, a United Church minister, spent years in the climate-justice movement trying to persuade faith groups to divest from fossil fuels prior to seeking public office. She was elected to council for the first time in October 2018.
She pointed out that this was the same month that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that the world only had 12 years to dramatically lower emissions to avoid the types of feedback loops mentioned above.
“I felt pretty conscious that I was just elected for the first four of those years,” Boyle said.
According to her, the city’s approach mirrors that of New York City, which is setting buildings emissions caps that tighten over time.
“So, for instance, if you’re a homeowner and you have a natural-gas furnace, you wouldn’t be required on a certain date to just toss that while it’s still working,” Boyle said. “But, instead, the system is set up so that when that gas furnace comes to the end of its life, you would replace it with an electric heat pump instead of replacing it with a new furnace.
“So there’s some time to make those transitions,” she continued. “But with a very clear sense of the direction we need to go in.”
Make no mistake: the Climate Emergency Action Plan is, in some respects, a road map to get residents and businesses to kick the natural-gas habit. That’s because 54 percent of the city’s carbon emissions originate from natural gas use in buildings, whereas another 39 percent are produced by gas- and diesel-powered vehicles.
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment is furthering these efforts in a campaign called Switch It Up B.C. It seeks to get residents to take a pledge to replace their furnace, hot-water heater, or kitchen appliance with nonpolluting electric equipment.
The physicians’ group argues that relying on electricity is better for human health than burning natural gas. That was reinforced by a paper published this month in Journal of Environmental Health.
In it, the Massachusetts-based researchers highlighted the links between gas cooking stoves, household air pollution, and childhood asthma.
“Cooking with a gas stove releases combustion-generated nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants into household air,” they stated in the abstract. “Both nitrogen dioxide in household air and cooking with gas are associated with increased risk and severity of childhood asthma.
“The impact on children can be substantial because at least one third of households in the U.S. cook with gas stoves, children spend most of their time indoors, indoor air is unregulated, and asthma is the most common chronic disease in children.”
Boyle said that if people switch from natural gas to heat pumps, they can avoid these problems. Plus, they can get air conditioning in the summer from heat pumps, which is another added benefit.
“The declaration of a climate emergency was an important truth-telling moment in recognizing the scale of the crisis,” the OneCity councillor said. “And for those of us who live and breathe the concern for these issues—who are losing sleep regularly about it—it’s important that we recognize that scale.”
Another change that residents can expect are more sustainable neighbourhood energy utilities—like the one that captures energy from sewage to generate heat and hot water in the Olympic Village.
The city’s oldest neighbourhood energy utility is owned by Creative Energy, which burns natural gas to produce steam that heats more than 200 buildings in downtown Vancouver. They include Rogers Arena, B.C. Place Stadium, and the Vancouver Convention Centre.
Last month, the company announced that it’s collaborating with B.C. Hydro to decarbonize its distributed energy system over 12 million square feet of new development. This will come with the addition of new electrode steam boilers.
Creative Energy is still burning natural gas to generate heat for 45 million square feet of real estate linked to its system, but this new approach marks a significant change from the past.
“This project helps support electrification goals and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of removing 12,000 gas powered cars from the road each year,” B.C. Hydro president and CEO Chris Riley said in a news release.
Boyle readily admitted that many of the changes to reduce building emissions won’t be readily apparent to residents as they go about their business in the city.
But one aspect of the Climate Emergency Action Plan—creating more “complete communities” where people will live closer to where they work and shop—will be noticed. Boyle emphasized that this is essential to reduce the massive commutes and the pressure to develop farmland.
A complete community meets the basic needs of all residents, regardless of income, through effective land-use planning.
“There’s a long list of reasons why housing policy is an important piece of climate policy,” she said. “And this plan weaves the two together in an important way.”
However, she doesn’t want this to come at the expense of equity for low-income people. That’s why she recently voted in favour of requiring one-to-one replacement of rental units that are lost due to redevelopment of commercial zones in midrise-apartment areas in Vancouver. It narrowly passed in a 6-5 vote.
Boyle maintained that concentrating development along arterials has led to a land rush that is having negative impacts on small businesses and tenants. She argued instead to weave new housing throughout all the city’s neighbourhoods to accommodate a growing population.
She acknowledged that some neighbourhoods, such as those in South Vancouver, have been historically underserved by public and active transportation. And she said that the city needs to be “really thoughtful about how we’re adding more complete housing options” to ensure that people aren’t displaced and pushed out of the city.
So, is it possible to densify single-family zones without causing land prices to rise in the same manner that they’ve shot up in commercial areas?
“When those changes are across the whole city, it spreads that pressure out more,” Boyle replied. “It diffuses some of that pressure that we’ve seen so focused on arterials. That’s what I’ve been taught, and that makes some sense to me.”
She insisted that she has no interest whatsoever in displacing tenants, even if that’s accomplished by building newer projects to house more renters in the future.
“None of those issues are new or surprising,” Boyle added. “But this climate plan, I think, is a really focused way to start to look at how they fit together—and what a more equitable city that welcomes more neighbours, and that is seriously reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions, looks like.”