Is ABC doing enough on climate?

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      Vancouver considers itself a world leader in climate change policy, but a new city staff report shows it's nowhere close to meeting its target of halving carbon emissions by 2030.

      City staff’s recent presentation to council about the Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP) also contains more bad news. The CEAP presents six “big moves” to lower local emissions, mainly focused around buildings and transit; only one, low carbon emissions and construction practices, is currently on track to meet the city’s own goals. 

      Since declaring a climate emergency in 2019, the city's emissions have barely budged—and the 11-year climate goal is now only seven years away.

      “There [are] so many climate leaders on a municipal level, so that was a bit surprising to hear,” Adriana Laurent, a member of the city’s climate equity working group, told the Straight in an interview. 

      Even if all CEAP policies were approved, it would not be enough alone to hit those targets. More work is needed beyond the existing plan—but the money isn’t there.

      The CEAP has a huge budget shortfall: it’s getting $270 million over the next five years, rather than the $500 million that staff said would be necessary. Matt Horne, manager of climate mitigation, accountability and outreach at the city, said the targets were ambitious but “a fair share for a city of our size” to be working towards.

      “When we put this plan forward, I think we were pretty clear that it was not going to be easy to hit the targets. They were challenging targets, which I think is the reality of climate change if we’re going to respond in the way we’ve said we want to,” Horne said. 

      He added that there had been about a 10 per cent increase in funding for climate projects proposed in this year’s draft capital and operating budget—slightly more than the rate of inflation. But there’s still almost half of CEAP’s budget missing.

      “We had a gap when the CEAP was approved, and we still have a gap,” Horne said. “Some of those actions really do depend on city investment. We’re continuing to try and close the gap, but we will have a shortfall.”

      So how are we going to hit targets without putting money behind it? 

      CEAP’s targets are unlikely at current budget and technology levels. But nobody wants to rock the boat by either walking back climate policy, or committing more money to it. Freshman ABC Coun. Mike Klassen told the Straight that his party believed the CEAP was “a very robust work” and it is committed to hitting the targets, but other priorities like police, infrastructure, housing, and childcare were all also eating into the budget. 

      “All of these pressures are coming to bear on our local governments,” he said. “But we are unreservedly going to make sure that we are focused on taking climate action and addressing the impacts of climate change.”

      ABC campaigned on a platform of sustainability, affordability, and safety, but it has yet to really enact the climate policies in its election platform (which disappeared from the party website shortly after the election). The party promised to plant 100,000 trees, beef up electric vehicle use, create “15-minute neighbourhoods” and reduce emissions from new construction—but didn’t pledge any additional money for the CEAP. 

      The Park Board election pledges also did not include promises to remove the Stanley Park bike lane, though that decision was taken earlier this year. It runs counter to the party’s support for the CEAP, which has “active transportation and transit” as one of its six key policy areas.

      “If we were trying to prioritize active transportation and transit, then decisions [from other governments] that are moving in a different direction are not going to help us achieve our targets,” Horne said.

      The current 2023 draft operating budget, which proposes a 10.7 per cent property tax increase, budgets 5 per cent for increases to city services funding, 2.7 per cent for the Vancouver Police Department, 1 per cent for infrastructure, and 1 per cent for reserve replenishment. 

      And the draft operating budget doesn’t include another of the previous council’s votes: $1 per person ($700,000) to go towards funding a lawsuit to sue Big Oil for a portion of the money it costs to implement climate policies. In July, the motion passed council 6-5.

      Fiona Koza, climate accountability strategist at West Coast Environmental Law, told the Straight that the decision to withhold funding for the suit was disappointing, as there had not been another council vote to scrap the decision.

      “Vancouver simply cannot afford the skyrocketing costs of climate change, and a lawsuit targeting Big Oil would help the city pay for expensive climate damage while holding the world's largest polluters accountable,” she said. A 2022 Stratcom poll found 68.6 per cent of British Columbians supported the idea of suing global oil companies to help fund climate change costs.

      Then there’s the matter of making sure climate justice work is being done equitably. 

      OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle, who tabled the CEAP in 2019, said that a core part of the plan is recognizing how climate change affects marginalized communities more acutely, and ensuring that all policy is applied with an equity lens. 

      “It’s important that we hear from a diversity of voices, and particularly from equity-denied groups whose voices are not heard often enough at City Hall,” she said. 

      The climate equity working group Laurent was part of spent several years creating a 42-page document, the Climate Justice Charter (CJC), which explicitly laid out ways to ensure city climate policy aligned with climate justice. Staff recommended that the CJC be used as a guideline for all future policy, which would provide a level of accountability: policy would have to reference it, to prove the equity lens was more than just words. 

      But Klassen tabled a successful amendment to instead move it to be a “resource,” defanging its use. Boyle described the decision as “last-minute,” and she was unclear what “the point or purpose of it” was; Klassen said he worried making the CJC a guideline was “too prescriptive” for staff. “We already have a number of tools in our toolkit … I think it’s important that we let staff work through all of them.” 

      Laurent, who also contributed to the CJC as a consultant, said that the decision not to codify it as a guideline was disappointing. 

      “My immediate sense was that they were trying to take away the accountability elements of the Climate Justice Charter,” she said. Moreover, it made her question ABC’s larger commitment to climate work. 

      “I think it shows that the current council … are not where they need to be. I think people and city staff are ready for this, and ready for this work,” she said. “It’s like, okay, so you’re unhappy that we’re not meeting targets, but you’re also not funding them or financing them. So how are we supposed to meet targets if this climate work is severely under-resourced?”

      But while the council votes on policy, it’s city staff who do the work. Laurent was hopeful that staff she spoke to seemed really committed to the ideas within the CJC. And Cathy Pasion, climate adaptation and equity manager within the city’s sustainability office, confirmed that climate justice was a core part of the city strategy. 

      “Climate change is a global crisis. It doesn’t impact everyone evenly or equitably… We also know that what actions we take and the investments we make as a city, those have consequences to them, so really understanding how that impacts folks and making sure that any benefits are distributed equitably,” is crucial, she said.

      But time is running out on hitting those big targets. Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy found that every $1 invested in climate preparation saved $13-15 in the future; the longer investment is delayed, the more it will cost future councils (and residents). 

      Another recent council decision directed staff to quantify the costs of climate policy as well as inaction, to present costs of “proposed adaptation or resilience measures… and the extent to which those measures are likely to reduce… costs.”

      “The money spent now is going to peanuts compared to if we do not take these actions,” Koza, the climate accountability strategist, said. “It’s incredibly important we know how much climate change is costing us—and those costs are going to rise—but we can project how much we’re going to likely have to pay. That’s important so we can budget for it now and plan for it now.”

      There are some cheaper parts of the CEAP. Climate mitigation manager Horne and Coun. Boyle both emphasized the importance of changing building code regulations to get more homes off of gas heating, as 55 per cent of the city’s carbon pollution comes from burning gas in buildings. It’s rare for a city to be able to have that level of control over construction, and be able to do what Boyle calls “important regulatory policies … that aren’t high cost.”

      “We have our own Vancouver Building Code, and a lot of local governments don’t have access to that tool,” Horne said. 

      Klassen, too, said the city needs “to start thinking outside the box” on solutions. “We don’t have a current policy around carbon offsets, but there is one in the works. Carbon offsets are not a perfect solution, but they do help us get closer to that net-zero target,” he said. (Experts remain skeptical on how beneficial carbon offsets are, as they don’t actually lower emissions.) “Looking to the future, there’s even more research and solutions that are likely to come forwards to help us meet those targets.”

      So advocates are waiting to see how ABC votes—while understanding that time is of the essence. 

      “A lot of people in Vancouver, regardless of how they voted in the municipal election, do genuinely care about climate change,” Laurent said.  

      But, she warns, taking a wait-and-see approach is costly. The financial, and human, impacts of climate change rack up every year. There will always be more floods, more storms, more heat domes, more once-in-a-lifetime fires that happen once a decade. The emergency is here.

      “One of the main issues with climate organizing and climate work is that we, as a society, as a way of thinking, are always thinking short-term instead of thinking long-term,” Laurent said. “That kind of thinking is exactly what got us into this mess.”

      This story has been updated from the print version to reflect that the municipal budget has been passed.