Stephen Sheppard: Learning from COVID-19 for B.C.’s climate emergency response

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      By Stephen Sheppard

      With the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) currently happening in Glasgow and the CleanBC Roadmap to 2030 just released—after a summer with deadly heat waves, forest fires, health warnings, and smoke—climate change is firmly back in the headlines.

      But what does this mean for B.C. communities?  The COVID-19 pandemic has not gone away, with its legacy of uncertainty and health worries. With all the mental anxiety and isolation from these converging crises, it is easy to understand people’s desire to get back to ‘normal’.

      But can the COVID experience teach us anything on how to build back better with low-carbon, resilient, and vibrant communities?

      We believe that current circumstances offer a unique opportunity to accelerate climate action and strengthen the COVID recovery. The UN’s reports and B.C.’s Roadmap tell us we need to cut our carbon footprints by about half by 2030 if we are to minimize future disasters from the climate emergency. This requires making or sustaining big changes before pre-COVID ‘business as usual’ locks back in.

      A new UBC faculty of forestry study, in partnership with the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions and the Community Energy Association, identifies various ‘wins’ between COVID recovery and climate action, based on success stories in B.C. and beyond. The UBC Forestry report is helping to inform a new section of the B.C. Climate Leaders Playbook, an online resource for local governments focused on the "Big Moves" for local climate action.

      The report’s case studies show we can increase jobs and skills to advance communities’ economic recovery, reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, build resilience to climate impacts while increasing self-sufficiency, and gain social co-benefits like improved health, social cohesion, equity, and more sustainable lifestyles.

      The report also identifies several critical pathways and best-practice solutions for achieving low-carbon, resilient, vibrant, and attractive communities.  These include:

      Relocalizing communities  Many cities are prioritizing local services, jobs, and amenities with less reliance on car travel by creating “complete” compact and walkable neighbourhoods, such as the 15 Minute City model pioneered in Paris. Inspired by this model and capitalizing on the work-from-home experience imposed during COVID-19 restrictions, cities—both locally and overseas—are slashing vehicle emissions, air pollution, congestion, and noise, expanding green infrastructure, and promoting healthier active living overall. The North Vancouver Open Streets Initiative to reclaim road space for parklets is a great local example.

      Closing the loop on waste  The circular economy offers increased jobs and income from reuse/repair/recycling of previously discarded construction materials to reduce consumption and GHGs from landfills. Innovative municipal deconstruction policies can incentivize businesses, such as Unbuilders in Vancouver, to salvage old-growth timber, raising over $1.5 million in revenue, with sizable tax credits for homeowners. B.C-wide, deconstruction bylaws and incentives could yield significant jobs and divert thousands of tonnes of material from landfills.

      Mobilizing residents on local climate action  Innovative Canadian pilot programs have activated the “missing middle” of underengaged community residents on collective climate action. In Nelson, B.C., Wildsight launched the Youth Climate Corps, a youth training/employment program focused on climate adaptation, including fire-risk reduction around communities. Successful neighbourhood-based programs to empower local climate champions include Evergreen’s Green Bloc Neighbourhoods Program and UBC’s Cool ‘Hood Champs training program through Vancouver community centres. Well-organized social-mobilization programs can develop positive local action plans that build local capacity, neighbourliness, lighter footprints, and hope.

      Municipalities must play a critical leadership role in scaling up climate action in every community. Current work on restart plans, job-creation strategies, and budgets needs to be seen through a climate lens, with a multipronged restart strategy to ensure co-benefits between COVID-19 recovery, accelerated climate and nature-based solutions, and well-being.

      The COVID-19 experience showed that the combination of policies, incentives, powerful and sustained messaging, and voluntary behaviour change can rapidly shift social norms while delivering an unprecedented seven percent reduction in worldwide emissions. While this unfortunate pandemic may not solve the climate crisis, it demonstrates that massive change is possible on the ground, with substantial side benefits if well planned.

      We only have a short window to seize the opportunities that COVID-19 disruptions present for halving emissions and climate-proofing our communities in this Decade of Action. The positive moves and temporary infrastructure changes introduced by cities need to be made permanent as a ‘new normal’ to avoid slipping back into damaging old habits.  We have less than nine years left to get every neighbourhood to cut their carbon footprints in half and prepare for climate extremes.