Opinion: Will Vancouver gut its ineffective Climate Emergency Action Plan?

Mar 14 2023, 9:51 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by David Fine, an award-winning local filmmaker who also moderates the VanPoli Facebook group.

I’ve been sharing views on the City of Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP) for some time, and now that we have a new civic government with a super majority, I’m starting to feel hopeful that this issue will be given the perspective and critical analysis it deserves.

In 2019, I wrote that while addressing climate change is critical, there are limitations to the effectiveness and relevance of civic-level action in a city like Vancouver. That is, yes, we all need to do our part, but asserting, as City staff routinely do, that the very future of the planet depends on the action at the civic level in this city that emits as much as a crumb of greenhouse gases, is where our efforts, energy, and considerable dollars should be directed.

Mayor Ken Sim’s ABC Vancouver party killed the road tolls into downtown, single-use cup fee applied like a tax and amended the equity lens on climate action so as not to handcuff City staff. They also approved a direction to remove a bike lane (with a plan to replace it with a better one!). Detractors called it kneecapping the CEAP. OneCity councillor Christine Boyle was no less than apoplectic about what ABC has been doing with the climate plan, but for many of us, it was refreshing.

City staff revealed in their recent climate action report that the annual cost of administering the CEAP, in City staffing alone — no outside costs — has been a staggering $40 million a year. Opposition often demands to know where cuts will be made to pay for ABC promises, like hiring more police and health workers. The cuts are coming from within the house!

ABC councillor Mike Klassen said, “We’ve kind of run out of time in doing symbolic gestures. We have to reach actual achievable targets,” and this is key. It’s never about no action, it’s about meaningful action and recognizing the role Vancouver should be playing at the civic level, alone. We can take issue with a well-intentioned policy that we would support if it were applied regionally and logistically.

Meanwhile, Boyle, borrowing from the critique of Justin Trudeau buying a pipeline, insists that “climate leaders do not rip out bike lanes.” Rather a different issue than a pipeline, but who is going to say that it doesn’t sounds catchy?

The truth is, the notion that addressing our climate crisis is down to removing a recreational bike lane in Stanley Park, which, by the way, was always meant to be temporary, and will be replaced as well, is not just hyperbolic, it’s, to quote Councillor Bligh on the cup tax, “actual insanity.”

Green councillor Adrianne Carr said before almost every comment she made, that “the science is settled,” but she’s not applying it to the broad consensus we all agree, which is that the climate crisis is real and urgent. But where we disagree is using it as an excuse to green light every single tiny initiative.

Well over a million dollars was spent investigating road tolls into downtown, a plan the previous mayor insisted would and could not ever happen, yet he voted for it. He and the City Council of the day voted to spend over a million dollars considering and planning road pricing because, presumably, “the science is settled” — but with no intention of seeing it through, and that’s the big issue with the CEAP. There is a real lack of accountability, despite good intentions.

Well, not totally true, the report to City Council last month confirmed that on pretty much all targets, the plan is way off the mark. Not even close to achieving the promised reductions. A plan is passed, millions of dollars are spent, and the results are as much as meaningless. The best that supporters can say is that we just need to do more, but that is not the answer to a failed policy. We have to do it right, and we have to spend where it does make a difference — bear in mind the context and what is not being funded when money is spent on initiatives that do not deliver results.

vancouver climate emergency action plan february 2023 update

City of Vancouver staff’s update on its Climate Emergency Action Plan progress as of February 2023. (City of Vancouver)

Let’s look at the context. Vancouver is one of North America’s least emitting major cities by a country mile, so does what we emit matter to the planet’s climate crisis? We emit 0.005% of global emissions, but I know the typical response: “It’s a drop, but a whole lot of drops fill a bucket.” The problem is a tidal wave, so the bucket of drops still means nothing. Climate activists insist we follow the data. This too was repeated at the recent City Council meeting. Yes, we should, so let’s do the math.

If 100 cities like Vancouver cut total emissions by 50%, what do we get? We get a cut in total emissions of 125 megatons. That equals 0.25% of global emissions, which means for all the efforts of 100 Vancouvers, we are not even moving the needle. So why is this city prioritizing spending so many millions of dollars on climate action when there are other pressing humanitarian issues in this city which could dearly use the millions?

vancouver global emissions compared 2019

City of Vancouver’s emissions compared to the rest of the world. (One World in Data)

ABC councillor Sarah Kirby Yung said that “we need to get surgical about how we spend our funds and where the biggest outcomes are going to be,” and she is absolutely right. We need to act, but outcomes and context should inform how we act and where we spend resources. There is plenty we can do which is just common sense, like planning priorities, building code, green space, tree planting, and of course, the cost of climate mitigation, such as raising the seawall’s height.

The City staffing cost for climate-related initiatives of $40 million a year over three years alone amounts to $120 million, so instead of spending that on ineffectual policy, what if a good chunk of those funds were spent on tangible things that would truly change lives in Vancouver? To name just a few: Affordable housing, mental health support, and more amenities people can use to live healthier. We have many issues that could be funded by tens of millions of dollars in redirected City staffing funding, which has to be considered when we look at the global context of actions at the civic level.

As ABC councillor Rebecca Bligh said, “Vancouver all on its own, in a massive country, is thinking it’s winning the climate war because it has a 25-cent cup fee? It’s insanity. It’s actually insanity.”

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