On the record: Vancouver’s climate change policy manager discusses plan to reduce carbon pollution by 2030

Matt Horne: ‘Absolutely, it will be a challenge.’

Vancouver city council approved a “climate emergency action plan” Tuesday that aims to substantially cut carbon pollution by 2030 | File photo: Dan Toulgoet

Vancouver city council has approved an ambitious $500-million plan that aims to substantially reduce the amount of carbon pollution generated in the city over the next decade.

Ambitious in that the city wants to have two-thirds of all trips in Vancouver made on foot, bike or transit by 2030 and have 50 per cent of kilometres driven on city roads to be by zero emission vehicles.

Carbon pollution from buildings is to be cut in half from 2007 levels and embodied emissions from new buildings — the term for production and transport of construction materials — is to be reduced by 40 per cent.

Can it be done? Are the goals realistic?

Matt Horne, the city’s climate change policy manager, thinks so.

“We worked with [consultants] to model the actions we were considering, and we had an external advisory group to sort of help us test and guide the work,” Horne said Wednesday, the day after council approved the 371-page plan to tackle climate change.

“Absolutely, it will be a challenge. But I think we’ve tried to be transparent in the report and to council that it’s not going to be easy to get there. We do think if we implement these actions as proposed in the plan, and work closely with the province on their CleanBC plan, we can get to those targets.”

Horne

Matt Horne, Vancouver’s climate change policy manager. Photo courtesy City of Vancouver

In the space of 30 minutes, Horne answered that question and several more about the plan and what it means for residents and business owners — and whether or when transport pricing will be implemented in the city.

Hint: It’s not this year, next year or the year after.

The following is a list of questions followed by Horne’s answers. Some have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Council heard from more than 70 speakers over three meetings and spent considerable time debating the merits of the “climate emergency action plan.” What was your reaction to council giving the plan the green light?

From a staff perspective, it’s encouraging. We heard lots of support from speakers, lots of support from council and that they’re clearly supportive of the work moving ahead. We’re excited to do that and move on to the next stage of analysis, engagement and implementation.

How much carbon pollution is produced in the city every year?

Right now, we’ve got about 2.5 million tonnes of carbon pollution. That’s our most recent estimate from 2019. And that’s from buildings and transportation, almost entirely.

How did you measure that?

For buildings, we get information from Fortis BC that goes to the province then back to us. We don’t have building by building information. But we do know how much natural gas is used in all the buildings in Vancouver. So it’s straightforward to calculate the emissions from when that natural gas was burned. Transportation is less precise. It’s a process with other Metro governments that look at gas sales and we then estimate how much of that is used in Vancouver.

Can you put that 2.5 million tonnes of carbon pollution into context — is Vancouver more polluted than other cities?

In a North American context, on a per capita basis, we would be one of the lowest emitting cities, based on the numbers we’ve seen. If you look at it in a global context, there’s certainly a number of cities, in Europe in particular, that are ahead of us —Scandinavia, Amsterdam. There you’ve got higher levels of walking, cycling and transit, and it’s also quite common to have district energy systems running on some mix of renewable energy.

One of your colleagues, Doug Smith, director of the city’s Sustainably Group, told council Tuesday that “every single one of the recommendations in this report will not actually be implemented any time soon.” Why is that?

It depends on the definition of ‘anytime soon.’ The timelines are laid out in the climate emergency action plan. The point we were really trying to make to council is that in approving the plan, it doesn’t trigger the automatic implementation of any of the actions. The soonest ones coming back to council for decisions on bylaw changes would be mid-2021. So things like the removal of parking spot minimums [for new construction], increases in electrical vehicle readiness for new construction, requiring lower embodied carbon in new construction, bringing in parking permits on a city-wide basis and the carbon pollution surcharge for more expensive new vehicles. Those are the regulatory ones. In terms of on the ground where things will be changing, the plan is also pretty clear for the need to be dedicating more space for walking, cycling and transit — so incremental steps in completing the city’s bike network, improving safety on sidewalks and working on bus or transit priority lanes, as well.

But just so the public’s clear about this plan, the city has been working on these initiatives — and spending millions of dollars to implement them — well before discussion around a climate emergency action plan, correct?

Yes, and I think you can go all the way back to the 1990s in terms of when Vancouver started down this path. Clouds of Change was the city’s first climate plan and one of the first — if not the first in North America — in terms of those early steps of prioritizing walking, cycling and transit in our transportation system. The city really has been moving down that path ever since. I don’t think there’s really anything in the climate emergency action plan that’s a brand new objective or a solution we’re pursuing, but does definitely represent an affirmation of that direction and, in many cases, an acceleration of the initiatives we’ve been pursuing.

How many years will it take to fully implement the plan?

So it’s a five-year plan, and we think the actions — if fully implemented — put us on track for our 2030 targets. But towards the end of that five-year window, we’ll have to do that additional planning renewal to figure out what the next five years of the plan looks like.

How has or will the COVID-19 pandemic affect the plan’s implementation?

We definitely wrestled with this in presenting the plan to council. Probably the best example of where that shows up is in the phasing in of these new requirements, and when they come into play. Transport pricing has got a lot of discussion, and I think generated some misinformation that it’s coming in force tomorrow. We tried to be quite clear that the proposal would be developed for 2025, which gives time both to do the design work and also allow the downtown economy to recover. The carbon limits for existing buildings are another example. We do want to do the work early to get those rules in place, so people can plan around them. But the actual requirements wouldn’t be coming in force until the first modest limits in 2025, and then increasing in 2030.

Some critics have questioned why council and city staff are considering a climate plan during a pandemic, with so many people sick, out of work and businesses just hanging on for survival. What do you say about the timing of this plan?

I think fundamentally we can wrestle with both challenges, and that’s what council has asked us to do. And I think it’s what the public is expecting us to do. There’s definitely lots of people in the city and across the country and the world that are really struggling right now. We’ve tried to be cognizant of those challenges, which is why you’re not seeing changes day one in terms of additional charges and things like that.

Is transport pricing or congestion pricing or mobility pricing — or whatever it is called these days — coming to Vancouver, or not?

I would take from the debate Tuesday night — and certainly the public discussion leading up to it — that council had more anxiety or apprehensiveness around that recommendation, in particular. They did make amendments to the recommendation, particularly asking for a more material checkpoint with them after initial work and engagement [with residents and businesses] has happened. What I’m hearing from them is they want a close eye on that and want that engagement to be really thorough. But we’ll be doing the work so that we’re prepared to implement [a trial] in 2025, if they wanted to proceed. The overall objective should be eventually to get to a regional system.

The staff report says it will cost $500 million over the next five years to implement the plan. But many of the goals in the plan such as cutting carbon pollution in buildings by half of what it was measured at in 2007, extend to 2030. So does that mean it will cost another $500 million or more to keep the plan in play from 2025 to 2030?

We have not done that costing work, but I think it’s safe to say somewhere in that ballpark [of $500 million] for the second half of the decade. I think part of those costs will be improvements for walking, cycling and transit because we wouldn’t be done that work in 2025.

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. How much is expected from senior governments?

Out of the $500 million, approximately $25 million is counted on coming from senior governments. It’s a conservative estimate, but it’s actually pretty well aligned with what we’ve been able to secure from senior government grants in the past.

As the plan says, more than 50 per cent of the city’s carbon pollution comes from the heating of buildings. Can you give me one example of how the city plans to reduce pollution in those buildings?

For commercial buildings, we would be setting emission intensity thresholds in the same way we do now for new buildings that they would have to start meeting in 2025, and then those targets sort of ramp down from there. So as a commercial building operator, they’ll know well in advance what those limits are going to be and it would be up to them to figure out the mix of energy efficiency improvements, control improvements, transition to renewable energy, what package of solutions they would use to meet the limits.

Brad White, president of SES Consulting, told council during the meetings that his company installed a heat pump in the Vancity tower across from Science World on Quebec Street. He said the pump was set up to recover heat from the credit union’s data centre to heat most of the remainder of the building. White said the retrofit reduced the natural gas consumption by 96 per cent and the tower’s greenhouse gas emissions by 71 per cent. Is that the type of transition you’re talking about?

That’s a good example of a building that’s already made the changes and would be well under any limits we can imagine proposing to council.

I know restaurants and others who rely on natural gas for cooking and other uses are concerned the city wants to wipe out its use. Can you clarify what the city’s plans are for the use of natural gas across Vancouver?

Specifically on cooking, the plan does not include any measures or any expectations that the use of natural gas in cooking is reduced or curtailed. We recognize that’s a really important use and it’s also a very small amount of total natural gas use. The vast majority is for space and hot water heating. The other important point to make — and we really tried to work quite closely with Fortis BC in developing this plan — is we’re clear we need to transition off of gas from fossil sources. But we want to be part of that process to not just transition to electricity, but also include a growing amount of renewable gas in the mix.

Critics have said no matter what measures Vancouver takes to fight climate change, that it won’t really have an effect — that real change will only come if countries like China and India make efforts to cut pollution. What do you say to that?

On the one hand, it’s accurate. We fundamentally need every jurisdiction to be taking significant action to solve a global crisis. The way we look at in Vancouver is we do have a role to play in managing our own emissions. We also have lots of evidence of where we’re figuring out successful approaches, and those get picked up in different forms by other jurisdictions around the world. So we think there’s sort of an add-on effect from the work we’re doing, and it justifies it, as well.

I know many people who want to “go green,” but can’t afford an electric car, or a heat pump, or put solar panels on their roof. So what do you say to those people who are just trying to get by and don’t have the money to invest in upgrades?

We’ve tried to speak to that with the climate emergency action plan, and definitely realize the challenge for many people. But what council has now approved, and what you see in the [provincial government’s] CleanBC plan, are increasingly significant incentives [to retrofit homes and buy electric vehicles]. Electric vehicles have provincial and federal incentives. Interestingly, the NDP in their election platform committed to shifting those incentives to a means-tested incentive. So if you’re a lower income household, my understanding is you’ll be able to access a bigger incentive for an electric vehicle. For things like heat pumps and energy efficiency upgrades, the province through Better Homes BC has incentives, and the city is topping those up. We also now have council approval to top up those incentives for electric vehicle charging in existing buildings. I don’t want to give the impression that it solves all those challenges, but there are a good number of incentives. We’ve also put forward a number of ideas where we can remove some barriers that the city is putting up to these transitions. Heat pump permits would be a good example there. It is still challenging to get a heat pump permit relative to what should be a pretty simple thing to do.

I heard the term “equity” mentioned several times during the council meetings on this plan. What does equity mean in this context and how is it achieved in this plan?

I would say we’ve achieved a good first step in incorporating equity into the climate plan. We’ve tried to be clear with council that there’s quite a bit more work we’re going to need to do there to really meaningfully incorporate it. Council said they wanted a strong equity lens placed on the climate work, and that was quite clear in the climate emergency declaration in January 2019, and they’ve reaffirmed that a number of times. The general approach we’ve taken is to really try to minimize or avoid burdening people who are already struggling. A good example there would be the carbon pollution surcharge on parking permits. We’re only proposing that apply on new, more expensive vehicles. So if you are driving an older vehicle, or purchasing a lower cost vehicle, we’re not going to be applying that surcharge.

But many people are still going to need to use their car, whether it’s electric or gas-powered, to get to work or live their lives. It’s simply more efficient for many, including people who have to commute after hours and don’t feel safe waiting at a bus stop. In addition, residents in certain parts of the city don’t have access to reliable transit options. How does the plan affect those people?

We want walking, rolling, cycling and transit to work for more people. We want to try to remove barriers so it becomes an option more of the time for more people. But it won’t work all the time. Many people will still be in that situation [where they drive]. In the plan, we look to support that transition to electric vehicles because we want the vehicles on our roads to be less polluting. And with the work to shift more people to walking, cycling and transit, and introduce transport pricing, we think we can reduce congestion on our roads so that the people who do need to drive, make those trips a little bit faster and a little bit more reliably. That’s the experience we’ve seen in other jurisdictions that have moved forward with some form of transport pricing.

Not every resident has had time to read the 371-page climate plan, or pay attention to the debate around the plan, or follow the news coverage. So what do you say to those people who want a simple breakdown on how the plan could affect or benefit them?

For people who are new to this and have some anxiety around the degree of change, I would emphasize the changes aren’t happening overnight. There will be more engagement around the individual actions in the plan. If people are interested in those, they’re welcome to sign up for the Greenest City newsletter, or at Shapeyourcity.ca and learn about those individual pieces. If people are interested in making some of these shifts — whether it’s more walking, cycling and transit or shift to an electric vehicle or heat pump — we’re trying to get more and more information out there, and provide more support in making those shifts easier for people. So whether it’s a look at the plan, or reaching out to staff, we’d be happy to have those conversations. There’s a lot we can do to make these transitions easy for people, and we’ve included our ideas. But if there’s other examples where as a city we’re in the way, we’d love to know more about that so we can get out of the way.

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

@Howellings