'We need to accelerate': Vancouver emissions drop 15% in over a decade

As of 2020, 57% of carbon pollution in Vancouver came from burning natural gas in buildings, and 37% was emitted from gas- and diesel-powered vehicles

Traffic in Vancouver, B.C. Internal-combustion engines accounted for 37% of the city's emissions in 2020, down slightly as people stayed closer to home during the pandemic | Photo: Dan Toulgoet

With less than a decade left to cut carbon pollution in half, Vancouver is a third of the way there. 

That’s according to city staff, who updated councillors Wednesday on Vancouver’s progress in its march to fight climate change. 

By 2020, carbon emissions had dropped 15 per cent from 2007 levels. That represents a third of the 50 per cent reduction target set for 2030.

Matt Horne, the city’s climate policy manager, said the emission reductions stand against a backdrop of a growing population and economy.

“We are starting to move in the right direction,” he said. “You can also see quite clearly we need to accelerate that progress if we're going to hit our 2030 target.”

As of 2020, 57 per cent of carbon pollution in the city came from burning natural gas in buildings. Another 37 per cent was emitted from vehicles' gas and diesel engines, with the balance coming from electricity generation and waste. 

Overall carbon pollution dropped significantly in 2020, largely the result of a sudden dip in transportation-related emissions during the COVID-19 pandemic, noted staff in a summary to council.

Compared to 2019, emissions from buildings make up a slightly larger share of Vancouver’s total carbon output, rising three per cent year-over-year. 

“If this is such a big source of emissions, why don’t we just ban natural gas from the city?” Mayor Kennedy Stewart asked staff at Wednesday's council meeting. 

New multi-unit buildings are not currently allowed to use natural gas in their construction, but staff said keeping gas as an energy source in retrofitted old buildings “is really key, at least for the foreseeable future.” 

“Some homes are going to run into circumstances where electrifying can be very, very challenging. And so the approach that we're taking right now is… we want to get people moving towards low carbon,” said Sean Pander, green building manager for the city. 

Pander said in many cases that will mean moving to renewable gas, a carbon fuel fabricated by capturing emissions from agriculture, wastewater or wood waste.

Big gaps in climate funding

The numbers came as city staff updated council on Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan (CEAP). 

Passed in November 2020, CEAP aims to cut the city’s carbon pollution to half 2007 levels by 2030. That would put Vancouver in line with international targets to limit global heating to 1.5 C, the threshold scientists say would lead to catastrophic damage to the world’s climate system.

Of Vancouver's six “big moves” to address climate change, the plan targets four, including

  • Active transportation and transit
  • Support the expansion of zero-emission vehicles 
  • Transition to zero-emissions space and water heating
  • Deploy low carbon materials and construction practices

Three of those goals — active transportation and transit, zero-emission vehicles and restoring coasts and forests — face a low likelihood of meeting their targets, added staff Wednesday.

Still, city staff said they are pushing ahead. So far this year, 58 per cent of the $58-million 2021 capital budget has been spent or committed, and staff are on track to spend or commit the remainder by end of the year. 

That money has helped expand the city’s electric vehicle charging network, improved access and safety for pedestrians and cyclists, supported low-carbon building retrofits and backed a heat-pump rebate program for city residents.

Money remains a problem. City staff says it is $230 million short of the $500 million it needs to meet Vancouver’s climate targets over the next five years. A recent proposal to roll out blanket regulations for street-side parking and tax for high-emitting new vehicles failed last month after Stewart voted down the motion. 

The Climate Emergency Parking Plan would have provided an estimated $60 million for alternative transportation, and would have reduced 14 per cent of the emissions the city aims to make by switching to zero-emission vehicles.

“We have zero new revenue this year,” said Horne. “We have no revenue for the next five years in terms of line of sight with the loss of the parking permit program. Next year, staff will be exploring some smaller fees that may be able to nudge behaviour change [and] will also bring in some revenue but they would definitely not be on the order of the parking permit program.”

Horne said Vancouver’s 2022 capital plan will offer a big chance to make up at least some of the shortfall. 

Learning from past failures

CEAP is hardly Vancouver’s first set of environmental targets to fall short. A decade after Vancouver launched its Greenest City Action Plan, it has achieved eight out of 18 targets. The good news: progress has been made on all fronts, and the city has hit its goals around reducing the distance driven by residents, planting 150,000 trees and boosting local capacity to grow food. 

At the same time, air quality is worsening, the pandemic has created setbacks in ramping up transit options, and a huge percentage of the city’s buildings are not adapted to deal with a shifting climate.

Coun. Christine Boyle questioned staff over how June’s heat dome — now estimated to have killed at least 99 Vancouverites and 595 British Columbians — has impacted the staff’s plan to protect residents from the deadly effects of climate change.

“What we're learning is that there are three major issues: One is air conditioning, one is dealing with isolation [and] ensuring people are connected with each other, and the third one is actually green space,” said director of sustainability Doug Smith, echoing concerns raised in a recent Glacier Media investigation into the heat dome. 

“Green space has a significant impact on reducing localized heat.”

Describing the heat dome as “quite a wake-up call,” Pander said one solution staff is looking at would be to shift the conversation away from air conditioners and toward heat pumps.

“Air conditioners are just heat pumps that only cool. So for a very modest additional cost, instead of an air conditioner, you could get a heat pump that would do zero-emissions heating and cooling,” said Pander. 

Staff is now investigating whether it can incorporate thermal comfort requirements into city bylaws, and add a stipulation that all cooling systems in new buildings use heat pumps. More details are expected in the new year. 

For city residents, the details of such solutions could not come soon enough. Surveys suggest 90 per cent of residents are concerned about climate change, while only 10 per cent say they understand the scale of the action needed. 

Coun. Jean Swanson questioned if the city could survey homes to assess who needs a heat pump most urgently.

“Maybe they could afford them. Maybe we could do a GoFundMe. Maybe we could have some sort of free thing happening,” said Swanson. 

Smith said staff would provide councillors with a “heat memo” in early 2022 offering recommendations to protect the most vulnerable from extreme temperatures before the summer.