By Alex Boston. This op-ed originally appeared online on December 1, 2021 in the Vancouver Sun.
Just prior to the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, the B.C. government unrolled its Roadmap to 2030. Now that the bagpipe drone has faded, it’s time to move swiftly along the course it charted.
To date, B.C.’s climate action leadership has been 90 per cent aspiration and 10 per cent implementation. Rather than dropping, emissions have risen five per cent above our 2007 base year, putting us at atop an ever-steeper slope to meet a 2030 40 per cent reduction target.
While there are hazards — notably, no final stop for fossil fuel development — this Roadmap is Canada’s most credible provincial pathway for meeting 2030 targets.
Aptly named, the Roadmap’s biggest course correction focuses on transportation, B.C.’s largest and fastest-growing emission source.
The octane accelerating us down the road is a new Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, phasing out fossil-fuel-powered cars and trucks by 2035. Ideally, B.C. would’ve joined leading European jurisdictions with a 100 per cent ZEV 2030 sales target, but the government’s steep ramp up to 90 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035 is still bold.
Obscured behind the lot full of shiny EVs lies the Roadmap’s biggest landmark: sustainable land use.
Due to auto-oriented urban land use fuelled by road and bridge expansion, B.C.’s vehicle stock is growing at twice the population growth rate. Since 2007, B.C.’s population has grown grown by 20 per cent, yet vehicle stock has grown a whopping 40 per cent. Under current trends, another 1.5 million cars will be added by 2030. Without better land use, there will be more fossil fuel cars and congestion on our roads in 2030 than today.
Only one country has cut transportation GHGs below 1990 levels: Sweden. B.C. shares three of Sweden’s policy pillars: carbon pricing, renewable transportation fuels, and Zero Emission Vehicle sales requirements. B.C.’s new Roadmap has now sketched out Sweden’s fourth pillar: integrated land use and transportation infrastructure development.
North America’s most successful jurisdiction cutting transportation emissions is California. While B.C.’s transportation GHGs have surged 23 per cent since 2007, California’s dropped seven per cent. California employs the four-pillar approach.
The sustainable land use pillar has the potential to not only cut transportation carbon, but also to cut carbon in buildings and preserve terrestrial carbon. Urban growth patterns are the biggest and most consistent driver of permanent forest loss after energy development — oil, gas and hydroelectricity.
The benefits of sustainable land use are immense. Weak urban forest canopy was a key indicator of neighbourhoods with high heat-related deaths during the heat dome. Natural areas permit deep penetration of intense rain and large wave events, mitigating flood risk. Focusing growth in low-risk areas will cost effectively provide infrastructure needed to meet water, sewage, transportation and flood defence needs.
Sustainable land use reduces household transportation spending — our biggest expenditure after housing. Focusing growth along transit corridors puts riders and revenue into transit systems.
Key components in this pillar include a provincial Clean Transportation Action Plan that integrates land use and a climate lens for community and regional land use plans.
Provincial and local governments should consider stacking affordable housing, retail, daycares and, in some cases, market housing or commercial offices on top of bus exchanges and rapid transit stations. These are grossly under-utilized public lands generating poor returns for taxpayers when they should be rental revenue for transit authorities.
These transit and housing hubs could be four-storeys in small towns and mid- and high-rise in big cities — zero carbon, prefabricated buildings constructed of light wood frames, mass timber and other low embodied carbon materials that roll off assembly lines in small towns, catalyzing a new industrial agenda with domestic and international markets.
The cornerstone for this pillar was laid by the Liberal government in 2007 when the province and local governments signed the Climate Action Charter with a joint commitment to create “complete, compact, more energy efficient rural and urban communities.”
It has taken a decade to go from this signpost to the NDP’s Roadmap. Now, it’s time to load the bus with local governments, transit authorities, and people concerned about congestion, affordability, nature loss, flooding and heat waves, jobs and fiscal responsibility. If we try to tackle these problems in silos, we will fail. Sustainable land use provides an onramp to begin addressing these problems together.
Alex Boston has advised all orders of government, transit authorities and real estate developers on climate action. He is executive director of Renewable Cities at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.