By David Dodge and Duncan Kinney
It may have left everyone not from Vancouver green with envy, but Mayor Gregor Robertson got elected by promising to make Vancouver the “greenest city in the world.” The city already ranks second in Canada and the U.S., according to the Green City Index. Vancouver even has a Greenest City Action plan. But recently, the good mayor upped the ante by announcing Vancouver will be the first city in Canada to run on 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050.
It seems as we increasingly become a nation of urban citizens it is cities that are leading the way on climate change and renewable energy. Poll after poll after poll has shown Canadians support action on renewable energy, and municipal politicians are moving the needle here too.
Calgary buys renewable energy for all of its own operations, Banff has Canada’s first municipal feed-in tariff and the small town of Craik, Saskatchewan, has an eco-village full of green homes. Look into the Green Energy Futures archives —every fifth story is about some innovative municipal project.
So when a city says it’s going to go 100 per cent renewable, that definitely got our attention. Vancouver’s commitment came in March 2015, and they’re not wasting time to put it in place.
“We’re working on our plan with the city staff right now to look at how quickly we can achieve 100 per cent renewable. Maybe it’s 2040. There are cities in Europe that are thinking even more aggressive than that — 2030, 2035,” says Robertson.
Vancouver has the advantage of British Columbia’s legacy big hydro grid. Almost 95 per cent of the city’s electricity comes from renewable sources, so the big issue isn’t necessarily electricity.
“A lot of it will hinge on the transportation technology and how quickly zero emission vehicles become the norm. And that’s one that we don’t necessarily control, but we can make sure we have the electric infrastructure for charging all the vehicles that the city would need.”
We met up with Robertson this summer for an interview at the beautiful Van Dusen Gardens, a quick 15-minute ride from city hall. Robertson showed up on his bike.
“We see this as a huge economic opportunity for Vancouver. We’re partnering with a group of 17 cities around the world that are looking at how we do this, how we work together, share best practices and really develop a framework for all the cities of the world to go 100 per cent renewable,” says Robertson.
And while Vancouver became the first city in Canada to make the 100 per cent renewable pledge, they were soon followed by Oxford County in Ontario; 29 cities in the U.S. and 26 more around the world have done the same.
Even though it’s a really big change, Robertson wants to do it in sustainable manner, one that “creates great economic opportunity, and ultimately, will serve the generations going forward and keep this world healthy.”
Vancouver is already a hot spot for renewable energy jobs. According to an analysis by the Pembina Institute (full disclosure: We are a Pembina Institute project) Vancouver has 3,300 out of a total of 14,100 jobs related to renewable energy in the province.
“In our greenest city plan we have a goal to double the number of green jobs in the city and we’ve seen that increase 19 per cent in the past three years,” says Robertson. “We’re seeing an incredible surge in green jobs whether they’re in renewable energy or green buildings or local food production. It’s been great success in creating new jobs and new opportunity by greening the city.”
Vancouver is making progress on other aspects of its Greenest City initiative, too. Water consumption is down 18 per cent, more than 23,000 new trees have been planted and remarkably half of all trips are now done by walking, biking, or public transit. All of this has reduced carbon dioxide emissions from 2007 by six per cent.
Of course it’s tempting to hold up Vancouver as a beacon of all that is right and true, but it’s not without its warts: A 2015 study found that out of 17 Canadian cities Vancouver had the worst solar policies. The fees are high and the paperwork onerous; as a result there isn’t a lot of solar PV in the city. Admittedly Vancouver isn’t the sunniest place, but its solar resource is still ranked higher than Berlin’s and the cost of solar PV continues to fall, so solar makes sense there too.
And while city staff are working to improve the solar permitting issue the issue does give us one data point that suggests Vancouver may not be the perfect, over-achieving grade A student on the environment — at least not yet.