Can we build a greener, more livable future for B.C.? Dreams, meet reality

This article was originally published in our March issue, before the COVID-19 pandemic came to Canada.

Credit: Cynthia Tran Vo

British Columbians say they want an environmentally sustainable province where people control what happens in their backyard—even if the economy suffers. But how do we turn those wishes into real change? The experts weigh in on three possible visions

This article was originally published in our March issue, before the COVID-19 pandemic came to Canada. 

The future looks bright. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Climate change forecasts speak of blazing heat, raging wildfires and the sun shining down on water, water everywhere. But a wide-ranging poll of B.C. residents suggests that there’s a popular will to create a better environmental scenario for the 21st century and beyond. So what might that better future look like?

The survey of almost 1,700 people, conducted in 2018 by Vancouver-based McAllister Opinion Research for the Real Estate Foundation of BC, dealt with environmental policy, land use and local control of resources, among other topics. Respondents generally favoured making environmental protection a priority and supported increased local control of resources and decision-making. The poll paints a positive picture of a sustainable and responsible future, with a notable absence of apocalyptic hellscapes or homicidal gangs of marauding gas pirates.

It all sounds swell. But choices—even smart ones—have consequences. Will planning and vision run up against political realities? Will good intentions for a greener tomorrow fade like so many New Year’s resolutions? Is Donald Trump right about windmills causing cancer?

Here are three scenarios for B.C.’s future, along with expert opinions on how they might come to be (or not).

Scenario 1: A green tomorrow

Survey says:

When forced to make a choice between the economy and the environment, B.C. residents favoured environmental protection by a margin of 3:1. 69% of respondents chose environmental protection over economic growth. 69% also agreed with the statement: “Protecting the health of B.C.’s land, water and natural ecosystems should be a priority, even at the risk of slowing down economic growth.”

German physicist Georg Wilhelm Richmann never set foot in B.C., but he could probably be enshrined as a martyr to our future. As the first person to die during an electrical experiment—he was electrocuted in 1753 in St. Petersburg while trying to prove that lightning could be conducted through a metal rod—Richmann makes a worthy symbol for the province. B.C.’s plan for a sustainable future will lean heavily on hydroelectric power.

“Most of the B.C. economy will become increasingly electrified,” says Maximilian Kniewasser, program director for B.C. climate policy in the Vancouver offices of the Pembina Institute. “B.C. has a big advantage with our clean hydro system, 98-percent clean already. We’re the envy of the world in many regards.”

But we’re not living that glorious future yet—not even close. “It’s underappreciated just how important fossil fuels still are,” Kniewasser says. “Oil fuels our cars, trucks, ferries and airplanes. Natural gas heats our homes and powers our industry. We use about four times more fossil fuel energy than clean electricity. So we will need to displace some of these fossil fuel energies with clean alternatives.”

Lana Gonoratsky, vice-chair of the British Columbia Sustainable Energy Association (BCSEA), predicts that hydro will continue to take precedence over other renewables like wind and solar. “When we talk about renewable energy, we like to think about reliable sources of energy,” Gonoratsky says. “A lot of the sources of solar and wind are intermittent. There’s nothing wrong with that. But to be frank, as a society, as a voting group, we’re not used to that. So you need a reliable source of energy so that when somebody turns on the switch, the lights will go on.”

Not everyone agrees. David Schindler, emeritus professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta, thinks the emphasis on hydro power is misguided. “Politicians should take great care to get accurate assessments before blindly rushing to hydroelectricity,” he warns. “Hydro is not always the ‘good, clean power’ naively assumed by politicians.”

Schindler points out that flooded soil resulting from dam projects can release centuries’ worth of accumulated mercury into the ecosystem. Flooding also leads to decomposition, which often produces large amounts of methane. “Methane is about 80 times more potent as a greenhouse gas,” Schindler says. “The decomposition and methane release lasts for decades.”

He also flags disruption of fish habitat and other environmental issues, as well as social disruption caused by flooding. Then there’s the price tag. “Most dams have huge cost and time overruns,” Schindler notes. “For example, Site C is currently running well behind schedule and greatly over its originally projected budget. Recent estimates put the cost of the project at $10.7 billion, so that electricity from the dam is expected to cost more than from alternative sources of power.”

Gonoratsky won’t go so far as to call Site C a good idea, but she says the BCSEA did support the NDP government’s decision to continue the project. “We did find that it was more economical to continue at that point rather than to stop construction altogether,” she explains. “From the very beginning, though, very hard to say.”

However the electricity is generated, it’s central to the provincial government’s plans. The CleanBC program has set reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) targets for 2030 in the areas of transportation, housing, industry and waste disposal, and the recent Zero-Emission Vehicle Act mandates that all light-duty vehicles sold in the province be emission-free by 2040. (The interim target is 30 percent by 2030.)

The catch: “We’re talking about changing vehicles by 2040,” Gonoratsky says. “How many government turnovers are we going to see in those 20 years?”

“It’s not hard to picture things going sideways,” admits Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze, director of buildings and urban solutions at the Pembina Institute. “Electricity is about three times the cost of natural gas. If we don’t internalize the real cost of fossil fuels [via carbon taxes], the cost of fossil energy will remain low. There’s a risk of people choosing the cheaper option.”

Yet those carbon taxes have already inspired pushback across the country. Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan have elected governments opposed to them. (Meanwhile, the president of the United States has claimed that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.)

Kniewasser thinks the job loss rhetoric is misleading. “The cleantech sector is rapidly growing,” he says, noting that one estimate puts its global value at about US$6 trillion. “We’re punching well above our weight,” he adds of B.C. In this year’s Global Cleantech 100 ranking, six of the companies are based here.

“The sooner we can show concrete benefits to people’s lives, the better,” says Frappé-Sénéclauze. He cites fossil-fuel giant Texas as a surprising example. “Renewable energy is huge in Texas. It’s a huge job-creating sector,” he notes. “More and more Texans either derive royalties because of wind generation on their land or have jobs in the sector.”

There will be victims, Kniewasser acknowledges. Natural gas production will face tighter controls and a potential drop in demand, and heavy industry could be adversely affected. “But it’s only responsible for around 2 percent of our economy,” he says of the latter. “And most of those sectors will actually thrive. The mining sector, for example, will provide the materials we need to build out our clean future, to build the necessary infrastructure and technologies.”

In many ways, things won’t change much, Kniewasser insists. “We’re still going to drive cars, we’ll still live in heated homes. A lot of times we’ll be delivering a better quality of service, like electric vehicles. We’ll have lower utility bills.”

Will B.C.’s green future ever be realized? The BCSEA‘s Gonoratsky feels the worst-case scenario is the one we’re currently on track for. “Despite a lot of our efforts and our research, emissions are still going up,” she says. “If we continue on the way we’re going, consuming the way we are, we could really see the apocalyptic future the UN has predicted for us—the droughts, the forest fires, the famines, the destruction of more natural habitat. It could look really bleak.”

Kniewasser sounds a more hopeful note. “What makes me optimistic is that technology is working in our favour quicker than anybody expected,” he says. “What makes me pessimistic is that we don’t have the collective will to do what we need to do. A lack of political leadership worries me.”

Credit: Cynthia Tran Vo

Scenario 2: The case for urban density

Survey says:

Affordability is a major concern across B.C. Still, residents do not want to see development on farmland, floodplains or sensitive environments. 52% of poll participants support new housing, yet support for the expansion of cities (26%) and towns (22%) was much lower.

West Vancouver has issues. Its population is aging and stagnant (between February 2017 and February 2019, the district added 247 people). Density is low, transit service is lacking, and a 2019 attempt to trade some parking spaces for a rapid bus lane brought angry protestors to the streets. According to Alex Boston, executive director of the SFU-based Renewable Cities program, the North Shore community may well function as a real-world laboratory for what’s coming. “West Vancouver residents have resisted multifamily [buildings],” he says. “There’s lot of people leaving West Vancouver. That’s because West Vancouver hasn’t created a product for solo seniors and empty-nesters to downsize in their own neighbourhood.”

Boston’s own parents were forced to move out of West Van due to an inability to downsize from their single-family home. “Resisting multifamily [developments], resisting good transit services, is really thwarting the best interests of their population,” he says. “The future happens rapidly. There’s going to be a sea change within the next 15 years.”

It’s no secret that West Vancouver faces significant housing challenges, says Mary-Ann Booth, mayor of the District of West Vancouver. “These housing challenges are directly weakening our community fabric,” Booth concedes. “We have some of the highest rents and housing prices, and lowest vacancy rates, in the country. The availability and affordability of housing is impacting the ability of our community to function. Our teachers, dentists, police officers and firefighters who take care of us every day cannot afford to live here. We also have 1,700 empty homes. This is not the type of investment we want.”

Mayor Booth says the Official Community Plan adopted in 2018 will try to tackle those issues. “The OCP provides policies for more infill housing options like coach houses, duplexes and townhouses, and we are starting to see some projects come forward that are consistent with it.”

As for the failure of the B-Line proposal, the mayor says, “On reflection, the top lesson that came out of that experience was that significant, complex and multi-stakeholder decisions require more time, more thought and more attention to build understanding within the community and with our partners.”

The Real Estate Foundation poll didn’t ask directly about increased urban density. But the responses—clear majorities prioritizing affordability, environmentally friendly development and preservation of agricultural land and green space—all point to it. Talking about density tends to inspire heated opposition, though. “People are resistant to change,” Boston admits.

There’s also a sense higher density will profoundly change a neighbourhood’s character, he observes. “But by failing to do these gentle intensification interventions, you’re ultimately sowing the seeds for far more profound transformative change,” Boston says. “Because what ends up happening is an empty-nester couple or a solo senior will sell off that home, it will be demolished, and a bigger monster home will be built.”

The gap in density planning affects inner cities, too. “As things stand, people who want to live in the centre of our big cities often have only two housing options,” says Montreal-based Taras Grescoe, author of the 2012 book Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves From the Automobile. “Either a single-family home that can cost $2 million, or a cramped, barely affordable condo in a glass tower. What Canadian cities need badly is a third option: multifamily dwellings, in buildings of between three and eight stories. That’s how cities like Paris, Copenhagen, Berlin or Vienna achieve high density levels while maintaining enviable levels of walkability, livability and transit use.”

At least one new rental option is on the way for Vancouver. The Squamish Nation recently announced plans to partner with developer Westbank Corp. on Sekw, a mixed-use development including 11 towers and up to 6,000 units, 70 to 90 percent of them rental, on its lands around the south end of the Burrard Bridge. Khelsilem, elected council member and spokesperson for the Squamish Nation, believes this increase in rental housing fits the needs of the community. “For me, it comes down to priorities,” he says. “What are the key principles that we are trying to achieve? If we all agree that we should be building more housing for low-income people because the economy is stacked against them and they can’t make it, then our policy should reflect that.”

People are concerned about the influence of foreign capital on the condo market, Khelsilem adds. “[Our project] is going to be occupied by people who live here. The Squamish Nation is going to come in and do something bold and big and drastic. I think it excites people.”

Urban planning advocates often point to density as the future. But as Boston explains, density was also our past—we’ve been going steadily backward. “Ninety percent of our land is currently zoned single-family, and it’s hollowing out,” he says. “Fifty-five percent of households [in the 2016 census] have only one or two people in them. The fastest-growing type of household in B.C. right now is the one-person household. In the ’60s and ’70s, those homes had an average of four people. That’s simply because the kids have left, the father has died, Mom is left on her own. The results are dying local businesses, school closures.”

With a better variety of housing options more space can be made for first-time buyers, helping to revitalize dying neighbourhoods. “There are things we can do to return us to population densities we had 20, 30, 40 years ago. A secondary suite, a laneway house or stratification of a single-family home so you can have two titles, or an attached accessory dwelling unit.”

For Boston, the ideal urban future isn’t just about housing—it’s about how we get there, and how far we travel. “In B.C., almost 20 percent of household revenue on a monthly basis goes to transportation,” he says. “Thirty percent goes to housing. There are families that spend as much on transportation as they do on housing. We should be looking at creating way more missing-middle product along our transit corridors.”

West Vancouver Mayor Booth’s take: “In the end, the best transportation plan is a good land use plan. When we succeed building more affordable housing located around commercial centres and transportation routes, transit will follow.”

Boston points out that new developments are being built on green space while transit corridors remain underdeveloped. “We’ve lost farmland to tens of thousands of homes in B.C. And that’s going to hurt us long-term. Arguably, one of B.C.’s opportunities in a world with a hotter climate is our agricultural sector. It’s only an opportunity if we still have agricultural land.”

Dale Littlejohn, executive director of the Community Energy Association, a Vancouver-based non-profit dedicated to advancing sustainable energy, doesn’t see transportation options as a winner-take-all proposition. “It’s a pyramid. Starting at the bottom, it’s about distance reduction,” he says. “Reducing the distance people have to go is about densification, it’s about having services where people live so they don’t have to travel as far. Moving up from that, we’ve got shifting to transit, active and assisted transportation, ride-sharing. And then it’s the size of the vehicles, and finally the fuel in the vehicles. So: reduce, reduce, reduce, and electrify what’s left.”

That is, if the public buys in. But as Boston points out, West Vancouver suggests that an engaged public doesn’t necessarily lead to smart planning: “It’s very difficult for us as a species to know what our needs will be two, three years down the road.”

Credit: Cynthia Tran Vo

Scenario 3: Should the locals take control?

Survey says:

When making choices about land use, resources and development, B.C. residents showed strong support for local control. Asked whether local or provincial needs should come first, nearly half (48%) of poll participants agreed that “land use management decisions should place the most emphasis on providing for the wants and needs of local communities.” 84% said that local needs for food, energy and water were either extremely or quite important.

What’s your primary identity? Canadian? British Columbian? A Williams Laker? A Coquitlamite? A resident of Beechwood Towers? A sixth-floorian?

There are several levels of government, and jurisdictions can overlap. Alberta
Premier Jason Kenney threatens to turn off the taps to B.C., we oppose pipeline projects from Alberta, and everyone wrangles over who controls what. Will increased local control simply mean more disputes and chaos?

“It was no surprise that the municipality of Burnaby lost time after time in court with its challenges to various aspects of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project,” says Global TV legislative bureau chief Keith Baldrey. “The ramifications if it had won could have been huge and potentially disastrous. Should one municipality have the power to frustrate a project like that? Should a municipality be able to block a sewage treatment plant that straddles two borders? Or a highway connection?”

And even before you deal with the issue of local control, you need to find people who want to get involved. What encourages that public engagement? Like Hollywood success, it’s all about who you know. Polling shows that local political engagement depends on knowing your neighbours. “People who know more than five people on a first-name basis in their neighbourhood are far more likely to express greater concern about [issues],” pollster Angus McAllister says. “And the biggest determinants of whether you know people in your neighbourhood are whether you own or rent, and your generation. Older folks tend to know more people, perhaps because they are more likely to own and have been in place longer.”

Dale Littlejohn of the Community Energy Association says politically active groups tend to be small but dedicated. “Municipalities often have trouble reaching beyond the usual suspects with public engagement.”

Another problem with local control is competence. “Local control implies you’re setting bounds around what is and isn’t controlled and the decisions being made,” Littlejohn says. “Ideally, some level of information or expertise comes into play in those decisions.”

Baldrey agrees. “City councils are, almost by necessity, parochial in nature and incapable of seeing the larger picture,” he says. “The expertise available is not as high as in other, more senior levels of government.”

Then there’s First Nations governance, an evolving level of jurisdiction in B.C. “Indigenous governance should be seen as just another layer of jurisdiction as already exists with municipal, provincial and federal jurisdiction,” says Squamish Nation spokesperson Khelsilem. “Those jurisdictions always interact with each other on different issues. Sometimes they’re overlapping.”

As an example, Khelsilem cites the Squamish Nation’s decision to abide by the Residential Tenancy Act although it isn’t legally required to. “We have opted to bring in provincial laws and regulations because there’s a benefit to doing so,” he says. “We make decisions that make sense for the residents and the tenants.”

Khelsilem believes the Squamish Nation’s planned Sekw project in Kitsilano is an example of using jurisdictional authority to make good things happen. “When you have local control, that pushes out low-income people, renters, racial communities and creates these enclaves. It’s like a drawbridge mentality,” he says. “So if your objective is to address affordability, reduce the racial segregation of our city, at some point you do need to look at the wider picture.”

Littlejohn flags another level of urban government that many people overlook in such discussions: strata councils. “We do not set a very high bar for the property managers who are advising the strata councils,” he says, “because the strata councils are owners who have volunteered. They rely on the advice of the property managers. So it kind of depends on the property managers you get, and how cranky the council is… You can also point out that while other levels of government are subject to freedom of information and strata councils aren’t, there could perhaps be better accountability frameworks.”

Still, Littlejohn says, “I haven’t seen an alternative [to that] form of governance.”

However they’re ruled, he believes cities could play a larger role in the future of Canadian government. “There’s a good argument to be made, given that more and more people are living in cities, more economic activity is in cities, that the time is coming for a review of the role of cities constitutionally. No one wants to open up the Constitution in Canada unless we have to. But the time is coming where some considerations are going to have to be made. When municipalities own two-thirds of the public infrastructure and get 6 percent of the taxes, does that make sense?”

Although there are problems that would result from too much local control—think local militias—Littlejohn does note one recent development that highlights the possibilities of local initiative. “Municipalities aren’t subject to the Utilities Commission Act in B.C., so they can create district energy utilities or electric distribution utilities without being subject to regulation.” He points to New Westminster, Nelson and Summerland, all of which have their own electrical distribution utilities and solar farms. “Does it make sense for a municipality to create a Site C dam?” Littlejohn asks. “Probably not. But as long as we’re colouring within the lines, yeah.”

A matter of opinion

The environment is just one example of how surveying the public can quickly become a minefield

Angus McAllister knows that in the polling business, six of one doesn’t always equal half a dozen of the other. Word choice can make a difference. “Use the wrong language and bad things will happen,” says McAllister, founder of Vancouver-based McAllister Opinion Research. “People have trouble talking to each other.”

He cites the Fort McMurray oil sands project. “Environmental groups began referring to the project as the tar sands,” McAllister says. “But our polling suggests that if you refer to the industry as the oil sands, support for the project drops, probably because people have negative associations with Big Oil. Calling it the tar sands actually leads to more support.”

Likewise, when polling about attitudes toward pipelines, the framing of the question changes the responses. “A lot of environmentalists piss people off,” McAllister says. “Even if people are initially onside, they lose them almost immediately because they start talking in language that implies survival isn’t very important,” he adds. “Environmentalists who frame issues in terms of aesthetics and beauty as opposed to basic survival issues tend to set off alarm bells among those who are not as well off.”

For example, any poll question relating to water will get strong support because people understand that without water, there’s no life, McAllister explains. “But when environmentalists move away from survival values and start talking about other things like spirituality or beauty, that tells [lower-income people] that this person is completely out of touch and is going to be screwing things up for me.”

McAllister has found similar attitudes when polling First Nations communities, a finding backed by Squamish Nation council member Khelsilem. “I think that for a lot of Indigenous communities, the dreams and aspirations are not dissimilar from everybody else,” he says. “Economic growth, raising their families, the freedom to have good-paying jobs, to participate in a lifestyle that they want to be able to support. A lot of Indigenous culture is based around concepts of utility. When you think about salmon or food resources, it makes sense to understand sustainable practices, not depleting resources. Those things have been practised for a long time.”

Of course, polling has its limitations, and pollsters understand that better than anyone. McAllister once conducted a survey in B.C. that included a true-or-false question. “The statement was: ‘Science has proved that humans and dinosaurs walked the Earth at the same time,'” McAllister recalls.

The good news: most participants accurately classified the statement as false. The bad news: the split was roughly 60/40.

Stepping up

By giving municipalities the power to demand energy-efficient buildings, the Step Code balances local and provincial control

When discussing the often complex interplay between local and provincial governments, there seems to be one success story that everyone points to: the BC Energy Step Code. For Dale Littlejohn, executive director of the Vancouver-based Community Energy Association, this optional portion of the BC Building Code is a great example of different levels of government working together.

“It’s something the province has created that allows local governments to require more energy-efficient buildings at a level that makes sense for the municipality,” Littlejohn says. “When the province updates the BC Building Code, they have to make sure that all the updates are going to work all across B.C., from Surrey to Stewart. But individual local governments can perhaps move quicker, like around Metro Vancouver.”

The five-level Step Code lets municipalities go beyond the basic regulations, Littlejohn notes. “They can require the equivalent of EnerGuide or Energy Star for new homes, about 20-percent more efficient. They can even go up to the top of the Step Code, up to the level of passive homes, which are about 80-percent more efficient.”

Passive homes require very little heating or cooling because their thermal performance is so strong, explains Alex Boston, executive director of SFU’s Renewable Cities program. “They have thicker walls, tighter envelopes, excellent windows and doors,” Boston says. “You pay modestly more upfront, but your savings are so huge—you’re paying a couple of hundred dollars a