The Problem with Vancouver, Greenest City

Making Vancouver the "greenest city" is a worthy goal but ignores our economic base.

Where do Vancouver’s long-established industries fit into the “greenest city” goal?

Making Vancouver the “greenest city” is a worthy goal but ignores our economic base.

The City of Vancouver’s goal to become the world’s “greenest city” by 2020 grows out of public concern about climate change and reflects growing worldwide demand for goods, services and technologies that can help reduce the environmental impact of human activity. Branding Vancouver as a “green city” also seeks to leverage some of the Lower Mainland’s strengths in fields such as green buildings, waste management, alternative energy and environmental consulting. 

But the question arises: how does the political priority being given to going green fit with the realities of Vancouver’s economic base? This is where the city’s top-down green vision begins to fray. 

B.C. industries

The Top 100 list of B.C.-based companies published by BCBusiness in July 2010 offers a glimpse of the makeup of corporate B.C. and Vancouver. Twelve of the top 100 B.C. firms ranked by revenues are in mining, all based in Vancouver. Eleven are in forestry, most also Vancouver-based. Other than BC Hydro, there are no “green-energy” or “clean-tech” companies on the list.

Mining bulks even larger when attention is restricted to publicly traded companies, which excludes private businesses and Crown corporations. Fully one-quarter of B.C.’s biggest public companies are involved in mining, nearly all headquartered in Vancouver. Another dozen are in the forest sector. Four companies that might be considered “green energy” or “clean tech” appear among the top public firms: Westport Innovations Inc., Day4 Energy Inc., Ballard Power Systems Inc., and Carmanah Technologies Corp. 

So it turns out that mining and forestry still represent very significant parts of Vancouver’s corporate economy. Mining, in particular, represents a core business cluster for the city, one that is well placed to grow thanks to robust global demand for minerals and metals. The metropolitan region is the base for more than 800 mining and exploration companies that are active all over the world, and most of these have their corporate offices in Vancouver. 

Of the $1 billion-plus in revenues that the City of Vancouver collects every year, a sizable chunk comes from property taxes ultimately paid by the mining and forestry companies that inhabit the office towers scattered across the central business district. On top of this are the numerous suppliers of business and professional services that depend on local mining and forest companies as key customers – law and accounting firms, geologists and engineers, executive search specialists, public relations advisers, environmental consultants, etc. These providers of high-end business services are responsible for tens of thousands of good-paying jobs; most have their offices in Vancouver and also do their part to support the city’s business tax base.

The importance of green industries

In its hyper-enthusiasm for all things green, the City of Vancouver is ignoring the critical role of long-established industries such as mining and forestry in sustaining the local corporate economy and tax base. City officials are also prone to overstate the economic importance of “green” industries and “green-collar jobs.” True, global demand for environmental products and technologies is expected to expand in the years ahead, and B.C.-based companies that can successfully compete in this space will benefit from the trend.

No doubt Vancouver will see a rise in the number of businesses producing green goods and technologies. However, many jurisdictions are competing to attract green businesses, and it isn’t clear that Vancouver has unique economic advantages in this sector. And there is no reason to believe green enterprises will displace or transform the city’s existing industrial and commercial base by 2020.

Promoting green industries and environmental sustainability can be a useful component of a broader economic development vision for Vancouver. But it doesn’t pass muster as a sensible or coherent economic strategy for the City of Vancouver.

Jock Finlayson is the executive vice-president of policy at the Business Council of B.C.