The Greater Vancouver regional authority has published a “Climate Projections” document that predicts a rise of 3 degrees Celsius in the local average temperature by the 2050s, within the working lifetime of people now in their twenties.
Among other impacts, we can look forward to:
- Reduced snowpack on the coastal mountains, hotter and drier summers, and lower summertime water levels in local reservoirs.
- More very hot days and tropical nights, with demand for energy to run refrigerators and air conditioners forecast to increase to 6 times the current requirement.
- A 45% increase in “growing degree days,” a measure of the warmth that grows crops.
- Tough times for winter recreation operators.
Rising ocean levels will have “significant regional impacts” but are unfortunately not addressed in the report.
These forecasts are built from “a subset of climate models selected from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 (CMIP5).” Information on the models is available from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at the University of Victoria.
Major political parties in B.C. officially accept that the climate is changing because of human actions. The provincial government is one of the few jurisdictions in the world to collect a carbon tax, a tool intended to reduce the demand for fossil fuels and mitigate climate change. However, an expert who has advised the government on climate action policy, Marc Jaccard of Simon Fraser University, wrote recently that at $30 per tonne of Co2 equivalent, the tax is too low to be effective. He also says that to raise the tax any higher would be politically impossible, and governments everywhere must turn to more targeted strategies, such as the Government of Canada plan to eliminate coal-fired electrical generating plants.
The B.C. government’s figures on greenhouse gas emissions tend to validate Jaccard’s pessimism on the effectiveness of the current carbon tax. Emissions rose by about 20 per cent under the New Democratic Party in the 1990s, and then subsided after the Liberals came to power. However, since the carbon tax was introduced in 2008, emissions levels have only drifted sideways. In brief, B.C. emissions totalled 70.8 thousand kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2001, the year the Liberals took office; they fell to a low of 62.7 thousand kilotonnes in 2010; and then they rose again, modestly, to 64.4 thousand kilotonnes in 2014. Industrial processes are more efficient than they were 25 years ago, and cars are less polluting; but many drivers have moved from cars to pickup trucks, and emissions from activity in the northeast B.C. oil and gas fields have increased.
Provincial law requires municipal and regional governments to develop local climate action strategies, but local government powers are limited. Municipalities (towns and cities) can improve energy efficiency in their own buildings and vehicle fleets, but this takes care of just a sliver of local energy use — 0.6% of the community total, for example, in my home city of Maple Ridge.
There’s slightly more potential for municipal influence in the development permitting system, where city government can offer developers a break on development costs if they build to a high standard of energy conservation. However, a 2013 study from the University of British Columbia raises questions about whether municipals targets for reducing community emissions are meaningful. “Municipal targets vary widely in terms of intensity, target year, and type of reduction, and have little or no relationship to population, residential density, or growth rate.”
I spoke about this with Maple Ridge Councillor Robert Masse, a chiropractor and a downtown business activist in Maple Ridge, and a member of Metro Vancouver’s regional government committee on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s really hard to predict what will happen with climate change,” he said. “But I guess if you look at the speed of change in our lifetime, we have to prepare for the worst-case scenario. The regional climate change committee is doing the best we can, but it’s a global problem. China is taking some leadership now. The United States may be going in the opposite direction.”
The Metro government has a regulatory duty to protect air quality, and Masse said this creates scope for reducing CO2 emissions. For example, off-road industrial equipment (such as construction excavators) emits about the same amount of CO2 province-wide as passenger cars, often due to equipment idling. Metro Vancouver has announced there will be mandatory metering and inspection of this kind of equipment to reduce idling time.
Metro Vancouver has also developed a tool for individual homeowners and building owners that will allow them to understand their own energy use, predict future energy bills and take steps to reduce energy use. It remains to be seen, says Masse, whether this tool will actually influence home purchasing or renovating decisions. “We may find that consumers are more interested in the granite counter top or the jacuzzi,” said Masse.
In preparing the 2010 Metro Vancouver growth strategy, the 21 member municipalities agreed to work together “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent below 2007 levels by 2020.” This target looks increasingly far-fetched. “Maple Ridge is growing at two per cent per year, and we’re growing at the perimeter where people drive to work,” Masse said. “It’s not realistic to think we’re going to achieve that 2020 target. It’s 2016, and in terms of total greenhouse gas output we haven’t made any progress in the past decade.”