If history repeats itself, local plans to reduce GHG emissions will come up far short of targets. Shouldn’t there be a Plan B?
IS THE APPROACH TAKEN BY Victoria and Saanich to reduce GHG emissions within their jurisdictions flawed in some fundamental way that guarantees little or no reduction?
This is a vital question to consider. Almost all local governments in the CRD have recently declared a “Climate Emergency,” yet the best local example of a well-considered climate action plan—put in place ten years ago by Saanich—has produced only a small reduction in emissions. If the action plans local governments are creating are just more of the same approach Saanich has already tried—and they are—why would the result be any different?
In 2008, during a previous peak in public interest and concern about global climate change, the BC government introduced North America’s first broad-based carbon tax. At the same time, the municipality of Saanich began drafting a plan to reduce territorial sector-based GHG emissions. By 2010, Saanich had launched its forward-thinking “Climate Action Plan.” One of the plan’s primary goals was an “at least 33 percent” reduction in territorial emissions from 2007 levels by 2020. Ten years later, how did that go?
Back in 2010, Saanich’s Climate Action Plan put the municipality’s 2007 sector-based territorial GHG emissions at 521,000 tonnes per year. What are they now? In 2019, after declaring a Climate Emergency, the municipality quickly developed the outline (see document 1 at end of this story) of a new climate action plan that plotted a pathway to reduce sector-based territorial emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Saanich’s new starting point, according to that outline, would be 512,900 tonnes. So nearly 10 years after launching its 2010 action plan, Saanich’s sector-based territorial emissions are only 8,100 tonnes below 2007 levels. That works out to a 1.6 percent reduction, well within the uncertainty associated with the accuracy of the 2007 estimate of emissions. Why does Saanich now expect a different result on its second try using the same approach? Victoria is using the same methodology in its Climate Leadership Plan (see document 2).
“Pathways to 2050 GHG Reduction Targets” from the City of Victoria's Climate Leadership Plan. Plotting points on a graph has been tried before.
According to the climate action plans for both communities, all that residents need to do is summed up in three initiatives: First, property owners need to get rid of their oil and natural gas heating and hot water systems and buy electric heat pumps. Second, car drivers need to switch to a bicycle, an electric bus, or an electric car. Third, Victoria and Saanich foresee the availability of “renewable natural gas,” although it’s uncertain where that will come from and how much such facilities would cost, both in dollars and embodied emissions. But residents should get ready to pay for it.
All of these provisions require new consumption: of electric cars and bicycles, new heating systems, new infrastructure to create biogas, and probably new offices to house a growing contingent of Climate Emergency managers. We just need to buy our way to lower emissions.
While the experience of Saanich’s 10-year-long unsuccessful attempt at lowering emissions should provide local governments with ample warning that it’s far easier to plot reductions on paper than to achieve them in the real world, there are other reasons to doubt substantial reductions will ever materialize.
One example: neither community has any intention of constraining population growth or the gentrification of existing neighbourhoods. Thus, we will continue to see, as long as the Canadian economy is growing, new buildings and infrastructure created to service a growing population, and neighbourhoods becoming increasingly affluent and filled with bigger, more luxurious homes. Such growth comes with immense embodied emissions, and some of what’s being created right now is surprisingly energy-inefficient.
In the City of Victoria, much of the growth is in the form of concrete and glass condominium highrises in the Downtown core. While emissions reduction planners might think that such modern buildings will be energy efficient, BC Hydro doesn’t. In High-Powered Highrise, a report released earlier this year, Hydro noted: “Despite the suites in newer high-rise buildings often being marketed as energy-efficient and including things like LED lighting and Energy Star® appliances, the combined electricity usage of the overall building is approximately two times more than high-rises built in the 1980s, and almost four times more than low-rise buildings built that same decade.”
Why? According to BC Hydro, “This increase can largely be attributed to these newer, high-rise condo buildings (those with five stories or more) being equipped with high consuming luxury amenities, including pools, hot tubs, party rooms and fitness centres.”
The strong desire for a luxurious home is also evident in many new low-rise multi-unit buildings in Victoria and Saanich. The market for luxury, it turns out, is a far more powerful determinant of what gets built than concerns about energy efficiency or carbon emissions, even in the midst of a Climate Emergency.
The relentless demolition of perfectly useable smaller, older homes, which are then replaced with high-end single-family homes two or three times the size, doesn’t support the Climate Emergency managers’ expectation, which underpins their emission-reduction targets, that consumers of housing are seriously concerned about either energy or material conservation.
The absence of any measures in their climate action plans to constrain population increase and physical growth in Victoria and Saanich isn’t the only reason to doubt real reductions in carbon emissions will be achieved.
The most serious problem with both action plans is that they only address a small fraction of the emissions that Victoria and Saanich create, or cause to be released somewhere else.
Civic governments count their emissions using what is known as “sector-based territorial emissions accounting.” In developing their climate action plans, both Saanich and Victoria have identified emissions created by the burning of fossil fuels, or the release of methane, within their boundaries using four sector-based GHG inventories: transportation (automobiles and buses), stationary energy (which includes, for example, all energy related to buildings), industrial products and processes (for example the City’s asphalt plant) and waste (solid waste, sewage, composting). Both Saanich and Victoria are acting in accordance with what is known as the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories (GPC) and their methodology aligns with the guidelines of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Using this protocol, Victoria identified 387,694 tonnes of territorial carbon emissions; as mentioned above, Saanich estimated 512,900 tonnes. The two communities’ analyses of territorial emissions yield similar per capita levels: 4.52 tonnes per person in Victoria and 4.8 tonnes per person in Saanich.
Both these numbers, though, are far lower than the known per capita emissions of Canadians, which were 19.6 tonnes per person in 2017.
Saanich and Victoria, then, have set their sights on addressing less than 25 percent of our known per capita emissions. Where do the other 75 percent of Canada’s per capita emissions come from?
About 26 percent of emissions come from the oil and gas industries, releases that occur before their end-products reach consumers. Another 10 percent comes from heavy industry (fertilizers, iron and steel, cement, aluminum, and pulp and paper). The vast majority of the remaining 64 percent of emissions are created by the production and use of housing, transportation, and goods and services consumed by Canadians in their daily lives. Because 85 percent of Canadians live in cities, most of this consumption occurs in urban centres like Victoria. So cities, and how their governments approach emissions reduction, will have a large impact on whether Canada’s response to the Climate Emergency is effective or not.
It’s only been in the last couple of years that comprehensive attempts have been made to quantify all the carbon emissions that human activity in cities creates directly or causes to be released elsewhere. Research done by the international organization C40 Cities provides some valuable insight. C40 Cities describes itself as “a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change.” Its board includes such climate luminaries as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and current Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Vancouver is participating in the initiative.
C40 Cities has developed an alternative emissions accounting approach that focuses on the consumption of goods and services by residents of a city. In this approach, GHG emissions are reported by consumption category rather than GHG emission source category.
The 12 categories of consumption C40 Cities uses (and the percentage each category adds to emissions in a North American city) are: capital (15.3 percent); utilities and housing (26 percent); food, beverage and tobacco (7 percent); public transport (10.2 percent); private transport (7.3 percent); government (9.5 percent); clothing, furnishing and household equipment (8.8 percent); restaurants, hotels, recreation and culture (7.2 percent); communications (2.7 percent); education and health (3 percent); miscellaneous goods and services (1 percent); and “other” (2 percent).
A C40 Cities study (see document 3), released in March 2018, noted that “consumption-based GHG emissions of C40 cities are significant, and significantly larger than sector-based GHG emissions established using the GPC.”
How much larger? The C40 study found that “16 cities, mostly in Europe and North America, have consumption-based GHG emissions at least three times the size of their sector-based GHG emissions.”
Although Victoria and Saanich weren’t part of this study, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that consumption-based emissions here are also “at least three times the size” of the sector-based emissions used by Victoria and Saanich in their climate action plans. It should be noted that Saanich commissioned a study of its 2015 consumption-based emissions. That report was released in 2018. It concluded that consumption-based emissions were two times higher than emissions based on sector-based accounting. The study did not include several of the categories C40 Cities uses, including “government services.”
Let me give you just a few examples of emissions not counted by Victoria or Saanich in their sector-based territorial accounting that would be counted in consumption-based accounting.
Emissions associated with the cement used in concrete for constructing buildings, foundations, sidewalks, retaining walls, overpasses, etc, are not counted because the cement is manufactured elsewhere. So, too, is the steel rebar used to reinforce this concrete. Saanich has an aggregate mine that provides the sand and gravel used in concrete, but Victoria doesn’t. Thus no emissions related to producing and transporting the ingredients of the concrete in Victoria’s downtown highrise boom are included in its territorial accounting of emissions.
Another example is “government services.” While both Victoria and Saanich do count GHG emissions caused directly by the burning of fuels resulting from their own operations, they don’t include the carbon emissions embodied in the more than $500 million in funding the two governments collect each year from residential, institutional and business taxpayers.
There are no lumber or plywood mills in Victoria or Saanich, so none of the emissions or loss of forest carbon sinks associated with the forest industry and its products are included in municipal accounts of emissions, even though these products are essential for the physical growth and maintenance of our homes, hospitals, schools, and places of business.
Nor do Saanich or Victoria count the emissions created when their residents fly, for business or pleasure, to Vancouver, Paris—or wherever.
Although a small amount of the food we consume is grown here, most is grown elsewhere and transported to the island. Virtually none of the emissions embodied in our food is counted by Victoria or Saanich. Missing from their tallies, too, are the emissions embodied in the cellphones, computers, flat-screen TVs and other electronic devices manufactured elsewhere but consumed widely by Victoria businesses, institutions and households.
I won’t go on. You get the idea. In Saanich and Victoria, Climate Emergency managers are counting only a small fraction of the GHG emissions that households, businesses, institutions and governments here are actually causing, directly or indirectly, to be released into the atmosphere. Using C40 Cities’ “at least three times” multiplier, a more realistic estimate of the City of Victoria’s emissions would be 1.2 megatonnes per year. Let’s put Saanich down for 1.5 megatonnes.
Obviously, local climate action plans will have no success at reducing emissions that they’re not even acknowledging or targetting.
Focus editor Leslie Campbell admires a carbon sequestration facility on Quadra Island (Photo by David Broadland
IS THERE A DIFFERENT COURSE OF ACTION that municipal governments could take to mitigate their emissions? Yes, there is. In a written response (document 1) to Saanich council’s declaration of a Climate Emergency, Manager of Sustainability Ting Pan noted there were two ways to achieve carbon neutrality. The first was to eliminate carbon emissions completely. The second was to “balance carbon emissions with carbon removal.”
By “carbon removal,” Pan meant the sequestration of carbon by trees. The simplest form of this approach to mitigate emissions, known as “offsets,” is available to a person making a trip by airplane. Payment of an additional small fee—which, the offsetting company promises, will go towards planting a seedling somewhere on the planet—helps to expunge feelings of guilt and shame that some people experience when boarding an airplane. But this form of offsetting has been widely criticized, and rightly so. Forest scientists tell us (document 4), for example, that it takes about 17 years after a coastal BC clearcut has been replanted (which is often delayed several years after harvesting) to switch from being a source of carbon emissions to being a carbon sink. So offsetters that promise to plant a tree to mitigate emissions from, say, your flight to Stuttgart or Calgary, have no immediate effect on reducing atmospheric carbon. Moreover, if trees planted for offsets are cut down in 30 or 40 years, and that low-quality juvenile wood is then used for some short-lived product like shipping pallets or pulp for paper or biofuel, most of the carbon that tree stored is quickly released to the atmosphere. But there’s another possibility for using carbon removal, and this would be similar to that developed for the Great Bear Rainforest, which protects mainly old-growth forest.
If second-growth trees on the south coast of British Columbia that are slated to be logged (and all Crown land currently under forestry tenures is slated to be logged, eventually) were left to grow, they would sequester more and more carbon each year for a few hundred years. If they were left until they get very old—a Douglas-fir tree, for example, can reach 1000 years of age or more—they would sequester large amounts of carbon over long periods of time.
Saanich’s Ting Pan put the current cost of offsets at $25 per tonne. At that rate, to offset Saanich’s estimated 1.5 megatonnes of consumption-based emissions for a year would cost about $38 million, and Victoria’s 1.2 megatonnes would cost $30 million a year.
Ting Pan noted that, while “carbon removal” was “theoretically possible,” there is “no known precedence of any Canadian municipalities taking this approach to become a carbon neutral community.” She added that such offsets “will have to be generated outside of Saanich’s municipal boundary…and would likely contribute to global emissions reduction. However, purchasing offsets have limited direct benefits to local residents, businesses or the local environments.”
That last statement is ironic, and I’ll explain the irony later. But the only alternative to a “carbon removal” approach is to repeat the actions Saanich took starting in 2010—an approach that hasn’t proven effective and addresses only a third or less of the actual emissions it should. It seems doomed to fail. In a Climate Emergency, shouldn’t our governments be trying out different options to see what works best?
THE RISK THAT CIVIC CLIMATE ACTION PLANS WILL FAIL to deliver significant reductions in community-based emissions demands a Plan B for insurance.
Certain species of trees, like Douglas fir, Western red cedar and Sitka spruce, can store atmospheric carbon for several hundred, even thousands of years. Forest scientists tell us that coastal old-growth forests store from 750 to 1130 tonnes of carbon per hectare, all absorbed from the atmosphere over the centuries. Our coastal rainforests can contain twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests like those in the Amazon jungle.
While old-growth forests around the Salish Sea are becoming increasingly rare, second-growth forests that have a high percentage of Douglas fir, with trees up to 80 years old, are, by comparison, widespread. Select areas of the coast that measure high for biodiversity, tourism and recreation potential, and have the capacity for growing large Douglas fir, cedar or Sitka spruce, could be set aside and managed for optimal carbon sequestration. This wouldn’t mean an end to forestry jobs in these selected areas, but clear-cut logging would end. This approach is already being employed with old growth in the Great Bear Rainforest by the First-Nations-operated Great Bear Carbon Credit Corporation.
Second-growth forests on Crown land like those on Sonora Island (left) and Maurelle Island (right) are slated for clear-cutting. Municipal governments could conserve these areas’ biodiversity, tourism potential, and carbon sequestration capacity by paying fees to offset their own communities’ GHG emissions. (Photograph by David Broadland)
The Crown-owned second-growth forests around the Salish Sea could absorb many millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere and store that carbon for several hundred years. But they are being clear-cut at an unsustainably high rate, and their potential for storing carbon is rapidly being lost. Tragically, these second-growth forests are being harvested at an age when they are just beginning to absorb carbon at the highest rate per year, a pace that would continue for another 100 to 200 years if left to grow. Through a combination of government shortsightedness and mechanized-forestry corporate greed, BC is losing one of the most effective tools available on the planet for removing carbon from the atmosphere. Some of the loss is justifiable to the extent that lumber is necessary for building housing in BC. A substantial portion of that loss, however, is being exported as raw logs, which provides minimal economic benefit for coastal residents.
Ironically, most of the rapid liquidation of both old-growth and second-growth forests on Vancouver Island and the northern Gulf Islands is being carried out by TimberWest and Island Timberlands, both of which are owned, to a large extent, by public service pension funds that provide many former government (federal, provincial and municipal) employees with good pensions. Many of these former civil servants have retired to the Victoria area. The community benefits greatly by their presence here, but some of that economic benefit has come at the cost of widespread environmental damage caused by logging of both old-growth and second-growth forests. The south coast is not just losing the potential for carbon sequestration; logging-road construction and clearcutting are blasting, filling and shredding wildlife habitat, diminishing biodiversity and the land’s ability to store water.
Can municipal governments step forward and preserve carbon sinks as an insurance policy against the potential failure of their climate action plans to perform as needed?
Saanich’s Ting Pan, as noted above, wrote that, “purchasing offsets have limited direct benefits to local residents, businesses or the local environments.” The irony in that assessment is that local residents and businesses have already benefitted—through money that has flowed into this community from those public service pension plans and increased government revenues—from the destruction of forest-based carbon sinks that is occurring all around the Salish Sea.
HOW MIGHT THE COST of protecting the remaining old growth and selected areas of second growth be charged against consumption-based emissions in communities like Victoria and Saanich? Households would pay a fee, based on household income, to municipal governments. Municipalities would transfer that money to the Province. The Province would then allocate funds to those affected resource communities selected for carbon sequestration projects to transition them away from timber extraction on Crown land and towards carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and development of tourism/recreation/research infrastructure.
Why should Saanich and Victoria collect carbon sequestration fees based on household income? A new scientific study (see document 5) on consumption-based household GHG emissions provides evidence for what most people already know: The greater the household income, the higher its consumption-based emissions. This peer-reviewed research quantifies the substantial difference in emissions between low-income and high-income households in the US. Canadians and Americans have very similar per capita GHG emissions, so the data from this new study is useful in Canada. The numbers suggest that Canadian households with incomes of $150,000 have consumption-based annual emissions of about 56 tonnes; a household income of $100,000 produces 50 tonnes; $60,000 in household income produces 33 tonnes; and $30,000 in income produces 22 tonnes. At Tang’s estimate of $25 per tonne to offset emissions, a household with $60,000 in income would pay an annual emissions offset fee of $825. A household with $150,000 in income would pay $1400.
If Victoria’s or Saanich’s Climate Emergency managers could prove that their action plans had reduced community emissions by, say, five percent, then their residents’ fees could be reduced by five percent, or whatever reduction had been achieved. If emissions go up, the fees go up, and more forest land is converted to carbon reserve.
As Saanich’s Ting Pan noted, “there is no known precedence of any Canadian municipalities taking this approach to become a carbon neutral community.” There’s also no known example in Canada of a municipal climate action plan producing significant emission reductions. Such plans are often branded to include the word “leadership.” Victoria has called its plan the “Climate Leadership Plan.” But can following a path that’s known to badly underestimate actual emissions, and which uses an approach that has already proven itself to be ineffective, be regarded as “leadership”?
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus. He is working with a group of scientists, journalists and citizens to explore the potential for conserving selected BC forests for carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation and short-distance tourism potential.