The west coast Canadian city has signed up 200 local businesses to help it deliver its ambitious climate goals, reports April Streeter

Vancouver is a city where whirling bikes deliver people to their jobs in pretty steel-and-glass, low-emission buildings as fast-changing weather moves across a big sky. It’s a waterfront city whose robust economy isn’t dampened by efforts at environmental sustainability and far-reaching climate action goals.

This Pacific coast Canadian city is always counted amongst the top 10 greenest cities on earth. It won C40’s 2015 Cities Climate Leadership award for its Greenest City Action Plan, and has goals to derive 100% of energy used from renewable sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, based on a 2007 baseline.

Vancouver is making good progress toward these goals, says Bryan Buggey, director of strategic initiatives and sector development at the Vancouver Economic Commission. “The local economy is growing faster than any other jurisdiction in Canada; at the same time, its carbon footprint is shrinking. In fact, GHG emissions have gone down by 15% since 2007,” Buggey says. “The leadership resulting from the GCAP and GCAP’s targets have created tremendous brand value for Vancouver – not just for business, but also for talent, innovators, and capital.”

Green roots

Vancouver, founding city of Greenpeace in 1971, has strong green roots. By 2005 it had a plan to reduce emissions from municipal operations as well as one for reducing community-generated emissions.

But it was the 2009 Greenest City Action plan that brought government, citizens, and businesses together around common targets. Most of the highest priority initiatives generated by the GCAP have already been achieved, such as waterways clean-ups; electric car charging infrastructure; and reducing waste going to landfill. Vancouver also has big plans at converting district heating networks from natural gas to biofuels.

One of the reasons organisations such as C40 have heavily touted cities’ efforts at climate action is because of the need for great solutions to be expanded quickly and exponentially out to other cities.

Bryan Buggey of the Vancouver Economic Commission (credit: Vancouver Economic Commission)


Every city is unique, so there’s no template to follow. But C40’s Brendan Shane, regional director for North America, says cities must network for true success.

“No city can have all the technical expertise or money it needs for all the different [action] areas.” Shane says. “I would say one of Vancouver’s big strengths is net-zero buildings, and so our [C40] challenge is to move that knowledge out to the next five to 10 cities, by connecting them directly and on a peer-to-peer basis. Because we all know that what we do in nine or 10 cities won’t help if we can’t get the best practice shared outward and make the innovation happen in the next 200.”

Vancouver has just implemented emissions-lowering standards as part of a green building rezoning rule that discourages the use of natural gas for cooking and heating, part of the march toward zero-emissions buildings by 2030.

Both the VEC’s Buggey and C40’s Shane say these standards put Vancouver in the forefront of green building, as most building codes promote energy-efficiency rather than the far stricter zero-emissions ideal. But it does run smack up against one of the Vancouver’s biggest bugaboos: affordable housing. Skyrocketing home prices, few rentals, and increasing homelessness are faced by many cities, but raising the cost of buildings through green policies, as Vancouver is doing, can be very unpopular politically.

C40’s Shane admits that cities will have to use all their bargaining power and economic clout to make changes that larger government entities – provinces, states, and federal/national governments – may not be willing to make.

BC wedded to fossil fuels

Like alternative-lifestyle Austin in the conservative state of Texas, Vancouver is striving toward a low-carbon economy while the provincial government of British Columbia has continued to embrace a fossil-fuel driven development model.

Under Liberal Party Premier Christy Clark, BC has strongly pursued liquid natural gas development. Clark’s government has also put the brakes to the province’s innovative carbon tax, which was instituted by Clark’s predecessor Gordon Campbell in 2008, and was supposed to keep increasing past $30 per tonne in order to driven emissions cuts.

Mills Office's electric delivery fleet has inspired others (Mills Office Productivity)


The province’s own analysis indicates BC will fall short of meeting an interim goal of 33% reduction in GHG emissions on 2007 levels by 2020. Emissions are expected to flatline until after 2030 because of LNG plant development and a delay in the ability of trees planted now to start sequestering carbon.

Vancouver has turned to business instead to help it with its climate change actions. The Vancouver Economic Commission over the last 18 months has signed up 200 Canadian companies to take a climate pledge to support action, and six of them have made a commitment to set science-based emissions reductions, though they have not yet announced their targets.

CDP, which works with the VEC and C40, says science-based targets spur innovation needed for widespread reductions. Office supplies company Mills Office Productivity, for example, inventoried its emissions and is now purchasing offsets while working on a task list of 70 different measures to reduce carbon, including electric trikes and delivery vans.

VEC and Climate Smart, a city-sponsored social enterprise that helps companies pursue their climate goals, have focused on because they are so often overlooked in sustainability. Michelle Bonner, Climate Smart training manager, says SMEs in Vancouver represent about 30% of the city’s emissions.

After working with nearly 800 companies, including Mills, Bonner agrees that a collaborative approach is key to cascading transformative change. She gives the example of local Van Houtte coffee, which retrofitted 20 delivery trucks to run dual fuels (gas and propane) and got a payback after 18 months from lower fuel costs. Penfolds Roofing and Solar learned of that retrofit and is in the midst of copying that example with 13 vehicles.

“We try to highlight that SMEs are key partners in a low-carbon economy,” Bonner says.

Bonner and Anthonia Ogundele, sustainability manager at Vancity, Canada’s largest credit union, agree that there is a need to continually dispel the myth that cutting emissions means big costs.

Urban farming is part of Vancouver's green lifestyle (Vancouver Urban Farming Society)


Carbon-neutral Vancity

Vancity, a credit union serving half a million customers in Vancouver and British Columbia, has been carbon-neutral since 2008 and will try to reduce its GHGs 25% by 2030. It calculates its emissions to be around 2 tonnes per employee, with approximately 2,500 employees.

Ogundele says collaboration is the only way to get past the real vulnerability companies face when trying to pursue big emissions-reduction goals. Vancity helped form Practically Green, an informal network of local middle-to-large companies, including SAP and Lush Cosmetics.

“Sitting with other businesses that have already tackled an issue and grappling with how to take it a step further – you always want to improve and you can grab important little bits on how to do that working with peers that challenge you,” Ogundele says.

Vancity is encouraging its employees to cycle (Max Lindenthal/Shutterstock Inc)

Buggey at the VEC agrees with Ogundele that local/regional city-focused networks are how meaningful change will come about in future. “I think city networks – C40, Resilient Cities, Circular Economy Cities – are the most powerful approach right now,” Buggey says. “We knowledge-share and exchange ideas with other cities. For example, Vancouver’s Green and Digital Demonstration programme has been imitated by cities like Toronto. San Jose and San Diego have also been interested in our approach. Various Vancouver initiatives have been referenced in other city Council meeting minutes as programmes worth emulating.”

At the same time, Ogundele cautions that neither companies nor businesses can forget to bring employees along, with compelling narratives that might not mention greenhouse gases or climate action.

She says bicycles have been one way to do this: Vancity gave each employee $600 toward the purchase of a bicycle to encourage this mode of transportation. 

The company is also supporting a Vancouver-based NGO Hives for Humanity to create opportunities for employees to learn about urban beekeeping.

Ultimately, that might be fitting. The late Jane Jacobs, doyen of urban activism and a proponent of keeping cities responsive to their citizens’ needs, frequently described cities as beehives. They may constantly evolve and adapt to conditions, but are always organic systems.

This article is part of our briefing on cities and climate change. See also:

‘Mayors need to lead and they have to move fast’

Cape Town asks business to help pull it back from the brink

Mexico City places bets on green bonds

Shenzhen: China’s pearl of carbon finance




Vancity  CDP  C40  Vancouver Economic Commission  Canada  climate change  Hives for Humanity  Mills Office Productivity 

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