This was supposed to be the year that Vancouver became the world’s “greenest city”, to quote the ambitious action plan adopted by its administrative council in 2011. On Monday, western Canada’s coastal, mountain-fringed metropolis acknowledged that it wasn’t quite there yet, when it launched a residents’ dialogue on how to “get real” about achieving its lofty green objective. This is a worthy topic of conversation for cities, which are home to more than half the world’s population, consume much of the world’s energy and generate more than two-thirds of global carbon emissions.
I was in Vancouver as it got ready to admit the scale of the challenge it faces. It illustrated the need for realistic goal-setting, planning and execution, as cities wrest control of the fight against climate change from national governments.
In Vancouver, the debate is expected to be lively. In a theatre downtown, the city organised an evening of discussion and live music called “Bold Actions for a Climate Emergency”. It was meant to motivate and inform residents about ways “to move the dial on climate change in the decade ahead”. Onward to 2030 then, but it would be inaccurate to say Vancouver hasn’t been serious about its green action agenda in the past decade.
In fact, the city has managed to change many of the habits of urban daily life, not least the way it gets around, deals with waste and greenlights new building projects. More than 50 per cent of all local trips in Vancouver are made by bike, on foot, or via the public transit system. Solid waste landfill and incineration disposal have been reduced by 28 per cent. Almost all new building projects will be carbon neutral this year. The city’s air is clean, public green space is plentiful and its prized “view corridors”, which allow people to see the spectacular North Shore mountains, are well protected. Vancouver’s commitment to nurturing sustainable recycling habits is evident in the kitchens of its residents, who uncomplainingly make space for sorting bins for plastic, paper, metal foil and food waste.
But Vancouver’s carbon emissions have fallen only by 12 per cent since 2011, well short of the 33 per cent target. This compares poorly with Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, which has managed to reduce carbon emissions by 42 per cent in the past 15 years, as part of its goal to be the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025.
By all accounts, Copenhagen stands a good chance of achieving its objective. More than two-thirds of the city’s hotels have an eco-certificate, and recycling is a way of life even outside the home, with vending-style machines in public spaces coughing up a deposit every time a plastic cup or can is inserted.
In a 2016 report titled Copenhagen Climate Projects, Morten Kabell, the city's mayor of technical and environmental affairs, said that after a new biomass plant was operational in 2020, 80 per cent of Copenhagen's heating system would be carbon neutral. Coal, Mr Kabell added, would be "completely phased out of Copenhagen's power plants in 2020", leaving the city to grapple only with plastic waste, which is "the biggest source of CO2 emissions".
A once-grimy industrial city, Copenhagen launched its plan to be “green, smart, carbon-neutral” in 2009, two years before Vancouver unveiled its goal to be the world’s greenest city. But Copenhagen gave itself more time – 16 years as opposed to nine for Vancouver – to be net carbon neutral.
Their different timelines, target dates and outcomes are worth noting, especially in the context of two recent developments. First, Jakarta will reportedly be the first world’s capital city to become a victim of climate change because it is sinking faster than any major metropolis. Second, more than 70 cities worldwide have pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, meaning they aim to produce no more climate-changing emissions than they can offset by the half-century mark.
And for 11 years, Abu Dhabi's annual sustainability week has promoted investment in responsible patterns of production, consumption and offered a platform to start-ups and young innovators from around the world to present viable solutions to the challenge of climate change. But as Vancouver shows, there can be a significant gap between stated goals and achievements and sometimes, it is not for lack of enthusiasm.
Glasgow is a case in point. The Scottish city, which will host this year’s UN climate change conference, realises that it needs to go beyond the mere promise to be carbon neutral by 2030. So, how can Glasgow and other cities reduce the carbon footprint to zero and how quickly can they do it?
Learn from each other, according to the C40 initiative of nearly a hundred cities, all of whom share knowledge as they seek to implement ambitious climate goals. C40 believes that city life is not inherently in conflict with nature and chances are that “as the majority of future humans will live in cities, it just makes sense that our solution to climate change will reside there too”.
C40 offers two reasons: The logic of localism and the economies of scale offered by urban density. City mayors, it points out, are directly accountable to their constituents and are consequently “more nimble” about decisive action than state or federal counterparts. And populous cities, C40 says, might very possibly make “for a better quality of life and a lower carbon footprint through more efficient infrastructure and planning”.
In a sense that is a restatement of “Vancouverism”, the urban planning model of mixed-use, middling-height buildings in a green envelope, that has long been embraced by the city. Vancouverism owes a great deal to the philosophy of American-Canadian writer and activist Jane Jacobs’ theory of cities as living ecosystems.
In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs said that communities are created by mindful living and small daily encounters in areas that blend residential and commercial properties with green spaces. It was a vision of a sustainable society before the notion became fashionable.
Vancouver may have missed its 2020 target but perhaps it could still contribute to a viable model of urban fulfilment.