What Happened to the City's Sustainability Action Plan?
In May 2008 the provincial government passed the Green Community's Act (Bill 27) requiring local governments to incorporate GHG emission reductions in their Official Community Plans by 2010 and Regional Growth Strategies by 2011.
Although the legislation does not mandate specific GHG reduction targets, most municipal and regional governments across BC, Nanaimo and the RDN among them, adopted targets set by the province under the Greenhouse Gas Reductions Target Act (Bill 44) to reduce GHG emissions by 33% below 2007 levels by 2020 and by 80% below 2007 levels by 2050.
Although these targets are somewhat less ambitious than those set out in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is based on a 1990 baseline, they were, if weakly, in line with climate change science at the time. Indeed, British Columbia was one of the few jurisdictions in North America to translate rhetoric into concrete policies and actions by setting GHG emission reduction goals and by legislating a Carbon Tax.
To facilitate the GHG targets adopted in the OCP, Nanaimo initiated an 8 month long process of consultation to develop a Community Sustainability Action Plan (SAP). The consultation was billed as a "roadmap" on "how to best work with the community in meeting our emission reduction goals." The process involved the usual rounds of meetings of City and Regional staff, hiring a consultant to review various technical matters such as future land use planning and the level of local GHG emissions, as well as facilitating neighborhood / stakeholder meetings. Efforts to reduce GHGs were in line with the goals of the Official Community Plan (1996 / 2008) which envisions a shift from low-density suburban sprawl, supported by reliable public transport and attractive and safe active commuting options, to higher density complete communities.
A GNCC rep attended two of the consultative meetings where there was clearly a strong consensus among community representatives that the City needed to meet the GHG targets in the OCP. Primarily, this consensus took the form of support for more compact land use planning and increased investment in public transit, improved infrastructure for cycling and walking, recycling, and alternative energy options. There was no discussion during these meetings that the GHG targets might be too "aggressive."
All of which makes it very difficult to understand City Council's unanimous decision on December 3, based on the recommendation of staff, to scale back its GHG emission reduction targets from 33%of 2007 levels by 2020 to 3 percent and from 80% percent of 2007 to 39% by 2050. When I read the news report in The Bulletin, I wondered if our City planners and politicians had willfully tuned out the latest climate disasters: the wildfires and droughts ravaging much of the continental interior of the United States, the Arctic meltdown, or Superstorm Sandy which devastated the US Atlantic seaboard and flooded the New York subway.
I also wondered if other BC communities were likewise following suit by radically scaling back on their GHG targets. It appears not. A recent study of 20 BC communities reveals that Nanaimo, with the exception of one municipality, is at the bottom of the list in its efforts to reduce GHGs. Scaling back our 2020 emission reduction targets by 30 percent (in other words, the business as usual approach) raises some troubling questions about the City's need for transparency in its dealings with the public. Why, for example, invite community stakeholders to participate in developing the Sustainability Action Plan if there was already a tacit assumption, as there now appears to have been, among city staff that the targets were too "aggressive"? Moreover, why not enlist residents to help find ways to meet the OCP targets rather caving in to whatever pressures (or underlying paradigm, i.e., let the market be the ultimate guiding hand) led to the decision to abandon any meaningful effort to reduce the City's greenhouse gas emissions over the next seven years?
The City's dramatic roll-back of its GHG targets is even more perplexing when considering the regulatory powers local governments have at their disposal to tackle climate change. In addition to long-held powers such as land use planning, zoning and bylaws, municipalities have been granted additional powers under provincial law to undertake green initiatives. In 2008, Bill 10 granted local government the authority to create energy and water saving bylaws. In the same year, the Green Communities Act (Bill 27) provided additional powers to local government to directly address the challenges of climate change. Municipalities, for example, could now designate a development permit area (DPA) for the purpose of reducing GHGs. A DPA might stipulate the developer use alternative energy systems, orient buildings in relation to the sun or wind or place trees close to a building to reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions. The Act also recognizes the importance of investment in alternative transportation. For example, Section 906 allows municipalities to set up an Off-Street Parking Reserve Fund which can be invested in transportation options that reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as cycling, walking or public transit.
One of the most effective solutions to reducing GHGs is to make strategic investments in cycling infrastructure and other forms of active transportation. A recent study by the European Cyclist's Federation (December 2011) provides powerful evidence that bicycle transport relative to investment in other modes such as transit or grids for electric cars allows for the greatest greenhouse gas savings. The ECF commissioned the study in response to the difficulty that the European Union is having in meeting its 2050 GHG reduction targets which are set at 80% to 95% below 1990 levels (much more "aggressive" than those adopted by Nanaimo's SAP). Between 1990 and 2007, the EU reduced its GHGs by an average of 15 percent in all sectors with the exception of transport where emissions increased by 15 percent. According to the study, if Europeans generally were to cycle as much as the Danes (an average of 2.6 km per day in 2000), the EU could meet one quarter of its target emission reductions in the transportation sector.
To its credit, the SAP does recommend strategies and actions for improving cycling and other types of alternative transportation. As regards cycling, the language is essentially the same as that used in the OCP. Under the heading of Education and Outreach, the goals include providing end-of-trip facilities such as bike racks and lockers, bicycle and awareness and safety education, and initiatives to encourage cycling to students. Regulations and projects include recognition of the need to improve the "cycling environment," through measures such as traffic calming, improved lighting, cycle lanes and paths. Mention is also made of the need to improve "street connectivity" and to reduce commute lengths.
What isn't really evident in SAP is the need for the systematic, strategic planning and investments necessary to make cycling a viable mainstream transportation option. A review of the experience elsewhere confirms that other jurisdictions are taking measures to do just that. For example, since Vancouver put cycling as one of its top TRANSPORTATION priorities, it has become the fastest growing type of transportation, doubling the number of bicycle trips over the past ten years. But even Vancouver's investment in cycling (about 1% of its transportation budget) is significantly less than investments in cycling northern European cities, which spend up to 25 percent of their road budgets on cycling infrastructure.
The fact that the City has effectively abdicated its responsibility for setting meaningful GHG targets, while simultaneously drafting a Transportation Master Plan, appears to signal that it has pre-empted any plans, at least in the short term, to make significant investments in alternative transportation options. Given the fact that 70 percent of the community's GHGs come from the transportation sector (56 percent from private automobiles), doesn't it make eminent sense to increase investment cycling infrastructure and other alternative transportation options? A large body of academic literature underscores the practicality, not to mention the environmental, public health and economic value, of investing in cycling infrastructure and facilities. Most people own bicycles, and studies indicate that up to 70 percent of the population would consider cycling if they perceived it to be safer, easier and more convenient.
Ironically, Council's decision to roll back GHG targets also comes on the heels of the City-hosted Copenhagenize Nanaimo Conference, held last May, where Andreas Bohl, Manager of Cycling for the City of Copenhagen and a world authority on cycling, pointed out that Nanaimo, with a relatively modest investment in cycling infrastructure and education, could follow his country's example, where up to 30 percent of the population bike on a daily basis and where GHG emission reductions are amongst the lowest in Europe. Before the new targets are adopted into the OCP, our elected representatives need to be reminded that there is an obvious solution to reduce the City's greenhouse gas emissions. Accelerate nvestment in cycling!