Vancouver’s plans to slash emissions and move to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 will require a raft of eyebrow-raising, radical measures, according to fresh research assessing the viability of the city’s strategy.
The City of Vancouver’s Renewable City Strategy, adopted in 2015, requires an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on 2007 levels by mid-century and the use of 100 percent renewable energy—meaning all fuels, not just electricity—by the same date. Currently, just over 30 percent of the energy used in Vancouver comes from renewable sources, mainly hydroelectricity. The remaining 70 percent is largely natural gas for heating in buildings, and gasoline and diesel for cars and trucks.
The strategy, for the most part, outlines priorities, rather than provides detailed policies on how it can achieve these targets. One exception is the Zero Emissions Building Plan, which was subsequently released in 2016, that does suggest policies to achieve the goal.
However, economic and energy systems modelling work performed by Simon Fraser University’s Energy and Materials Research Group found that the strategy is likely to achieve only a 30 percent reduction on projected 2050 emissions. If, in addition, the federal government were to steadily ratchet up the price of carbon to $200 a tonne, this would add about another 25 percent reduction—still very far from the city’s deep decarbonisation goals.
However, the researchers, who were funded in part by PICS, found that Vancouver could achieve its targets – or at least get very close – if it chooses a more politically challenging path, regardless of actions taken by the federal government. They say the solution lies in implementing strong fuel-switching policies for new buildings and vehicles.
For residential buildings, fossil fuel burning boilers and furnaces would no longer be permitted after 2030 for all new builds, and for replacements in existing buildings. Instead, all heating installations would have to use electric-powered heat pumps, solar hot water, electric thermal heat, or other zero emissions equipment. Existing homes would be required to use renewable natural gas (‘biogas’) in new gas-fired furnaces.
Commercial and industrial buildings would be similarly restricted, but would be able to continue using natural gas for non-heating purposes such as cooking. Even here though, those burning natural gas would have to gradually switch to biogas by 2050, although the authors have concerns over whether sufficient quantities would be available and at affordable prices. They also worry that low levels of biogas demand might be of an insufficient volume required to keep the pipeline system functioning properly.
On the transportation front, the city would have to slowly reduce the available parking spaces for gasoline and diesel combusting vehicles. Restrictions along these lines would have to be instituted as soon as 2025, and by 2040 no spaces for conventional cars would be left at all on city land. To gain a business licence from 2030, enterprises would have to demonstrate exclusive use of renewably-powered vehicles.
The research indicates the extent of the challenge faced by cities beyond just Vancouver that are committed to deep decarbonisation.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.