Four years ago, Vancouver set a bold goal: The city would eventually eliminate dependence on fossil fuels. Others, like Copenhagen and Stockholm, soon followed. Now Vancouver is figuring out exactly how–and when–it will be able to meet the challenge.
The plan goes farther than just hooking the city up to renewable electricity. “Many cities have made the commitment to be “100% renewable,” and for most, what that actually means is they’re committing to renewable electricity,” says Sadhu Johnston, Vancouver’s deputy city manager. “That’s something we’ve already almost achieved–we’re currently at about 98% renewable electricity.”
Instead, the city wants to tackle every use of fossil fuels within city limits, including cars and heating. “Vehicles will be a major challenge– converting to electric vehicles and other greenhouse gas-free forms of mobility will likely be the greatest challenge,” says Johnston.
The city is starting by building new infrastructure like separated bike lanes, dense neighborhoods next to transit stations, and EV charging at 20% of new parking spaces. “We’re building the infrastructure to enable this transition, because it’s a several generations transition we’re trying to create,” he says. “So we’re building all of that out and then figuring out, okay, how do we tip it over to make a shift?”
By the fall, in advance of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris this December, the city will have a full plan and timeline. As it transitions away from fossil fuels, Vancouver hopes to make it as seamless for residents as possible. Johnston points to the city’s new composting program as an example of another successful shift.
“We provided the opportunity for separation of waste a few years ago, did education, got the infrastructure in place,” he says. “Companies saw this as a shift that’s happening, and a lot of innovation came because industry saw where we’re going. Now we collect garbage every other week, and compost every week–so it’s inconvenient to keep throwing organics in the trash. It sits behind your house and stinks. The third and final step is we ban it from landfill–and by the time the ban comes it’s not that heavy of a lift.”
As the city works on its plan, it’s also pursuing the related goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, as a member of a new group of cities called the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. While Vancouver has started to make some progress, it has a long way to go: So far, the city has reduced emissions by 6% over 1990 levels (something that’s still impressive, considering the fact that the population has grown 30% while emissions dropped).
Though Vancouver’s goals are ambitious, the government believes they’re feasible. “I think it seems so insurmountable when we think about fossil fuel-free, but people used to say that about slavery–the economy’s going to fall apart,” says Johnston. “We made that transition and we can make this one too. … This is the future of the economy.”