December 14, 2009

Greening Gaining Traction

My latest Business in Vancouver column:

Nothing better illustrates how narrow the ideological differences are along the Vancouver political spectrum than the Greenest City Action Team (GCAT) report.

Established in February as an initiative of Mayor Gregor Robertson (with a kick-start by Coun. Andrea Reimer), it quickly recruited a who’s who of the sustainability community in Vancouver (disclosure: I’m one of the who’s). It was a list heavy with CEOs, directors and vice-presidents. And of course David Suzuki.

The goal: develop a 10-year action plan for addressing Vancouver’s environmental challenges, with targets for the next three years, that would fast-track Vancouver into becoming the world’s greenest city. And do it in five months.

Priorities to address ranged from local to global to neighbourhood initiatives and climate change, with a category not usually seen (until recently) in environmental initiatives: green jobs in a green economy. By the time the task force issued an interim report in April, jobs and the economy had emerged on top.

Recommendation No. 1: “Create a green economic development strategy.” By the end of summer, the strategy had its own brand. Vancouver was to be a green capital city.

This was a process without direct public input. In the curious politics of left and right, a closed-door process is anathema to the left and consequently something it can get away with. The timeline could never have been met if the meetings had been open to whoever showed up or if the recommendations had to be vetted in a public forum before going into print.

But this was not a group to waste time. Deadlines were set and met and drafts e-mailed off to David Boyd, the co-chairman who as a writer and lawyer, edited the torrent of words into a readable document that, on October 20, the mayor introduced at the Resilient Cities Gaining Ground conference in Vancouver.

Vancouver 2020: A Bright Green Future is an environmental decathlon – 10 long-term goals, some staggering in their implications:

•(2) eliminate dependence on fossil fuels;

•(5) create zero waste; and

•(7) achieve a one-planet ecological footprint.


Like the title of the task force itself (greenest, not just greener), the goals are thought to be, um, ambitious – but appropriate to the challenge. And, more particularly, to the self-image of the city. If we’re the most livable city, after all, why not aim a little higher and (Olympic-metaphor alert) go for the gold in this particular decathlon?

And who’s going to attack you for that? Such is the nature of politics in Vancouver that the opposition can only criticize a failure to be sufficiently bold, not to scoff at unrealistic goals. Both left and right, Vision and NPA, have moved so closely together when it comes to environmental policy that the differences are insignificant. Hence they try to distinguish themselves by focusing on the trivial. The only attack made on the GCAT process so far was of the overnight decision to build a community garden in the backyard of city hall – a tactic of trivialization that diverts attention from the areas of general agreement.

Normally the dismissal of green is the job of the business community. But that’s not playing well, not at a time when power is shifting (Portland, Seattle and Vancouver now all have mayors elected on aggressive environmental platforms, each challenging the other to the “greenest city” title). Not at a time when the green economy means head offices and high-tech industries. Not at a time when stimulus financing and “green job” generation is the only game in town. The board of trade wants to be as much a player as Ecotrust.

My favourite bright green idea in the report is an on-bill financing mechanism that would have the city pay the upfront capital costs of energy-efficient projects with repayments by building owners over time through a charge on their property bills. Like many of the initiatives in the report, it requires senior-government co-operation – often the place where good intentions go to die.

But this report, unlike the ones that preceded it – Clouds of Change, Cool City – has economic appeal and political momentum behind it, not just environmental necessity. It accelerates the consensus that will likely define Vancouver in the post-Olympics era.

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