Is Vancouver's burgeoning cleantech industry best served by Robertson’s distance from Harper?


Even as our national reputation takes a thrashing, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson flew to the Copenhagen Climate Conference over the weekend to talk up our city’s green reputation.


Technology—or rather, cleantech—appears to be the city's key to actually achieving its Greenest City targets, said the mayor in a speech last week at the BCTIA-sponsored Race to the Green event just before heading to the airport for the Danish capitol. And he's counting on Olympic buzz to help draw attention to Vancouver’s environmental record in order to attract the necessary investment in green tech firms.


Notably, his ideas of banking on Canadian technology to fuel environmentally sustainable economic growth may have much in common with those of our prime minister. Which prompts one to ponder whether perhaps Robertson might secretly be on board with the affectionately named "Darth Vader of the G8." Or, more importantly, shouldn’t he be?


Technology critical to meeting Greenest City goals

First, some background. Robertson is extremely optimistic about the ability of technology and locally based companies to help Vancouver become the greenest city on the planet over the next 10 years.


Vancouver Clean Tech - Vancouver Green Capital

The City of Vancouver's 'Green

Capital' branding logo for attracting

the cleantech industry to the region.

One target—to achieve 20,000 new “green economy” jobs by 2020 (a significant chunk of the 50,000 new jobs expected in Vancouver by that time)—is almost entirely dependent on the private sector, and likely in areas of renewable energy and green transportation.


“It’s actually going to come back to a lot of you in this room as to how readily we achieve this [goal],” Robertson said, addressing a significant number of the BCTIA’s green tech leaders at the Pan Pacific Hotel last week.


Vancouver has definitely made some strides there. As the mayor pointed out, the City just announced a partnership with BC Hydro and Pulse Energy to use energy management software to reduce energy consumption in the City’s biggest buildings and VANOC buildings. Pulse itself is an example of a green technology company that has ridden the green wave, growing from four employees last year to 40 this year.


Plans are also in the works for the retrofitting of multi-resident buildings, with 2 percent of the existing building stock retrofitted over the next 10 years.


The City is also moving forward with electric vehicle charging infrastructure made possible through its partnership with BC Hydro. “They have the juice and we have the dirt," said the mayor. "We’re not going to be the Detroit of North America, but in terms of how infrastructure is created and how this system of electric vehicles builds and scales, we want to be demonstrating that [in Vancouver].”


As well, Vancouver is now the showcase market for highway-capable electric vehicles for Mitsubishi.


Cooperation from all levels of government necessary to grow 'Vancouver Green Capital'

Achieving the mayor's dream of building a bigger green tech hub, or "Vancouver Green Capital," will require a substantial infusion of cash, some of which will need to come from international venture capitalists—hence the marketing blitz at Copenhagen. But while gaming for international investment, Robertson recognizes that critical partnerships will have to be forged more strongly at home.

"We simply have to have better coordination and cooperation between different levels of government," he noted at the BCTIA event. "They collect 92 percent of our tax, and we need some of that to flow into projects that ... really achieve all of our goals together."

But even as the mayor calls for a greater injection of federal resources into local initiatives, rather than align himself with the much-maligned federal leadership present at Copenhagen, he’s attempting to distance himself, lest he be painted at the summit with the same eco-unfriendly brush as Prime Minister Harper.

It's certainly less risky for a politician to buzz about the green credentials of a Canadian city than affiliate himself with the Canadian reps taking a pounding over the Alberta tar sands.

But perhaps it would have been a bit braver—and indeed, a bit more strategic—to try to show a united front. After all, at first glance, Robertson’s views about aligning environmental and economic sustainability don't seem to differ much from that of the federal government.

For example, Harper noted in a speech following the passing of the Clean Air Act: “Not only can we make this dovetail in the long term with economic growth, but I think it’s necessary to have environmentally sustainable growth in the long term. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for Canada with its energy superpower status to use that to become a leader in environmental technology… We have a plan that would put those investments here in Canada and apply Canadian technology to the reduction of greenhouse gases.”

Are Robertson and Harper just flip sides of the same coin?

So it would seem that Harper and Robertson may share similar philosophies about the country's economic way forward—at least if one's to take the PM at his word (instead of believing the opposition view that he's a stalking horse for a planet-killing oil industry).


But Robertson has shrewdly avoided lining up alongside his Ottawa-based colleagues on the larger issues being addressed at the climate talks, such as how much money developed countries should send the Third World to help them fight climate change.


Not that the mayor expects anyone to listen to him on such macro-policies as the transfer of wealth. He's simply trying to be a cheerleader for Vancouver's green potential while avoiding getting tarred by critics of Canada's supposedly anti-green leadership.


But moving forward from Copenhagen, will Robertson be willing to go hat-in-hand to the prime minister’s office in 2010 to try to get the additional start-up cash for green initiatives here in Vancouver? And by then, will the Conservatives—whose minority government is increasingly able to behave as if they had a robust majority—give Vancouver’s ambassador a sympathetic ear?


The powers that be in Ottawa may not forgive our mayor's unwillingness to stand with them when the glaring spotlight of Copenhagen was upon them.