Credit: Joe Borrelli

Good morning, Vancouver and congratulations. We’re officially into our record-busting 40th straight day of rain. The boil-water advisory will remain for most of Metro Vancouver until further notice. Richmond and Delta are bracing for the worst flooding in a century. In international news, U.S. officials are faced with a deluge of claims from Mobile, Alabama residents, who were encouraged
to move back into their homes just months before hurricane Ringo wiped much of the city off the map…Canadian immigration officials say they are overwhelmed by refugee applications from Southeast Asians and North Africans fleeing from flood- and drought-stricken regions.”

This is the kind of morning news report Vancouver’s commuters can expect to hear. It may not happen this winter, or even the year after. But if Vancouverites think they are protected from the impacts of climate change that are already playing out around the world, they’d better think again.
How do we measure climate change here in B.C., and what will its local impacts look like, exactly? How effective are tools like Vancouver’s Climate Change Action Plans in mitigating and adapting to it? And how will residents of the Lower Mainland have to change their behaviour to adapt to climate change?

When the levees broke and hurricane Katrina unleashed its fury on New Orleans, millions of ordinary citizens plunged into hell. The storm surge left 80 per cent of the city flooded. Millions were homeless. The total economic loss for Louisiana and Mississippi is estimated at US$150 billion.
The U.S. government mobilized thousands of National Guard troops and federal officers to restore law and order. An extreme weather event had turned a North American city into something resembling a disaster zone in a developing country.

No reputable scientist would say definitively that Katrina (or any other particular extreme weather event) was directly caused by global warming. But global climate change is expected to lead to an increase in extreme weather events, says Vancouver’s climate change protection manager Sean Pander. If Katrina wasn’t caused directly by global warming, maybe the next one will be.

Vancouver residents may feel insulated from the extreme weather that razed New Orleans and left more than 100,000 people homeless in Sri Lanka, but we aren’t. Flooding, landslides, forest fires and crop devastation can hit this region hard.

The Fraser Basin Council reports that average yearly temperatures in the Fraser Basin region stretching from the Rocky Mountains to Richmond are up one degree over the past century. Summer water temperatures have increased 2.2 degrees in the past 50 years, approaching the upper levels of what sockeye salmon can tolerate.

Environment Canada data show municipalities in the B.C. Interior experiencing more frost-free days per year than 50 years back, facilitating the pine beetle’s devastation of our provincial forests.
Meanwhile, if climate change leads to a higher frequency of extremely hot weather in summer, forest fires could burn through the lumber-fed B.C. economy.

Of course, Vancouver residents have had a taste of extreme weather and its impact, albeit on a relatively minor scale, compared with New Orleans or Sri Lanka. A 2006 winter storm left 220,000 BC Hydro customers without electricity; knocked down buildings; devastated Stanley Park; shut down highways, ferries and container traffic; sparked mudslides on the North Shore; and left the city without clean drinking water for weeks.

It’s not just extreme weather in our backyard that has the potential to change the shape of our city. “A lot of people aren’t focusing on the social impacts, like climate refugees,” Pander warns. “In the next 50 years, we could see human migrations larger than in recorded history, especially in developing countries where they don’t have the capacity to deal with climate changes. We’re potentially looking at conflicts over space and food, large outbreaks of disease and fairly significant social upheavals.”

Climate change is already affecting Vancouver’s water supply. Two million people and businesses get their water from the Capilano, Seymour and Coquitlam watersheds, which are all run by Metro Vancouver. “We’re seeing a trend of more rain in the winter and less in the summer, plus more extreme short-term weather events, which obviously impacts our reservoir operations,” explains Brent Burton, spokesperson for Metro Vancouver’s Utility Analysis and Environmental Management Division.

The mountain glaciers that top up our reservoirs in the spring and early summer will likely shrink due to climate change, Burton notes. Infrastructure improvements will likely be needed to ensure there’s enough reservoir capacity.

As for waste-water management, Burton theorizes that with rising sea levels, waste-water treatment plants currently located at low ground elevation may have to start pumping water, making the operations more costly to run. “We’ve relied on historical climate data to build infrastructure that can last 50 or 60 years. Unfortunately, if the climate is changing, that data is no longer appropriate.”
The municipalities of Richmond and Delta are increasingly concerned about their own vulnerability to climate change. Both municipalities have extensive systems of dikes that were built significantly higher than the highest level of water ever recorded in the area, in the flood of 1894. But sea-level rise may mean the current infrastructure will not be enough. “The numbers behind sea-level rise
are still an evolving science,” notes Richmond environmental programs coordinator Margot Daykin. “Each report that comes out says the rise is going to be even higher.”

Delta is at risk from both coastal squeeze and storm surges from the Fraser River. “We’d definitely need funding from other levels of government to be able to afford an entire upgrade of the dike system if that’s required down the line,” says Corporation of Delta deputy director of engineering Hugh Fraser.

Delta’s Westham Island would have very little protection from a storm surge by 2100, computer-generated 3D models show. “This is what we’re projecting for fairly conservative estimates of climate change, with a 0.4 metre increase in sea level,” says UBC landscape architecture professor Stephen Sheppard, noting that significant sea-level rise combined with a storm surge could breach the dikes. “Actually, they’ve had two fairly major storm surges just in the last two years, so flooding could happen at any time.”

Even if sea level never rises enough to pose a threat to the dikes, it’s the water you can’t see that may pose a big problem for Richmond, Daykin says. About half of Richmond is agricultural land, and if the soil becomes saline from rising levels of seawater infiltration, all that farmland is at risk.

But Vancouver’s suburbs aren’t the only vulnerable areas. Storm surges combined with extreme wind speed and rising sea level pose a threat to beachfront areas in downtown Vancouver, says David Suzuki Foundation climate change specialist Ian Bruce.

Canada signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol with the aim of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) to five per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. Despite that, Canada as a whole is now at 25 per cent above the Kyoto target. The province of B.C. is hovering a whopping 30 per cent above 1990 levels.

Vancouver, in contrast, is well on its way to its goal of reducing GHGs produced by City operations by 20 per cent from 1990 levels by 2010. Community-wide GHGs have so far risen only five per cent above 1990 levels, despite a 25-per-cent population increase in the same period.

Our per-capita emissions of 4.9 tons of GHGs are less than half of our Toronto counterparts, and less than a third of the corresponding figures for Calgary.

Vancouver’s success in reducing its GHGs isn’t just a freak accident. Vancouver began planning for climate change in the 1990s, before it formulated two plans that followed from a 2004 task force.

The 1995 CityPlan promoted mixed-use, dense development. The 1997 Transportation Plan encouraged alternatives to car use. The 2003 Landfill Gas Recovery System has reduced Vancouver’s annual GHG emissions by 200,000 tonnes and produced enough clean energy to power the equivalent of 6,000 homes.

Much of the GHG reductions Vancouver has achieved since the Climate Change Action Plans were implemented are a continuation of existing trends, such as the ongoing building retrofits, City fleet vehicle upgrades and reduced car traffic as residents use alternative modes of transportation.

In 2004, Vancouver formed a panel of environmental experts and community organizations called the Cool Vancouver Task Force to come up with recommendations about how to actually exceed the targets of the Kyoto protocol. The City took the recommendations and formulated two Climate Change Action Plans:
the corporate plan for City operations and the community plan for residents and businesses.
Vancouver’s Corporate Climate Change Action Plan includes recommendations on energy-efficient retrofits for City facilities, green design for new and replacement buildings, use of green energy and sustainable development, fuel-efficient City vehicles and waste reduction.

Vancouver’s Community Climate Change Action Plan focuses on promoting building and home retrofits to improve energy efficiency, bio-diesel fuel blends, anti-car-idling and transportation alternatives, with an education campaign and incentives to induce companies to comply.

Organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation are impressed with Vancouver’s performance. “Historically, Vancouver has been way ahead of other municipalities, and it still has one of the best climate-change action plans in the country,” Ian Bruce says.

The innovative heating system for the Southeast False Creek Olympic Village – which extracts heat from sewage – is one example of how Vancouver’s planning priorities can result in significant GHG reductions. “The project is the first of its kind in Canada and likely in all of North America,” Bruce notes. Meanwhile, the continuing emphasis on dense, sustainable communities has allowed Vancouver to buck the country-wide trend of increased commuting times.

Even so, Vancouver’s plan isn’t all it could be, Bruce says. Toronto has just come out with a plan that provides financial incentives to spur energy retrofits throughout the community, as well as initiatives to promote the use of solar panels for home and hot-water heating.

Indeed, a September 2007 Vancouver City update reports that while Vancouver is on track to meet its 2010 GHG reduction objectives, the 2012 Community Plan reduction target of six per cent below 1990 levels will be more difficult to achieve. Efficiency improvements are now just keeping pace with population growth.

Without assistance from higher levels of government, Vancouver’s climate-change program will have to keep running full-out just to stand still.

This is where we come in. The city may have to implement some drastic measures to lower our GHG emissions, Bruce suggests. Just 23 per cent of Vancouver homes compost their organic trash, but a flat fee for every bag of garbage picked up could reduce the garbage that gets sent to our landfills and reduce the number of trucks needed to transport it. Sorting recycling could become mandatory.

But Vancouver’s One Day climate-change community involvement initiative does have some suggestions for reducing your environmental footprint voluntarily.

Getting rid of leaks and drafts around your home can reduce heating bills up to 20 per cent. Low-flow shower heads use 60 per cent less hot water and can save an average household nearly $200 a year. Compact fluorescent light bulbs use one-sixth the energy of regular bulbs and last 10 times longer. Hang your laundry up to dry. Put your home computer on sleep mode when not in use; screensavers don’t actually save energy or your screen.

“Small steps, one day at a time by individuals and businesses are essential for success,” Pander says. “If each person reduced their GHG just half a ton, we could meet our 2012 target.”