Feature Report: Cities of the Future

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Vancouver Wants To Be The World's Greenest City

Vancouver has unabashedly announced its ambition to be the world's Greenest City by 2020. The progress made in its wide-ranging initiatives is measured annually. Half-way through the ten-year Greenest City action plan, the Canadian metropolis has achieved impressive results, even if there is still much to do to meet its targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and creating green jobs.

Green spaces, electric mobility and positive energy buildings: Vancouver wants to be the Greenest City in the world. ©Thinkstock

Located on the Pacific coast near the U.S.-Canadian border, Vancouver is the most populated city in British Columbia and one of North America's largest ports facing Asia. The city itself has only 600,000 residents, but it is at the center of Canada's third-largest urban area, with a population of more than 2.3 million. This cosmopolitan port city, with its mild and rainy climate, built its prosperity on trade, mining and forestry. Over the past several years, it has become an important hub for digital and biotechnologies, the aerospace and film industries and tourism.

Vancouver has a long track record in environmental activism. Greenpeace was founded here in 1971, as was the David Suzuki Foundation in 1990.

Mayor Gregor Robertson, elected in 2008, launched the "Greenest City"1 action plan in 2009. The plan was notable for its ambition to work on all sustainability targets at the same time (economic development, transportation, housing, quality of life, etc.) and to provide a transparent annual progress report. In this way, Vancouver has become something of a pilot laboratory, as well as a symbol: in March 2016, three months after the COP21 talks, the First Ministers of Canada's provinces chose to finalize their main climate commitments in the city in a document known as the "Vancouver Declaration".

Ten measurable targets

Vancouver has set ten measurable targets for 2020 in three goal areas: zero carbon (renewable energies, transportation and housing), zero waste and healthy ecosystems (access to nature, clean water, clean air and local food). The progress made so far is tracked on the city's website2.

Half-way through the ten-year program, spectacular progress has already been made:

  • The city has set some of the world's highest standards for new buildings, to make them all carbon neutral in operations as from 2020. In addition, programs to retrofit older buildings have already helped reduce their energy consumption by 5% as of end-2014 (with a target of 20% for 2020).
  • The target of making more than 50% of trips by foot, bicycle and public transit has already been met.
  • In an original approach, Vancouver wants to increase city-wide and neighborhood food assets by 50% over 2010 levels to reduce the amount of food-related transportation. It is ahead of schedule, with assets already up 38%, thanks to a growing number of small urban gardens and surrounding farms. 
  • Vancouver has lifted its standards for air and water quality, access to green spaces and waste recyclingAny waste treatment process that uses materials from identical or similar end-of-life products or manufacturing waste to produce new products., and has become one of the world's "best places to live", according to several rankings.3

Vancouver has set a target to double the number of green jobs in ten years. 

Two problem areas: greenhouse gases and jobs

However, Vancouver is still far from achieving its main goal of reducing greenhouse gasGas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... emissions by 33% from 2007 levels in 2020. As of end-2014, emissions had declined by only 7%, and hopes are slim that the city will be able to make up the difference in time. As a result, Vancouver has decided to step-up its efforts with a view to the longer term4, i.e., 2050.

While electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... use is expected to increase by 75% by 2050, the city wants to ensure that grid-supplied electricity is 100% renewable by that time. It will achieve this by supplementing hydroelectric powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... – already a very major source in the region – with solar energy. To meet its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, Vancouver wants to promote electric mobility. Somewhat later than other large cities, it has rolled out an electric car sharing system and deployed numerous charging points in preparation for the market's growth.

Faster development of renewable energies should also help the city catch up in its drive to double the number of sustainable economy businesses and jobs. The number of green collar jobs stood at 16,700 in 2010 and 19,900 in 2013, still far from the target of 33,400 in 2020. Truth be told, the city's economic growth is primarily driven by the real estate sector, which is being buoyed by massive investments from Chinese citizens. While this situation has doubled the price of single family homes in the past five years, the money from these investments has helped finance part of the Greenest City plan and support the trend toward more energy efficient and sustainable housing.