Can the “Greenest City” Get to One-Planet Living?

View of Vancouver (photo by Evan Leeson)

View of Vancouver (photo by Evan Leeson)

By Jennie Moore and William E. Rees

In September 2009, Mayor Gregor Robertson announced to the Vancouver Board of Trade that his city would become the “Green Capital” of the world. Such ambition is to be lauded: at a time when humanity has become the greatest force altering the face of the planet, the need for determined action has never been greater.

By 2011, Vancouver city staff had undertaken a massive public consultation, TalkGreen, and the council had adopted the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. The plan is now being implemented, with goals ranging from simple greening of the landscape to achieving a lighter ecological footprint. But are Vancouver’s efforts really up to the sustainability challenge? Is the city really tracking what it would take for our citizens to live equitably within safe planetary boundaries?

Let’s answer these questions by first assuming that the world’s best science is correct. From this starting point, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development reported as early as 1993 that, in Canada and other industrialized countries, “reductions in material throughput, energy use, and environmental degradation of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means.” Two decades of inaction later, this conclusion still stands, with climate science showing that to keep global warming to a mere 2 degrees Celsius, industrialized nations must commit to an 80–90 percent reduction in carbon emissions by mid-century.

Some climatologists argue that if the world hopes to avoid a catastrophic 4-degree-Celsius increase in mean global temperature—and we are on track to 4 degrees or even 6 degrees warmer—industrialized nations must begin to decarbonize at the “draconian” rate of 6 percent per year. Because the developed world has delayed acting on energy and lifestyle changes so long, this would likely require a “planned economic recession.” Even the World Bank now agrees that 4 degrees of warming “must be avoided” to head off food shortages, massive population displacements, and geopolitical turmoil.

Go Green Graffiti in Vancouver (Photo by Henry Faber via flickr)

Graffiti in Vancouver (Photo by Henry Faber via flickr)

Our own analyses of Vancouver’s ecological footprint are less intimidating—in part because the city benefits from abundant supplies of renewable hydropower—but in the same ballpark. We assume that Vancouver’s target should be “one-planet living” (i.e., the level of material consumption and waste production per capita that could be enjoyed indefinitely by everyone on Earth without jeopardizing global life-support). By this criterion, Vancouver’s “sustainability gap”—the difference between our demand for global bio-capacity and what is available to us on an equitable basis—is about 57 percent. In other words, if Vancouver really wants to achieve one-planet living, the city should be taking steps to assist its citizens to reduce their consumption-based ecological footprints by almost 60 percent!

This is possible. Studies show that, when stimulated by appropriate tax and pricing policies, technologies available today could achieve most of the required material reductions without reducing quality of life. In the meantime, our eco-footprint work shows we could approach and even meet the goal through changes in transportation (avoiding cars and walking, cycling, or using transit for virtually all trips) and diet (avoiding consumption of red meat, eating locally and organically, and reducing food waste), as well as through improved building technologies that conserve energy and materials.

The bottom line? Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan may seem bold, but it would achieve only 12 percent of the reductions in energy and material throughput necessary for one-planet living. If Vancouverites fully embraced the actions in the plan, then that number could be bumped to 20 percent. The city and its citizens need to rethink their collective and individual strategies before they can claim to be truly serious about sustainability.


Jennie Moore is the director of sustainable development and environmental stewardship in the School of Construction and the Environment at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. William E. Rees is Professor Emeritus in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia.

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