What Does a One-planet City Look Like?

Aquabus in front of False Creek North in Vancouver–strong efforts to increase density and orient around the pedestrian (photo courtesy of Jennie Moore)

It isn’t easy being green. The City of Vancouver is learning what Kermit the Frog has known for a long time. In a bid to become the world’s Greenest City, Vancouver recently launched its Greenest City Action Plan that includes a goal to reduce its ecological footprint 33% by 2015, en route to a longer term goal to become a “one-planet” city. Ten action areas spanning food, transportation, buildings, economy, climate change, waste management, etc., outline a path towards the lighter footprint objective.

The problem is that the sum total of the initiatives identified to date in the Greenest City Action Plan will only contribute to an 11.5% reduction in the City’s ecological footprint. Additional stretch measures in the eleventh action area, called “Achieve a Lighter Footprint” could bring the total reduction to 23%, which is still short of the 33% target and nowhere near the level of reduction that would be needed to achieve one-planet living.

One-planet living is a concept that uses the ecological footprint as a metric. If the world’s total biocapacity were equitably distributed among the global population, with a minimum of 12% set aside for natural habitat preservation, the resulting allowance would be 1.8 hectares of land with global average ecosystem productivity per person. Contrast this with the 9 hectares required to support an average US citizen or the 7 hectares required to support a Canadian. For people in these countries, getting to one-planet living requires a factor-five (80%) reduction in current levels of energy and materials consumption and waste production!

To understand the implications of this shift, consider the following numbers, based on my comprehensive assessment of Vancouver’s ecological footprint:

  1. Half of Vancouver’s footprint is attributable to food (production, distribution, retailing, etc.)  And half of the food footprint itself is attributable to meat, fish and eggs (with the majority attributable to red meat).
  2. Transportation accounts for 20% of Vancouver’s footprint, and half of that is due to single-occupant vehicle travel. If you add the embodied energy of the motor vehicles as well as impacts from air travel, then together these account for almost 90% of Vancouver’s total transportation footprint.
  3. Buildings account for 16% of Vancouver’s footprint, and of this amount 80% is attributable to the energy required to operate residential, commercial and institutional buildings.
  4. Consumables, meaning goods that we purchase, account for 12% of Vancouver’s footprint. The big ticket item here is paper which accounts for half the consumables footprint, followed by plastics, organic wastes, metals, glass, household hygiene (including diapers), etc.

Vancouver's Ecological Footprint Based on Consumption Activity (Calculated by Jennie Moore)

So, if we want to get to one-planet living, there doesn’t appear to be much wiggle room for avoiding some of the largest contributors: red meat, car travel (air travel too), home energy use, and personal consumption. No surprises so far, right? But here is the kicker: to actually get to one-planet living, we’re not just talking about a little less meat consumption or a more thoughtful approach to the commute to work. We are talking about massive changes to life as we know it. Virtual elimination of animal proteins in the diet (think vegan) and abandonment of personal automobile ownership are critical considerations. In other words, highly efficient use of energy in the home and an emphasis on recycling or even consuming less just won’t cut it. If one-planet living is the goal, then radical transformation of our lifestyles has to be on the table. And since we know that individuals embedded in a system won’t be able to make dramatic personal changes if the system doesn’t support them (how many vegans living without cars do you know?), this means the government is going to have to play a central role in supporting more sustainable individual consumption choices.

These statements may seem to be political non-starters, but the sheer scale of the problem forces us to reconcile with some tough decisions. Perhaps Kermit’s insect-eating, lily-pad lifestyle is on the right track? Or if it isn’t, at least it’s clear that our cow-eating, iPad lifestyle is not.

A high-end luxury condominium complex under development in Vancouver. Note the starting price is $5 million, but ownership comes with access to the "communal" Ferrari–and what could be more sustainable than a shared car? (Photo courtesy of Jennie Moore)

Jennie Moore is Director of Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. She is currently completing her PhD under the supervision of Professor Emeritus William E. Rees, researching what it will take to make Vancouver a One-Planet City.

One thought on “What Does a One-planet City Look Like?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *