Heat Dome

We learned another new term this year. High-amplitude waves in the Jetstream, Rex Blocks, compressed high pressure zones: the details are complicated to us common folk, but well understood to atmospheric scientists. One thing is clear – this Heat Dome anomaly is one we are likely to see more often as anthropogenic climate change becomes anthropogenic climate disruption.

But I don’t want to talk about the causes, I want to talk about what happened, and what we do now.

Here in New Westminster, dozens of people died. We don’t have a complete accounting yet, and the coroner will no doubt report out in a few months when the horror of the situation has passed, but there may have been more than 40 “excess deaths” in New Westminster in the 4-day period of highest heat. Neighbours of ours, residents in our community. People who died in their home because it was too hot for their body to cope, and because they couldn’t get to help, or didn’t know they needed help. Or (alas) help was not available.

There were a few stories in the news, but aside from the horrific loss of Lytton, the news cycle around the Heat Dome has already begun to pass, which frightens me. More disasters are pushing it out of our mind. Is this the “New Normal” of living though COVID and an ongoing poisoned drug supply crisis – us becoming desensitized to mass death stories? With 900+ COVID deaths in our Health Region, 100+ opioid deaths in our community, does a few dozen avoidable heat-related deaths register? Do we even know how to get angry about this?

We talked about this in Council last week, and it come up in the UBCM executive meeting with the Minister of Municipal Affairs I attended on Friday. As we are contemplating the immediate impacts of wildfires, and the further-reaching effects of wildfire smoke, the conversation about what went wrong during the heat emergency is feeling lost in dealing in this week’s emergency, which will lose time to next week’s emergency. I lament that is what climate disruption looks like in practice.

We will get a report in Council on how we can update our emergency planning, and the Coroner will likely issue a report on provincial and regional responses, but I want to concentrate for now (and sorry, it has taken me some time to think about how to write this) on what happened here, in our community, especially in my neighbourhood of the Brow of the Hill, where many “sudden deaths” occurred.

New West Fire and Rescue and New Westminster Police responded to an unprecedented number of health emergencies and sudden death calls. We know the ambulance service failed – they simply could not dispatch people to calls fast enough, as there were not enough ambulances and crews available. This meant people at 911 couldn’t leave calls, and lines got backed up, causing E-Comm to fail. Firefighters were challenged to keep up, as they could not pass medical calls over the ambulances that were not arriving. As our fire trucks are not medical transports, Fire crews took the unprecedented step of calling taxis and having a member accompany patients to Hospital in that cab, so crews and equipment could move onto the next call, leaving our Firefighters under-staffed as many had to wait in the hospital for patients to be admitted, because the emergency room was slammed. Even as fire and police struggled to keep up and attend to “sudden death” calls, the coroner service phone lines were overwhelmed and at one point stopped responding.

It was a cascading failure, a demonstration we were simply not ready, as a City and as a Province. People died, leaving behind families and neighbours traumatized by the lack of response. I am afraid first responders were equally traumatized, as they had to operate in a broken and failing system that didn’t allow them to do the work they are trained for and dedicated to doing – protect and comfort the residents they serve. Instead, they spent three days in the stifling heat surrounded by the suffering and death of people they wanted to help. I cannot imagine, but once again, they deserve not just our recognition and gratitude, but a response  – a way to fix this so they don’t have to go through it again.

Like many of you, I heard anecdotes about people who were in dangerous situations, and people who helped them out. A community member encountering an elderly man on the street who was disoriented after shopping for himself and his house-bound wife, with no access to cooling centre support because information was not available in his native language. A neighbour who saw a hyperthermic woman sitting in the driver’s seat of a car parked in front of his house, and took her in to cool in his basement overnight because she didn’t know of anywhere else to go and her apartment was not sustainable. Every neighbour-helping-neighbour story reminds us of the importance of community and compassion, but overshadows the story of the many people who surely fell through the cracks and were not lucky enough to have a good Samaritan help them through.

The City has a Heat Emergency plan, and it was invoked. Cooling centres were opened, communications around how to recognize and address heat stress and hyperthermia were distributed in the traditional way, outreach to impacted communities was initiated. City staff in community centres and first responders were prepared to operationalize the plan, carried water and ice and expected to be helping people. It turned out to not be nearly enough. I can be critical of the 911, Ambulance, and Coroner service failures and ask the Province to get this shit figured out right away, but we need to recognize at the same time the failures here at the local level.

First off, we learned (much like the rest of the Lower Mainland) that a plan that works for 32 degrees does not work for 40 degrees. This Heat Dome event was exacerbated by the high overnight lows – for a couple of days, temps never got below 25 degrees at night, so there was no opportunity for apartments to cool down or for people to get a comfortable sleep and build resilience. Cooling Centres that operate from 10:00am- 8:00pm are simply not enough in this situation. We have to figure out how to provide 24 hour centres, and how to staff them. We can also expand the opportunity for outdoor cooling with fountains and misters and tents, and the logistics of making them safe and accessible.

We also were not as effective as we need to be at communicating the seriousness of the heat situation. This was not a “regular” heat emergency, it was something different, and we should have seen that coming and taking measures to tell the community that. There is a language barrier (several, actually) we need to overcome, but there is also the physical barriers to getting information to the front doors of people who live in apartments, to getting information to people in the Uptown and Downtown commercial areas, and encouraging people to connect with their neighbours and the people in their buildings. Indeed, we may even want to regulate that building managers check in with every tenant at least once a day during a heat emergency, and provide resources to residents. This may be as lifesaving as regulating fire alarms.

This is so much our climate chickens coming home to roost. Our Emergency Planning (and this is reflected in the Emergency Response exercises performed in the region, where these plans are tested and refined) has traditionally centred around floods and earthquakes. The SARS outbreak added pandemic planning to that suite (which we were fortunate to have as we began our response to COVID) and Lac-Mégantic caused us to update our rail hazardous incident planning. We have cold temperature and warm temperature response plans, but the current scale of climate disruption is clearly going to lead us to re-think what a regional emergency is. Heat Domes and smoke events like last summer are going to need a new approach.

It is hard for government to admit we failed, but there is no doubt we did here, as a City and as a Province. We should have been better prepared, and we need to be better prepared. We need to communicate better and differently, and we need to assure First Responders are resourced to do the job of supporting people in dangerous times. We have work to do.

Bold Steps 2021

Another great news story coming out of our Council meeting last week (and to contrast from my generally sour recent social media persona, because there is a lot to be frustrated by out there right now) was an update on the City’s Bold Steps Work Plan for 2021.

Like some other jurisdictions, the City of New Westminster declared a Climate Emergency. Like a sub-set of those jurisdictions, we are taking concrete actions in addressing that Climate Emergency, in practice and in policy. Far from being an empty declaration, it was immediately followed by Council asking staff to come up with an actionable plan and viable targets – 2050 targets to meet the IPCC goal that our Country agreed to, and more important 2030 targets that require immediate action to achieve.

I feel strongly those shorter term targets are important because they require us to act now, to put the necessary changes in to our work plans and budgets in 2021 if we hope to get there. It will be hard to hold me and my Council cohort accountable for a 2050 climate target missed (As a Mayor entering his 7th term, I’ll be untouchable!), but we will know if we are on track for 2030 in the next couple of years, and will know if our actions today will get us there.

We have talked quite a bit already about the 7 Bold Steps the City as put forward, but there is a nuance in how they exist within two overlapping magisteria (h/t Stephen J Gould) known as the Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy (CEERS – what the City does with its own operations) and a Community Energy and Emissions Plan (CEEP – what the residents and businesses in town do). If we have 90% control over the former, we only have 10% control over the latter, and it is the much bigger nut to crack. That said, working with senior governments, we can create the right conditions for the entire community to adapt to a low-GHG economy.

The report we were provided outlines the many actions our Climate Action team and other City Departments will be undertaking in 2021. I’ll take the opportunity here to share some brief highlights from each of the 7 Bold Steps:

Carbon Free Corporation. Obviously, there are two big parts of this: our fleet and our buildings. We are replacing the CGP (our highest-emission building) and are shooting for a Zero Carbon standard for the replacement, while prioritization of retrofits and upgrades for the rest of the building stock is an ongoing project. The Green Fleet roadmap will allow us to shift to GHG-free vehicles as they become available, and assure we have the infrastructure to support them across our organization.

Car Light Community. The biggest part of this work will be shifting more spending to support Active Transportation (pedestrian safety improvements, transit support, and greenways), but it also means updating our development planning to assure we are building communities where active transportation is a viable option for more people.

Carbon Free Homes and Buildings. Two ways we can support lower-emission buildings in the City are through updating or accelerating our Step Code implementation to require that new buildings meet higher standards, and continuing to support the great work of Energy Save New West. (Did you know ESNW one of the longest running and most comprehensive community energy efficiency and GHG-reduction programs in Canada?) to help residents and businesses upgrade their own buildings and save money on energy. We are also supporting the Help Cities Lead campaign, asking the Provincial Government to give local government more tools to encourage and support a more efficient building stock.

Pollution Free Vehicles. Our biggest role here will be to support as best we can adoption of electric vehicles (e-cars, e-bikes, e-whatever comes next) by making sure we have adequate public charging, and support the installation of chargers in all new buildings.

Carbon-Free Energy. The inevitable shift from GHG-intensive energy sources to low-carbon electric power puts the city in a unique situation, with our own electrical utility. We need to update our electrical infrastructure to facilitate that, starting with our Advanced Metering Infrastructure project.

Robust Urban Forest. You may have noticed boulevard trees popping up across the Brow of the hill neighbourhood especially, we are going to keep moving ahead on that commitment, along with trying to find more opportunities to protect trees through development.

Quality Public Realm. This is one aspect of the Climate Action plan that includes adaptation to the climate change already inevitable even if we globally meet our 2050 goals. We will be doing climate risk mapping to inform that adaptation, along with other programs that may not seem like climate action (like improving road safety around schools) but is actually climate action (because it makes it more likely people won’t drive to school).

There is other work that spans all 7 Bold Steps, and indeed many of the things above overlap between steps. It is important that we have included these actions in our 5-year financial plan, which means our budget matches our priorities. But even more important, every department in the City has a role, and knows its role. The next 10 years are going to be transformational and require a culture change in how the City operates. Having everyone on board and padding the same direction is the only way we will succeed.

Defense

I have written a few times about the Trans Mountain Pipeline project. I have strong opinions about it that have developed through the years.

At some point in my past I worked for an organization where my job was to provide technical support to an intervenor to the National Energy Board approval process, so I have way more knowledge about this project that is probably healthy. Yes, I have read the application, yes I have read the business case, yes I have watched the story of the pipeline evolve. My opinions about the project have been formed by my emersion immersion in this process, not Twitter memes or PostMedia opinion pieces.

I continue to assert it is the wrong project at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons. It will threaten the ecology of important parts of the province, including one of the most ecologically sensitive parts of New Westminster. The business case for the pipeline is a house of cards with a foundation of bullshit. If realized at the scale that the proponents aspire towards, it will blow Canada past any semblance of the commitment we made to the world in Paris. It is an embarrassing ode to a failed economic model and an icon to lack of leadership.

Fair to say, I’m not a fan.

Just last week, the reactionary Marxist hippies in the Parliamentary Budget Office told the Parliament of Canada and the Prime Minister that the pipeline is unlikely to meet its financial targets if the country plans to meet its climate targets. These were the climate targets that the Prime Minister feigned to make “law” just a few weeks before. I am not one to say “we need to choose between the environment and the economy”, because that is a false dichotomy too often used to delay climate action, but it is clear that if we are going to meet 2050 climate targets, we need to stop investing in the 1950 model of “the economy” (take that as a warning, Massey Bridge Replacement proponents). The time for special pleadings is over.

There is other news around the TMX recently, from their workers imperiling others on New Westminster city streets to the workers imperiling themselves on the worksite, but I’m not above kicking this mangy cur when it is down. So when the BNSF police (yes, a multi-national corporation with headquarters in Houston has armed police with the power of arrest roaming the streets of British Columbia) served an injunction on land defenders that have been placing themselves in the way of the deforestation of riparian habitat in the Brunette River, it is perhaps surprising that only one reporter bothered to file a story about it.

Health researcher and physician Dr. Takaro and a group of concerned citizen have been occupying space near the New West / Burnaby / Coquitlam border since the summer. The pipeline project seems to have tolerated them for a few months, but removing the trees they are occupying now appears to be on the critical path of getting the oil to tidewater, so the injunction was served last week and the Corporate armed forces of BNSF and CN, with support from the RCMP, tore down the camp an forcefully evicted the residents. As a response, the land defenders and Dr. Takaro have filed a request to the BC Supreme Court to have the injunction set aside, citing the flawed NEB process that empowered the approval in the first place.

All this as preamble to say I am proud out City Council is clear in its support for the land defenders, as our concerns in regards to this pipeline and its location in the Burnette River riparian zone have not been addressed – not in the original NEB process rammed through by the Harper Conservatives, and not in the fake “review” offered by the feckless Trudeau Conservatives once they gained control of the process. Council released this statement today:

New Westminster Council continues to be concerned about the location of the new Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (“TMX”) within the sensitive riparian area of the Brunette River;

As an intervener in the flawed National Energy Board process that led to the approval of the TMX project, the City of New Westminster has not been satisfied that TMX sufficiently addresses the imminent and long-term risks to the Brunette River, its unique habitat, and species at risk, including recently-rejuvenated local populations of chum and coho salmon, and the endangered Nooksack dace;

New Westminster Council continues to be concerned that the TMX project is at odds with Canada’s regulated commitments under the Paris Agreement to reduce global Greenhouse Gas emissions and limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius;

New Westminster Council stands in support of the land defenders currently acting to protect fragile riparian habitat near the Brunette River through peaceful protest and occupation of federally regulated lands, and ask that the injunction preventing this action be set aside.

CEERS 2020

We had a report at the September 28th Council meeting that I mentioned in my blog, but skipped past the details of, because I think it was too important a report to bury in a long boring Council Report. This is the Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy (CEERS).

The City has two roles in addressing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting the Paris Agreement goals that the City, the province, and the nation have all stated they intend to meet. One is making it possible for our community (residents, businesses, industry) to meet the goals, which is addressed through a Community Energy and Emissions Plan (“CEEP”). The second is managing our own corporate emissions, those created by the City in operating its own buildings and fleet. The CEERS is our updated plan to deal with this second part.

This CEERS replaces an older plan that was adopted in 2008 and reduced our emission by 12% over the last decade. CEERS 2020 outlines the strategy to get us to our newly stated and ambitious goals – reduce emissions to 45% below our 2010 baseline by 2030 as the first step towards a 100% reduction by 2050. I think the most important part of any climate policy is that we set goals within a viewable horizon – ones we need to take action on *now* to achieve, because as bold as 100% by 2050 is, the 30 year timeframe gives too much cover to those willing to kick climate action down the road.

This Strategy lays out a clear path to get our building and fleet emissions to our 2030 goal. Replacing the Canada Games Pool with a zero-carbon building will be a huge step, but there are 13 other buildings in the City that would see energy and emissions reduction measures soon. This would reduce our building emissions by 55%, and would pay us back in energy savings within 10 years. We are also going to be taking a much more aggressive approach to electrification of our vehicle fleet to reduce those emissions by 30%, both by buying electric vehicles, and by updating our infrastructure to provide charging to these vehicles. With these two strategies and continued improvement on smaller-emission sources like street lighting and wastewater, we can get to our 45% goal by 2030.

That doesn’t mean we will be done in 2030. We will then have harder work to do to find a path to carbon-neutrality that we are aspiring towards in our Bold Step #1. Things like deep retrofits of some other buildings in the City, exploring alternate energy sources (renewable gas, hydrogen, solar, etc.) and creating an offset program through reforestation or other strategies. We can also anticipate that technology will catch up to our goals in the decade ahead, making the next steps a little easier. For example, it is simply not viable to have all-electric or hydrogen fuel cell fire truck fleet today, but we will be relying on those types of changes to emerge after 2030 when those deeper reductions are needed. So if we are going beyond just picking low-hanging fruit now, we are still harvesting the riper fruit.

There is a lot of great policy in here aside from just purchasing changes. We are going to start internally pricing carbon at $150/Tonne. This means we will account for our internal emissions, and use that value to inform our purchasing programs for new equipment. This value (about $650,000/yr based on 2020 emissions) will go into a Climate Reserve Fund to help pay for carbon reduction projects. This both provides internal incentive for departments to find lower-emission approaches (as the cost comes out of your departments budget) and provides us a clear fund and budget line item to apply to emergent projects.

Overall, the cost of implementing this plan is about $13.5M, though much of it is already included in our 5-year capital plan. To put that number into context, we annually spend about $700,000 on fossil fuels (gasoline, diesel, propane) for our current fleet, and energy to heat and service our two dozen buildings (pools, rec centres, City Hall, etc.) is about $1.2 Million per year. It doesn’t take complicated math to recognize that reductions in these costs will rapidly offset the capital costs invested today. With interest rates as low as they are, and senior governments telegraphing their intent to support this type of green infrastructure renewal with grants, the time is now. The City Council of 2030 will be saving a lot of money because of the commitment we make today.

We are going to get there. We can get there. To delay any further would be irresponsible.

Projections

I want to talk about this picture.

Because it triggered for me something that has been banging around in the back of my head for a few years, and I have not really known how to relate it. When it arrived a few years ago thoughts like this were too catastrophic to fit into our world view. Maybe our world view is changing, but I’m not sure about it.

At the time, I was on the Metro Vancouver Utility Committee, which is a committee of local elected officials that get together to discuss the operations of the water and sewer infrastructure of the region and review capital plans for the Metro Vancouver Board. (This has been replaced after the 2018 election with separate Liquid Waste and Water committees). As was our mandate, we were doing long-term planning for the region’s water supply. Really long-term, like 50 – 100 years.

This is important, because major water infrastructure like our three big reservoirs, the dams that support them, and the pipes and pumps and stuff that move a billion litres of water around every day is really expensive stuff. Once installed, it may be in the ground for a century or longer. In a rapidly-growing region with land constraints like Greater Vancouver, big decisions about how, where, and when we invest in this infrastructure are important.

To inform that planning, we needed to include projections about climate change. Beyond just being hotter in the summer, and the potential for less snowpack, we need to consider impacts on ENSO and other global climate systems that may drastically shift when and how much rain falls in our watersheds so we are capable of storing the right amount. We had science types who study this stuff in universities for a living providing models for us.

The subject matter experts were able to, I think, provide a pretty good summary of what we know, what we don’t know, and what we don’t know we don’t know about the climate are we project to 2100, about 80 years in the future. There were several chuckles around the table from comfortable elected people “I’ll be dead then! Har Har!” which is its own telling moment, but I digress.

Scientists being science types, they spent a lot of time talking about uncertainty. There are a variety of models, none of them perfect, and subtle adjustments of what we put into the model can have big impacts over decades. Will the world meet the Paris Agreement goals? Will the economic growth of the last decades continue? Will Elon Musk invent the Mr. Fusion? All of these are external things climate scientists cannot predict, but they can make projections based on different amounts of greenhouse gasses going into the atmosphere. From those they can infer the impact on temperatures, sea and air circulation patterns, feedbacks positive and negative. They have several different models, and into each they can add several emissions scenarios, and they end up with scores or hundreds of different results.

These projected results are not random, though. They cluster. They reinforce each other as often as they differ. In the report we were given, there were three distinct clusters in projecting the temperature impacts of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Greater Vancouver. As is the wont of planners and engineers, they hope for the “best case”, plan around the “middle case”, and have contingencies for the “worst case”.

Looking at a “middle case” for 2100, they made some iterations around our watersheds, how the hydrology of them will be impacted, how spring rains vs. summer rains impact storage need. All to figure how we will assure we can supply water to a City of (I can’t remember the number now, but for the sake of moving the discussion along let’s say it was) 4 Million people. Great, we put our stake in the ground, and have something to plan around. If things change, we will adjust, but this is the point we adjust from.

I put my hand up. “If the annual temperature increases by that much, what does that mean for the trees we are protecting in the watersheds? Can they tolerate that change?”

The answer was “outside of our current scope”. Not the topic of this discussion. We moved on to reservoir design options.

But it doesn’t take much research to discover that, even in the “middle scenario” provided, we are looking at temperatures that are outside of the habitat range of the Douglas fir, the western hemlock, the sitka spruce, the red cedar. The trees will likely die.

Sitting in Metro Vancouver’s offices, you could look over at the North Shore Mountains. It was hard to imagine what Vancouver will look like in 2100 with those trees dead or dying. To most of us, those green mountainsides reaching to rocky peaks define Vancouver. So much so that the City has expensive and complicated “view cone” programs to assure that people’s view of that green expanse is protected by policy. I’m not sure anyone is really thinking about what it means if they are gone.

Maybe it’s too hard to imagine. Just another bummer on the pile, and I’ll be dead by then. Or maybe our current sepia-toned sky should prompt us to imagine why we have made this choice.


Thanks to Mr. Mathew Bond for permission to lament over your photo.

Protectors

There is something else that has been going on in New West (and right next door in Burnaby) for several weeks that is not getting nearly enough attention. There have been a small group of people, led by Dr. Tim Takaro, leading a peaceful occupation of the Trans Mountain Pipeline right-of-way through the Brunette River riparian area. If you live in New West, or if you are concerned about the role your federal government plays in addressing Canada’s shameful climate change legacy, you should care.

It is possible in 2020 that many of us are feeling “protest fatigue”. After the Climate Strikes of last fall, the actions in support of the Wet’suwet’en in the spring, the seemingly unstoppable 24-hour news of protest and counter-protest around Black Lives Matter and Indigenous rights movements, the nation south of us in such a downward spiral, all while we are living under the fogbank of a global pandemic – how many people have capacity for another call to action or protest against injustice right now? For anyone who even gives even the littlest shit about the state of the world and future generations, it can all feel crushing. Not because this doesn’t matter, but because everything freaking matters.

Some people I talk to about this are lamenting (or sometimes celebrating) that the pipeline is fait accompli. The Federal Government has dropped its your money into it, the pipe is bought, the court cases are exhausted. Even as the dark reality of questionable financial viability dawns on us, and the guy who bought the pipeline slinks from office to find other opportunities to mess with global capital, the sunk cost fallacy is pushing us forward into a $12.5 Billion investment in stranded carbon assets. But that’s global macroeconomics and climate denialism, what does that have to do with us here in little old New West?

As I have talked about before, the new Trans Mountain pipeline is going to move more than half a million barrels a day of oil products through the Brunette River, just meters from the New Westminster border, and just before the Brunette flows into New Westminster and discharges to the Fraser immediately upstream of our waterfront. I say the new Trans Mountain Pipeline, because here in the Lower Mainland, they are not “twinning” or “expanding” the existing pipeline, they are routing a second pipeline kilometers from the existing one (which will still pump away as it always does). The new route passes through the most sensitive riparian area of the Brunette: a river that a small group of underappreciated local heroes spent decades bringing back from an industrial sewer to a place that hosts spawning salmon again. The new pipeline is proposed to dig through the very riparian area that supports those salmon and a rich diversity of other flora and fauna, one of the few remaining natural streams in the urban sprawl of the Burrard Peninsula.

So here we are again, another small group of dedicated people protecting a legacy for generations. With time a’ticking and construction equipment staging, they are occupying the space in the hopes that their presence will prevent the felling of trees and clearing of brush and digging of trenches. There has not been much mention of this protest that has been going for more than a month, aside from a couple of early news stories when Dr. Takaro initially went into the trees.

The protest came to the attention of New West council as the occupants were using lower Hume Park for staging some of the activity, it being the nearest open public assembly place to the protest site. Although the actual occupied site is in Burnaby, the crossing of North Road and the Brunette River is a jurisdictionally-challenging spot, where Burnaby, New West, and Coquitlam meet and the federal railways have some policing powers (don’t start with me about how multinational corporations have armed policing powers in Canada –that’s another rant for another time). So it is worthwhile to point out that the three municipalities have taken varying approaches to the TMX expansion.

New Westminster was an intervenor in the Environmental Assessment, strongly opposed the project and its re-location to the Brunette watershed, and have supported legal challenges to the project. Burnaby’s opposition to the project has taken them to the Supreme Court of Canada. Coquitlam has said “show us the money”.

As a City Council, we have received no formal correspondence from the pipeline project team since the federal government took over the project. After formally opposing it for a list of technical reasons in 2017, we received a letter in response from (then) Minister Sohi in 2018 letting us know they received our letter, but they had just bought the entire project, so they are moving ahead.

My reasons for opposition to this project are informed by my participation in the original Environmental Assessment process in a technical role, and honed by my role as an elected official in an impacted community. I have been at this long enough that I remember the Harper-led federal government listening to our concerns before telling us they don’t care, then tearing up the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Fisheries Act to prove the point. In hindsight, that seems more honest than the Trudeau-led federal government lying to us about accountability, promising to end subsidizing oil and gas, and then throwing our chips down on the biggest oil company bailout in Canadian history. I wonder where Minister Sohi is now, after so much was invested in trying to protect his lonely Alberta seat.

Anyway, I’m ranting.

The protest is ongoing in the woods just west of the North Road, south of the Highway 1 overpass, but you may see a few people spending time staging or handing out information in lower Hume Park. Drop by and say Hi if you are in the area, send them some support if you like. Maybe you might want to let your elected representatives know if you think building a pipeline to expedite bitumen sand development in the face of a Climate Emergency is a thing you want them to spend your money on in 2020, or whether you value healthy salmon habitat in your community.

Calmer streets

Earlier in the year, I brought this motion to Council, asking that the City be bolder in finding ways to re-level the balance between car use and other users for public space in the City. We had already made commitments in our Climate Action goals that we are going to change how road space is allocated in the City over the next decade. Then along came COVID to shine a brighter light on some of the inequities in our communities, and cities around the world started acting more aggressively on road space reallocation as a pandemic response. The time was right for New West to accelerate the ideas in our Master Transportation Plan.

Early on, there was some rapid work to address pedestrian and active transportation “pinch points”, especially in the Uptown and on a few Greenways. The city was able to quickly create more safe public space downtown by re-applying the weekend vehicle closure plan of Front Street that we already had experience with. Uptown, the BIA asked the City to allow temporary weekend-only opening of some street space for lightly-programmed public space. Response has been pretty positive:

There is a bit of push-back on these interventions, as there always is when status quo is challenged in the transportation realm. Predictably, the traffic chaos, accidents, parking hassles and general mayhem that was predicted by more vocal opposition just didn’t occur. Staff is tracking actual data, but I have made a point to visit these areas often (COVID and working from home has made me into one of those walking-for-recreation types) and have been collecting admittedly anecdotal views of how these sites are working.

There are two more ideas that are being launched for the second half of the summer, and I want to talk about them because they came from different directions, but ended up in the same place, and are also eliciting some public comments right now (as was the intent!)

The City is piloting a “Cool Streets” program that identifies key pedestrian routes in the City for light interventions to reduce the through-traffic load and give pedestrians more space to stretch out. The way these streets were identified for the pilot is what makes this interesting, and speaks to one of my previous lives when I was briefly a GIS geek.

The goal to identify areas of the City where more vulnerable people have less access to green space, shade, and safe waling/rolling routes to parks and services. The approach very much aligns with the City’s Intelligent City initiative by using data-driven analysis to help make decisions. The City used its Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data set to identify areas that met the following criteria: higher population density, lower household incomes, larger proportion of seniors, and lower parks space per capita. Using GIS to “overlay” these layers, they identified area where many of these criteria overlap:

Once the “dense” areas of this map were identified, staff went through looking at the routes that combine connectivity to key destinations (parks and services), where grades were lower and where the most tree canopy cover was available:

They then identified priority routes for “green street” interventions (1, 2, and the west part of 3 in the map below), and extended these along streets that get to key destinations (the east part of 3 and 4):

The interventions here are very light. The roads are not “closed” to cars, but are calmed using ideas drawn from experiences in other cities from New York to Oakland to Toronto to Vancouver. The hope is to create truly traffic-calmed streets where local access by car is still available, but the space is open for people to share and program as they wish. Local streets acting like streets for locals, not as through-fares.

A second initiative was led by a community group in Sapperton. Concerned about some recent close calls on the part of the Central Valley Greenway that runs through lower Sapperton, they surveyed their neighbours and brought a proposal to staff asking if a pinching down of one block of the greenway could be trialed in light of the Streets for People motion. Again, the road is not closed, but signage was installed to discourage through-traffic and removable soft barriers installed.

Both of these interventions are temporary pilots. They cost very little to put in action, and provide valuable data to our transportation planners, while also giving the public a chance to see what changes would look like before we invest in more permanent or expanded road re-allocation.

In her great book Street Fight, Jeannette Sadik-Khan talks about successes in urban residential areas where more local and lower-key interventions like this have occurred. A major part of this is trying some things (lightly, quickly, and cheaply) as a form of consultation and data collection. This allows us to get past the baked-in institutional resistance to change that says everyone has to agree on paper before we even try the most minor change, and before we can test whether a change is a net good. The Summer Streets program in New York was her model of this – feared by many, embraced by almost everyone once implemented, with the fears proving unfounded in the long term.

All that to say, these light interventions are designed to elicit not just public participation, but public feedback. And I have received feedback already. I’ve received e-mail form people very upset that they were not consulted; e-mail form people predicting traffic chaos; and e-mail from people asking if they can do this on their street. My short answer to those questions are, respectively: this is the consultation; the sites selected were local streets, not traffic-challenged throughfares, but staff will be collecting data to assess the impacts on traffic; and not likely this year just because of timing, but if things go well, I hope these kinds of pilots can be expanded in 2021.

So, if you like this kind of intervention, let us know. If you don’t, tell us why. Staff have included in the analysis above other priority areas for Cool Streets that may be implemented in the future, including Downtown and the McBride commercial area in Glenbrooke North. As for the community-driven version, if you would like to see this type of intervention as a temporary or permanent feature of your street, start reaching out to your neighbors (maybe hold a social distance block party?) and talk about it. If you can gather enough interest, maybe the City can make something happen in 2021.  To me, local communities reclaiming space is a major part of making Streets for People again.

Climate Strike

I don’t usually do community announcements at the end of Council meetings, but I made an exception this week (I promise not to make it a practice). But I could not let the meeting pass without calling extra attention to the events of last Friday.

Friday was the last resolution session at UBCM (yes, I will report out on that in the next little while). Members New Westminster council were at this annual conference of local governments from across the province, and we helped move resolutions that emphasized the urgent need for climate action. Some, like the Resolution asking the UBCM to endorse a Call to Action on the Climate Emergency passed, some like the call to hold fossil fuel industries legally responsible for the cost of climate change adaptation in our Cities, failed. Thanks to CBC Reporter Justin McElroy, there is a scorecard of the resolutions around climate:
Green surrounds the “passed” resolutions, Red is “failed”, purple is “withdrawn”.

There was significant debate on the floor on these climate action resolutions. Some arguing we need to slow down and be cautious, we cannot risk “investor confidence” or we need to show more respect for “resource communities”. Such is the nature of democratic debate, good points were made, hyperbole was engaged, passions were expressed:

Then, we went outside. And some youth were there to talk to the media about the Climate Strike that was about to start a few km up the road. Then there were 100,000+ people on the street, lead by inspiring youth from across the region, calling on politicians and other leaders to stop pretending a lack of climate action is an example of caution – call it what it is – an act of dereliction.

Some of us on council joined that Climate Strike, and I think we all went to show support – to be allies. But I was reminded time and again during the event that this strike, this protest, was directed at me. Those signs, those chants, the anger, were directed at me, and at my fellow Councillors, and the other delegates at UBCM, and at the generation to which I belong who have known about this issue, but failed to act. We continue to fail to deliver the change needed to assure these students have a future as good as our present.

Recognizing that hit me hard. And I am still processing it.

So I had to speak at Council on Monday to tell them that I heard them.

And in every way, this Monday – from the way we talked about our capital budget in the afternoon workshop to the renewed call for fossil fuel divestment to my vote about preserving a heritage house 300m from a Sky Train station – this Monday is different because of what happened on Friday.

Shit like this needs to be stopped. There is no place in a Climate Emergency mandate for expanding freeways. The myth of congestion relief through building traffic lanes is abhorrent in this context, and we have to stop lying to people about it.

No more business as usual as a reason not to move forward. No more incremental-until-meaningless actions. I can’t continue to compartmentalize climate action and climate justice in this work. And I won’t.

Climate Emergency

One of the big topics we discussed at Council last week was a report from staff entitled “Response to Climate Emergency”. This policy-rich, wonky, but still preliminary report had its profile raised by a variety of delegates coming to speak to Council, urging aggressive climate action. That many of the delegates represented generations of people who will be around and most impacted by the climate crisis was not lost to anyone in the room.

If you want to read the report, it is here (because of the way our Council agendas work, you need to scroll down to page 81 of that big, ugly agenda package). I want to summarize some of what is in there, and talk a little about what I see as the risks and opportunities ahead. When we declared a Climate Emergency, we were asking our staff to show us the tools we could apply if we want to act like it is an emergency and shift our emissions towards the Paris targets. Now it is up to Council to give them the authorization and resources to use those tools.

When New Westminster (or any local government) talks about greenhouse gas emissions, we talk about two types of emissions. “Corporate” emissions are those created by the City of New Westminster as a corporation – the diesel in our garbage trucks, the gasoline in our police cars, and the fossil gas used to heat water in the Canada Games Pool or City Hall. This is managed through a Corporate Energy and Emissions Reduction Strategy or CEERS. For the sake of shorthand, that is currently about 4,000 Tonnes (CO2equivilent) per year. “Community” emissions are all of the other emissions created in our community – the gas you burn in your car, the gas you use to heat your house, the emissions from the garbage that you and your neighbors toss out, etc. These are managed through a Community Energy and Emissions Plan or CEEP. And again in shorthand they amount to more than 200,000 Tonnes (CO2equivelent) per year.

When Council supported the Climate Emergency resolution, it included the targets we want to hit for emissions reductions to align with the commitments that Canada made in Paris, and with the global objective of keeping anthropogenic climate change under 1.5C. This means reducing our emissions by 45% by 2030, 60% by 2040, and 100% by 2050. These targets are for both our Corporate and Community emissions.

Clearly, the City has more control over its corporate emissions. The two biggest changes will be in re-imagining our fleet and renovating our buildings. We can accelerate the shift to low- and zero-emission vehicles as technology advances. Passenger vehicles are easy, but electric backhoes are an emergent technology, and the various energy demands of fire trucks are probably going to require some form of low-carbon liquid fuels for some time. The limits on us here are both the significant up-front capital cost of cutting-edge low-emission technology, and the ability to build charging infrastructure. Rapidly adopting low- and zero-carbon building standards for our new buildings (including the replacement for the Canada Games Pool) will be vital here, but retro-fitting some of our older building stock is something that needs to be approached in consideration of the life cycles of the buildings – when do we renovate and when do we replace?

Addressing these big two aggressively will allow us some time to deal with the category of “others”. This work will require us to challenge some service delivery assumptions through an emissions and climate justice lens. Are the aesthetic values of our (admittedly spectacular) annual gardens and groomed green grass lawns something we can continue to afford, or will we move to more perennial, native and xeriscaped natural areas? How will we provide emergency power to flood control pumps without diesel generators? Can we plant enough trees to offset embedded carbon in our concrete sidewalks?

Those longer-term details aside, corporate emissions are mostly fleet and buildings, where the only thing slowing progress is our willingness to commit budget to it, and the public tolerance for tax increases or debt spending in the short term to save money in the long term.

Community emissions are a much harder nut to crack. Part of this is because the measurement of community emissions, by their diffuse nature, are more difficult. Another part is that a local government has no legal authority to (for example) start taking away Major Road Network capacity for cars and trucks, or to regulate the type of fuel regional delivery vehicles use.

We do have a lot of control over how new buildings are built, through powers given by the Provincial “Step Code” provisions in the Building Code. A City can require that more energy efficient building be built, recognizing that this may somewhat increase the upfront cost of construction. We can also relax the energy efficiency part in exchange for requiring that space and water heating and cooking appliances be zero carbon, which may actually offset the cost increase and still achieve the emissions reductions goals. The retrofit of existing buildings will rely somewhat on Provincial and Federal incentives (that pretty much every political party is promising this election), but we may want to look at the City of Vancouver model and ask ourselves at what point should we regulate that no more new fossil gas appliances are allowed?

Shifting our transportation realm will be the hard one. The future of personal mobility is clearly electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and shared vehicles. Somehow the Techno-optimists selling this dream fail to see what those words add up to: clean, reliable public transit. Yes, we are going to have to look at electrification of our private vehicle fleets, and getting chargers for electric vehicles into existing multi-family buildings is an economic and logistical barrier to complete adoption, but ultimately we need to reduce the number of motorized private vehicles moving through our City, because that is the only way we can make the use of alternatives safer, more comfortable, and more efficient.

Denser housing, more green spaces, better waste management built on the foundation of reducing wasteful products, and distributed energy systems linked by a smarter electricity grid – these are things we can build in the City that will get us to near-zero carbon. We can layer on resiliency of our systems and food security decoupled from fossil-fuel powered transglobal supply chains, but that is another couple of blog posts. If you are not getting the hint here, we are talking about transforming much of how we live our lives, because how we have lived our lives up to now is how we ended up in this emergency despite decades of seeing it coming.

The barrier to community emissions reductions is less about money and more about community drive / tolerance for change. Every time we (for example) take away 5 parking spots on 8th Street to provide a transit queue-jumping lane, it will be described by automobile reliant neighbours as the greatest indignity this Council ever imposed on residents. Building a separated bike lane network so our residents can safely and securely use emerging zero-carbon transportation technology like e-assist bikes and electric scooters will be vilified as causing “traffic chaos”, and opponents will somehow forget that “traffic chaos” has been the operating mode of New Westminster roads for 50+ years.

The questions will be: Do we have the political will to do what must be done? Will our residents and businesses, who overwhelmingly believe that climate action is necessary, be there to support the actions that may cause them some personal inconvenience, or challenge their assumptions about how their current practice impacts the community’s emissions profile?

The delegates who came to Council asked us to act, and I threw it back at them: they need to act. As helpful as constant reminders of the need to do this work are, we need to bring the rest of the community on board as well. We passed the Climate Emergency declaration, and now we have a toolbox we are ready to open. To some in our community still mired in denial, that toolbox looks like the Ark of the Covenant from the first Indiana Jones movie. How will we shift that perception?

Shit is about to get real. We need climate champions in this community to turn their attention towards educating and motivating their neighbours – the residents, business and voters of this community – that these actions are necessary and good. Political courage only takes us to the next election, real leadership needs to come from the community. Let’s get to work.

Pipelined

I wanted to comment a bit on this story. Kinder Morgan is apparently using an industrial lot in the Braid Industrial Area of New Westminster for staging and equipment storage as part of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension Project. That has caused some people to send me correspondence around why the City is allowing this, people asking me why I am not opposing the pipeline. I replied to a Facebook Post, but I think this issue is important enough for me to expand a bit on it here on my blog.

The site within New West being used by Kinder Morgan is on Port of Vancouver land, not land where the City has any jurisdiction. Council members were very recently made aware this was happening, but we do not have any regulatory authority around land use on Port lands, as only the Federal Government can issue or withhold those permits. We were not involved in the planning for this, and we have not had any formal correspondence on the issue from the proponent or the Port.

This City and this Council have been involved in the NEB review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from the onset. The City acted as an intervenor in the NEB review, raised a number of significant concerns during the process, and continues to emphasize these concerns since. Not the least of these concerns is the potential for impacts on the Brunette River and its riparian areas.

We have supported court cases challenging this project and the process towards its approval. The NEB and the Federal Governments (past and present) have demonstrated no interest in our position, nor do I feel they have adequately addressed our concerns. It is actually worse than that, as there were recent hearings in Burnaby to review some of the still-unresolved questions about the routing of the new pipeline along New Westminster’s border (and within the Brunette River riparian zone) and the NEB didn’t even invite New Westminster to attend. I was refused entry to the hearings when I showed up. They were held behind closed doors, and as the routing was some 30m outside of our City, my being able to even listen to the conversation was not seen as relevant. At least the Harper Government invited us into the room to be ignored.

I cannot speak for all of Council, nor is this the “official position” of the City, but I have been involved in this process for several years now. I bring a significant amount of professional and technical experience to this, having provided expert evidence as an Environmental Scientist to several Environmental Assessments in my career. I am concerned about the pipeline, but I am much, much more angry about the unaccountable and unacceptable process that has taken us to this point. In the last Federal election we were promised that the industry-focused reviews brought in by the Harper Government would be replaced; that didn’t happen. We were told that community consultations would be opened up, and that consent from communities would be sought; that didn’t happen. We were told that a new era of reconciliation would be ushered in before we impose unsustainable and  damaging infrastructure projects to unceded lands; that didn’t happen. We were told that subsidies to sunset oil industrial development would end and a new energy vision would be offered; that didn’t happen.

We were lied to, and now we are ignored.