A frequent question to candidates for all levels of government office is, “What is your plan for dealing with climate change?” In this post I’ll address the problem of climate action vs. equity.
As we all know, the climate is a global system, and insofar as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from humans influence the climate, it doesn’t matter whether they’re produced in Omaha or Shenzhen. So, when it comes to a municipal election like the one I’m running in, it’s worth asking, “how much do North Vancouver’s GHG emissions contribute to the global total?” The answer, in practical terms, is nothing. We could cut our emissions to a quarter of what they currently are, or quadruple them, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.
If taking an action is not going to produce any quantifiable progress towards its stated goal (in this case, reducing GHG emissions enough to reduce global warming) no matter how hard we try, is it still worth doing?
Well, it might be. Sometimes the best thing to do is what you know to be the right thing, even if you are certain it won’t meaningfully contribute to the desired result. That’s why most people stop at red lights even in the middle of the night when no one else is around. As beings empowered by reason, using a system of ethics based on general rules of right and wrong is as good a way (possibly better) to make individual decisions as any.
So, for many North Vancouverites, reducing one’s carbon footprint is likely a matter of principle. And this is a good thing, when applied to individual choices. However, the moral landscape changes vastly if one person seeks to impose such a moral framework on another person. Just as making a donation to charity with stolen money can’t be considered virtuous, forcing one’s neighbour to pull the plug on their gas furnace when they do not want to isn’t noble either. Before entertaining any rebuttals, I’ll note that ends -justify-means counter arguments are not applicable here; as stated above, the desired end is not achievable at the scale we’re discussing.
As a case in point, we can examine the City of Vancouver’s new Net Zero Buildings plan (the DNV has put in place a similar requirement). Through their municipal building code, Vancouver intends to make all new buildings “zero emissions” by 2030. Among other things, this means that when fully implemented, if you want to build a new house is the City you can’t put a gas furnace in it. Along with Energy Step Code and the Embodied Carbon Strategy, such measures significantly increase the cost of building new housing at a time when lower-income residents are struggling to keep roofs over their heads. Such additions to building codes that have nothing to do with the life safety of the occupants are evidence of elitism among urban planners, a character flaw of the profession that goes back over a century to the days when the proposed remedy to the visible evidence of poverty, such as slums, was to bulldoze it.
Until renewable sources of energy are cost-competitive with fossil fuels, banning the use of oil and gas will simply push lower-income people into more economically difficult positions. For example, if the result of a net zero building regime is that all homes become at least $10,000 more expensive, that will push people on the margins to move out of the city, or make other undesirable trade-offs in order to stay. Another example is the BC Green Plan mandating by 2040 that all new vehicles sold in the province be electric. Unless the price of EV’s comes down a lot by then, this elitist regulation takes the option of buying a new vehicle off the table for lower-income people, leaving them to choose between buying second-hand vehicles or not buying at all. Such regulations also make it harder for small businesses to compete with large corporations because they have less capacity to absorb the additional costs associated with going carbon neutral.
Am I saying there should be no collective effort to reduce fossil fuel consumption at the municipal level? No, I think there should be, but my reasons for doing so have nothing to do with the so-called “climate crisis.”
Firstly, hydrocarbons are incredibly useful and versatile compounds, that provide us with all manner of useful things: durable plastics for prosthetics for amputees, fertilizers that allow us to grow more food on less land, the substrate for life-saving pharmaceuticals, and many other modern wonders. The fact that we use so much of this non-renewable resource to burn as fuel is near-tragic, considering that many future generations of humans may depend on it. The future of sustainable energy is nuclear (and to some degree solar), and the sooner we can make that transition (without forcing people into poverty), the better.
Secondly, we have a serious local problem with traffic congestion. The vast majority of private automobiles and all trucks use fossil fuels, and that isn’t going to change even by 2040. All those vehicles idling in traffic jams result in a lot of waste and pollution. North Vancouver needs a system to control demand on the roads and incentivize transportation alternatives, as I detailed in this post. My hope is that electrified light rail transit will be available as one of those alternatives within the decade. Pricing the roads during periods of peak demand will spur other alternatives to inefficient private automobile use, such a carpooling, ridesharing, private mini-buses, and cycling. Add in the change to delivery of small loads by drones instead of trucks, and we could see the overall use of fossil fuels decrease significantly, even though the number of trips increases.
There may be some actions a municipal government could take to reduce GHG emissions that don’t remove choice from citizens. For instance, the District of North Vancouver can, and is, reducing emissions from its own operations. The District also provides some incentives to homeowners for energy efficiency retrofits. While I have an aversion to such subsidies because they end up mostly in the pockets of the wealthy, they’re less morally offensive than forcing people off fossil fuels.
Lastly, there is a legitimate role for local government in dealing with climate events. This could mean partnering with higher levels of government to ensure shoreline infrastructure is prepared for rising sea levels and storm surges. Creating fire breaks between local forests and residential areas in case of wildfires is another sensible mitigation effort. And as we’re seeing with the current drought, local government has an important role to play in water conservation (which might best be achieved with a pay-by-use, instead of flat rate, system).
When it comes to climate change, protecting local infrastructure and resources should be municipal government’s first priority, and efforts to reduce GHG’s largely left to individuals, businesses, and civil society organizations who are indeed making great progress towards this goal.
2022 Candidate for DNV Council
Clayton ran for District of North Vancouver Council in 2022. He holds a BA in International Development from Trent University, and works as a project manager in the construction industry.