This story is part of the series Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia, which explores the path to low-carbon energy for British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. This project is produced in partnership with InvestigateWest and other media outlets.
When Gregor Robertson was sworn in as mayor of Vancouver, British Columbia, in December 2008, he did so with a simple promise: By 2020, the glassy city, encircled by water and Pacific Northwest rainforest, would be the “Greenest City in the World.”
These were heady times for Vancouver. The 2010 Winter Olympics were right around the corner, and organizers had touted the event as the “greenest Olympics” ever. A new, progressive party known as “Vision Vancouver” had swept into power, seizing seats on the city council, park board, and school board. It pledged to build affordable housing, plant hundreds of thousands of trees, and slash pollution. The sense of promise was so strong that Robertson, the cofounder and former CEO of Happy Planet Foods, even pledged to end homelessness by 2015.
Vancouver had long been a liberal, environmentally minded city, full of bicyclists and buses; it also had one of the lowest carbon footprints per person in North America. Becoming the “Greenest City in the World” was an aspirational goal, to be sure — but it felt entirely possible.
Ten years later, however, Vancouver is a cautionary tale for what cities, often hampered by a lack of funding and frequently pitted against the interests of state and federal governments, can accomplish when it comes to the environment and climate change. According to the most recent update on the “Greenest City” goals, the city has only met six of the 20 quantitative targets set a decade ago, mostly those related to boosting public transportation and building new city parks. (The final accounting is scheduled for release later this year.) In some areas, the failure is stark: Vancouver hoped to cut a third of its carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 but only managed to trim about 9 percent. And the city’s plan to cut emissions from buildings — which are responsible for more than half of Vancouver’s carbon footprint — has struggled to get off the ground.
Robertson is proud of the progress the city did make. By the end of his third term in 2018, Vancouver had improved in all but one of its target areas. While Vancouver may not be the greenest city in the world (that title likely belongs to Copenhagen, Denmark), it’s still one of the greenest cities in North America. But, as the former mayor acknowledges, when it comes to enacting sweeping measures to take on climate change, “the challenges are sobering.”
As he took the reins of government, Robertson assembled an eclectic mix of city council members and administrative staff to get the job done. There was Andrea Reimer, a former member of the Green Party turned Vision Vancouver city councilor who had spent much of her teens living on the streets. Sadhu Johnston, the former chief environmental officer of Chicago who had been dubbed an “environmental whiz kid,” was hired to oversee the entire process as a deputy city manager. Robertson himself, the tuba-playing former juice and smoothie company executive, had a colorful backstory, having spent time as a cowboy as well as 18 months traversing the Pacific Ocean by wooden sailboat, visiting the islands of Polynesia.
In many ways, the group had a huge head start. Vancouver was by most standards already pretty green. British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province, has a nearly carbon-free electricity grid, powered by massive dams spanning the Columbia, Peace, and Pend d’Oreille rivers, and supplemented by wind, biomass, and some natural gas. The city’s mild climate limits the need for heating and cooling; its dense downtown, with all of those reflective skyscrapers and condo towers, has helped reduce suburban sprawl and the need for people to own cars. In 2009, 40 percent of trips in the city were already on foot, bicycle, or public transit.
Robertson’s “Greenest City” team set a goal of upping that number above 50 percent. In his first year in office, ahead of hosting the Winter Olympics, the city expanded the SkyTrain light rail service, adding the “Canada Line” which runs from the waterfront to the airport in nearby Richmond. The expansion helped draw millions of Vancouverites to public transit.
“The transit numbers of the time just skyrocketed,” Johnston said. Traffic congestion, he pointed out, was high; gas prices often hovered around $5 per gallon. “People were just wanting alternatives,” he explained.
In 2009, Translink, the transit authority for Vancouver and its nearby metro area, reported 313 million trips taken on public transit. By 2019, that number had leaped to 451 million — an increase of almost 33 percent.
The city also invested heavily in biking, removing parking spaces and car lanes and replacing them with protected bike lanes. According to a report compiled by the nonprofit Hub Cycling and Translink, the bike network of the greater Vancouver metro area increased from 1,100 miles in 2009 to 2,900 miles in 2019. In 2006, within Vancouver’s city limits, only 3 percent of people commuted by bicycle; by 2016, more than 6 percent did.
The shift wasn’t easy. Building bike lanes proved extremely controversial, pitting neighbor against neighbor and creating a local media frenzy. When the city experimented with converting one lane of traffic to a bike lane on the iconic Burrard Street Bridge, which connects downtown Vancouver to the city’s southwest neighborhoods, local pundits warned that the project was “doomed to failure.” After all, similar efforts had already failed twice: once in 1996 and once in 2005. One newspaper even declared, “Sucking up to the bicycling minority may cost the mayor his job.”
Bike lanes, Johnston said, “kind of hit a divide between groups of people in the city and became really toxic.” But the opposition soon vanished. “Every single time we put in a bike facility, a month later people forgot that it was even an issue,” he recalled. “The businesses in the area did better — people loved it.” Bicycling along the Burrard Street Bridge increased 26 percent in the first few months of the trial, and the city made the change permanent.
The growth in transit and bike lanes paid off. By 2019, 54 percent of trips made in the city were on foot, by bike, or via public transit, easily hitting the “Greenest City” target. The city government had also hoped to reduce the average distance driven by each resident by 20 percent; instead, they managed to cut it by 37 percent.
The city’s largest source of emissions proved to be a much bigger challenge. Because Vancouver already had an almost entirely clean electricity grid, more than half of the city’s emissions came from one area: heating homes and buildings with methane, also known as natural gas. Robertson and the city council aimed to tackle this in the original “Greenest City” roadmap, planning to cut emissions from existing buildings 20 percent by 2020, after which time all new buildings were supposed to be carbon-neutral. That would mean a massive switch from gas heating to electric and dramatic improvements in building insulation.
Robertson’s team wrestled with how to push the changes to the building codes through. According to Reimer and Johnston, Vancouver started out by requiring new buildings to be LEED-certified (the acronym stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a designation created by the U.S. Green Building Council, a building sustainability nonprofit. In the early 2010s, LEED-certification was in vogue and seemed to be on the cutting edge of green building design. But over the years, LEED buildings have come under fire for not saving as much energy as promised and substituting rooftops covered in native plants and other “green” features for the hard work of actually cutting energy use.
Provincial and federal regulations also presented problems. In theory, a low-carbon building should use energy efficiently and run mostly on electricity, not carbon-intensive natural gas. But existing rules employed cost as a way to measure energy efficiency, according to Sean Pander, the green buildings manager for the city of Vancouver. So if property owners managed to lower the costs of heating, cooling, and electricity, their buildings were considered more efficient — even if they did so by burning more natural gas. That created a perverse incentive. “In Vancouver, where we had lots of renewable electricity that was relatively expensive compared to natural gas, one of the best ways to show ‘efficiency’ was to stop using renewable energy,” Pander said.
By 2016, the city council had decided to throw out existing regulations and LEED certifications and develop an entirely new set of building rules. They ran into snags here, too, this time when fossil fuel companies pushed back. FortisBC, a private utility and the sole provider of natural gas for the city of Vancouver, called the new codes an “effective ban” on the use of methane gas in the city and lobbied against them — sometimes with patently ridiculous claims. “There were a lot of myths created around the fact that people would have to pay exorbitant amounts for food cooked on a barbeque or grill,” said Ian Bruce, director of science and policy at the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental nonprofit.
The new building rules finally passed in 2018 — but the city isn’t requiring new buildings to go carbon-neutral until 2030. What’s more, the city has struggled to retrofit existing buildings without financial support from the provincial or federal government. Reimer managed to cobble together a $2 million program to help Vancouver residents make their homes more energy-efficient, but the initiative flopped.
“We didn’t even get into the double digits in terms of the number of people who applied for that money,” Reimer said. She partly chalks up the failure to Vancouver’s high cost of living. “When you’re paying $1.5 million for a single-family home, nobody’s really thinking about energy,” she said.
The end result: Emissions from existing buildings have been cut by just 9 percent, far short of the mark. New buildings, meanwhile, are producing the equivalent of around 11 kilograms of carbon dioxide per square meter, a steep drop of 43 percent — but not carbon-neutral.
Despite the struggles, many of those involved in the “Greenest City” effort are proud of its legacy. “‘Greenest City’ was a massive deadlift,” Reimer said. “Like lifting 10,000 pounds in a standing jerk.” Before the plan was released, she pointed out, the city had little data to determine how green it was — and so most of the goals were essentially well-informed guesswork. “You can tell: They’re pretty round numbers,” she said.
And for most of the decade, the city was swimming upstream. Until 2015, Canada’s prime minister was Stephen Harper from the Conservative Party, who ramped up the extraction of oil from the country’s tar sands, and in a move that presaged President Donald Trump’s exit from the Paris climate agreement, withdrew Canada from the accord’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol.
“It was really like pushing a rock uphill to try to get any support from them — financial support or policy support,” Johnston said.
Even after Justin Trudeau from the Liberal Party replaced Harper, the federal government OK’d and later purchased a project to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline that runs from Edmonton, Alberta, to just outside Vancouver. The project threatens to expand tanker traffic past Vancouver’s waterfront by at least sevenfold.
Robertson and other mayors in British Columbia waged a loud campaign against the pipeline expansion, and the city joined other local governments and First Nations tribes in challenging the project in court. (Construction is still in progress, against resistance from First Nations and activists.)
Vancouver was also at the mercy of national and global energy markets. During the decade of its “Greenest City” efforts, natural gas prices in North America plummeted, from more than $13 per million British thermal units to less than $2, making it even harder to shift buildings away from the polluting fuel. On its own, Vancouver had precious little ability to create incentives for homes and businesses to install electric heat pumps or other low-carbon technologies.
And there was opposition from within Vancouver itself. Even in the notably liberal city, NIMBYs (short for “not-in-my-backyard”) stymied progress. According to Johnston, something like a bike-share system would be incredibly popular — that is, until it leads to fewer parking spaces. “Everyone’s awesome about policy, but the minute it hits the literal ground — when policy touches land — it slows down,” Reimer said.
Today, Vision Vancouver, the party of Robertson and Reimer, is out of power after a decade at the helm. Robertson decided not to run for a fourth term in 2018, clearing the way for Kennedy Stewart, an independent, to win the election that October. Vision Vancouver’s city council members were also swept out of office.
Stewart, who was once arrested at a protest against the Trans Mountain project, and the new city council have continued to push for action on climate change. Late last year, the city approved a new plan to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030, specifically targeting buildings (now 54 percent of the city’s carbon footprint) and vehicles (36 percent). The city council also formally declared a climate emergency.
Despite these promises, Reimer is skeptical that the new council will be able to follow through. On the one hand, she says, the “Greenest City” effort equipped the current government with the data and technical ability to track and monitor climate goals — whether in Vancouver or elsewhere. On the other, she worries that the council lacks a leader strong enough to drive the changes needed to hit the city’s ambitious goals. “You’ve got to wake up worrying about it, you’ve got to go to bed worrying about it,” she said.
The original “Greenest City” team, meanwhile, is scattered to the winds: Johnston is taking a lengthy sabbatical from city sustainability work, spending time with his children and practicing woodworking. Reimer is teaching and consulting. Robertson, inspired by Vancouver’s struggle for greener buildings, now works for a sustainable construction company.
Looking back, members of the team understand the scale of the challenge they undertook, and still wish that they’d done even more. “I wish we’d been even more aggressive,” Robertson told me. “We can’t overdo it right now on climate action.”
Similarly, Bruce from the David Suzuki Foundation believes that the city could have moved more quickly and aggressively to clean up emissions from buildings, though he concedes that the city was hamstrung by the Harper administration as well as the provincial government. “The fossil fuel industry continues to have subsidies and massive influence with almost all national governments,” Robertson told me. “They somehow get off the hook on delivering real results.”
The former mayor still believes that cities are crucial to slowing the pace of climate change. But that belief is tempered by a hard-won realism: “We can’t do it alone.”