Vancouver’s ambitious goal of becoming the greenest city in North America – one without gas-powered vehicles on its streets – is “ambitious but achievable,” urban planning and environmental experts say.

The city’s green strategies, outlined in two plans that come before council for endorsement on Tuesday, will seek to shift Vancouver to 100-per-cent renewable energy by 2050. That will require moving entirely to electricity to power residential and commercial buildings, and would mean an end to automobiles that use fossil fuels.

Amanda Pitre-Hayes, director of sustainability, and Malcolm Shield, climate policy manager, both with the City of Vancouver, said in a joint interview that those plans are attainable.

“I don’t think it’s a case of saying, ‘Well, we’re shooting for the stars, and if we get close we’ve made some progress.’ It’s really about having that realistic target and then [pragmatically] moving forward with that,” Mr. Shield said.

He said getting gas-powered cars off the road “is definitely a challenge,” but the city has been able to shift 50 per cent of all urban trips to biking, walking or transit in recent years. In 2001, only 34 per cent of trips were done with those methods, so a major change has been achieved in the past 14 years.

At the same time, the city has promoted the use of electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Ms. Pitre-Hayes said the greening of Vancouver is working because the policies have public support.

“One of the reasons people are attracted to Vancouver is because of its livability. And really, the essence of these two plans [Greenest City 2020 Action Plan and Renewable City Strategy] is to build on that,” she said.

Mr. Shield said shifting residential and commercial buildings to electricity is also a reachable goal.

The city may never be able to make its old buildings as energy-efficient as new ones, he said, but it is possible to make huge improvements during renovations.

Between now and 2050, Mr. Shield said, most buildings will go through a “natural retrofit cycle” that will provide opportunities for improvements.

“This is a 35-year plan, and buildings will undergo retrofits between now and [2050], so … say you are changing your windows, the new windows you put in will have to meet the same standard as new construction, so we can really capitalize on the retrofit cycle,” he said.

Mark Jaccard, a professor of sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University, said the city is setting lofty goals and may need provincial and federal help to reach them.

“I think it’s commendable that the city is trying to do things like this,” he said of the plan to shift to 100 per cent renewable energy. “So, good for them, and let’s see where they get, because some of this can [be achieved through] creative policy design … and others will involve lobbying, cajoling or embarrassing other levels of government [into action].”

Prof. Jaccard said the city has achieved a lot in recent years by getting an increasing number of people out of cars and onto buses, bikes and their own two feet.

But he said the “next big challenge” is to get people to shift to electric or hybrid cars because “you can’t pretend that people will stop using cars.”

Prof. Jaccard said it is yet to be seen if the appetite for that massive shift is there, but he said the federal election result, which turfed a government that was inactive on climate-change issues, does indicate the public takes the issue seriously and wants change.

Gordon Price, director of the City Program at SFU, said although Vancouver’s green plans might seem overly ambitious, change has happened rapidly in the past.

“Much of this, which seems wildly optimistic, is probably pretty achievable,” he said.

He recalled that when he moved to Vancouver in the 1970s, the smog was often so thick downtown that high-rises were obscured. But a shift by industry away from burning coal, sawdust and oil for fuel and the requirement of exhaust controls on vehicles led to dramatic improvements in air quality.

“What has been astonishing is … how quickly we can reach these goals that, when they are originally proposed, seem to be pie in the sky,” Mr. Price said.

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Nov. 02, 2015 9:06PM EST
Last updated Monday, Nov. 02, 2015 9:08PM EST