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GOING GREEN: Electing a Maple Ridge council committed to climate action

Climate Hub president says city has ‘sat on our hands and looked the other way’
Kirk Grayson, founding member of the Maple Ridge Climate Hub, offers advice on selecting a green council. (Special to The News)

By Kirk Grayson/Special to The News

Four years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a startling report, warning that the world must dramatically reduce carbon emissions or face future catastrophic environmental disasters.

Disasters like Hurricane Fiona, which recently devastated communities on Canada’s east coast. The floods and landslides caused by last November’s atmospheric river in B.C. Sea level rise. Thawing permafrost. Heat domes and resulting out-of-control forest fires. Drought and famine.

The only thing the IPCC got wrong was how soon this would all start to happen. In the past year alone, we’ve experienced every one of these disasters, around the world and close to home. The science tells us these extreme weather events will continue to grow in intensity and frequency. Meanwhile, emissions continue to rise. But what can we do about it here in Maple Ridge?

Shortly after the IPCC report came out, we held our last municipal election. I expected climate change to be the focus of every candidate’s platform, but I was wrong. Not a single question was asked about how the candidates planned to address the crisis. And in the intervening four years, while our neighbour cities drafted bold action plans and got to work getting cars off roads and finding cleaner ways to heat and cool their buildings, we have sat on our hands and looked the other way.

Sure our Official Community Plan has been updated with targets to reduce emissions in line with the IPCC report. But there is no plan to meet the targets. Words on a page, with no plan to achieve the goals, are meaningless.

So this year, at the all-candidates forum on Sept. 26, I was incredibly cheered that the first question asked of each candidate for Maple Ridge’s new mayor and council was: “What will you do to reduce carbon emissions?” And some of them even had pretty good answers!

Metro Vancouver tells us where the majority of emissions are coming from across the region. The two main culprits are transportation and buildings. Just over 30 per cent of our carbon pollution comes from gas-burning cars and trucks; a quarter of it comes from buildings, which in Maple Ridge mostly means homes.

Many B.C. cities are taking action to fight these sources of carbon pollution, and we have much to learn from their excellent solutions.

Let’s begin with housing. Starting on Oct. 16 (the day after this year’s municipal election), all new single-family homes should be built with clean heating systems such as electric heat pumps, which have the added advantage of cooling our homes during our increasingly hot summers.

For existing homes, the provincial and federal governments give substantial rebates to homeowners who install electric heat pumps, and Maple Ridge can top that up with further incentives, following the lead of North Vancouver, Saanich, and many other communities.

Won’t switching from fracked gas to electric heat pumps strain our electrical system? This is a valid concern, which is why the city also needs to get on board with implementing the province’s BC Energy Step Code. The Step Code, created in collaboration with builders and developers, is designed to reduce emissions from new construction, and create buildings that use less energy to heat and cool. By using less energy, we reduce the demand on BC’s water-powered clean electricity system.

Maple Ridge is lagging behind many cities in adopting the Step Code. But one of the important early steps – to consult with the local development community – has already been taken. This puts us in a position to launch the lower levels of the Step Code right away.

As for emissions from gas-powered cars and trucks, here we have another great opportunity. The city is in the final stages of refreshing its Strategic Transportation Plan (STP). The draft STP identifies high priority enhancements to pedestrian, cycling and e-mobility infrastructure. The STP reports make it clear that the lack of good quality facilities is getting in the way of residents’ ability and willingness to get out of their cars. The current network is inconvenient and unsafe for walking and cycling.

The STP is intended to guide the city’s transportation investments over the next 30 years. But we simply don’t have 30 years to turn this ship around. We must accelerate implementation of the STP’s recommendations for cycling, pedestrian and e-mobility facilities, such as safe, separated bike lanes, and sidewalks throughout the city.

To do this, we need to set clear and specific goals for reducing trips taken by cars and trucks. For example, Port Moody has set a goal for 40 per cent of trips to be taken by walking, cycling or transit by 2030 - an increase of 23 per cent over today’s numbers.

READ ALSO: Extreme weather proves destructive

Notice that Port Moody’s goal is not to replace gas-powered vehicles with electric vehicles and call it a day. As our population grows, we also need to re-think the way we plan our cities and move around in order to forestall even worse traffic congestion than we already have. Building more and bigger roads is certainly not the answer. That’s like trying to lose weight by getting bigger pants.

Still, cars will continue to be valuable methods of transportation, though the form of ownership will change over time. So as we continue to densify our city, buildings must be equipped with charging infrastructure (we’re talking about charger-ready wiring here, not the sometime-in-the-future, if-the-strata-agrees, at-a-cost-to-all-residents theoretical charging capacity guidelines that we have now) to accommodate the quick switch to electric vehicles. Equally importantly, buildings must have sufficient secure long-term parking for bicycles, and ample short-term bike parking.

Of course there are many other steps that the city can and should take to reduce emissions and adapt to a climate that is already changing. We need to evaluate, protect and expand the services provided to the city by “green infrastructure.” This includes wetlands, streams and riparian areas that can moderate the effects of intense rain events. Similarly, a more generous tree canopy will suck more carbon out of the air and pull more water out of the ground, while shading us on the critically hot days we now experience as the “new normal.”

These are the commitments we should be looking for from today’s candidates for city council. We need an “all hands on deck” approach, with a plan that involves every department in the city, from finance, planning and engineering, to parks, economic development and community engagement.

So when candidates for mayor and council show up on your doorstep, or if you’re checking out their websites or going to a debate, here are the three most important questions to consider. Do they understand the causes of climate change? Do they agree that action is urgently needed? And that elegant, all-encompassing question from the first all-candidates forum: Exactly what will they do to lower carbon emissions in Maple Ridge?

If they don’t give you this list or something pretty close to it, they’re just blowing forest-fire smoke.

– Kirk Grayson is a digital strategy consultant and board president of the Maple Ridge Climate Hub.

READ ALSO: B.C. signs new climate agreement with California, Oregon and Washington

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