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Jan. 15, 2021

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Vancouver council ponders carbon-neutral city as early as 2045

City’s major sources of pollution from transportation, building and energy sectors

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
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Cars merge onto Highway 14 on Tuesday, November 24, 2020.
Cars merge onto Highway 14 on Tuesday, November 24, 2020. (Joshua Hart/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The city of Vancouver is in the process of drafting more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets that could see the community push toward carbon neutrality in future decades.

In a city council workshop Monday, the group heard from Seattle-based climate consultant Cascadia Consulting Group about potential avenues that could help Vancouver do its part to slow climate change.

The city had contracted with the group to conduct the first major audit of the city’s emissions since 2007.

“I’m excited that we’re undertaking this effort. This is one of the most consequential projects we may see at the city, for the future,” Councilor Laurie Lebowsky said.

The audit found that the largest chunk of Vancouver’s emissions comes from the transportation sector. Passenger vehicles alone accounted for 25 percent of the city’s greenhouse gases; another 24 percent came from air travel to and from the region. Most of the air travel came through Portland International Airport, Cascadia Associate Tristan Smit reported, though a small sliver came through Pearson Field near Fort Vancouver. Cargo trucks — classified by Cascadia as on-road, diesel-powered transportation — made up another 9 percent of the city’s 2019 carbon footprint.

In comparison, emissions from other kinds of transportation were minor. Public transport provided through C-Tran accounted for 1 percent of the city’s emissions last year.

“These trends are pretty consistent with other northwest cities,” Smit told the city council.

The other main source of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions last year came from the building and energy sector. Residential, commercial and industrial energy together made up 28 percent of the city’s carbon footprint in 2019.

Strategies that make a sizable dent in the city’s climate impact will need to tackle those two main categories, Cascadia Senior Associate P.J. Tillmann told the city council Monday.

Likely avenues include incentivizing electric vehicle use; strengthening public transportation systems such as C-Tran; prioritizing densely-packed development to cut down on car trips; and working with Clark Public Utilities to make renewable energy sources accessible.

“We want to make sure that the process we’re supporting is feasible and sensible,” Tillmann said.

Tiered approach

The city’s existing, concrete climate goal was set in 2007: Reduce greenhouse gas emissions every year.

Looking forward, Tillmann and Smit presented the council with four options for improving Vancouver’s carbon footprint. They range from a basic plan — which would barely keep Vancouver in compliance with state and federal mandates — to a “leading edge” avenue that could push the city beyond carbon neutrality and into carbon-positive territory.

“Each target is more aggressive than the last,” Tillmann said.

The baseline plan would aim for an 80 percent emissions reduction by 2050. Cities comparable to Vancouver, including Bellevue, Redmond and Everett, have adopted this goal, Tillmann said.

“This is the place where a lot of municipalities are now,” she added.

The next tier up would push for carbon neutrality by 2050. The third tier — currently the goal in major cities such as Copenhagen, Denmark and Melbourne, Australia — would see an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 and neutrality by 2045.

The most aggressive option would push for an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 and neutrality by 2045.

“Strategies there would have to be much bolder than what’s currently being considered around the region and around the world,” Tillmann acknowledged.

Councilors didn’t choose an option this week. The group plans to revisit the topic after Thanksgiving and pick a set of goals to guide Vancouver staff once Cascadia’s contract is up, City Manager Eric Holmes said.

“I’d like us to be shooting very high,” Councilor Ty Stober said. “Start high, and then let’s work backward, rather than starting at the base and working up.”

The city plans to conduct a second workshop with Cascadia Consulting Group on Dec. 14 to choose their target from the options presented on Monday. The council plans to present a formal climate action plan to the public in May.

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