Metro Vancouver's waste-to-energy garbage incinerator facility in Burnaby. Local governments are planning to capture heat generated by the facility as part of a thermal energy system. (Metro Vancouver)

How is Burnaby tackling climate change—and how should it?

Climate change is a big problem—but cities have a major role to play in mitigating it. So what is the city doing—and what should it be doing?

By Dustin Godfrey | November 24, 2021 |5:00 am

This year has proven, more than any other year, the real and devastating impacts of climate change in BC and has offered a window into a turbulent future.

Even before this year, the climate crisis has been consistently rated among the top issues for voters. An Angus Reid poll prior to this year’s election rated climate change as the fifth most important issue, and an Ipsos poll before the 2019 election rated it as the third most important issue.

Although 2021 still isn’t over, we’ve so far seen a heat dome that killed hundreds in BC this summer and severe flooding that’s still plaguing the Fraser Valley this month. That means climate change will likely remain a top priority for the foreseeable future.

Cities’ role in climate action ‘absolutely crucial’

Cities are much more limited in the scope of their powers than other levels of government, but SFU professor of urban studies and resources and environmental management Meg Holden said municipalities still hold a key role in tackling the issue.

“The role of cities is absolutely crucial … in tackling climate change because of the fact that Canada, and the world as a whole, is urban and is urbanizing quickly,” Holden said.

“Cities concentrate human activity, so especially including economic activity and infrastructure investment. So by making changes in cities, we can have knock-on effects to how the country as a whole develops—how we think about our economy, how we think about wealth, health, and well-being.”

In terms of adapting to the impacts of climate change, Holden said cities are where you’ll find the development of engineering and healthcare solutions.

Cities are also well-primed to deal with climate change because their central role is in land-use planning.

“People are excited about transportation, and that’s great. We do have some good solutions in cities, in terms of public transportation, better alternatives to private cars, and then even electric vehicles,” Holden said.

“But really, the big change in municipalities is going to come from changing the way we think about land-use planning.”

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

That planning can address both sides of climate action at the same time. Mitigation—that is, reducing greenhouse gas emissions—and adaptation—preparing for the effects of climate change—are both important, Holden said.

“How do you do that? You do that by, yes, making compact cities, making compact urban living, so less sprawling suburbs, less large-footprint homes and buildings, less paved surfaces,” Holden said.

“I’m not saying we need to build tall buildings everywhere, because that’s the adaptation-mitigation nexus. If you do that, then you’re paving over the city … [and] that’s going to generate more emissions.”

Nature-based solutions are where cities will often find the most progress on both mitigation and adaptation, Holden said.

“You need to think about how to protect waterways, how to protect the need for water to flow through the city without risking life and the loss of important infrastructure and farmland.”

That’s on top of finding transportation and home heating/cooling solutions that don’t generate greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s a big technological shift that has to happen, and it’s hard to do that when we’re under emergency conditions.”

Photo: Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon

For the next heatwave, Holden said, the impulse is generally going to be to install more air conditioning. But she said geothermal heating and cooling, which pumps warm or cool air from underground into buildings, has a far lower impact on the environment.

“It’s a big technological shift that has to happen, and it’s hard to do that when we’re under emergency conditions,” Holden said.

Much of this technological shift—such as retrofitting buildings—is going to come with a large price tag that will likely need to be funded by senior levels of government.

Looking at the city’s budget

But that’s not to say the city can’t invest its own money into climate action—and next year’s budget gives an indication as to where the city’s priorities lie.

So far, the city has only put out highlights from the proposed budget—the city will hear more from the public in the next couple of months before a final budget is put forward early next year. But those highlights do indicate some of the major capital projects the city is invested in.

In all, the city named five projects that are climate-related: sidewalk expansion, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, cycling corridors, a waste-to-energy facility, and an organic waste recycling facility.

Sidewalk expansion ($13.7 million) and cycling corridors ($900,000)

Expanding the city’s network of sidewalks is the city’s single largest capital project related to climate change in the forthcoming budget.

With $13.7 million earmarked for sidewalk expansions this year alone, the city is really leaning into this item. And it’s a significant step up from where the city was at for the 2021 budget, in which sidewalk and urban trail construction totalled $2.8 million.

The program is expected to run up to $52.25 million by the end of 2026, according to the city’s report.

The cycling corridors project, which aims to build 80 km of cycling infrastructure by 2030, is estimated to cost $35.9 million over the next five years.

The point of the programs, from a climate perspective, is to make the city more navigable by walking or rolling. But Holden said this kind of infrastructure is an “obvious one to rethink,” at least in terms of the materials used.

Using a permeable surface would be a way to adapt to the effects of climate change, she said, noting that it would allow far more rainwater to soak into the ground, rather than flowing into stormwater drains.

“Yes, we need to reclaim the streets from the cars, but why can’t we think about, at the same time, reclaiming the streets from concrete and from hard surfaces that make us more vulnerable to flooding?” Holden said.

She pointed to things like adding natural drainage along roads—ditches with native landscaping, for instance. She also suggested the use of gravel-based walkways to absorb rainwater.

Abbotsford BC flood
The storms that caused flooding in the Fraser Valley is linked to climate change, meteorologists say. (City of Abbotsford)

Electric vehicle charging infrastructure ($2 million)

The city has been working to install electric vehicle charging stations at city facilities, starting with at city hall. The project is expected to be completed over three years, totalling $7.6 million by the end of 2024.

According to the city report, the charging stations will be mostly for the city’s own fleet of vehicles, as it seeks to replace gas for electric vehicles.

“But [it] will also include public and staff electric vehicle charging stations,” the report noted.

While the larger goal is to move away from private vehicle ownership and car culture and more towards public transit, Holden said she’s broadly supportive of this measure.

“Electric vehicles do reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially in a province where we get 75% to 90% of our energy from hydro electricity,” she said.

While we’ll need to reduce the use of cars over time, electrifying the cars we do use will still help with reducing emissions in the more immediate future.

And she said it’s better to have public infrastructure for this, treated as a public utility, than to have charging stations in every garage and every parking space in apartment buildings.

“I think that is a recipe for overkill and in overtaxing the electrical grid,” she said.

Burnaby district energy system ($1 million) and green waste recycling facility ($275,000)

The city is touting a planned addition to its waste-to-energy facility, which burns the region’s waste for electricity, that would capture the heat generated by the facility.

Over the next five years, the city expects to spend $23 million on this project, with costs escalating to $5 million and then to $10 million annually.

“[The project] would benefit the residents of Burnaby with safe, reliable, and cost-competitive thermal energy,” city staff noted in the budget highlights.

“The project also provides a significant amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) credits that would further the city’s climate action goals.”

Burnaby district energy system would serve the Metrotown and Edmonds town centres, as well as the River District in Vancouver.

This may be a controversial item among some environmentalists, with a recent call from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives for Metro Vancouver to close the facility altogether.

“Metro Vancouver’s incinerator was BC’s 24th largest single-facility source of [greenhouse gases] in 2018,” the report says.

“Incineration has appeal because it gives the perception of making waste disappear, and can produce heat and electricity for other economic uses. This view is deceptive: incineration may well destroy recognizable items, but not their material basis.”

But Holden said she would “generally be supportive,” noting the waste management system sees garbage and recycling from Metro Vancouver and elsewhere “travelling too far” and running into supply chain issues.

“Then we lose our ability to do things that we want to do, like recycle and compost,” Holden said.

She added that Scandinavian countries, generally seen as climate action leaders, have been broadly successful with their waste-to-energy plants.

And Holden said implementing a green recycling facility locally, at a cost of $16.3 million over the next five years, is also a positive move for the city.

She pointed to supply chain issues currently ongoing in the region—glass recycling, she said, has been put on hold while the highway to Hope is flooded.

“As somebody who lives in an apartment building in Burnaby, we were told we have to keep our glass in our suites until that supply chain can be restored,” Holden said.

“That’s unacceptable. So if Burnaby has—and Burnaby does have—the space to do that recycling and composting here, it’s a great move.”

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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