'Wishful thinking' vs. viable plan: Burnaby mulls climate emergency targets

Environment committee members disagree over how ambitious the city's greenhouse gas emissions targets should be

Burnaby, with the rest of the planet, is in the midst of a climate emergency. 

The city’s environment and social planning committee was in total agreement making that declaration – but a debate opened up over how urgently the city should act in the face of an undeniable crisis. 

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On Tuesday, the committee discussed a report from Burnaby’s director of corporate services, Dipak Dattani, recommending it urge council to declare a climate emergency and to accelerate the city’s greenhouse gas emissions targets. 

'It's going to be very challenging'

Dattani suggested the city target a 45 per cent emissions reduction below 2007 levels by 2030 – far more ambitious than the five per cent goal it set in 2016. Burnaby is “well-placed” to strengthen its carbon pollution targets thanks to successful municipal programs and recent commitments at the provincial and federal level, he said. 

The report also calls for a 75 per cent reduction by 2040 and carbon neutrality by 2050. 

“We note that it’s going to be very challenging for the city to achieve. So these are not targets we take lightly,” Dattani told committee members. 

He said the targets would bring the city in line with those set by some municipal, regional, provincial and federal governments, as well as those prescribed by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

Bolder targets could 'reduce catastrophic consequences' 

But Burnaby should strive to do more to fight climate change by leading the pack, instead of following others, said Joel Gibbs, a citizen representative on the committee. He said the city should leverage its wealth and privilege to set far more ambitious targets, to offset the “many places in the world that aren't going to come close” to the IPCC targets.

Gibbs, a former Green Party council candidate, tabled an amendment to set the targets to 60 per cent by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2040.

“Overall, yes, one city won’t make a big difference whether we hit carbon neutrality in 2040 or 2050, but at the same time, could we have done more to reduce the catastrophic consequences of the world failing to meet these targets,” he said, imagining the committee looking back on its decision in 2060. 

'There will be a cost'

But other committee members opposed the amendment, calling into question its feasibility.

“We can't operate as an island amongst ourselves,” said fellow Green Party member Coun. Joe Keithley, adding he was concerned a more ambitious climate change policy might take resources away from the city’s new affordable housing initiatives.

In order to meet the more stringent proposals, Dattani said city staff would have to prioritize emissions reductions over most other issues. 

“It's council's decision to weigh many things that it's responsible for: service provision to our residents right from collection of garbage to water to buildings (and) everything else,” the director said. “If council says this the most important issue and I want carbon neutrality in 10 years, we'll go figure out something, but there will be a cost.”

Burnaby's plan not 'aspirational'

The city’s ecosystem planner, Lise Townsend, said Burnaby has every intention of meeting its targets, while other jurisdictions set targets without an implementation plan. She called a Capital Regional District target of carbon neutrality by 2030 “aspirational or almost wishful thinking.”

The amendment failed, with the committee choosing to recommend council adopt the targets prescribed by Dattani. If passed at a future council meeting, staff will then begin work on a plan to meet the targets.

“It's really great,” said Jake Hubley, an organizer with Force of Nature Alliance, the group that requested the committee make the climate emergency declaration. “We're happy to see Burnaby taking leadership on this.”

@byGawley

kgawley@burnabynow.com

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