Saanich climate plan a step in the right direction, but not enough

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The municipality of Saanich held two climate plan open houses on Thursday May 30 and Saturday June 1, offering the public an opportunity to hear about heat pumps and electric vehicles. The presentations, while helpful, were limited in scope and did not fully cover the renewable energy or sustainable transportation options available to Saanich residents. 

The Saturday sessions were modestly attended by about 20 people (the District of Saanich has a population of over 100,000). Attendees could provide written feedback on the draft actions of the Saanich Climate Plan ahead of a report to City Council that will be submitted this fall. People were asked to note which draft actions they agreed or disagreed with by placing stickers next to each action, and to suggest improvements for the latter. The majority of the actions appeared to be supported by the community, and the most contentious actions were those about bike lanes and bus routes. 

During the presentations, several people tried to ask broader questions about British Columbia’s energy system and sustainable transportation, but the presenters pushed to stay on topic about rebates for home upgrades and how much fun it is to be a part of the Victoria Electric Vehicle (EV) Club.

The climate plan aims to shift Saanich’s energy sources to 100 per cent renewable by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20 per cent of 2007 levels, and ensure Saanich is prepared for the impact of a changing climate and rising sea levels. 

Concern was raised by a member of the public during the introductory presentation that the 2050 goal was not soon enough to meet the Paris Agreement. While the Paris Agreement does not impose specific dates to take action on reducing greenhouse gases, a climate emergency report is being put forward to Saanich City Council that could see the energy targets pushed to 2030. 

Transitioning Saanich to 100 per cent renewable energy in only 10 years is incredibly ambitious, but with Canada recently declaring a state of climate emergency on June 17, such ambition is necessary. 

The first presentation focused on rebates for heat pumps offered by the provincial government as they push for homeowners to convert their heating systems. B.C. considers their electricity to be 98 per cent renewable, as it is produced with hydroelectric generation; however, the potential environmental damage caused by dams was never addressed in the presentation. Fortis gas also offers the option to make current natural gas systems more sustainable by purchasing renewable natural gas produced from landfills and biowaste, although this option was only briefly touched on. 

The presentation only scratched the surface of renewable energy options in Saanich. It would have been more helpful for homeowners to know all of their available choices including solar power and renewable natural gas, instead of simply having electric heat pumps pushed on them without a full explanation. 

During the second presentation, some attendees voiced their desire for broader coverage of sustainable transportation options, such as electric buses, and brought up concerns about the removal of trees for bike lanes. However, the presenter insisted such questions strayed from the focus on electric vehicles, and offered to speak to people individually after the presentation. For many in Saanich, buses and bikes are a much more relevant topic than pricey electric vehicles. 

A member of the Victoria Electric Vehicle Club provided the bulk of the information for this presentation, and brought his Nissan Leaf and Tesla vehicles for people to look at. While the heat pump rebates predominately benefit homeowners, there is some hope for renters with electric vehicles as “right to charge” legislation will soon be presented to City Council, which would compel landlords to allow charging stations to be installed on the property. 

It is crucial that Saanich continues pushing for policy changes that go beyond incentivizing individual actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing the use of, and access to, renewable energy and reducing waste at the city level would be a start. In line with the latter, Saanich City Council finally adopted a Checkout Bag Regulation Bylaw on June 10 — 1.5 years after Victoria City Council put one into action. Saanich’s plastic bag bylaw will come into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

However, consumers should not rush to replace their plastic bags with standard cotton totes, as they come with an enormous carbon footprint due to unsustainable cotton farming practices. Purchasing paper bags, reusing them, and eventually recycling them, or using bags made from sustainable materials such as recycled plastic or hemp, are better options. 

It can seem a daunting task for an individual to undertake all the necessary actions to make their daily life more sustainable, and it really is an impossible task to perform alone.

The actions taken and policies implemented by Saanich to make the city more sustainable are crucial for real change to happen, but Saanich City Council can never ease off. They must keep conversing with the public to ensure their policy changes are both what is best for the planet and what can be effectively implemented in the community.