‘Smart Growth’ fights climate change

Ask the nearest Bowen Islander what our municipality should be doing to tackle climate change and odds are good he or she will come back at you with a shrug.

After all, what difference can an island community of 3,500 or so possibly make on a massive global challenge? 

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Our carbon contribution is almost too small to measure when compared with that of China, right? Why is it our job to save the planet?

The answer a two-parter. First, addressing climate change is not about saving the planet. This isn’t about polar bears anymore. It is about averting untold human misery. 

In many parts of the world, rising temperatures are driving resource scarcity, which is leading to conflict and creating the conditions for civil war. Mass migrations will come next, as billions of people, confronting failing crops, seawater inundation, and rising political tensions, will hit the road and the seas in search of food, water, and safety.

In a cruel irony, those most likely to suffer the worst impacts are those who did the least to cause the problem.

On Bowen, compassion is a community value. We’ve opened our wallets, homes, and families to refugees, we’ve organized warm clothing donations to the Downtown Eastside, and we quickly fill the bank accounts of families rebuilding their lives after tragedies. Our volunteer first responders drop the fork mid-bite when the pager sounds. 

We do these things not because we have to. We do them because they are the right things to do. On a global basis, climate is now a part of this commitment. It is about justice and what is fair.

But we have another good reason to act: The solutions help us, too. The most effective basket of municipal climate-action strategies also helps address many of our other challenges, namely affordability, social diversity, and public health. We’ve neglected these brewing issues for years.

Fortunately, we have a fresh opportunity to really make up for lost time.

Bowen Island Municipality is in the process of creating a new Community Energy and Emissions Plan. Working with funding from B.C. Hydro, late last year the nonprofit Community Energy Association connected with stakeholders to produce a draft plan for Bowen, and presented it to council. Our elected leaders will bring it to the community later this month. 

It quantifies our greenhouse gas emissions and identifies an array of measures to reduce them, along with electricity use. Unlike previous plans, this one explicitly excludes the emissions of cars leaving the island and the ferry in our carbon-pollution inventory. Our original (now vintage, and largely ignored) climate plan identified these as our two top sources of carbon pollution. 

Whether or not we can fairly consider the Queen of Capilano’s greenhouse gas emissions someone else’s responsibility is a matter for community discussion. Unfortunately, the existing draft takes a “go slow” approach on land-use planning reform, the one basket of strategies that holds the most potential to reduce our emissions while solving our other pressing challenges.

The draft plan states the potential plainly: “Community form, including smart growth and road design, offer the greatest single opportunity for many communities to reduce emissions.”

Put simply, if we embrace smart growth principles and use every policy lever in the box to really focus new development in the cove, we reduce the need for driving and its associated pollution in the first place. 

A young family moving to a future thriving Snug Cove Village would not actually need to own a vehicle at all. With enough people, the neighbourhood could support a small car-sharing co-op for those Saturday runs to the building centre, or an evening out with friends in Bluewater.

Smart growth is a multi-faceted approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, and community engagement. It seeks to protect green space by focusing growth in already developed areas (for a fuller explanation, look online for “This is Smart Growth,” a document from the U.S.-based Smart Growth Network). 

Some may dismiss this approach as too “urban” for Bowen Island. But by focusing our inevitable growth in Snug Cove – by building up, instead of out – we will protect our cherished ecosystems and forests from further splintering and sprawl. We will also reduce our infrastructure costs, as servicing our extensive road network presents a serious burden to taxpayers.(And remember, we’ll fight climate change!)

In its draft plan, the Community Energy Association combines a set of smart growth policies into two bundles. The current version (not yet adopted by council) suggests Bowen Island pursue a “light” package of actions this year, and consider the more ambitious recommendations in 2018.

Our draft climate plan suggests we “go slow” on land-use reform, the strategy that the experts agree could do the most to reduce our contribution to the global climate emergency while also addressing our urgent affordability and social inclusion crisis.

This is a missed opportunity on multiple levels.

It is high time we took greater responsibility to address our role in a global challenge that will deeply impact vulnerable people in far-off places, and eventually our own front yard. The recently adopted Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change calls local governments such as ours “important partners in developing and implementing climate solutions locally.” 

Our municipality has a suite of proven solutions at its fingertips. 

Let’s not leave this one to others, like China, which by the way is now a global climate and clean energy leader. Let’s not kick the can down the road with a go-slow approach. 

Let’s do everything in our power to step up to the challenge and reap the benefits that come with real leadership, right here at home. There is no such thing as “too small to make a difference.” 

Bowen Island resident James Glave is the principal of Glave Communications, which supports companies, organizations, and governments that are working to advance the global low-carbon economy. He is the co-founder, with Merran Smith, of Clean Energy Canada.

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