Cities exist for a reason. They don’t spring up randomly in any time or place. They’re established, they grow and flourish – and sometimes decay and die – for a host of primarily economic but also social, political and even military reasons. Cast your mind around and you should soon be able to imagine the practical purposes that once transformed an empty bay, river valley, fertile plain or hill into a great city. Hong Kong, with its incredible natural harbour and access to inland China, was a natural to become a renowned international seaport. Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul), with its command of the strait between the Mediterranean and Black seas and the land route from Europe to Asia, was destined for strategic greatness.
So why does Vancouver exist? Largely because it has one of the world’s great natural harbours, because it sits at the entrance to the Fraser River Valley, which offers a natural transportation corridor and fertile land for agriculture, and because the builders of the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to establish their western terminus there. If they had picked Bella Coola, farther up the West Coast, it might well have turned out that Bella Coola would be a great city today and Vancouver a fishing village. And if that had happened, Vancouver International Airport would also be in Bella Coola, though named after that town or something in the area.
In other words, modern-day Vancouver’s size, prosperity and status didn’t spring from nothing. The city’s success is a function of its natural advantages and past decisions. Unfortunately, Vancouver seems to be suffering under three delusions. And by Vancouver, I mean all of Greater Vancouver and its surrounding support communities, as well as the provincial government which, by weight of its population dominance, Greater Vancouver largely elects.
Delusion 1: Vancouver Has Control
Vancouver seems to believe that, because it sits at the centre of the transportation hub that is the Port of Vancouver, it has the right and ability to control what passes through that port. It believes that it can and should allow the transportation of goods through that port only if those goods are of direct benefit to Vancouver itself.
For instance, Vancouver believes it has the right to import the crude oil and refined products it needs to function but to deny the transportation of such commodities through its port for sale to other people. This is why former B.C. Premier Christy Clark, as one of her “five conditions,” insisted that she would support the Trans-Mountain Pipeline expansion project only if British Columbia received “a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits.” Current B.C. Premier John Horgan has refused to support the pipeline under any conditions, saying that the “risky proposal is not in B.C.’s best interests.”
These opponents cite the environmental risks of an oil spill, despite those risks having dropped to, effectively, minimal levels today. Dramatic improvements to maritime safety – such as double-hulled tankers – have driven seaborne oil spills from a global average of 2,340 barrels per day in the 1980s to just 110 barrels per day by 2010, a more than 95 percent drop. Nor has any of these politicians raised concerns about the environmental risks associated with the current Trans-Mountain Pipeline or the tankers that deliver crude oil through some of the same waterways to refineries in Seattle — since these deliver oil to meet Vancouver’s needs.
Like Hong Kong or Istanbul, Vancouver occupies a strategic geographical and geopolitical locale. It’s not just the major port for B.C., but also the primary port for all of Western Canada, indeed the main western port for Canada as a whole, and it also serves customers in the United States. Without buyers and sellers of millions of tonnes and billions of dollars worth of goods moving to and from the east and west, hundreds of miles inland or thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, without the millions of other people wanting the goods that pass through the Port of Vancouver, Vancouver would be a virtual economic husk. In this sense, all the goods that pass through Vancouver benefit Vancouver.
Nor should we forget it was the Government of Canada that oversaw and funded the building of the area’s key infrastructure: the Port of Vancouver, the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Trans-Canada Highway and Vancouver International Airport. If Vancouver no longer wants that infrastructure, perhaps it should be relocated to Bella Coola, Prince Rupert, or some other town whose people would appreciate it fully.
Delusion 2: Vancouver Can Be a Completely Green City
Transportation produces pollution. Transportation also brings with it the risk of shipwrecks, train wrecks, transport truck accidents, airplane crashes, and pipeline ruptures. Vancouver in 2011 adopted its much-ballyhooed plan to become “the greenest city in the word” by 2020. In 2016, it voted to ban the use of natural gas in the city by 2050, despite the switch to electricity potentially costing three times as much as natural gas. In 2018, the B.C. government voted to phase out non-electric car sales in the province by 2040.
Yet the vision of a green Vancouver population living in high-rise apartments, playing in parks and riding bicycles to work is incomplete. Where would those people work if it weren’t for the Port of Vancouver and its attendant industries?
Even if all Vancouverites used only electricity (and even if all that electricity could be powered by sun, wind, and water), even if all Vancouverites walked, rode bicycles, drove electric cars or took public transit, even if Vancouver focused only on “green” industries, Vancouver could still not reduce its carbon footprint to zero. Other forms of power would still be needed for transport trucks, railways, cruise ships and container ships – plus the innumerable explosions in the many movies that are filmed in Greater Vancouver.
For Vancouver to be a truly green city, it would have to go back to being what it used to be – a small village of hunter-gatherers. Of course, those villagers would still be killing animals and fish and other sea creatures to eat, burning wood for heat and cooking, and chopping down trees to build houses and boats and other necessary things.
Delusion 3: Vancouver Does Not Need Commercial Transportation
The City of Vancouver boasts about its transition to a green economy. “Green businesses are more competitive, efficient, and prepared for the future,” its website declares. “Green jobs are growing in Vancouver. Developing our green economy is essential to a healthy and sustainable future.” Vancouver and the surrounding communities of Delta, Port Moody, Richmond, White Rock and West Vancouver already claim to be carbon-neutral in their civic operations.
But even if Vancouver could do without its vast, multi-modal transportation sector to provide jobs and its main reason to exist, it would need transportation for its own needs. Every day, a host of goods must be transported into Vancouver: food, clothes, furniture, building materials, cell phones, electric cars, natural gas, fuel oil and much, much more. Being the green city that it is (having pushed most of its manufacturing out into the Fraser Valley), Vancouver produces nearly none of what it needs to survive. It must import almost everything.
Vancouver may congratulate itself for its energy efficiency and low per-capita carbon dioxide emissions, but such accounting ignores where it acquires its resources. Vancouver has no steel smelters, but it uses vast amounts of steel in its high-rise buildings and bridges. It manufactures no vehicles, but it imports tens of thousands of them. It has no forestry industry (although log booms still move up and down the Fraser River), but it imports wood for building materials and wooden furniture. It can ban single-use plastic bags, but it imports truckloads of plastic in the form of cell phones and computers and innumerable other products and their packaging.
Furthermore, nearly all of that green electric energy that Vancouver is counting on is generated elsewhere and transmitted into the city, often from hundreds of kilometres away. The utopian dream of a fleet comprised entirely of electric cars, trucks, and buses will put an enormous strain on the grid. The result could be flickering lights (or worse) in adjacent areas. In fact, B.C. right now is building another gigantic reservoir to generate hydroelectric power – the $9 billion Site C dam, now under construction far in the province’s northeast. Most of the facility’s output will be gobbled up by the Lower Mainland. Will that be counted as green power, and is it consistent with a “green” city?
John D. Day, Professor Emeritus at Louisiana State University, argues in America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions: Surviving the 21st Century Megatrends that no combination of renewables, energy efficiency and energy conservation can support the continuation of current lifestyles and levels of prosperity in cities post-fossil fuels.
Of course, Vancouver is not the only city that suffers from delusional thinking about green policies. Similar things are happening across Canada. Montréal, for example, spent $34 million to subsidize a 2017 electric car race, the so-called “Formula E”. Vancouver may merely be the farthest advanced in its delusions, and the most determined to commit economic suicide while strangling its hinterland and inland provinces.
In reality, of course, nothing comes without a price, and B.C.’s politicians need to articulate policies with acceptable costs. To paraphrase John Donne, “No city is an island entire of itself; every city is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
James R. Coggins (www.coggins.ca) is a writer, editor, and historian in Abbotsford, B.C.