100% by 2050 – Vancouver’s roadmap to urban sustainability

26 May 2019| Articles


Responsible for two-thirds of the world’s carbon emissions and facing rapid urbanisation, cities are embracing new and innovative solutions to meet climate and development objectives. Vancouver, Canada’s third largest city, is leading this urban energy transformation by committing itself to 100% renewables by 2050 through an ambitious, well-defined roadmap that unifies different sectors, stakeholders and communities under its vision for a sustainable, carbon-free future.

As growing evidence confirms, sustainable energy can be promoted at the municipal level through planning, regulation, public procurement, direct investment, provision of services and awareness-raising. City planners and policy makers possess several available levers to steer urban energy systems towards renewables and reap their benefits. IRENA, in collaboration with ICLEI and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), examined Vancouver’s Renewable City Strategy in a recent case study, showcasing how bringing together different stakeholders and unifying their outlook is critical for cities to succeed with ambitious renewable energy goals.

With 69% of its energy sourced from fossil fuels, half of which is used to heat buildings, Vancouver’s Renewable City Strategy – in conjunction with the Zero Emissions Building Plan – aims to reduce 70% of emissions from new buildings by 2020, 90% by 2025 and 100% by 2030, phasing in changes to building standards that allow the construction industry to adapt over time. Twenty of the 75 largest greenhouse gas (GHG)-emitting municipal buildings will be retrofitted to a zero emissions standard over the next 25 years. This measure will contribute 20% of the GHG emissions reductions required to make all municipal buildings carbon neutral by 2040.

Furthermore, the city is looking at district energy – referred to as ‘neighbourhood energy’ in Vancouver – which can be powered by renewables and is viable in densely-settled parts of the city where capital and operating costs can be recovered at rates that are competitive with natural gas. Low-density areas, such as single family homes and low-occupancy apartments, will most likely be supplied with electricity from solar PV or solar thermal, heat pumps which utilise grid-supplied electricity, or on-site wind power.

However, using electricity for building heating and hot water in low-density areas is still expensive in comparison to natural gas. Therefore, the city is emphasizing increased density with current estimates projecting that only 10-15% of households in Vancouver will be single family homes in 2050 compared to 80% of the land in Vancouver currently dedicated to single-family housing.

To reach its sustainability goals, Vancouver is also targeting the other major emitter of carbon in cities - transportation. Three of its Renewable City Strategy priorities are focused on increasing the use of renewable transportation options, reducing motorized transportation demand and the increasing supply of renewable transportation fuels. Even though the city has limited jurisdiction over automobile standards, Vancouver has already taken steps to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles (EV).

For example, the city’s Electric Vehicle Ecosystem Strategy sets out 32 actions intended to increase the number of EV charging spots in homes, workplaces and public spaces in the period from 2016 to 2021. Because Vancouver’s electricity is almost exclusively generated from hydropower, electrification can reduce personal vehicle emissions by up to 97%. Projections show that by 2050 approximately 25% of personal vehicles in Vancouver could be fully electric vehicles, with another 45% comprising plug-in hybrids using a combination of renewable electricity and bio-methane, and the remainder being conventional hybrid vehicles running on bio-methane.

In addition to synergizing existing strategies and plans, Vancouver realises the importance of stakeholder engagement and has taken steps to introduce the public to strategy planning and implementation, collect feedback, and build dialogue between the public and the municipal government, through initiatives such as the ‘Bright Green Summer’ and “100% RE Talks”.

Beyond electric vehicles, Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 Strategy promotes sustainable transportation infrastructure and encourages increased walking, bicycling and public transit use, was key for the city to achieve its Greenest City 2020 Action Plan goal of having over 50% of trips made by walking, cycling or public transit five years early, in March 2015. With the help of the Mobi bicycle sharing programme, cycling is Vancouver’s fastest-growing mode of transport. The city exceeded its target of reducing the average annual distance driven per resident by 20% relative to 2007 levels, having already overachieved a reduction of 32%.

With great progress already being made, Vancouver is leading the urban energy transformation. In addition to ongoing efforts at eliminating its own emissions, the city is accelerating the decarbonisation of the global economy by providing examples of success that other cities can learn from, encouraging them to take on ambitious climate targets of their own. Tomorrow, the city will host Ministers from over 25 countries for the 10th Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM10) and 4th Mission Innovation (MI-4) in order to promote clean energy policy, technology and innovation globally. The Canadian host and IRENA are both expected to, among other issues, discuss gender equality and the leadership of women in the energy sector. In addition to presenting its latest report on Renewable Energy – A Gender Perspective, IRENA’s delegation, led by Director-General Francesco La Camera, will present findings from its latest innovation report and will conduct a dedicated session on long-term energy planning.

For more, see Adopting and Promoting a 100% Renewable Energy Target.