Creating a more livable region: Build an abundance of housing

(Published as ‘If you want an abundance of housing, don’t micro-manage’)

19 July 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

Continuing my exploration of the ‘Five Big Ideas’ of Livable Victoria, a group of which I am a member, this week I look at our second Big Idea: Build an abundance of housing and implement policies to promote affordability.

We know we have a major problem of affordability, both nationally and in this region; indeed in a report last month CMHC called it a crisis. CMHC found the last time housing was considered affordable was 2003/4 and that “to restore affordability, we need 3.5 million additional housing units beyond current projections” by 2030. Of those, over half a million are needed in B.C.

In fact, CMHC notes, B.C. “seems to have always been an unaffordable province”; since at least 1990, “affordability has not been below 40 percent of disposable income”.  In 2003/4 an average household needed to spend 45 percent of their disposable income to buy an average house in British Columbia. Today, “such a household would have had to devote close to 60 percent of their incomes to housing.” I suspect it may be more in this region.

The CRD’s 2018 update of its Regional Housing Affordability Strategy includes some general recommendations under Goal 1 – Build the right supply of housing across the spectrum but the specifics are missing. Livable Victoria provides some of those specifics in our second ‘Big Idea’: Build an abundance of housing and implement policies to promote affordability.

Our first two recommendations under this idea are: “Update residential zoning to allow, by-right, a diversity of housing types and tenure in residential neighbourhoods, including townhouses, houseplexes, and low-rise apartments” and “Scale-up and encourage purpose-built rental housing through incentives such as pre-zoning areas and allowing for greater densities compared to strata ownership housing.”

This takes us straight to the issue of ‘Missing Middle’ housing, currently being debated in the City of Victoria. The term ‘Missing Middle’ was coined in 2010 by Daniel Parolek, founder of Berkeley-based Opticos Design. It is defined on their website as “a range of house-scale buildings with multiple units – compatible in scale and form with detached single-family homes – located in a walkable neighbourhood”.  They make the point that this type of housing used to be quite common, until the post-war period.

In a May 2021 article Jimmy Thomson, Managing Editor of Capital Daily noted the idea behind ‘as of right’ zoning and pre-zoning is that “large areas – or whole cities – could be designated as places where more units can be built by default, encouraging cities to densify”.

The point of what has been called ‘gentle densification’ with house-scale buildings is that it both creates a more walkable ‘15-minute neighbourhood’ that, as Opticos puts it, “supports locally-serving retail and public transportation options”, and it is more environmentally sustainable. Many older European cities are built that way, and we love them.

But ultimately, this may not be enough, warns Christine Lintott, an architect and Biomimicry Professional and a member of Livable Victoria. Even with as-of-right zoning and pre-zoning, a plethora of other regulations and codes can get in the way of innovative solutions. “While they can often be addressed”, she notes, “processing times for development permits and building permits remain lengthy, adding another year or more to the process, and that added time and cost makes it difficult if not impossible for innovative small-scale developments to be built.”

We need to step back and look at what we are trying to achieve here – “more households on lots in mature neighbourhoods”, as Lintott puts it – and then figure out the best way to get there, including through regulatory reform.

I am reminded of the apocryphal story of the difference between the Ontario and German building codes. The Ontario code is very thick and immensely detailed, describing everything in great detail. The German building code is very thin and results-driven. It tells you to build a wall that holds up the roof and meets other basic needs and then leaves it to the designer to figure out how.

While this is undoubtedly an over-simplification, the point is clear – don’t micro-manage. Know where you want to be, set some basic rules of safety, sustainability etc., then stand back and let the innovation and creativity flow.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Creating a more livable region: Rapid development of social housing

Published as ‘Social-housing crisis stems from 1993 federal cuts’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

12 July 2022

701 words

Last week I introduced Livable Victoria, of which I am a member. We are an informal and non-partisan group of people who share a passion for making our region a more sustainable, vibrant, healthy, and inclusive place to live. Our aim is to “create a city that respects our planet’s ecological limits while promoting human health and wellbeing”, which has been the focus of my work for much of the past 40 years.

This week I will begin to explore our ‘Five Big Ideas’ in more detail, from the perspective of human wellbeing and its achievement within the Earth’s ecological boundaries. These ideas are intended to provide a balanced and holistic perspective and be implemented together. We want to create a city-region that puts the health of the planet and the wellbeing of everyone that lives here at the centre of decision-making about the built environment.

The first of the Five Big Ideas is to scale-up and facilitate the rapid development of social housing across the region, the provision of which is essential to ensure health and wellbeing for everyone. The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness notes “the term ‘social housing’ refers specifically to housing that is subsidized by a level of government”. It is just housing for ordinary people whose incomes are insufficient to afford market-price housing.

I addressed this issue in my April 10th column “Speeding development of non-profit housing is good for health” and won’t repeat here what I said then. But it is important to understand that the crisis in social housing was the result of the cancellation of the federal social housing program in 1993 and the downloading of responsibility to the provinces in the early 1990s, together with the failure of incomes to keep pace with increased housing costs.

Nicole Chaland, a local housing and homelessness researcher and a member of Livable Victoria, uses data from a 2015 article that shows that social housing fell from a range of 7 – 20 percent of all housing built annually between 1972 and 1994 to 1 – 2 percent after 1996. As a result, she notes, “Canada now has one of the most privatized housing markets of the 38 members countries in the OECD. Only 3.5 per cent of Canada’s housing stock is protected from market influences.”

The good news is that both the federal and provincial governments have finally started to act on the issue of social housing, affordability and homelessness, after decades largely ignoring the problems. But local governments have only a limited capacity to respond to the policy failures of higher levels of government.

Nonetheless, the CRD’s Housing First Program and its Affordable Housing Strategy are beginning to address the issue locally.  In partnership with the federal and provincial governments, the Housing First Program is working “to eliminate chronic homelessness and generate new rental housing options . . . moving at-risk individuals into long-term, tenant-based, supported housing to enable recovery and integration into society.” So far, the construction of over 1,000 units is in planning, underway or completed; of these, 20 percent are provincial income assistance units, 31 percent affordable and 49 percent near-market rental.

We believe this process could be strengthened if municipalities remove barriers to social housing and incentivize and expedite approval processes through measures such as pre-zoning, allowing for higher levels of density, waiving development fees, and providing property tax breaks. Other useful steps can include using existing public land and acquiring new land for social housing; establishing dedicated municipal staff positions to facilitate the development of social housing; providing greater flexibility in land use zoning for social housing, such as allowances for live-work spaces, and broadening the range of accepted design guideline considerations, allowing social benefit, community safety, and cultural features to offset other design goals.

Social housing, an important component of the affordable housing spectrum, is not just an issue for low-income people but a concern for all of us. As the CRD notes, “affordable housing is key to a strong economy and healthy region”.  In fact a CMHC report last month found B.C needs more than half a million new affordable units by 2030. So next week I will look at our suggestions for building more affordable and sustainable housing.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Creating a more livable region

(Published as ‘Public health plays key role in urban planning’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

5 July 2022

698 words

In November 2021 the City of Ottawa completed the proccess of revising its Official Plan (OP). My attention was drawn to Ottawa’s plan through a recent news posting by the Canadian Public Health Association, which focused on the role of public health in the development of the new OP.

In Ontario, but sadly not in the rest of Canada any longer, public health is still located in municipal government, making it easier for Ottawa Public Health to co-locate two of its staff in the City’s Planning Department for three years – which is quite a commitment. The goal was to have the City’s new OP rooted in a framework that creates healthy, inclusive and resilient communities.

The success of this strategy can be seen in the presence in the new OP of an entire section on Protection of Health and Safety. Included in this section are policies to prevent injury, loss of life and property damage; minimize incompatible land-uses; build resiliency to the impacts of extreme heat, and enhance personal security through design.

Now it may come as a surprise to some, perhaps many, that public health would play a role in urban planning. But it ought not to. There is a long history, dating back to the mid-19th century in Britain, and to 1912 in Canada, of such involvement. Indeed, in many ways, the roots of urban planning were in concern for the health and wellbeing of city-dwellers.

Building codes, for one thing, are mostly about health and safety, ensuring that buildings don’t fall down or catch fire, that they are adequately ventilated, have sanitation facilities and so on. Zoning policies were initially all about separating dwelling places from noxious industries, while parks were seen as the ‘lungs of the city’.

Indeed, as far back as 1875, in a published lecture called ‘Hygeia: A City of Health’ – one of the inspirations for my work in this area – the Victorian public health leader Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson described a city in many ways like those we strive to build today. Of course, today’s problems are not quite the same as those in Victorian Britain, but at the same time, they are not that different: How do we create urban environments that are healthy and safe for people?

The City of Ottawa’s goal is to become “the most liveable mid-sized city in North America”, with ‘liveability’ encompassing sustainability, social cohesion, economic vitality and the health and well-being of residents. The new OP includes  five Big Policy Moves: achieve more growth by intensification than by greenfield development; ensure that by 2046  the majority of trips are made by sustainable transportation (walking, cycling, transit or carpooling); create stronger, more inclusive and more vibrant neighbourhoods and Villages; recognise the importance of healthy natural and built environments and encourage the evolution of ‘15-minute neighbourhoods’, and embed economic development into the framework of the planning policies.

Many of the key concepts in Ottawa’s new Official Plan closely parallel work here in Victoria in which I am involved. Livable Victoria, which was launched on June 21st,  is an informal and non-partisan  “group of people who share a passion for making our region a more sustainable, vibrant, healthy, and inclusive place to live”. Our members include affordable housing, tenant protection and accessibility advocates, small scale developers, an architect, an engineer, a planner, a transport policy expert, community safety experts and, of course, a healthy city expert – me.

Our aim is to help foster more thoughtful dialogue, advocate for positive change, and encourage bold leadership during this year’s municipal election. To this end, we are proposing ‘5 Big Ideas’ focused on Greater Victoria’s built environment. As we get closer to local elections, we will host events, highlight candidates who share our vision, and provide resources for building more livable communities.

The 5 Big Ideas are to scale-up and facilitate the rapid development of social housing across the region; build an abundance of housing and implement policies to promote affordability; plan neighbourhoods for sustainability and human well-being, while respecting the planet’s ecological boundaries; invest in cycling, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure, and minimize building waste, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. You can learn more at

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Enough with the nastiness and dehumanization

(Published as “Let’s stop calling people ‘bums’ or ‘undesirables’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

28 June 2022

702 words

I have had it with letters to the editor that seem to be trying harder and harder to be nastier and nastier about people who are, for whatever reason, down on their luck and living on the street. Too often recently I have seen references to such people as ‘bums’, or worse, ‘undesirables’.

Not only is it nasty, intolerant and dehumanizing, it seems to me that in attempting to arouse animosity towards a particular group of disadvantaged people, it verges on and may indeed be hate speech. We should not forget that in Nazi Germany Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, people with developmental disabilities and others were considered to be undesirable, and we know how that ended up.

We need to remember that the people on the streets are our fellow human beings, not bums, not undesirables. They are somebody’s son or daughter (almost two-thirds identified as male), perhaps somebody’s sister or brother, mother or father. They end up on the streets or in the parks for a variety of reasons, but rarely is it because they have decided they want to live there.

So let me remind you who is on the street or homeless – at least, who was when the Homeless Count and Survey was last conducted – and why they are there. On the night of March 11, 2020 at least 1,523 people were experiencing homelessness in Greater Victoria. Of them, only 270 were unsheltered, while 350 were in emergency shelters and the rest were couch-surfing, in public facilities such as halfway houses or hospitals or – about one third of the total – in transitional housing.

The night following the count, just over half of those counted participated in the homeless needs survey. Four in five had been homeless for more than 6 months, 42 percent had lived here 5 or more years. One important factor was that “1 in 3 were in government care as a child or youth” and a third of them “became homeless within a month of leaving care”.

More than one-third (35 percent) were Indigenous, even though Indigenous people only make up 5 percent of the Greater Victoria population. Of them, almost half were women, almost three-fifths of them first experienced homelessness as a youth, more than half had experiences with foster care and more than 3 in 5 had a personal or close family history of attending residential school.

Now this is not to say that there are not people on the streets – not all of whom are necessarily homeless, by the way – who may have violent tendencies. I agree that for the safety of the public, and for their own safety for that matter, they should be off the streets and in some form of custody, where as one letter writer noted, “they would be housed and fed and, hopefully, rehabilitated”.

There are certainly people whose behavior can be odd, uncomfortable to be around. But that does not make them dangerous, and it is not helpful to give the impression that people living on the streets are all dangerous and undesirable.

For most, if not all, life on the street is unpleasant, miserable, hard and can be quite scary and dangerous. Street-involved people are themselves vulnerable, at greater risk of being victimised by criminals, more likely to be victims of violence

It is even worse if you have a mental health problem, a substance use problem or an acquired brain injury, never mind if you have two or even all three of those problems together. Among those surveyed in March 2020, 62 percent had a substance use issue, 59 percent a mental health issue and 29 percent an acquired brain injury. Undoubtedly those problems contributed to them being homeless, which then makes their health problems worse.

So where is the compassion for people who have hard lives, have often had hard lives for years, and need to be helped and supported? As another letter writer reminded us recently, “How a society treats its most vulnerable is the measure of its humanity”.

What we call them matters, and tells us a lot about ourselves. The people who have this attitude really should be ashamed of themselves, not proud to trumpet their intolerance and inhumanity in public.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

What is the real crime here, who are the real criminals?

Dr. Trevor Hancock

21 June 2022

701 words

On June 15th, my friend and colleague Tim Takaro was sentenced to 30 days in jail. So what, you might say, lots of people go to jail. True, but you need to know that Tim is, like me, a physician and has just retired from his position as a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University (SFU).  He was jailed for trying to protect the health of the public through an act of non-violent civil disobedience – trying to block the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) by sitting in a tree.

Tim is “a physician-scientist trained in occupational and environmental medicine, public health and toxicology”, to quote from his SFU bio. His primary research is focused on the health impacts of global heating, and he has completed two major reports on the health impacts of the TMX.

Like many physicians these days, he is very concerned about the health, social and ecological impacts of climate change. What he knows about these health impacts – including the health impacts of the TMX – concerns him so much he took those extra, brave steps into peaceful civil disobedience.

When Tim camped in that tree along the Brunette River in Burnaby, in November 2021, he was defying an injunction awarded by the BC Supreme Court to the TMX project.So he was arrested, and subsequently pled guilty, leading to his sentencing.

But Tim was doing exactly what an ethical physician should do: defending the health of Canadians and people around the world. For Tim, as a public health physician, the ‘patient’ is the community as a whole, and the harm he sought to prevent is the further expansion of fossil fuel use; as he said on CBC Radio‘s Early  Edition on June 13, “increasing emissions will kill more people”.

The Code of Ethics of the Canadian Medical Association is clear: Physicians should  “always act to benefit the patient and promote the good of the patient” and “take all reasonable steps to prevent or minimize harm to the patient”.  A 2019 World Medical Association Declaration states clearly that when the law and medical ethics conflict, “ethical responsibilities supersede legal obligations”.  

Let us be clear: Climate change – actually, human-induced climate heating resulting in climate instability and chaos – is a danger to health. The World Health Organization has said ‘climate change is the greatest threat to health in the 21st century”. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, responding to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in August 2021, declared a “Code Red for humanity”. In April this year, commenting on the latest new IPCC report, Mr. Guterres described countries that increase fossil fuel production as “dangerous radicals”, adding that “investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”

He doubled down on that criticism on June 17 in speaking at the Major Economies Forum. He accused the fossil fuel industry of investing  “heavily in pseudoscience and public relations – with a false narrative to minimise their responsibility for climate change and undermine ambitious climate policies”. In doing so, he added, “they exploited precisely the same scandalous tactics as big tobacco decades before.”

His criticism extended to the governments that aid and abet the expansion of the fossil fuel sector, saying “Nothing could be more clear or present than the danger of fossil fuel expansion. Even in the short-term, fossil fuels don’t make political or economic sense.”

The TMX is being built  by the Government of Canada – which means by us – in order to expand production and export of oil from Alberta. In doing so, the government is acting as a dangerous radical, contributing to climate change and harming people, which is or ought to be a crime, and the courts are protecting that behaviour. Even worse, they are making all of us, as owners of the pipeline, accomplices, which I resent.

I accept that the judge and the legal system are correct in their interpretation and application of the law and Tim is on the wrong side of the law. But in the wider sense of what is right for people and the planet, he is on the right side and the government and the courts are on the wrong side of both morality and history.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

We are falling behind in a world going backwards

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 June 2022

702 words

Last week I discussed our failure to meet many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, in particular those dealing with the environment. Since then we have missed other important environmental goals. An independent scientific report prepared for the recent Stockholm+50 conference examined progress across a range of environmental goals agreed since 1972 and found that “typically only one-tenth of targets show significant progress or can be considered achieved.”

Moreover, it is expected that quite soon we will miss a vitally important target. In about 9 years, at current rates, we will have emitted enough greenhouse gases to miss the target to keep the rise in global heating  below 1.5°C. Indeed, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres commented in April, responding to the latest IPCC report: “We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree limit agreed in Paris.”

When the MDGs expired in 2015, the nations of the world adopted a new and broader set of goals – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are 17 SDGs with 169 targets, and they are meant to be achieved by 2030. But the 2022 progress report, released in May, noted we are not doing well, due to “the multiple and interlinked global crises we are facing – the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and the impacts of the conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere.”

In an advanced version of his upcoming remarks on the 2022 SDG report, Mr. Guterres stated: “It is clear — we are moving in the wrong direction . . . We are moving backwards in relation to the majority of the Sustainable Development Goals”. 

Poverty increased, with women disproportionately affected, while basic education and essential health services were disrupted. When it comes to the environmental goals in the SDGs, the Stockholm+50 science report noted that the UN Environment Program reported in 2021 that “there are negative trends for material footprints, sustainable fish stocks, forested area and endangered species.”

Within this global picture of the world going backwards, Canada is not faring well. We are “moving backwards in relation to the world on our SDGs progress”, falling from 21st to 29th in world rankings, said Professor Bruce Frayne of the University of Waterloo, Chair of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Canada.

The SDG Progress Report for Canada shows we face major challenges with respect to climate change, protection of life on land and the creation of partnerships for the SDGs. Regarding the latter, Professor Frayne notes that we need to see “more dedication to the SDGs by all levels of government, in particular from provincial governments that are largely absent at the SDGs table.” 

So far, eight years before the 2030 deadline, Canada has only achieved one goal  – quality education – and is only on track for two others – no poverty, and industry innovation and infrastructure.  We are going backwards on responsible consumption and production, and making no progress on protecting life under water. And while making moderate progress on most of the SDGs, we still face major challenges for another four goals: Zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, gender equality, and decent work and economic growth.

It is the latter goal that creates problems with respect to the environmental goals. Goal 8 calls for continued economic growth. But in a 2019 article in the journal Sustainable Development, Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics, showed that Goal 8 translates into a need for “continued global economic growth equivalent to 3% per year”.

However, he shows that such a growth rate will make it impossible to reduce global resource use or to achieve “reductions in CO2 emissions rapid enough to stay within the carbon budget for 2°C.” In other words, he concludes, “Goal 8 violates the sustainability objectives of the SDGs.” Or as Mr. Guterres put it in his opening remarks at the Stockholm+50 conference: “Earth’s natural systems cannot keep up with our demands”.

The only way to resolve this inherent contradiction, Dr. Hickel suggests, is to scale down resource and energy use, especially in high-income countries, and reduce inequality within and between nations. Doing so while maintaining a decent quality of life is our main challenge in the coming years.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

We persist with unsustainable development

Published as “Conventional economic growth is unsustainable”

Dr. Trevor Hancock

7 June 2022

701 words

As I noted last week, the rising concern about the impact of humanity on the environment led to the first UN conference on the environment in 1972.  However, the issue of sustainability itself was barely touched on at the conference, with only one mention in the 80-page conference report.

Nonetheless, publications prepared for the conference, such as ‘Only One Earth’ and ‘The Limits to Growth’, as well as the conference itself, led to a much heightened awareness of the challenges we faced. As a result, in 1983 the UN established the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), known more commonly as the Brundtland Commission.

Thirty-five years ago, in its 1987 report ‘Our Common Future’ the Brundtland Report introduced to a wide audience the concept of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The WCED’s report led to the UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit), which opened in Rio de Janeiro on June 3rd 1992, 30 years ago this month. The Rio Declaration’s first principle was “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”. But it then leapt into an internal contradiction that bedevils us to this day.

The second principle was:  “States have . . . the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies”. This was modified by a second sentence warning that they also had “the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States”. But in practice it seems the right was heard but the responsibility, conveniently, was not. Note, by the way, that it was not a responsibility to not cause damage to their own environment!

In addition to the Rio Declaration, the Summit also resulted in ‘Agenda 21’, a comprehensive agenda for change which described itself as “preparing the world for the challenges of the next century.” There was also a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a UN Convention on Biological Diversity and a Declaration on the principles of forest management

Unfortunately, as is too often the case, these fine ideas were not put into practice, certainly not to a sufficient extent. The ironic joke in the environmental community was that business and governments got the noun – development – and environmentalists got the the adjective. So it has been largely full speed ahead for development, with the NGO and community sectors struggling to make sure that development is actually sustainable.

It is not. If you want the evidence, look no further the world’s failure to meet most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted in 2000 by the UN’s member states. There were 8 MDGs, with 18 targets to be achieved by 2015. Looking back in 2018, when the data was in, Oxford University-based ‘Our World in Data’ (OWiD) found that of the 17 targets that were quantifiable, the world reached five: Poverty in developing regions was halved, the gender disparity in education in developing regions was closed, the global rates of infection from both malaria and TB were reduced and the proportion of people lacking access to safe drinking water was reduced by more than half.

But 12 targets were not met by 2015. In some areas there were improvements, sometimes quite marked improvements, even though the targets were not reached: “the share of people in hunger fell, the share of children in school increased substantially, more women got access to reproductive health and contraceptives, the maternal mortality nearly halved, and the global child mortality rate more than halved”, OWiD reported.

But while “substantial progress” was achieved in these areas it came at a cost. Where “the world failed most miserably” – you guessed it – was the environmental targets.  When it came to reversing the loss of environmental resources and biodiversity, OWiD notes there were “clear and alarming failures” across multiple indicators. As I will discuss next week, at the heart of that failure lies the simple fact that we continue to pursue a policy of conventional economic growth that remains persistently unsustainable. 

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Fifty years after Stockholm, it wasn’t supposed to be this way

Dr. Trevor Hancock

5 June 2022

700 words

Today – Sunday May 5th – is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in 1972 in Stockholm. The Secretary General of the Conference, Maurice Strong, was a Canadian who went on to become the founding Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme that was established as a result of the Conference. In this and many other ways the Stockholm Conference helped launch the modern environmental movement.

This is also almost exactly 30 years since the opening of the Rio Earth Summit on June 3rd 1992, which began to lay out an agenda for sustainable development. The Rio Summit was based on the work of the UN Commission on Environment and Development, whose 1987 report was released 35 years ago this year.

So in this and the next three columns I will revisit these important conferences and reports, reflect on the success and – mainly – the failings in implementing the environment and sustainable development agenda they outlined, consider where this leaves us, and contemplate the future we face and what we need to do to meet the challenges it poses – challenges that are far greater and more acute than they were 50 years ago.

One challenge that was not even on the agenda at Stockholm, surprisingly, was climate change; there was no reference to it or global warming anywhere in the Declaration, and only two minor and oblique references to CO2 emissions among the 109 recommendations for action. This may seem odd, but, “climate change wasn’t getting the attention it could have, and there was a lack of urgency in discussions” throughout the 1960s, according to Alice Bell, co-director at the UK climate change charity Possible, writing in the Guardian in July 2021. Indeed, it wasn’t until around 1977/8 that the issue began to be taken seriously.  

However, there was specific reference in the Stockholm Declaration to “dangerous levels of pollution in water, air, earth and living beings; major and undesirable disturbances to the ecological balance of the biosphere [and] destruction and depletion of irreplaceable resources.” If we look at just those three issues – pollution, changes to the biosphere and resource depletion – it is clear that things have gotten a lot worse since 1972.

For example, plastics pollution was not even mentioned in the Conference report; Our World in Data (OWiD), which is based at Oxford University, reports that global plastics production in 1972 was 44 million tonnes, but reached 381 million tonnes in 2015. The Living Planet Index, which measures the abundance of vertebrate species, declined 68 percent between 1970 and 2016, the World Wide Fund for Nature reports, while we did not fully meet any of the 20 Aichi targets on biodiversity, established in 2011, and only partially met six of them. When it comes to resource depletion, 10 percent of the world’s fish stocks were over-exploited in 1974, but by 2017 that had risen to 34 percent, OWiD reports.

The Stockholm Declaration began by highlighting “the need for a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment”. But fifty years later, finding a common outlook, principles and agenda for our common future remains elusive. Indeed, in remarks to the UN’s Economic and Social Council in March, following up on “Our Common Agenda”, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted “a fundamental lack of solidarity in today’s world and in the mechanisms that are relevant for the global economy and the global financial system”.

The participants at Stockholm were clear: “Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes.”

Obviously, the Conference participants expected we would choose the latter course. I think they would be bitterly disappointed that we have largely chosen the former, acting with indifference and – well, not so much ignorance as ‘ignore-ance’ – deliberately ignoring the evidence where it conflicted with short-term benefit and profit. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

We must defuse our industrial carbon bombs

24 May 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

703 words

Last week I discussed ‘natural’ carbon bombs; human-induced changes in natural systems (such as permafrost thawing, deforestation and loss of peatlands and marshes) that have the potential to result in rapid and large releases of greenhouse gases, or equally rapid and large losses of the carbon sinks that remove carbon from the air.

This week I examine what might be called ‘industrial’ carbon bombs; fossil fuel extraction projects, specifically those that will release at least 1 billion tons of CO2 over their lifetimes. In an important May 11th report, The Guardian noted: “Oil and gas majors are planning scores of vast projects that threaten to shatter the 1.5°C climate goal. If governments do not act, these firms will continue to cash in as the world burns.”

The report is largely based on a study led by Kjell Kühne of Leeds University and published in Energy Policy. The study found there are 425 such projects around the world – 230 are coalmines and 195 are oil and gas fields, many already producing, but with 40 percent yet to start extraction. Between them these 425 projects accounted for 25 percent of global coal production and 45 percent of global oil and gas production in 2019.

Altogether they will emit 1,182 billion tonnes of CO2 over their lifetimes. This will almost triple the 400 billion tonnes of allowable CO2 emissions from 2020 onwards if we are to keep the global temperature rise to under 1.5°C. In fact, these projects alone are more than enough to reach the 1,150 billion tonnes limit on emissions needed to stay below a 2°C rise.

Ninety-three of the coal mines and 76 of the oil and gas projects were not producing in 2020, meaning they could and should be cancelled before they entered production (although doubtless some have begun producing by now). For those already in production Kühne and his colleagues propose they be put in ‘harvest mode’, allowing them to decline naturally by not investing any more money in them. They call this overall approach ‘defusing’ the carbon bombs

Canada, with 12 carbon bombs that could add 39 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, is the seventh largest carbon bomber, behind China, the United States, Russia, Saudi-Arabia, Australia and Qatar. The Guardian notes that together with the US and Australia, Canada is “among the countries with the biggest expansion plans, . . . the highest number of carbon bombs” and also gives “some of the world’s biggest subsidies for fossil fuels per capita.”

A list of Canada’s carbon bombs on the ‘Leave it in the Ground’ website (an NGO co-founded by Kühne) shows they are all in BC or Alberta. The largest by far is the Montney Play oil and gas field in Alberta and B.C., which is projected to produce 13.7 billion tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime, followed by the Murray River Coal Mine in Tumbler Ridge B.C. (8.5 billion tonnes) and the Spirit River oil and gas field in Alberta and B.C. (3.0 billion tonnes).

Other BC carbon bombs include the Gething Coal Mine Coal (2.1 billion tonnes), the Liard Shale oil and gas field (1.2 billion tonnes) and Fording River Coal (1.0 billion tonnes). Not included in the list is the newly approved Bay du Nord oil field off the coast of Newfoundland. While not strictly a carbon bomb – it’s estimated 300 million to 1 billion barrels of oil would result in 130–430 million tonnes of CO2 emissions when consumed – it is nonetheless a sign that the Canadian government does not get it and does not care.

Indeed, that was the focus of a powerful speech from Elizabeth May last week in Parliament, in which she accused the Minister of Environment and Climate Change of losing his moral compass by approving Bay du Nord and supporting the TransMountain expansion.

At a time when the World Meteorological Organization reported this month that several global climate indicator records were set in 2021, this is the worst possible time to be approving new carbon bombs and supporting existing ones with subsidies and other supports. In fact, Canada and BC need to defuse their carbon bombs as soon as possible. To fail to do so is morally reprehensible.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

The problem of natural and industrial carbon bombs

(Published as “When Canada permits loss of marshes, forests, it’s a carbon bomber”)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 May 2022

701 words

The concept of a carbon bomb is pretty simple: It’s a potential source of a large amount of CO2 that could be released quite rapidly (or the loss of important carbon sinks), accelerating global heating and taking us beyond the 1.5°C and even the more damaging 2°C targets that have been internationally agreed.

Key to understanding the importance of carbon bombs is the concept of the carbon budget, which is the amount of CO2 that can be released into the atmosphere globally without pushing global heating above 1.5°C. In its August 2021 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that to have a 66 percent probability of staying below a 1.5°C rise, we can add no more than 400 billion tonnes of CO2 from the start of 2020 and 1,150 billion tonnes to stay below a 2°C rise.

Globally, we currently emit about 36 billion tonnes annually, so we will exhaust the allowable emissions to keep heating below a 1.5°C rise in “just 11 years if no reductions are made, i.e. the global carbon budget runs out at the end of 2030”, the IPCC stated. We have only 32 years at current emission rates if we are to keep below a 2°C rise.

The term ‘carbon bomb’ was initially applied to what might be called ‘natural’ carbon bombs. I put ‘natural’ in inverted commas because while coming from natural sources – permafrost, forests and peatlands and marshes – these carbon bombs are nonetheless created through human action. More recently it has been expanded to include fossil fuel projects that will emit more than 1 billion tonnes of CO2 over the lifetime of the project; together they have the potential to take us well beyond these targets.

Human-induced global heating – which is more marked at the poles – results in thawing of permafrost, releasing large volumes of CO2 and – even worse – the potent greenhouse gas methane. The amount of carbon locked up in northern permafrost is worrying. In a July 2011 article about the Polaris Project, a Woods Hole Research Center project looking at climate change in the Arctic, Dallas Murphy noted “there are very few mechanisms in nature that are capable – on short timescales – of transferring huge stocks of carbon from the land into the atmosphere.  Permafrost thawing heads the short list.”

In a 2019 review for the NOAA’s Arctic Program, Ted Schuur, a leading permafrost expert, noted these soils contain roughly 1.5 trillion tons of organic carbon, “about twice as much as currently contained in the atmosphere”. 
Moreover, about two-thirds of this carbon – 1,000 billion tons – is within the top 3 metres of the soil, so it is likely to be readily affected by thawing.
He reports that these regions are already releasing between 0.3 and 0.6 billion tons of carbon annually, which is equivalent to roughly 1 – 2 billion tons of CO2. Ongoing and indeed increasing global heating will likely make this worse.

Other ‘natural’ carbon bombs include the release of carbon from deforestation together with the loss of the carbon sink potential of the intact forest, as well as the loss through development of peatland and marshes, which are important carbon sinks. Just last week the Cowichan- Koksilah salt marsh was featured in this newspaper. Nina Grossman and Hina Alam reported that a recent study led by UVic graduate student Tristan Douglas found the estuary “seizes and stores double the carbon dioxide of a 20-year-old Pacific Northwest forest of the same size.” 

But Douglas also warned that “the world has lost about 70 per cent of mangroves and about 30 to 40 per cent of all marshlands and sea grasses in the past 100 years, and will lose another 40 per cent if it’s a ‘business as usual approach’ in the next century.”

So when Canada permits deforestation or the loss of peatlands and marshes to development, it is in effect being a ‘carbon bomber’, not to mention adding the vast amounts of CO2 and methane that will be released from permafrost in the North that is already starting to thaw. So much for ‘natural’ carbon bombs; next week I will focus on the fossil fuel carbon bombs, where Canada is a big and bad player.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy