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Report projects temperatures in Whistler could rise up to 4.5 C by 2080

With community-wide emissions rising 17 per cent last year, ‘time for extraordinary changes is now’
New projections show climate change is going to hit Whistler hard over the coming decades, with longer droughts, rainier days and shorter ski seasons.

A new report to local officials this week painted a bleak view of Whistler’s climate future, with projections indicating temperatures in the resort could rise several degrees in the next 40 to 60 years or so.

According to the Big Moves Climate Action Implementation Plan presented to mayor and council on Tuesday, Aug. 2, at the current trajectory, Whistler will experience a substantial increase in average air temperature of 4.5 C by the period spanning 2080 to 2100, relative to the 1981-to-2010 average, representing a 67-per-cent rise and exceeding average warming estimates for the globe.

Rain will become much more frequent in the municipality as annual precipitation is forecast to increase by 11 per cent. There could also be a 30-per-cent increase in days with high-intensity precipitation, defined as 20 millimetres or more. 

This climatic change means wetter, less snowy winters and more protracted, dryer, hotter summers. The maximum length of dry spells will increase by approximately six days, while the entire length of wet periods will increase by 0.3 days, the report predicted.

“One year we can suffer extreme heat waves and the next year nothing but rain. Or one year we can have an amazing powder season, and the next year a lot of rain and snow events. These predictions, and this assessment, helped us to understand the need to drive actions but also helped us to prioritize our adaptation goals and understand where our largest vulnerabilities are,” said Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) climate action coordinator Luisa Burhenne.

Milder winters could drastically affect Whistler’s most prominent industry. The abundant powder the resort is known for will transition to wetter, heavier snow with shorter ski seasons overall. 

The increase in winter precipitation and temperature means a shift from snow-dominated to a mixed rain-snow regime, with earlier and more hazardous freshet and a thinner and less consistent snowpack.

According to projections, Whistler’s most significant climate risks are wildfires and floods, which have been labeled as the top priorities for the RMOW’s climate adaptation measures.

Whistler’s emissions rose 17 per cent in 2021

Whistler still has a ways to go in reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the 2021 Annual Climate Action Report, also presented to local officials on Tuesday.

In 2021, the community produced 127,337 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, a 17-per-cent increase compared to 2020. Whistler is currently not on track to meet its GHG reduction target of 50 per cent below 2007 levels by 2030. 

The main reason for the growth in emissions was an increase in passenger vehicles coming to Whistler as the municipality saw a surge in day-tripping and overnight visitors during the pandemic.

Vehicle emissions account for 52 per cent of Whistler’s emissions (66,288 tonnes), followed by natural gas for space and water heating in buildings, which accounted for 36 per cent (46,751 tonnes) of Whistler’s community-wide emissions.

Councillor Cathy Jewett inquired if the municipality needed to hit the panic button on mitigation and adaptation strategies due to the continuing rise of emissions in the municipality. 

“We’re not making very good progress,” she said.

“Our next goal coming up in 2030 is 50 per cent. If we can’t even make our 2020 goal, at what point do we push the panic button? When do we start making some extraordinary changes?”

Burhenne added that, “The time for extraordinary changes is now, and I think the fact that we have this plan that will touch us at every department and every service we deliver is a good start for everyone. To understand that they need to act now,” she said.

“I don’t think declaring a climate emergency is an action that will get us there. I think focusing on identifying what every one of us can do will get us closer.”  

Coun. Arthur De Jong, a long-time former climate and sustainability coordinator with Whistler Blackcomb, reiterated the need for urgency.

“Now clearly from the big picture, we have to tackle cars and natural gas to get the job done, and we can’t deter from that focus, and that focus has to get deeper and faster,” he remarked. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, and we need to get it done quickly.”

Whistler consolidates two behemoth climate plans into one

As Whistler’s emissions continue to rise, local officials this week voted to consolidate two behemoth environmental plans into one overarching strategy, a move the RMOW says will make it easier to meet the community’s ambitious climate goals.

At the Aug. 2 council meeting, Whistler mayor and council greenlit the merger of the 2016 Community Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) with the 2020 Big Moves Climate Action Plan as Whistler’s guiding climate action implementation plan. 

“We’re doing this to merge our mitigation and adaptation efforts into one plan to realize co-benefits and synergies between adaptation and mitigation. Both together help us to create a climate-ready community,” said Burhenne.

“We’re doing this to ensure that climate action is part of all RMOW operations, planning, processes and budget cycles. We want to ensure that we provide clearer, more informative, more intuitive reporting on climate action that helps us understand where we’re on track and where there are challenges.”  

With the consolidation of the two plans, all CECAP actions have been evaluated to either be integrated into the Big Moves strategy, completed on their own, or not advanced. 

Of the 134 actions in the CECAP, 101 will be integrated into the Big Moves, 17 have been completed, and 16 will not be advanced. 

The six main adaptation goals of the Big Moves strategy are moving beyond the car, decarbonizing transportation, reducing visitor travel emissions, building zero-emission buildings, making existing buildings more energy efficient, and shifting towards lower carbon consumption across the municipality.

The adaptation strategies that were part of the CECAP were cut down from six measures to three and combined into the larger plan. These adaptation measures include minimizing threats from wildfire, increasing resilience to extreme weather events, and protecting local ecosystems and biodiversity.

Over the next five years, the estimated cost for implementing the new Big Moves Climate Action Plan was pegged between $22.7 million and $34.1 million.

“All of the numbers and cost estimations we see in the plan are high level, and it’s the work that’s in the five-year financial plan now that helps us move towards implementation,” said Burhenne.

“I also want to point out that even though those numbers seem high, fully achieving our 50-per-cent reduction target, the cost may even be higher. All the costs and investments we do now will be less expensive than dealing with the cost of not acting on climate change at all.”