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Whistler ‘staring down the barrel’ of its ambitious 2030 climate goals

The resort has been lagging behind its environmental targets for years; getting there is going to take innovation at the RMOW and a seismic shift in our behaviours

For years now, every time Whistler’s mayor and council have heard updates on the resort’s ambitious 2030 climate targets, staff comes with the same message.

“It’s challenging that every time we get this report, we read that Whistler is not meeting its targets. We have eight years to knock off 50 per cent [from 2007 GHG emission levels] and it’s daunting,” said Councillor Arthur De Jong at the Feb. 21 regular meeting of council. “It’s a very, very daunting goal, and I hope within this term we’ll receive one report that says we’ve turned the corner. It’s audacious.”

Whistler’s elected officials had a frank discussion at the Feb. 21 meeting that considered what it’s actually going to take for the resort to hit its environmental targets by the turn of the next decade, and while the ideas floated were varied, council and staff agreed: the time for drastic action is now.

“High-income cities and towns such as ourselves have an outsized responsibility to tackle greenhouse gas emissions,” said the RMOW’s climate action coordinator, Maria Thorlakson, before stressing the need for urgent action by quoting Juergen Voegele, VP for sustainable development at the World Bank Group: “Action now is possible, action now is necessary and urgent, and action now is where we should focus our efforts.”

The past year at municipal hall was marked by the RMOW’s consolidation of two major environmental plans: the Community Energy and Climate Action Plan and its Big Moves Strategy, intended to streamline the resort’s environmental efforts and move Whistler closer to its climate goals. Council heard an update on progress towards its revamped Big Moves Climate Action Implementation Plan at the Feb. 21 meeting, which contains nine overarching goals divided into climate mitigation and climate adaptation.

The most pressing of those mitigation goals is undeniably the first one on the list: “Move beyond the car.” In 2021, Whistler’s GHG emissions returned to pre-COVID levels, largely attributed to a return of passenger vehicle emissions, which made up 52 per cent of the 126,903 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emitted in the resort that year.

Asked what single initiative of the 180 recommended in the RMOW’s consolidated climate plan she would implement first if she had “a magic wand,” Thorlakson didn’t hesitate: improving transit service.

“We mentioned the largest source of our emissions comes from passenger vehicles, so I think transit and alternate modes of transportation are up there on our list,” she said. “They’re also difficult to implement, so that magic wand would be useful.”

While the municipality doesn’t have any concrete local data, studies across the globe have shown that improving the frequency and efficiency of public transit is a significant motivator in getting drivers out of their cars.

“The research from every other location around the world is important to consider as we do this work,” said Mayor Jack Crompton following Tuesday’s meeting. “The evidence is extremely strong that robust transit systems drive a reduction in the use of single-occupancy vehicles.”

In order for that to work locally, however, “We really have to work on making sure that the buses are faster than driving,” added municipal CAO Ginny Cullen, “so if there’s traffic, looking at things like a queue jumper lane.”

On the active transportation front, another idea that has been floated is a dedicated bike lane.

“I think we can do that fast. It’d be wonderful to have an express bike lane through the valley, and as fast as we can practically adopt electrification, the better,” De Jong said.

For as crucial as it is for Whistlerites to shift their habits, whenever discussing climate action in the resort, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room: as a global ski destination, we rely on long-haul visitors to travel by plane or vehicle. The problem is, however, while the RMOW estimates visitor emissions to be “significantly larger” than residents’ output, it has never been fully captured. The RMOW wants to change that.

“One of the first steps here is to quantify our visitor emissions,” Thorlakson said. “It will help to inform our decision-making and have more directed actions.”

Asked how the RMOW would go about measuring tourists’ carbon footprint, Crompton said the municipality already has a general sense of vehicle emissions through car counters situated south of Function and at Blueberry, and the municipality is hopeful to get a handle on flight emissions from destination visitors as well.

“That’s why it’s one of the priorities that we need to be able to put our arms around, to figure out what we have agency to control,” Cullen added.

Policy is but one tool the RMOW hopes to utilize in its push to 2030. The municipality said it also wants to “lead by example” on a number of environmental fronts in order to inspire and influence visitors. One of the more impactful examples Whistler is looking to set is through its electric-vehicle infrastructure. There are currently 25 municipal EV chargers in the resort, with plans for more, and the RMOW is also converting the light-duty vehicles in its fleet to electric.

“We’re really looking to lead by example and show that Whistler is an EV-friendly community, and we can do that by driving around in these vehicles ourselves and showing that we can still complete the work that a municipality needs to do with them,” said Thorlakson.

After passenger vehicle emissions, commercial buildings are the next biggest contributor to Whistler’s emissions, and the RMOW also has plans, thanks to a recent Community of Practice grant it received, to pick up efforts it began pre-COVID to get resort hotels onboard with retrofitting their facilities to enhance energy efficiency.

“This is a big area we want to address,” Thorlakson said.

On the residential side, the RMOW said it has had 19 applications to its RetroFit Assist program, which offers free counsel to eligible homeowners to upgrade their home heating systems, although only three of those applications are active. The municipality has set a target of reducing residential building emissions by 20 per cent and from large commercial buildings by 40 per cent in the next eight years.

Along with the myriad specific climate actions it has recommended, the RMOW also plans to better “apply climate change projections into decision-making at municipal hall, as well as integrating future climate considerations into the RMOW planning process and daily workflow,” Thorlakson said.

And as the municipality continues to think big on its own efforts to adapt to climate change, so too does the community at large, said Coun. Jen Ford.

“It is a scary time to be staring down the barrel of 2030. I just think there are so many things we need to support each other in. One of the things I often hear is, ‘Well, it’s OK, my vehicle is electric.’ We have to think bigger,” she said. “We have to think about life differently …  We have to think about tourism differently and how we travel differently. This is a challenge for all of us to approach everything we do differently and think about way beyond our own conveniences. Living our lives differently than we have is a huge task and it’s very scary—and we need to do it.”

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