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Whistler’s GHG emissions saw big drop in 2020 due to COVID-19

RMOW prepping new consolidated climate plan
n-GHG report 28.33 2
A recent study by ZEBx found that the Orion building in Pemberton, built by Whistler’s Innovation Building Group, is one of the most cost-effective high-performance buildings in B.C.

Whistler’s community greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions fell 21 per cent in 2020, due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic—but the drop is unlikely to be sustained in the long run, and the resort remains well off track to meet its emission reduction goals.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler’s (RMOW) 2020 energy consumption and greenhouse gas inventory report—presented to council on Aug. 17 during a marathon six-hour meeting—is especially timely given the latest dire warnings issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said climate action coordinator Luisa Burhenne.

“The report warns that in several scenarios, our planet will surpass two degrees above pre-industrial times unless we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions significantly,” Burhenne said in a presentation to council. 

“So this report is really a very clear call to action that we have to act now and that we have to act big, and that we really have to use all the tools we have available to us.”

But local lawmakers and municipal staff have their work cut out for them.

The 2020 drop was in part a result of travel restrictions, limited visitation, people working from home and avoiding public transit and restaurants, Burhenne said.

“All of that has an impact on our emissions, and when we look at our numbers from last year we have to be aware that these effects cannot easily be reproduced—and we probably don’t want that,” she said.

Whistler’s community GHG emissions for 2020 were estimated to total 108,643 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e), with passenger vehicles continuing to make up the bulk of local emissions at 40 per cent, followed by natural gas at 39 per cent.

The resort’s 2020 emissions were 18 per cent below the baseline year of 2007, missing the previous 2020 target by 22 per cent.

In December of last year, Whistler’s mayor and council adopted a new emissions reduction target of 50 per cent below 2007 levels by 2030 as part of its new Big Moves Strategy.

Community energy consumption totalled 2.9 million gigajoules (GJ) in 2020—a 13 per cent drop from 2019—consisting mostly of electricity (44 per cent), natural gas (29 per cent) and vehicle fuels (27 per cent).

On the corporate side, emissions from municipal hall were estimated at 2,641 tCO2e last year. Direct corporate emissions were 2,160 tCO2e—a 34 per cent increase from 2019—while emissions from contractors decreased 36 per cent, to 481 tCO2e.

Infrastructure services accounted for the bulk of corporate emissions at 54 per cent, followed by resort experience (27 per cent) and corporate and community services (19 per cent).

The annual GHG report attributes the increase to more natural gas being used at sewer utilities compared to 2019 due to changes in liquid flow rates affecting efficiencies (another byproduct of the pandemic).

The decrease in contractor emissions may also be a result of COVID-19 related changes to operations, the report said. 

Corporate energy consumption increased three per cent in 2020 to 80,612 GJ, driven by a 45-per-cent increase in mobile fuel use and a 19 per cent increase in natural gas consumption.

Electricity use fell by 12 per cent year over year, but still makes up the bulk of total energy used across municipal operations at 55 per cent, followed by natural gas (23 per cent) and mobile fuels (17 per cent).



Moving forward, RMOW staff intends to consolidate two big climate initiatives—the Community Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP), adopted in 2016, and the Big Moves Strategy, adopted in December 2020—into one comprehensive plan.

“This will not be a new plan, we will be consolidating them and make sure that no action will be lost,” Burhenne said.

“The desired outcome of consolidating those plans is to have consolidated climate action for more efficient project planning, progress monitoring and reporting, and more effective coordination between climate change mitigation and adaptation.”

Back in 2016, the CECAP laid out 94 actions for climate mitigation and 40 actions for climate adaption.

As of June 2021, just six CECAP initiatives were completed, while 84 were in progress or ongoing.

As part of the move to a consolidated climate plan, staff will no longer update council on climate progress each quarter, opting instead for semi-annual reporting.

The goal is to have all CECAP actions incorporated into the Big Moves + Climate Action Plan by next spring, and to have the new plan adopted by summer 2022.

The Big Moves themselves focus on transportation, buildings and waste, which together account for more than 90 per cent of Whistler’s GHG emissions.

Councillor Jen Ford noted that the Comox Valley Regional District on Vancouver Island is considering the “aggressive” policy of banning any future gas stations from being built, and wondered what changes Whistler council could make immediately to further its own progress on climate action.

“Is there one or two bylaws that we could change today that could make a small difference, or a big difference?” Ford asked.

It may sound pessimistic, but “the unfortunate answer is perhaps that there isn’t one big easy move, because if it existed we probably would have taken it,” said general manager of resort experience Jessie Gresley-Jones. “It is conscious decisions in all of the policy work we do, and all of the implementation in our fleet purchases, in our decisions around staff policies, around remote work, around an array of things—it is all these small decisions that cumulatively make a difference,” he said.

“I wish there was one easy button solution. I think staff would probably unanimously say it unfortunately does not exist for us.”

The response is more realistic than pessimistic, Ford said, noting that it’s worth thinking through even the little things.

“It used to be you turn the lights off when you left the room to save energy, right? It’s bigger than the light switch,” Ford said. “It’s so much bigger than that, but I think that we are being called to action to work together, and we will … because we have to.”


At the same time, reducing emissions has to come from outside of government as well.

A recent cost analysis study of high-performance buildings across British Columbia conducted by the Zero Emissions Building Exchange (ZEBx) highlighted the work of a Whistler developer in reaching net-zero energy standards. 

With his Orion building in Pemberton, Rod Nadeau and his team at Innovation Building Group have built one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the province at just $148/square foot.

“He is one of the leaders … he and a few others have been able to take this by the horns and show everybody else that they can do it, and so that’s what we want to showcase,” said Roberto Pecora, director of programs and acting executive director with ZEBx.

The building heats for between $30-$40/year per apartment, and cools for about $10/year. While it is only required to comply with Step 1 of B.C.’s Energy Step Code, the building exceeds Step 4—the highest step for multi-unit residential buildings, which will be required for all new builds by 2032.

The all-electric Orion build was constructed for about 30-per-cent less than the baseline established by ZEBx, Pecora said.

“This is really important, because local governments always get the brakes put on them by developers in their industry saying, ‘this is going to cost too much,’” he said.

“So what we’ve done in this cost study is say, you’re not on the ball there—you’re not necessarily right about that.

“So the question, hopefully, when readers read that, is why the hell aren’t we doing this now? Like, why are we still building buildings that use gas?”

Nadeau said the efficiency is a result of extensive modelling, value engineering, and a little bit of trial and error.

“We modelled the buildings that we were looking at about 100 times, and we looked at absolutely every single detail, but we put a cost to every one, because I wanted to know, if we’re going to spend more money, where should we spend it?” Nadeau said.

“And the results of that were surprising. We started spending money in different places, and we got better and better results, and as a result of looking very hard at how to make some things more energy efficient and cost less, we wound up with a lot of building techniques that are very cost effective and produce a very high-performing building.”

ZEBx plans to launch a podcast with Nadeau in the coming weeks detailing his process in-depth (find it at

It’s the same technique Nadeau plans to use for a proposed multi-unit building in Whistler’s White Gold neighbourhood, submitted under the RMOW’s private developer employee housing guidelines.

Nearly four years after it was first submitted, the application is still languishing at municipal hall.

“The revised development concepts have been subject to design review by staff and the Advisory Design Panel, taking into consideration comments from council and the public,” a spokesperson said.

“Once the designs have been resolved, along with updated pro formas, they will return to council for consideration of bylaw readings.”