Vancouver’s fires highlight how we need to get sustainable: ‘Our planet is facing a severe threat’

I was in Vancouver earlier this week and watched as the city was destroyed by wildfires. The air was thick with soot and the street where I live was filled with smoke. It was…

Vancouver's fires highlight how we need to get sustainable: 'Our planet is facing a severe threat'

I was in Vancouver earlier this week and watched as the city was destroyed by wildfires. The air was thick with soot and the street where I live was filled with smoke. It was such a weird and chaotic mixture – the weather was freezing and sunny, a landowner refused to fix his roof and a constant source of water.

The temperature dropped on Tuesday afternoon, and the wind picked up, leaving the downtown core smellily smoky. I am an environmental lawyer in a city that aggressively promotes sustainable development, yet this fire brings up memories of a wildfire that broke out in 2005.

At that time, city officials decided to build infrastructure and the waterfront. It showed when you got to the front of the line for power, water and public toilets. Flooding and fires are just one set of problems that comes with the development of cities. But the high population density made the effects of development even worse.

Having been to Vancouver and lived and studied in it for many years, I have concerns about the city’s development plans. But then again, I am not a mayor or a planner. And so I live on the B.C. mainland. And so I care.

But my concerns did not extend to this week, which was about as chaotic as Vancouver’s weather gets. Everyone’s responsibility in situations like this is to find a balance between whether we can protect our most cherished assets – our planet – and allow us to live our lives.

Our planet is facing a large number of societal and economic issues, but never has it been more important to understand what we can do in a world that is already awash in forest, water and air. We are going to need to save ourselves.

Canada can afford to work on issues that relate to, but are not limited to, building a better city. Projects like a new elevated SkyTrain are creating a network of high-speed trains that has enhanced safety and cut commute times for people in Surrey, Burnaby and Delta. This project is called Phase 2 – a relief line is almost complete.

Long-standing work is being done to make railroads less environmentally threatening. The latest project is a project in Alberta to reduce rail emissions by developing a 20 per cent reduction in leaks and by retrofitting the locomotives. Railroads cannot be charged additional fees for emissions on an already financially stressed rail industry. This effort is paid for with revenues generated by Canadian railroads. There is no reason to think the provinces should reverse or slow down this work.

Many Canadian governments recognize the importance of protecting nature and take an active approach.

Last week, the UN committee on the conservation of biological diversity recommended a program for countries to restore ecosystems. For instance, Canadians can create ecosystems and buffer it from storms. These type of sustainable programs can make our cities more resilient.

We also know that climate change and natural disasters will be greater threats in the future. Protecting the ecosystem we live in will be necessary to ensure we are sustainable and live to fight future threats.

We also need to put measures in place so that sustainable development is still possible. Infrastructure that is supporting our health and environment is not a luxury, it is an essential part of building a strong country. We know it is unrealistic to build an independent planet of services and creatures by the middle of the century if we allow for development that has short-term benefits at the expense of our precious and fragile environment.

I think there is a lot to celebrate about the strong relationship between nature and cities, just as there is a great deal to be thankful for our current approach. But no matter how proud we are of this approach, we can not continue to ignore the reality of our fragile planet. We must maintain the best practices of sustainability as we look ahead to our future. I think we will do it.

Editor’s note: Tanya Wallace is a member of the Vancouver-based Council of Canadians, not the British Columbia Council of Canadians as the article incorrectly stated. This version has been corrected.

• Heather Scoffield is associate professor and associate director of the environmental law and policy program at the University of Ottawa.

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