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Confronting the Climate Emergency in UBC Neighbourhoods

Are we ready? The Campus Resident reached out to UNA and university experts in an effort to learn more about UBC’s plans to address climate change.

As heat waves intensify, wildfires multiply and sea levels rise, cities around the world are committing to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and adapting their infrastructures for a climate resilient future.

UBC adopted a declaration on the climate emergency in 2019, followed in 2021 by an ambitious climate action plan for its academic campus. The plan sets baselines and targets for construction materials, heating and cooling of buildings, transportation, and waste management.

The university has now begun work on a climate action plan for its current and future neighbourhoods. Known as the neighbourhood climate action plan (NCAP), it will involve consultation with residents, the UNA and climate and sustainability experts on campus and beyond. The neighbourhood plan will, according to UBC, serve as a “roadmap of strategies and actions to meet … ambitious emissions reduction targets and adaptation goals.”

Once the plan is complete in the spring of 2024, UBC will revise neighbourhood development regulations to implement the plan’s recommendations.

The process, however, has its critics. They say the university is prioritizing its controversial land use plan in Campus Vision 2050 over climate action, and that NCAP should serve as a foundation for land use planning, and not the reverse. UBC planners, they say, have it backwards.

In October, Claire England – co-founder of activist group University Communities for Sustainable Development – wrote in The Campus Resident: “Campus Vision 2050 currently lacks any climate action plan covering the university neighbourhoods, where most development will occur.”

“It is crucial that the land use plan proceed only under the direction of a neighbourhood climate action plan (NCAP) based on publicly accessible expert research to effectively mitigate environmental impacts,” England wrote.

After a contentious public hearing in November, the UBC Board of Governors will review the land use plan this month, after which they can ask the provincial government to approve it – well before NCAP is completed.

As high-level planning continues, The Campus Resident asked representatives from the UNA, the UNA’s land use advisory committee, and UBC to discuss the climate action plan’s goals and ways of achieving them.

(L-R) Matthew Mitchell, Robyn Chan, and Kerry Shaw. (Photos: Supplied)

Robyn Chan is the UNA’s sustainability specialist.

Matthew Mitchell is a research associate with UBC’s faculty of land and food systems and a member of the UNA’s land use advisory committee.

Kerry Shaw is UBC’s senior neighbourhood climate action planner with the campus and community planning unit. She is leading the project with Ralph Wells, UBC’s community climate and energy manager.

Q: Broadly speaking, what goals should the neighbourhood climate action plan aim to achieve?

A: Robyn Chan

My hope is that the neighbourhood climate action plan will set a clear course of action at three levels.

First, the plan should clearly articulate direction for future policies that will have an immediate impact on lowering emissions.

It also needs to provide details on the necessary funding and staff resources required to implement the plan across UBC, the UNA, and UBC Properties Trust, and create a framework for a climate action relationship between the three parties—who is doing what, when, and what are the supports or ways we can work together.

Lastly, the plan should create opportunities and pathways for residents to be involved at an individual and collective level.

A: Matthew Mitchell

First, it should aim to reduce as quickly as possible greenhouse gas emissions from the UBC residential neighbourhoods. While UBC’s emissions on a provincial, national or global level are relatively small, we have the responsibility and ability to be a leader in this respect and demonstrate how to create sustainable and net-zero communities.

Second, an equally important goal is to ensure that the UBC neighbourhood infrastructures can withstand an increasingly extreme climate, both now and into the future. For me, this means improving the built infrastructure (buildings, roads, storm sewers), natural infrastructure (trees, green spaces, ecosystems), and perhaps most importantly the social infrastructure (community connections, neighbourhood resilience, institutional governance).

A: Kerry Shaw

To help address climate change and meet the commitments of UBC’s declaration on the climate emergency, UBC’s neighbourhood climate action plan should update the existing neighbourhood community energy and emissions plan and define our pathway to a net-zero, climate resilient community. The plan will address both climate mitigation and adaptation to achieve this goal.

This includes actions to achieve net-zero community greenhouse gas emissions before 2050 and adaptation strategies to ensure our community is prepared for and resilient to the coming climactic changes. The plan is also a vital tool for communicating with neighbourhood residents on climate action.

The plan will integrate regular reporting to highlight work that has been done and show what actions will help drive progress. We see sharing information and involving residents in climate action as an opportunity to build and strengthen communities.

Q: How would you design a neighbourhood climate action plan that can achieve these goals?

A: Robyn Chan

I think that the plan is the first step in creating meaningful climate action. If it sets out clear enough targets and acknowledges the hard work that is needed in order to achieve those targets, then crafting policies and programs is the fun stuff. I hope to see a plan that reflects all of the input from residents and other stakeholders, and to see residents from every UNA neighbourhood get engaged, regardless of their level of climate knowledge.

A: Matthew Mitchell

There are three main things that I would do to try and leverage some of the strengths and unique characteristics of UBC. First, I would make sure to engage with, and ask for ideas from, world-leading UBC faculty and researchers in the areas of climate adaptation and climate justice.

Second, in order to directly address the need to improve social infrastructure, I would, from the beginning, involve representatives from the UBC community (students, residents, UNA) in the action plan development process to ensure that their interests and ideas are included.

Third, I would work hard to integrate ecological ideas of connectivity, landscape, and scale into the plan so that it isn’t solely focused on individual buildings, sites, or neighbourhoods but provides an integrated broad-scale approach to climate action on campus that links with wider UBC, Vancouver and Metro Vancouver policies and actions.

A: Kerry Shaw

Central to our approach is identifying key partners with deep interests in this work and establishing a process for collaboration. These partners include the University Neighbourhoods Association, UBC staff and researchers, regional partners, other technical experts, and neighbourhood residents.

A comprehensive scope and guiding principles are important to set the project boundaries and direction. Overall targets set the scale of ambition, and baseline analysis shows the magnitude of effort needed to realize these targets.

With this foundation, plan development in collaboration with our partners is underway. This is an iterative process evolving based on feedback, refined information and direction from the guiding principles.

The final plan will be informed by and make recommendations to other UBC plans and policies, such as Campus Vision 2050, ensuring the neighbourhood plan is aligned, complementary and implementable. The final plan will highlight high impact actions and prioritize them for implementation.

Q: Describe one particular challenge the neighbourhood climate action plan should address, and your proposed actions to meet that challenge.

A: Robyn Chan

My backgrond is in community engagement and collective action, so I always focus on how to get people involved and empowered in their communities. I think one challenge for the plan is that many people feel that they don’t have the knowledge or skill sets to engage in discussions about climate change. But climate change is something that we are all experiencing, and that lived experience is valuable and powerful.

My hope is that through the rest of the planning process and during policy and program development, we can engage and communicate with UNA residents so that they feel empowered to take climate action and have their voices heard.

A: Matthew Mitchell

My background and expertise are around ecology, so I’ll focus on that. The big challenge that I see here is creating connected natural spaces on campus that are resilient to the future climate change we know is coming.

I would do this by placing considerations of ecology near the top of the priority list—identifying critical corridors and green spaces based on their ability to cool the campus, retain stormwater, store carbon, and conserve biodiversity, and then working to fit in the built infrastructure and residential buildings that we need around this natural infrastructure.

I think that if we can do this, we will be much closer to creating a resilient and sustainable campus that can contribute positively to the mental and physical well-being of the UBC community in the face of climate change.

A: Kerry Shaw

There are a wide range of challenges the plan must address. Examples include finding ways to drive low-carbon resilient retrofits in existing buildings and working with our partners to develop leading embodied carbon requirements for new buildings.

They also include exploring the ecosystem services our natural assets provide, systematically identifying risks to UBC from our changing climate, and many others. All of these examples and more, along with involving campus residents in climate action, are essential to a holistic approach to climate action in UBC’s residential neighbourhoods. eyond these, it’s important that NCAP centres climate justice and equity in our response.

This means many things including seeking to understand how people are impacted by climate change today, identifying and then addressing, barriers to action, prioritizing health and well-being, considering affordability impacts, and defining a process for continued dialogue after the plan is complete.



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