North Cowichan's New Climate Model

North Cowichan is about to engage the public on its latest climate and energy modelling and updated priorities on emissions reductions. You may remember this was also done back in 2013 as part of the municipality’s award-winning Climate Action and Energy Plan.

That plan failed to result in the actions needed to meet its goals. Meanwhile the climate crisis has accelerated to the point where scientists are now warning about the threat to civilization itself. Standing still in North Cowichan or anywhere else is not an option, so this time needs to be different. We must act with the same urgency we’ve done with COVID-19.

A deeper dive follows, but here’s the shorter version: compared to 2013, the “Climate Action and Energy Plan Update” so far makes a disconcerting shift away from climate solutions where North Cowichan as a municipality has the jurisdiction to act, such as land use. At the same time, the updated plan seems to rely on unrealistic levels of electric vehicle uptake to bail us out of bad planning decisions at a time when gas-guzzling SUV and truck sales are actually still growing.

The modelling seeks to give us a snapshot of where North Cowichan is at right now on energy and emissions, then projects 30 years into the future in a ‘baseline’ scenario where no action is taken. Then it models various interventions and quantifies possible emissions reductions.

It’s good that the model is comprehensive in tracking all emissions in the North Cowichan region, but to date it’s missing a filter that zeroes in on emissions driven by municipal decisions and actions. As a result, it concludes with “big moves” for the municipality, like reducing industrial emissions, that are dependent on the decisions and dollars of other levels of government.

Likewise, on transportation emissions, it relies on very rapid uptake of electric vehicles, which again is mainly driven by provincial and federal policies and money. Helpfully, the model does talk about modal shifts away from cars and towards transit and active transportation, which are things municipalities can act on more effectively, but then leaves these out of its “big moves” in its conclusion.

Meanwhile, the biggest missing piece in the update is urban land use. In the 2013 plan shifting to more compact communities was the largest solution, and one that saves money (since spread out towns cost more to build and maintain). More sprawl equals more Vehicle Kilometres Travelled (VKT) and more emissions. The new model does call for more concentrated development than the current inadequate urban containment boundaries will lead to, but a commitment to rapidly shift the balance away from building new single-family homes toward more multi-family homes is missing.

Unless we shift the conversation back to include areas more in municipal jurisdiction, like climate-smart land use and transportation modal shifts, North Cowichan will likely end up missing-in-action on the climate emergency front for another seven years. This is not something we can afford.

Over the next weeks the public will be asked to weigh in on the new modelling. This is a critical conversation that could help set the direction of North Cowichan for decades to come. We hope that people will take some time to express their opinions.




Here’s the deeper dive:

Interestingly, the modelling update has been done by the same company as in 2013 so it’s not a case of a shift brought about by a different contactor. Instead, according to a presentation to council, the shift is apparently due to “better data” on things like industrial emissions, as well as technology advancements, particularly the deployment of electric vehicles.

This is hard to evaluate since all models are based on a raft of assumptions, many of which aren’t visible to the reader. This really matters when you project things out 30 years like this modelling does since it involves making educated guesses about the future. Even if the modelling is off by only a little bit today, that compounds into a huge difference later. Bottom line is that no model is “neutral,” even when it’s presented as a series of seemingly objective graphs and numbers. Instead the hope is that any model illuminates more than it obscures.

The baseline assumptions about how energy and emission will track are good examples, seen in these graphs from the latest modelling:

Here you see the prominence of industrial emissions, referenced above as based on a better understanding of them than in 2013. However, municipalities don’t regulate industrial emissions. The same can be said about agriculture. A graph more focused on energy and emissions related to municipal jurisdiction would look very different and guide us to different conclusions.

Meanwhile, transportation is very much within municipal jurisdiction, particularly at the intersection of where municipal urban planning decisions – eg. new subdivisions – affect something called Vehicle Kilometres Travelled (VKT). The more a municipality lets development spread out, the greater the VKT and the greater the emissions (with internal combustion engines).

Strangely, the new North Cowichan modelling projects transportation emissions will drop even without changes. It assumes that by 2050 the municipality will add 9,025 people but that the number of vehicles will drop by 1,170. In the presentation to council this was passed over quickly, with reference to an ageing population and more efficient cars. This is a debatable assumption, since even older people who have to live in North Cowichan’s current urban form would have no choice other than to drive and, as we’ll see below, the trend towards lower emission cars is being put on hold by a greater number of people buying SUVs and trucks.

With some baseline assumptions about energy use and emissions going forward, one can then begin to apply potential ‘fixes’ in what the model calls a “low carbon scenario.” This is where the questions of jurisdiction and technology really begin to bite.

For example, because industrial emissions are such a large chunk, somebody definitely needs to address them, but will it be the municipality? Local governments don’t really have much authority here so it’s really up to other levels of government, not that North Cowichan shouldn’t lobby them for action!

Regarding transportation emissions, the model does suggest several fixes within municipal jurisdiction like encouraging “modal” shifts away from cars with 25% of trips by transit and 35% by walking and biking by 2050. It also recommends more compact communities, funneling new development into areas even smaller than the current inadequate urban containment boundaries.

The model’s biggest technology bet is on electric vehicles, suggesting that fully 100% of new vehicle purchases are electric by 2030. Now we’d dearly love this to be true, but again remember that electric vehicle uptake is mostly the jurisdiction of the federal and provincial governments via regulation (BC says all new cars sold will be “zero emissions” by 2040) and through subsidies (both federal and provincial). Unfortunately, those governments tend to swing back and forth between parties that accelerate climate action and those that turn around and toss everything out again.

This brings us to the SUV/truck problem. While it’s true that electric vehicle sales are rising, at the same time so is the purchase of larger vehicles that burn more gas. Just look around the streets of Duncan and you will see it with your own eyes. It’s like a growing minority of people are eating more vegetables, but the majority are eating more donuts, wiping out the overall calorie gains. This has implications both for the model’s assumptions about baseline transportation emissions, as well as for the size of emissions reductions in the low carbon scenario with non-electric vehicles.

North Cowichan should indeed do everything it can to encourage electric vehicle uptake, but given what we know today, 100% of new vehicles being electric by 2030 seems highly unlikely. This puts the onus back on other approaches more within municipal jurisdiction.

The need to not make things worse with more spread out new single family homes becomes more important, which is something council can act on much faster than the model’s low carbon option of only 10% new single family homes approved in 2050. Why not make that date 2025? What’s the hold up?

With well-planned, more compact development, the modal shifts away from cars become more viable and more immediate progress on denser housing is also important for affordability. If there is a silver bullet on modal shift locally, it may lie with the explosive rise of e-bikes and a unique opportunity in the Cowichan Valley. If trains aren’t economically viable on the E&N rail bed, imagine an e-bike-friendly trail between Ladysmith and Shawnigan connected to separated bike paths in urban areas. As inspiration for us here, 49% of all commuter trips in Copenhagen are now by bike, and they are still pushing to increase that number.

Finally, the current conclusion from the new modelling borrows the language of “big moves” from cities like Vancouver to summarize North Cowichan’s proposed actions to reduce emissions, saying five of them account for 94% of emissions reductions in the model:

  1. Electric vehicles (personal and commercial)
  2. Replace natural gas with renewable natural gas and hydrogen
  3. Increase industrial energy efficiency
  4. Increase carbon sequestration in forests
  5. Home energy efficiency retrofits (including heat pumps)


How electric vehicles make the list while transportation modal shifts don’t when the model assumes 60% of trips shift to transit and walking/biking is quite odd.

And, because the model hasn’t filtered for municipal jurisdiction, most of these “big moves” rely on other levels of government to either regulate or use their superior fiscal capacity to implement at the scale needed. The exception is forests, with North Cowichan lucky that it owns its own municipal forests, and it can also regulate greater carbon retention across the rest of its landscape (eg. tree bylaws).

It makes more sense for the “big moves” to be things the municipality can actually do. The biggest move for municipalities will always be their influence over urban land use, transportation mode, and VKT, which has been trending in the wrong direction for decades with urban sprawl. The good news is that tackling this problem is not only good for the climate, but also good for housing affordability and for creating more livable and connected communities. And, ending sprawl saves money.

What are the next steps? North Cowichan is about to embark on a round of public consultations where people will be given an opportunity to provide input. This is a critical exercise for our collective future, so we hope you will participate.