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Policy vs. personal responsibility: New West council rejects carbon declaration

Carbon emission declaration proposal: New West council members won’t be reporting on their annual travel, housing and vehicle use
A proposed carbon declaration would have had council members voluntarily reporting annually on their travel, vehicle and housing situations.

New West council members won’t be sharing details about their travel, vehicle ownership or home ownership as part of a proposed carbon emission declaration.

Councillors Daniel Fontaine and Paul Minhas put forward motion proposing a carbon emission declaration and pledge form for members of city council. It was intended to estimate their carbon emissions, based on a number of items, including personal trips (planes, trains, automobiles, motorcycles), business/work trips, personal vehicle ownership and usage (electric, hybrid, fossil-fuel based) and home ownership types (single-family home, townhome, condo).

The motion directed the city’s environment and climate advisory committee to develop a declaration and pledge form for council’s consideration. It also stated that the carbon emission declaration and pledge form should allow council members to make a pledge for the coming year to personally undertake up to three new environmental activities that will help them lower their own carbon emissions.

Aside from Fontaine and Minhas, no other council members supported the motion. Two local environmentalists also visited council chambers Monday night to oppose the motion.

Jennifer Nathan expressed “dismay” about the motion, saying policy related to reducing emissions and transportation policies, not individual actions, is the best way city officials can make a difference in the climate crisis.

“We're in a climate emergency, she said. “We are going to need a massive transformation before the end of the decade to rethink how we do almost everything and we need it during your time on council.”

Nathan read out a statement made in the House of Commons, in which a MP who supports the oil and gas industry questioned another MP about whether he’d brushed his teeth that morning, if his suit, shirt, shoes, computer or hair care products contained petroleum and how he got to work that day – or if he wanted to go and sit naked in a forest.

“It is possible to want to act on climate without being asked how we get around, about our clothes, our cell phone or any other myriad of products tied to fossil fuels,” she said. “As if, without personal fossil fuel purity, we cannot push for climate action. It's a silly argument.”

New West resident Karen Crosby said a 2017 report by the Climate Accountability Institute showed that 70 per cent of emissions have come from about 100 fossil fuel companies.

“Yes, we all need to take the individual actions that we can,” she said. “And yet these individual actions alone will not be enough.”

Crosby said “systemic change” is critical to addressing the climate crisis, and she wants city council to focus on making these things happen in New West and working with other municipalities to influence provincial and federal government, where change is most really needed.

Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said she personally has no problem disclosing her carbon emissions, as she’s a vegan, lives in a small place and doesn’t have a car. However, she fears the carbon emissions declaration could potentially put other people in a more difficult position, as they may not be able bodied and able to walk or cycle everywhere or they may be immigrants who have to visit families overseas.

“We haven't built cities in a way that actually necessarily supports everyone to be able to move about equitably, and, until we do that, I don't think it's on individual action,” she said. “I think that always, always policy trumps individual action.”

Nakagawa said she’d prefer to focus on policy-based solutions, rather than individualized actions. She believes that policy-based solutions, such as implementing the city’s Seven Bold Steps on climate action, is the type of work that will truly make a difference and have an impact on emissions.

Coun. Jaimie McEvoy his personal circumstances have changed in the past three years, as he’s gone from “the guy who walked everywhere” to someone relies on a taxi to get around. He explained that he’s dealing with a growing disability and spinal arthritis.

“I'm explaining it tonight, but I'm not sure I want to explain it in an annual report,” he said.

McEvoy said he shared his story to show that some people don't necessarily have a choice or have the same choices they used to have.

Mayor Patrick Johnstone said the proposal would “do nothing to move the needle on emissions in the city” and there’s a lot of work to be done.

 “I think it sends the wrong message,” he said. “It sends a message that climate action is about personal, not just personal actions or interactions, but personal sacrifice.”

Personal sacrifice may have been a “compelling idea” a couple of decades ago, but said that’s not the case in 2023.

“We know that avoiding the worst impacts of climate disruption aren't going to take us reducing the number of straws we use; it's going to take us changing a government that is spending $20 billion building a pipeline that will move the equivalent of 150 billion straws a day through it,” he said. “It is about changing policy.”

Johnstone said elected officials have not just the ability, but the responsibility, to change policy.

Fontaine said he thought the motion would easily be supported by council, given that city council has supported the Seven Bold Steps.

“The one thing that the seven steps actually miss is personal responsibility, collectively, as leadership within this council,” he said.

At a time when council is implementing policies to tackle climate change and asking citizens to take action to protect the environment, Fontaine said the motion was intended to demonstrate that council members are taking action themselves.

“I thought long and hard about that, whether it's voluntary or mandatory, and then I chose to write the motion with the word voluntary in it,” he said of the declaration. “Because if you don't want to fill it out, then you simply don't have to; there’s nothing forcing you or mandating you to do it. It is completely voluntary.”

Johnstone, McEvoy, Nakagawa and councillors Ruby Campbell and Tasha Henderson opposed the motion.

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus

📣 SOUND OFF: Do you like the idea of New Westminster city council members declaring their travel, vehicle and housing situations in an annual personal carbon emissions declaration? Is that asking too much? Is policy more impactful than personal actions? Send us a letter.

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