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Coolants may be hot target for new Metro Vancouver climate change rules

Electric cars and charging stations are high-profile tools in the fight against climate change. But plugging leaks in commercial refrigerators might do much more to reduce emissions within Metro Vancouver. - Black Press file photo
Electric cars and charging stations are high-profile tools in the fight against climate change. But plugging leaks in commercial refrigerators might do much more to reduce emissions within Metro Vancouver.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

A surprise climate change culprit may soon be in the crosshairs of Metro Vancouver as regional district planners pursue tough new regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Commercial freezers and refrigeration units found in supermarkets, warehouses and other industries that aren't properly maintained can leak specialized chemicals that are potent greenhouse gases (GHGs).

According to Metro estimates, those coolant leaks could be equivalent to releasing 500,000 to 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in this region, because some refrigerant chemicals have up to 12,000 times the warming effect as regular CO2.

Eliminating the leaks could therefore cut up to one tenth of the region's current greenhouse gas emissions of 15 million tonnes per year, helping Metro toward its goal of a 33 per cent reduction (from 2007 levels) to 10.5 million tonnes by 2020.

So senior planners are beginning to consider imposing fees and violation penalties on businesses with such cooling units to ensure they're periodically tested and inefficient units get fixed.

It would be Metro's first foray into greenhouse gas regulation, tearing a page from similar climate change rules to control refrigerants in California.

Except the regional district isn't yet sure it has the legal authority.

"It's a good test case," said Roger Quan, Metro's director of air quality and environment.

Metro has provincially delegated authority to regulate regional air contaminants and already has a mandatory carrot-and-stick program in place that punishes owners of older soot-belching off-road diesel machines, while offering them rebates on their fees if they retrofit.

The question is whether that regulatory power can extend to greenhouse gases, not just localized pollution.

Quan noted federal law has designated greenhouse gases as air toxics.

"We think there's a case to be made for looking at greenhouse gases as air contaminants."

A first step would be seeking a legal opinion, then Metro would extensively consult affected businesses.

If Metro's power over GHGs is confirmed, it could set the stage for more rules to rein in emissions, staff told Metro directors Wednesday at a workshop on climate change strategies under consideration.

North Vancouver District Coun. Mike Little said he's surprised businesses wouldn't already be aware of refrigerant leaks, because it would cost them extra money all the time, but added it could be "low-hanging fruit" for emission reductions if the estimates are correct.

"We have a responsibility to explore it," he said.

A program of mandatory testing for refrigeration systems might cost up to $300,000 to develop but then be self-funded through fees, Metro planners say.

It's thought that cost savings from plugging leaks will help owners, who may also be encouraged to put curtains and covers over open coolers and freezers in supermarkets to cut energy costs.

Air quality planner Eve Hou stressed a wide range of measures must be pursued – rather than aiming at just one single sector – if the region is to have a shot at hitting its targets, which also call for an 80 per cent reduction by 2050.

Metro's two biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions are vehicles and buildings – each make up a third of the total.

If the 2020 target were to be hit strictly by targeting vehicle emissions, it would require taking 90 per cent of vehicles off the road by then, or converting all of them to electrics.

Other emission sources are industry (15 per cent), ships and other non-vehicle machinery (15 per cent), agriculture (three per cent) and waste (two per cent).

Over the long term, planners expect the impact of vehicles to decline as car technology improves, but building heating emissions are expected to continue to climb.

Emission cuts must come from many sources: Metro

It's hoped that careful regional and local land-use planning will do much to cut carbon emissions within Metro Vancouver over the long term.

As people live in denser, more complete neighbourhoods, planners say, more residents should be able to shop, work and play near where they live, with more scope to walk, bike or take transit instead of driving.

Denser residential housing can also be heated more efficiently, and district energy systems can slash carbon emissions in dense downtowns.

Another idea being floated by Metro is to create energy efficiency labels for new homes, in partnership with willing developers.

Vancouver Coun. Raymound Louie said there should also be a mandatory energy audit and similar disclosure for resale homes as well, so buyers know the carbon footprint and monthly energy cost of the home they're buying.

"The new homes are not, mostly, the problem," Louie said. "It's those old ones that are the problem."

Other initiatives Metro is considering to cut carbon emissions include increased capture and use of landfill gas from the closed Coquitlam landfill and increased capture of heat and methane from its sewage system.

One project completed in recent years was the installation of six electric car charging stations in Metro regional parks.

Coupled with the installation of other publicly available chargers by cities and partners, there are now 235 charging stations region-wide.

It's hoped they give residents more comfort they'll be able to charge up an electric car if they buy one.

The number of all-electric vehicles in the region have quadrupled in the last 18 months, but they're still a tiny share of the one million vehicles on the road.

As of January, there were 579 electric vehicles registered in Metro, and a significant number of those are part of government or corporate fleets.

It's hoped electric cars could gain a three to five per cent share by 2020, cutting annual GHGs by around 200,000 tonnes.

Much also depends on federal and provincial policies, said Vancouver Coun. Heather Deal, Metro's environment and parks committee chair.

She said Metro will push senior governments to strengthen B.C.'s Building Code, impose cap-and-trade emissions regulations, raise B.C.'s carbon tax, invest more in transit and provide more rebates and incentives for retrofits and other emission reductions.

Metro's member cities must also do more to help achieve the target, Deal said.

"If we're not providing dense communities where people have the opportunity to live not only in buildings that are better constructed but using less of their vehicles, it will be a big challenge."

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