VANCOUVER â€" James Hankle, a software engineer in his 50s sporting bluejeans and a Green Party T-shirt, is explaining his fix for Vancouver's runaway property prices when he's interrupted by an eavesdropping passer-by: "Stop allowing people from China to buy our houses and leave them vacant," she says and walks away.
Despite British Columbia's aversion to pipelines and affection for pot, housing affordability has pushed both aside as the No. 1 issue raised by area residents in the run-up to Canada's election this month. It's not completely surprising given that Vancouver has become North America's most expensive city.
Surging purchase prices have triggered protest movements like #donthave1million, started by a group of young professionals frustrated at being shut out of home ownership. They complain of having to delay starting families as they remain bunked in with roommates, often into their 30s and beyond.
The affordability issue speaks to broader campaign themes: the difficulty young people face getting established in the labor market, the economic anxieties of the middle class, growing concerns about income inequality, support for families with children. Residents also increasingly point fingers at wealthy Chinese immigrants and investors whose lavish embrace of the Pacific metropolis of 2.5 million has inspired reality TV shows with such gaudy names as "Ultra Rich Asian Girls in Vancouver."
Vancouver, with its 2.23 million Canadian dollar ($1.7 million) average price tag for a detached home, is playing an unusual role in the national election to be held Oct. 19. British Columbia is the only place where all four national parties are competitive â€" the Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats and Greens â€" and, given the tightness of the race, its choices could spell the difference. As of now, the New Democrats and Liberals look likely to take some seats away from the Conservatives in the region, according to poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com.
The top contenders for prime minister, incumbent Conservative Stephen Harper, Liberal Justin Trudeau and New Democrat Tom Mulcair, have all given voice on campaign stopovers to the city's particular anxiety by promising they will, if elected, gather data on foreign ownership of its pricey condos and bungalows.
"There are real concerns that foreign, non-resident real estate speculation is the reason some Canadian families find house prices beyond their budgets," Harper said Aug. 12 in Vancouver. "That is a matter we can and should do something about."
Though no expert on the subject, Hankle, like just about everyone else across the city, is obsessed with the topic and increasingly resigned to never owning a house himself. Standing in Yaletown, a one-time industrial site where nearby two-bedroom apartments can go for 1.8 million Canadian dollars ($1.38 million), he calls on political parties competing for his vote to build more low-cost housing and introduce programs to guarantee people a livable minimum income.
He also picks up on the theme of the passing woman, saying governments need to begin collecting data on exactly who's coming into the city and their impact on affordability. "There's a huge concentration of wealth and it just isn't sustainable," he says.
Unlike the U.S., Canada didn't experience a housing price collapse with the global recession and has defied predictions ever since that the bubble is about to burst. With the exception of declines in 2009, 2012 and 2013, housing prices have risen in each of the past 15 years, with the cost doubling from August 2005 to 2015, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, out-pacing wage gains.
Condos in Kitsilani, Vancouver â€" Photo: Roland Tanglao
"Our big challenge is affordable housing," said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, in a Sept. 25 interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York. "It's been difficult to deal with more affordable housing for a younger work force in particular."
The Economist Intelligence Unit has named Vancouver the most expensive city to live in North America and a 2014 study by consultancy Demographia cited it as the second-least affordable housing market in the world after Hong Kong. Rising prices in Vancouver pushed housing affordability to "risky levels" in the second quarter as the costs of owning a bungalow rose to an unprecedented 86.9 percent of household income, an August report by RBC Capital Markets said.
"There's national trend on affordability and it gets especially bleak in Vancouver," said Paul Kershaw, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the impacts of public policy on housing. "The dynamic is signaling a change in the standard of living and home ownership that has been the norm for previous generations."
Vancouver's 25- to 34-year-old cohort earns less and carries more debt than a generation ago, Kershaw said, meaning it now takes 10 working years to save for a down payment versus two years back then.
Although harder pressed, Vancouver families are in good company in borrowing more and more to get ahead. The debt of the average Canadian household now stands at a record 165 percent of disposable income, according to Statistics Canada, about 30 points higher than before the recession and matching the levels of U.S. debt when its housing market crashed. Still, in Vancouver at least, prices are galloping ahead so quickly, they "make it a stretch" for a typical household to get into the market.
"It's possible to live decently here as long as you're single and don't have dependents," said Scott McFadyen, 38, an audio designer in the video game industry who moved to Vancouver from Alberta. "Truthfully, I'm thinking twice about starting a family here."
*With assistance from Katia Dmitrieva in Toronto.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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