Three years after the New Democrats assumed power, BC is further behind in meeting emissions reductions targets.
ON THE DAY FOLLOWING the BC government’s release of its 2020 Climate Change Accountability report, the December 17, 2020 Times Colonist front page was brimming with stories: COVID-19 rules, a column on government process, as well as a non-announcement of a possible future film studio, a story promising that unnamed investors for the studio were “hiding in the woodwork.”
Notable for its absence—from the entire December 17 issue—was the one story that is arguably far more significant than nameless, invisible investors: that the target for BC’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has become ever more distant; that the government failed to come through on its promise to tell us how it is going to meet the required emissions reductions. And that BC’s emissions are vastly larger than the usually quoted figures, once forest-management-related emissions are counted.
A ProQuest newspaper database search revealed that the Times Colonist was not alone in its inattention. Three other large dailies—the Vancouver Sun, the Province and the Globe and Mail all ignored the report on BC’s worrisome emissions predicament in a year when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us we had to begin reducing emissions if we are to avoid making Earth uninhabitable.
Readers of some regional newspapers fared better. The Abbotsford News ran a Canadian Press story in its December 17, 2020 issue, a story that included critical comments from environmental organizations Stand.earth, Sierra Club BC, Georgia Strait Alliance, and the Pembina Institute.
Though the National Post ran a version of the same December 16 Canadian Press story, it was much shortened, and omitted the environmental activists’ criticisms. CBC’s online news site also ran a condensed version of the Canadian Press story, but offered no in-depth analysis. And the only person quoted by CBC was Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman. Not one environmentalist.
Climate crisis? What climate crisis?
Carbon intensity: not a relevant measure
So what does the Province’s 2020 Climate Change Accountability report tell us? For one thing it proudly points to progress on the carbon intensity front: “Between 2007 and 2018, net GHG emissions grew by 6 percent while the economy grew by 26 percent. That means that the GHG intensity of our economy decreased by 16 percent since 2007.”
It notes that the carbon intensities of population and buildings also decreased. Emissions per person and per square meter of building space both fell in the same 2007–2018 period.
Does that mean we’re winning the climate change battle?
Not so fast. The planet doesn’t give a flying fig about the economy’s carbon intensity, nor about how many tonnes of GHGs each person or each square meter in buildings is responsible for.
When it comes to global heating, the relevant number is total greenhouse gas emissions. To demonstrate how silly focusing on carbon intensity is, consider this: By doubling the province’s gross domestic product—such as by having many more car crashes—the BC economy’s carbon intensity would halve, other things being equal, while our total emissions could increase.
The energy intensity of floor space has dropped by 22 percent for commercial buildings and 23 percent for residential. However, the total building energy use has increased, thanks to more and bigger buildings. Similarly for population. Needless to say, the last thing the planet needs is more people, even though boosting the population would almost certainly reduce per-person emissions.
Unfortunately, our total emissions continue to increase. The last year for which emissions are available is 2018, the first full year of the NDP’s reign. In that year, they jumped from 65.8 to 67.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e), 3.3 percent over 2017.
To put that figure in context, Oregon’s emissions fell 1.1 percent from 2017 to 2018, though they increased slightly the following year, according to preliminary data for 2019. Washington State’s emissions rose 1.3 percent and California’s increased 1.9 percent in 2018. Once more, BC is lagging its US partners in the Pacific Coast Collaborative when it comes to getting a grip on controlling emissions, and getting further away from its legislated emissions reduction goal of 40 percent below 2007 emissions by 2030.
Accountability lacking in accountability report
In some respects, Clean BC’s 2020 Climate Change Accountability Report seems to have been rushed out the door weeks before the December 31, 2020 deadline, a deadline the NDP itself laid down when introducing CleanBC in December 2018. The report lacks a critical piece of information: How does the government plan to close the 6.5 Mt gap in emission reductions needed to reach CleanBC’s 2030 reduction target of 25.4 Mt?
According to Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman, writing in the report’s introduction: “We encountered unexpected challenges, and while we have not met this target date we will redouble our efforts…” Translation: We failed.
We still know nothing about where those extra emission cuts are going to come from, crucial information that we were promised by now. Heyman is now saying the new road map will come by the end of 2021.
But it gets worse. That 6.5 Mt gap is now between 7.2 Mt and 11.2 Mt, thanks to improved estimates from the government’s own modelling.
A second major problem with the December 2020 accountability report is that it says nothing about how well CleanBC is working, on the grounds that emissions data for 2019, the first year of the program, are not yet available. For reasons that are unfathomable to me, it takes approximately two years for the federal and BC governments to agree on emissions data for each year. In other words, there is little in the way of accountability concerning CleanBC—in CleanBC’s own accountability report. Perhaps the report should instead have been entitled: “A collection of euphemistic fog.”
For what it’s worth, the report does update emission projections for 2030, admittedly not an easy task. The latest model estimates that BC’s emissions will then total 47.2 Mt, up from the earlier estimate of 44.3 Mt.
Besides the accountability report itself, two related documents have also been released recently. One is a November 26, 2020 letter from the government’s Climate Solutions Council, which advises the government on meeting emissions.
The Council’s letter warned that BC is falling behind schedule in reaching its legislated targets of 40 percent below 2007 levels by 2030, 60 percent in 2040 and 80 percent in 2050.
“Recent ministry modelling shows that BC is not at present on track to meet its 2030 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target,” said the letter. Hence the 7.2 Mt to 11.2 Mt in emissions reductions yet to be found.
The government-appointed volunteer council includes environmentalists, labour representatives, First Nations, industry representatives and others. One member is Scott Maloney, the “vice-president, environment” of Teck Resources, a company whose claim to fame includes proposing the development of one of Canada’s largest tar sands projects, near Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park. (Following energetic opposition by environmentalists, in February, 2020 Teck dropped the $20 billion project.)
Another Council member is Skye McConnell, a manager with Shell Canada, which is the main partner in the wholly foreign-owned LNG Canada project. McConnell, a registered Shell Canada lobbyist, lobbied various deputy ministers and other senior officials in several ministries no fewer than 11 times since September 2020. As of February 4, her last reported lobbying involved Les McLaren, an assistant deputy minister in the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. Topics discussed at those meetings included “LNG Bunkering: exploring opportunities for use of LNG [liquefied natural gas] as a marine fuel.”
Speaking of LNG: neither the Climate Solutions Council’s letter nor the accountability report itself even mentions the 8.14 Mt that the LNG Canada facility in Kitimat will add to BC’s emissions each year, purportedly starting years before CleanBC’s 2030 target date. As Marc Lee of BC’s Corporate Mapping Project has written: “BC’s targets are incompatible with provincial plans for an LNG export industry.”
The second supporting document, released in January 2021, is Supporting the Development of CleanBC by Vancouver consultants Navius Research. Submitted to the BC Climate Action Secretariat, its 123 pages comprise a closely reasoned analysis of the methodology, assumptions and results of CleanBC. (More from Navius’s analysis below.)
Offsets: like “Indulgences” in the Middle Ages
The Province refers to 2018’s emissions of 67.9 Mt as “gross.” However, according to the December accountability report, the “net” emissions are 1.0 Mt smaller, once “offset” forestry projects are counted. These projects are those “that improve the storage of carbon dioxide in BC’s forests,” says the report.
What are offsets? To explain, suppose that a factory currently emits 10 tonnes of CO2 -equivalent each year. Being a good corporate citizen, it wants to cut its emissions by 10 percent, but it proves costly to achieve this by modifying factory equipment. Instead, the facility buys one tonne of offsets from the BC Government’s offset program. That money might, for instance, be used to replace diesel generators in a remote northern community with solar- and wind-powered electricity. Consequently, emissions in the remote community fall, ideally by more than one tonne and at a lower cost than had the factory instead cut its own emissions. The result is an overall reduction in emissions.
In this hypothetical example, the benefit is obvious. But BC’s offsets as specified in the accountability report involve forest management, and that suggests a problem.
Mark Jaccard, who teaches sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University, helped design BC’s carbon tax in addition to other climate and energy policies. As well, he sits on the Climate Solutions Council.
Jaccard’s 2020 book, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, is arguably the best book in years on climate policy. Its tone is irreverent, attacking various widely-held tenets of climate policy. He doesn’t hold back when it comes to carbon offsets, comparing them with “indulgences” paid the church in the Middle Ages by rich Christians to expiate their sins.
Jaccard is especially tough on forest-related offsets, citing a Costa Rican program to help conserve forest land. Nearly all the land covered by the program could not be used for anything but forests. “Thus, forest land owners received money for not cutting down forests they were not going to cut down anyway,” says Jaccard. Put another way, the program lacked “additionality”—the requirement that it result in lower emissions than would have happened otherwise.
Doubtless pushed by Jaccard, in a November 26, 2020 advice letter to Heyman, the Climate Solutions Council advised of the risks inherent in relying on offsets to meet emissions targets. In a three-page appendix, it cited several problems with offsets, including a lack of additionality. Another problem, said the council in the letter, is that offsets can be a disincentive to invest in carbon reduction, by encouraging the purchase of offsets rather than reducing emissions.
Consequently, I will disregard the claim that BC’s 1.0 Mt in forest offsets means that emissions are really down by that much. BC’s 67.9 Mt of “gross emissions” were the actual emissions in 2018, according to the latest GHG inventory.
Smoke from a forest fire fills a valley in the Interior of BC
Ignoring an emissions elephant
But the province’s actual emissions are far greater than even the gross emissions addressed in the accountability report. As Focus publisher David Broadland has pointed out, missing from the official count are those connected with “Other Land Use.” In 2018, emissions in this category, by the government's own figures, totalled 236.0 Mt—approximately 3.5 times as much as the 67.9 Mt mentioned above.
What caused this huge glob of emissions? The vast majority, 199.7 Mt, came from one source: wildfires, which were worse in 2018 than the previous year—though not by much. In 2017, wildfires resulted in 163.3 Mt of GHG emissions.
Why not count those “other land use” emissions, which amount to 88 percent of BC’s emissions? In a phrase—they’re not our fault. Says the inventory’s so-called methodology book: They “are more volatile and largely determined by natural factors outside of human control.”
The Chutanli Lake forest fire in 2018. Many forest fires in BC start in or near clearcuts.
Huh? If the recent upsurge in forest fires isn’t largely anthropogenic, I don’t know what is. Of course, it is not just BC or Canadian humans contributing to the jump in forest fires. Does that mean we shouldn’t worry about it? Hardly. How about BC leading the way, and taking climate change more seriously than concerning ourselves with CleanBC’s politically-motivated goals of cutting only some of the trifling 12 percent of our actual emissions?
Besides, as Broadland’s research found, clearcut logging increases the risk of wildfire—which BC can do something about. Moreover, the carbon emissions prematurely released as a result of clearcut logging on publicly owned land are also huge. By international convention, emissions associated with tree cover loss are attributed to the year in which the tree cover loss occurred. Those emissions in BC, according to Broadland’s research, have been averaging about 110 megatonnes each year over the past 11 years, and are completely within the control of the BC government. For 2018, the Province acknowledged 41.4 megatonnes of such emissions, but doesn’t include them in its account of “total” emissions.
Slash piles being burned after logging on publicly owned land on Quadra Island
By not counting BC’s largest emission source, we are at an even greater risk of contributing to runaway global heating. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that BC somehow does manage to hit its CleanBC 2030 target of a 40 percent reduction in “net” GHGs. But omitted from the ebullient government press releases at the time—as now—will be logging and wildfire emissions, which will doubtless be even larger nine years from now, larger because there is no requirement to reduce them to meet CleanBC targets. In turn, this will lead to even higher logging and fire emissions.
Sierra Club BC senior forest and climate campaigner Jens Wieting urges the BC government to include forestry emissions in its official GHG inventory. In a September 3, 2020 news release, Wieting objected to the Province ignoring the “exploding growth” of BC’s forest management emissions, including those caused by clearcut logging, slash burning and worsening climate impacts like wildfires and insect outbreaks. “It is not too late for the BC government to amend CleanBC to make sure it addresses forest emissions as part of its efforts towards an economic recovery strategy post COVID-19,” said Wieting.
The gaping hole in BC’s emissions inventory makes the entire reporting mechanism under the so-called Climate Change Accountability Act for GHG reductions a sorry joke, a gutless public relations exercise—one that the politicians hope voters will not see through.
Forest management expert Dr Peter Wood wrote a detailed February 1, 2021 report for Sierra Club BC calling for a radical revision of how BC’s forests are managed. In particular, says the report, unless we stop clearcutting we face more frequent and intense forest fires, as well as increased risk of flooding, droughts and heatwaves.
Wood agrees that it is unacceptable to omit wildfire emissions from the provincial inventory, and calls this part of “the mathematics of convenience.” We can expect more such numerical shenanigans, Wood told Focus. “As countries are pressured into making bigger commitments on emissions reductions, the temptation to look for or create loopholes will also increase,” he says.
The slightly good news
Of the 67.9 Mt of carbon emissions CleanBC is prepared to admit, the biggest source is transportation (including heavy trucks, passenger vehicles, and off-road industrial transport), which spewed out 41 percent of the province’s emissions in 2018—an increase of 6 percent over 2017. Next came the oil and gas industry (20 percent), other industries (19 percent), buildings (12 percent), waste (5 percent) and deforestation (4 percent, but this does not include industrial forestry since the assumption is made that clearcut areas are replanted). (The percentages do not add to 100 percent, due to rounding.)
There are a couple of bright spots in the CleanBC accountability report.
One is electric vehicles. Electric cars have become an easy fix for part of BC’s growing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, helped by provincial and federal subsidies, sales of electric light vehicles more than doubled from 2018 and the province has nearly met CleanBC’s 2025 target—that 10 percent of new car sales be zero-emission—five years early, says the accountability report. (The term “zero-emission vehicles” includes those powered by hydrogen, a fuel which, depending on how the hydrogen is produced, may not be zero-emission—but that also applies to electricity.)
In 2020-21, BC budgeted $20 million for rebates for plug-in hybrids and battery-electric light vehicles.
The funding is growing. In the year beginning April 1, 2021, the Province will nearly double its spending on rebates, to $38 million. The Navius modelling assumes that this higher amount will continue through 2030.
Thanks to the additional rebates, much cheaper batteries, and sharply reduced operating costs for electric cars—e.g., no oil changes, engine tuneups, or transmission repairs—it’s likely that the 2040 target that every new light-duty vehicle be zero-emission will also be reached early. As a result, Navius estimates that emissions from light-duty vehicles will drop 24 percent by 2030 from the 8.5 Mt they produced in 2020—about 10 percent of last year’s total emissions (i.e., without counting forest fires etc.) They would fall more, except for the fact that in 2030 there will still be many fossil-fuelled vehicles on the road.
Another success lies in home heating, which represented 12 percent of 2018’s 67.9 Mt emissions. In 2019, the proportion of households warmed and cooled by heat pumps sat at 10 percent, more than three times the percentage in 2007, says the accountability report. Heat pump installations will likely continue to increase sharply, since government incentive money is projected to nearly quintuple in the next few years.
By complete coincidence, these pending large increases in money to help voters buy nicer cars and home heating systems will take effect in the run-up to the next provincial election, due in October 2024. (Of course, Premier John Horgan has been known to ignore legislated election dates.)
Despite these minor successes, BC’s total emissions continue to increase, while NASA reports that 2020 was tied with 2016 as the warmest year on record. Yet the Province still has no complete plan to help reverse this alarming trend.
Russ Francis notes that a January 31, 2021 New Zealand Climate Change Commission report advises cutting livestock numbers in that country 15 percent by 2030 as a means of reducing biogenic methane emissions. The freed-up land in that country, heavily dependent on the animal exploitation industry, would instead be used for agriculture and exotic forestry. In BC, animal production caused 2.0 Mt of emissions in 2018. Yet CleanBC is silent on the issue.