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  • BC's climate debate heats up

    Judith Lavoie

    We analyzed the climate action strategies of BC’s political parties in the lead-up to May’s election.


    ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON LAST SUMMER, after a six-month delay, the BC Liberals released their climate plan. It was a time slot guaranteed to attract the least possible public attention. Still, with announcements that the carbon tax would remain frozen and the 2020 emissions target abandoned, the plan was predictably greeted by charges that Premier Christy Clark had abandoned any pretense of the climate leadership claimed under former premier Gordon Campbell.

    Thomas Pedersen, chair of the Canadian Climate Forum and founding executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, wrote in an email that the Liberal plan not only ensured that BC would miss the legislated 2020 target, but the Province would almost certainly miss the 2030 target, suggested by its own Climate Leadership Team. He also said it was likely to miss the 2050 target of 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to 2007.

    “It would appear that Premier Clark has thrown in the towel with respect to taking any serious action on emissions reduction in BC,” said Pedersen, who hopes government inaction will be top of mind in the upcoming election.

    Indeed, as the May 2017 election looms, there’s an increasing appetite among voters to understand what measures are needed to address one of the primary social and economic problems facing the Province and the world at large.

    Marc Lee, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said there is little that could be called leadership and not much of a plan in the Liberal Climate Leadership Plan. “It’s more a glossy public relations document. For the most part they have delivered an advertising campaign that promotes them as a climate leader when, in fact, there’s almost nothing in that plan,” he said.

    It’s a view vehemently denied by Environment Minister Mary Polak, who insists the Liberals have not abandoned climate change, but are being practical. BC is already “way out in front” when it comes to a carbon tax, Polak said in an interview. “The last time I checked, if you are in front, you are not following anyone, you are leading and we are leading by a lot,” Polak said.


    The Liberal plan calls for BC to wait until other provinces catch up to the $30 per tonne carbon tax before increasing the level to $50 by 2022, as mandated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

    Polak pointed out that BC already has some of the lowest per capita emissions in the country because of clean hydropower.

    According to Environment Canada figures, the 2013 emissions per capita for BC were 13.7 tonnes, compared to the Canadian average of 20.7 tonnes per capita and a whopping 66-plus tonnes per capita in Alberta and Saskatchewan. However, BC is slightly above per capita rates for Ontario and Quebec.

    The relatively good performance makes it difficult to shave off emissions, Polak said. “The kind of emissions reductions we are going to get in BC are a lot of work to find. It’s a little like watching one of those programs where people compete to lose weight. If you are the person who is quite large, the weight drops quite quickly. If you are trying to drop the last 10 pounds, it’s difficult,” she said.


    IN CONTRAST TO THE MIDSUMMER DOLDRUMS announcement from the Liberals, provincial New Democrats, with well-publicized support from several environmental organizations, announced details of their climate action plan in February. They promised to, among other things, unfreeze the carbon tax and set emissions targets for 2030 and 2050.

    “I am sure it will be an issue in the election and we were more than happy to put out our plan well in advance of the election. We want people to know we have a plan and that we care,” said George Heyman, NDP environment spokesman. “It’s not a question of the environment or the economy. It’s a question of a strong economy based on strong action on climate change.”

    Citing a study by Clean Energy Canada and Navius Research on the implications for jobs and the economy if BC met its 2050 climate target, the NDP plan states: “Climate leadership will create 900,000 new jobs between now and 2050 and provincial GDP is expected to nearly double to $425 billion a year by 2050.”

    New Democrats would increase the carbon tax from $30 a tonne to $50 a tonne by 2022—estimated to cost consumers an extra 4.4 cents per litre, meaning a total of about 11.4 cents a litre carbon tax—and would start phasing in the increase in 2020 instead of 2021 as required by the national carbon price.

    The NDP have made climate action a central plank of their platform. This contrasts to 2009 when they campaigned against a carbon tax. Leader John Horgan, while describing how the party views have changed since then, managed to accelerate the issue to the front burner with promises of a rebate cheque for 80 percent of households as the carbon tax increases, followed by direct investment of the tax proceeds in projects such as transit, infrastructure and clean technology. The NDP plan notes that right now “Less than 40 percent of BC families get a rebate from Christy Clark’s tax.” The bulk of the proceeds from the carbon tax—65 percent—go to corporate tax cuts.

    Adding drama to the climate action differences, BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, a noted climate scientist, is playing his cards close to his chest and holding back on releasing his plan.

    “We are not going to release the plan early because we have two parties that are out of ideas and, every time the BC Greens put something forward, they co-opt it as theirs. We will do it in due course,” Weaver said in an interview. When the BC Green’s roadmap to addressing climate change is released, it will certainly be better than anything that is currently on the table, he assured Focus.

    “The Liberals have no plan and the NDP plan is that we will do something in 2020…It’s clear they are just kicking the can down the road and they won’t be held accountable for anything because it’s 2020,” said Weaver, adding that there has to be new thinking to replace three decades of failing to meet targets.


    FOR THOSE WITHOUT A SCIENCE OR CLIMATOLOGY BACKGROUND, what are reasonable targets and how can the average voter assess the balance between economic interests and fighting climate change?

    It’s a question that Andrew Gage, West Coast Environmental Law Association staff counsel, has attempted to answer with a score card comparing the Liberal and NDP plans.
    Overall the NDP plan received a B and the Liberals received an F.

    “The BC NDP’s climate plan suffers from a lack of detail, which is understandable given the more limited resources of an opposition party. It is a promising start, which will need to be fleshed out further if the party wins the election in May,” he wrote. The BC Liberals, on the other hand, he stated, “seem to have dropped the mantle of climate action that their former leader, Gordon Campbell, had taken up.”

    In an interview, Gage explained that, provincially and nationally, governments have had a tradition of setting targets with no plans to get us there. Time is running out, he noted, yet the Liberal plan will not reduce emissions until after 2030. His scorecard shows that the Liberals, although they met the 2012 targets, failed to meet the 2016 target and will fail to meet the legislated 2020 target. “The government’s plan does affirm the 2050 target of an 80 percent reduction in emissions, but identifies no path to achieving it,” the score card notes.

    The NDP plan also aims to achieve the 2050 target but proposes a new 2030 target of 40 percent reduction. The NDP will also create new targets for different parts of the BC economy, such as transportation, industry and home building, the report card notes.

    On the job creation front, WCEL gives the NDP a B because it “recognizes the synergies between building a new type of economy and job creation” and its willingness to divert carbon tax revenue into transit, building retrofits and other measures to reduce carbon pollution.

    The Liberals earn only a D: “The Liberal plan assumes that job creation lies in conventional industries, and does not fully realize the job creation potential of moving towards a sustainable economy.”

    Gage noted that BC’s carbon emissions are on an upwards trajectory, and that the Liberal plan relies largely on forestry measures—ranging from tree-planting and fertilizing forests to increase the amount of carbon they can store, to using wood for building rather than pulp and paper.

    Polak, when asked about this, argued that the government’s aggressive actions on forestry will save about 11 megatonnes annually. The government is aiming to reduce annual emissions by 20 megatonnes  by 2050.

    And, she insisted, emissions are not continuing to rise. “What we have seen is a slight uptick and then a slight downturn in the following years. The trend line is still down and we would like to see it going down more,” she said. Provincial figures show that in 2014—the latest year for which data is available—BC’s emissions had dropped by about 5.5 percent from the 66.3 megatonnes of emissions in the baseline year of 2007. However, there has been a 2.7 per cent increase since 2011.

    To Polak’s complaint that the NDP plan gives no details on how to achieve targets, Heyman told me the NDP plan lays out the framework and, if elected as government, one of its first steps will be to reconvene the Climate Leadership Team—adding labour representatives to the mix of environmentalists, academics, First Nations, community and industry representatives—to recommend how to cut emissions sector by sector.


    THE CLIMATE LEADERSHIP TEAM was put together by the Clark government in May 2015 with a mandate to provide recommendations on updating the Province’s climate action plan and advising government on policies needed to meet emissions targets while maintaining a strong economy.

    The members were a who’s-who of the academic, environmental, First Nations, business and community sectors, with members such as Pedersen, Matt Horne of the Pembina Institute, Merran Smith of Clean Energy Canada and David Keane of the BC LNG Alliance.

    Remarkably, in November 2015, the team released a blueprint for reducing carbon pollution and reached consensus on 32 recommendations, with only one key recommendation on increasing the carbon tax by $10 a year starting in 2018, having a dissenting opinion from one member.

    The recommendations included reaffirming the 2050 target of 80 percent reduction in emissions below the 2007 level; a 2030 target of 40 percent reduction, broken down through the transportation, industrial and building sectors; expanding coverage of the carbon tax to all emission sources; amending the Environmental Assessment Act to include the social cost of carbon; amending the Clean Energy Act to increase the target for clean energy to 100 percent by 2025; phasing out diesel generation in remote communities; reducing fugitive and vented methane emissions; and development of a low-carbon transportation strategy.

    The plan seems to have been removed from the web and Tzeporah Berman, a member of the team, said “Not a single recommendation was accepted as we designed it.” She also told Focus that the NDP has been consulting with team members and, although there is no plan to take up the team’s original recommendation of a $10 carbon tax increase by 2018, the plans appear positive. She feels it makes sense to harmonize carbon tax increases with federal pricing and simultaneously increase regulations to meet emissions reduction targets.

    Berman also noted that, “The evidence is showing regulations in California, like zero emission vehicles and tighter low carbon fuel standards are having a bigger impact than price, ” and that both are needed to meet targets.

    Polak disputed the claim that her government has ignored all the recommendations. “The plan we announced, which is only phase one and will get us 25 megatonnes, addresses 19 of their 32 recommendations,” she said. “Where the team was expressing their displeasure was with us not taking the aggressive pricing they wanted us to pursue in our carbon tax and there is good reason for that,” Polak said. Other provinces have to first come up to BC’s standard, she reiterated.


    THE STICKING POINT for many environmental groups doing comparisons of the climate plans is the Liberals’ inclusion of subsidies for the LNG industry.

    Provincial numbers show natural gas accounted for 18 percent of the Province’s 2014 emissions, and they will rise if the LNG industry takes off.

    Polak argues that using electricity instead of natural gas in the production of both oil and gas, reduces emissions while ensuring that jobs are saved. She said that, on the international stage, many jurisdictions are a couple of decades away from viable renewable energy, such as solar or wind, so offering natural gas from BC, which is “the cleanest LNG in the world,” means they are not using coal or diesel. “You have a chance to significantly reduce emissions worldwide,” she said.

    BC has an emissions cap on LNG facilities, but critics say that although LNG is cleaner than coal, emissions from extraction still make it impossible to count LNG as a clean industry.

    West Coast Environmental Law’s Andrew Gage said BC’s climate plan must be one of the only ones in the world that proposes to increase subsidies to fossil fuels in the name of climate action, through cheap electricity and infrastructure for LNG and other oil and gas operations. “Making sure the LNG industry has cheap electricity seems to be counter to the goals of a climate plan. When you make sure you have extra ways to extract fossil fuels, I don’t consider it to be a climate plan. It’s more a ‘let’s appear to be doing something’ plan,” he said.

    Economist Marc Lee described government support for LNG expansion and subsidies, which include a low royalty regime locked in for 25 years, as a massive contradiction. “All of that will completely swamp any benefits that are going to come from this very modest plan,” he said.

    As for the NDP, leader John Horgan has said LNG projects will be considered only if they are in the right location, First Nations concerns are resolved, and emissions fit within a carbon reduction plan.

    For Heyman the key is developing clean energy in BC and creating jobs based on a green economy. “If you look around the world, the clean energy sector is thriving…We can do that in BC if we have a carbon reduction plan throughout every sector that is mapped out for years to come,” he said.

    Weaver, who finds little substance in the NDP plan, does agree that clean energy and green jobs are the key to a prosperous future for BC. “We cannot talk about a climate plan in isolation from an economic plan. That will be our strategy. Our climate plan will actually be our economic plan,” he said. “The economic opportunity of dealing with emissions is the greatest economic revolution humanity will ever experience,” he said.

    Steve Kux, a climate change analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, said BC has a long way to go in supporting a clean tech industry, even though it is apparent that those are the jobs that will become more valuable as the world moves away from fossil fuels. “There’s definitely an opportunity. The question is whether or not we are going to see it,” he said.

    As political parties present their conflicting views of the best way to fight emissions and deal with the changing climate, the Province’s Auditor General Carol Bellringer is looking at whether the Province is adequately managing risks presented by climate change. Unfortunately, her report will not be completed until after the election.
    So British Columbians will have to weigh the different visions before heading to the polls. Andrew Gage is hoping people will vote for the kind of future they want to see for our planet and communities. “Climate change has always been an issue that the more you understand about it, the more upsetting and scary it gets,” he said.

    Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.

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