“Climate change is now reaching the end game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”
These are the recent words of Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a leading German climate scientist and senior advisor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union.
The reason for his warning: new research highlighting that the world might be closer to dangerous thresholds of uncontrollable climate change than previous studies have suggested.
One of the starkest examples of worsening climate impacts that speed up global warming are B.C.’s wildfires. Both the 2017 and 2018 wildfires have now burned more than 1.2 million hectares of the province, eight times more than the 10-year-average. B.C.’s 2017 fires caused an estimated 190 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, essentially quadrupling B.C.’s official annual emissions. This year will be similar.
“BC is just 4.5 million people sharing a planet with seven billion others. We have to be realistic about what our impacts would be,” said B.C. Premier John Horgan on August 21 when asked how the province can justify supporting the LNG Canada project, which will enable a massive increase in global greenhouse gas emissions from burning gas and leaking methane in B.C. and abroad.
This statement is a huge letdown for British Columbians. All parts of the international community consist of nations or regions with a few million people. What if all of them followed the same argument?
You would think all heads of governments would understand the term “tragedy of the commons.” This describes a situation in which individual users act according to their own self-interest — contrary to the common good — and destroy their own life support systems (such as a stable climate and a healthy environment) through their collective action.
The only path to break through the problem is leadership, particularly from those who fully grasp the threat for the entire planet, who bear most of the responsibility and who have the freedom to choose an alternative path.
Climate action must correspond to the scope and scale of the threat. Being so close to dangerous thresholds means insufficient actions in the fight against climate change will lead to similarly devastating outcomes as no action.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what we are seeing so far from the B.C. government in terms of climate action.
This is reflected in the three provincial intentions papers shared by the government in July for public comment on the topics of transportation, buildings and industry. Although they generally describe steps in the right direction, the intentions papers are seriously lacking in detail when it comes to expected reductions, timelines and an overall path toward meeting targets (see Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Pembina Institute, Guy Dauncey and Eric Doherty for more analysis).
Even more concerning is that the first set of intentions papers (and by the look of their titles, the next set too) are ignoring three elephants in the room. These elephants will completely overshadow the potential of solutions discussed in the papers, if left unaddressed. A meaningful climate action plan requires that the province addresses them.
The first elephant: Insufficient B.C. emissions reduction target
The first elephant in the room is that the new proposed target (40 per cent reduction by 2030 compared to 2007 levels) is a roadmap to climate hell, not climate stabilization.
All realistic remaining global emissions trajectories with the goal of preventing warming higher than 1.5 or 2 degrees require rapid movement toward zero emissions by 2040, and successfully reaching halfway to this goal by 2030. Richer countries with higher emissions per capita must move faster than poorer nations with lower emissions per capita.
The second elephant: New fossil fuel projects incompatible with meaningful climate action
The lack of a meaningful emissions reduction target leads directly to the second elephant in the room: the NDP government continues to pursue new LNG terminals, ignoring that new fossil fuel export projects are incompatible with coherent climate action and renewable energy progress that shows that truly clean, affordable and job-creating alternatives exist. In early August, Bloomberg reported that producers of renewable energy have installed their first trillion watts. Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects the next trillion watts will cost $1.2 trillion by 2023, only half the price of the first trillion watts.
Both the LNG Canada project and the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would massively increase provincial and national emissions and make it impossible to meet even our current, insufficient targets. Both projects have similar overall greenhouse gas footprints during their lifetimes (100 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in the case of LNG Canada and 120 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in the case of Trans Mountain when considering extraction, transportation, processing and burning in other nations after export).
True leadership requires following the example of France and banning all new fossil fuel extraction projects, combined with a phase out of existing projects by no later than 2040. The rationale for this urgently needed step is summarized in the Lofoten Declaration signed by more than 800 civil society organizations. It calls for a “managed decline of the fossil fuel sector in line with the Paris climate goals. The Declaration demands a just transition, it demands leadership in this phase-out from the countries that can afford it first, and it confirms that the movement to stand up to dangerous fossil fuel development must be led by those on the frontlines.”
Both B.C. and Canada belong to those parts of the world that remain among the most polluting on a per capita basis (British Columbians emit close to three times and Canadians more than four times more than the global average).
We live in a relatively rich part of the world, we happen to control resource extraction across vast lands with a relatively small population and we have many clean alternatives to the extraction and export of fossil fuels.
A number of countries have already committed to net zero emissions targets by 2040 or 2050. They include France, Iceland, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Bhutan. Driven by an alliance including Sweden and the UK, the European Union is heading in the same direction. In response to the wildfires, California just revised its targets for renewable energy to meet 50 per cent of its demand by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2045.
Without B.C. and Canada joining other nations in leading the fight against global warming, there will be little hope of inspiring others to follow and an increasing danger that those nations who have led the fight will give up and abandon hope.
The third elephant: Forest emissions
The third elephant in the room is the increasing amount of emissions from destructive logging, slash burning and wildfires. These emissions are often ignored because forest emissions are not counted as part of our official emissions — instead they are somewhat hidden as a memo item in provincial inventory reports.
This is a grave concern. For more than 10 years, instead of functioning as a carbon sink that helps fight global warming, B.C.’s forests have now lost more carbon than what they absorb. This means they are now a source of emissions. These emissions have grown even further in the past two years as a result of B.C.’s record-breaking fires.
A 2015 analysis of B.C. government data by Sierra Club BC showed net forest emissions of a quarter billion tonnes of carbon dioxide between 2003 and 2012 (equivalent to more than four times B.C.’s official annual emissions). This is in contrast to the 441 million tonnes of carbon dioxide they still absorbed between 1993 and 2002.
The shift from carbon sink to carbon source is caused by a number of climate-related factors including the mountain pine beetle outbreak and an increasing number of forest fires. However, during the period 2003 to 2012 the largest contributing factor was poor forest management.
Destructive logging practices, such as clear-cutting of old-growth rainforest and slash burning, are huge contributors to the carbon emissions from B.C. forests. Between 2003 and 2012, emissions from logging were a whopping 520 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (after accounting for carbon stored in wood products). Logging of old-growth forest on Vancouver Island alone causes millions of tonnes of additional annual carbon emissions. Emissions from logging carbon-rich old-growth could be reduced quickly by using some of the solutions developed in the Great Bear Rainforest as promised by the NDP in its 2017 election platform, combined with support for First Nations land use planning and a rapid transition to improved management of second-growth forests.
The province should also end the large-scale spraying of thousands of hectares of deciduous stands (e.g. aspen, alder and birch) with glyphosate, to promote the growth of purely coniferous forests. This step can help reduce the risk of wildfires, reduce emissions, increase carbon sequestration and provide benefits to wildlife and several environmental services hit by climate impacts.
The government must also ramp up the Fire Smart program, which promotes preventative measures such as forest thinning and fire-resistant building materials to reduce the impact of fire and modernize all warning systems firefighters and governments depend on to control dangerous fires.
B.C. forest management is making climate change worse — an alarming situation when our forests should instead be our best ally in the fight against climate change. Unless the B.C. government wakes up and takes far-reaching action to strengthen conservation and improve forest management, our provincial forests will continue to contribute to climate change instead of slowing it down. Despite the outstanding role of forests in the fight against climate change, there is no intentions paper on forests.
It’s time for real, coherent climate action
These three elephants in the room do not cover all of the areas of climate action the B.C. government must take to become a true climate leader. This will require setting aside the majority of our fossil fuel reserves as unburnable carbon and regularly updating carbon budgets by sector based on science, ramping up the price on carbon faster than currently planned and including a climate test in environmental assessments. It also requires a paradigm shift to preserve biodiversity, natural carbon banks and ecosystem services on which our economy and human health depend and all hands on deck to speed up the transition to an equitable post-carbon economy that leaves no one behind.
The policies are outlined in Sierra Club BC report The Future Is Here, which provides a reality check on the climate challenges B.C. faces and a coherent set of recommendations the B.C. government should use to inform the next provincial climate action plan.
There are few jurisdictions in the world with a greater opportunity to lead and inspire others than British Columbia. We need Premier Horgan and his government to act with courage and speed.