From boom to bust: the idled Cabin gas plant northeast of Fort Nelson.

The ‘glaring gap’ in B.C.’s new climate plan

Environmental groups say while the province has made important gains in new roadmap, it’s still not clear how B.C. will tackle emissions from fracking and LNG

Even before B.C. Premier John Horgan and the minister responsible for crafting the province’s climate change strategy, George Heyman, had finished answering media questions about the NDP government’s new “Roadmap to 2030,” reaction from environmental groups was pouring in.

For three years, the keen climate observers had been waiting to see how the B.C. government planned to close the gap in emissions reductions left by its 2018 CleanBC climate plan to meet its 2030 target.

On Monday, they got their answer — or at least part of it.

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The new roadmap promises a higher carbon tax, more ambitious targets for zero-emission vehicles, higher cuts to methane emissions and requirements that all new large industrial projects have a plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

While environmental organizations credited the plan for stronger measures to tackle emissions from transportation and other sectors, they also raised alarm bells about what it lacks: a detailed plan to cut emissions from the oil and gas industry.

“B.C.’s updated climate plan’s bold policies threatened by gas production growth,” read the headline to a statement from the David Suzuki Foundation.

Meanwhile, Wilderness Committee warned that “three years after CleanBC, Horgan still can’t square the circle on LNG” and Ecojustice’s climate program director Alan Andrews said “too much of it reads like a plan to make a plan.” 

The province is targeting a 33 to 38 per cent reduction in emissions from the oil and gas sector relative to 2007, but a plan for exactly how that target will be met is only expected in 2023.

The “one glaring gap is the fact that this plan still allows for the development of natural gas,” said Karen Tam Wu, the B.C. regional director at the Pembina Institute and a member of the climate solutions council, which provided expert advice to the government as it developed the roadmap.

Despite some concerns, Tam Wu said it’s significant that the plan charts a path to meeting B.C.’s 2030 target but warns “it does not leave any wiggle room.”

George Hoberg, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of public policy, said he’s “quite impressed” with the plan, noting in particular the strengthening of the low carbon fuel standard and the emissions cap on natural gas utilities.

As for concerns about a lack of details about emissions reductions from the oil and gas industry, Hoberg said “that’s absolutely true and it’s also perfectly understandable — that’s how policy works.”

“It’s also how politics works, environmental groups are supposed to continue to demand more ambition from government,” he said. 

And while the government hasn’t yet specified how it plans to meet its oil and gas emissions reduction targets, Hoberg said the government has sent “an important signal” to both the industry and the public by committing to releasing those details in 2023.

As we await more information about some of the government’s emissions reductions measures, here’s what you need to know about what’s in its Roadmap to 2030.

B.C.’s new roadmap lays out measures to hit 2030 climate target

B.C. has a legislated target to cut emissions to 40 per cent below 2007 levels by 2030 — an interim goal as it works to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, meaning that any carbon released into the atmosphere will be offset through measures such as tree planting or through carbon capture and storage technology.

The CleanBC plan released in 2018 outlined measures that were initially expected to account for about 75 per cent of the emissions cuts the province needed to meet its 2030 target. But updated modelling shows those measures announced three years ago are now only expected to achieve 32 to 48 per cent of the needed reductions.

In its roadmap, the government attributes the shortfall to lower-than-expected emissions reductions from industrial electrification and higher emissions from transportation and pulp and paper.

With the new and strengthened measures outlined in the new roadmap the B.C. government expects to exceed its 2030 target by 0.4 million tonnes — roughly the emissions from 86,992 cars driven for a year.

But on the same day that it released its new plan, the province also published B.C.’s 2019 greenhouse gas inventory — data that shows emissions from industry, transportation, buildings and leaked emissions from oil and natural gas crept up by another one per cent in the year after CleanBC was announced.

“We always knew they wouldn’t go down in year one,” Heyman said Monday. 

Moving forward, the minister said he expects emissions to plateau in the next year before beginning to decline.

“We’ve had early successes, but we know that much more needs to be done,” he said. “That’s why we’ve developed this roadmap to reach 100 per cent of our 2030 targets and set the foundation for future years and future targets.”

Hansi Singh, a professor in the University of Victoria’s school of earth and ocean sciences, said that she would have liked to see more aggressive measures to cut emissions beyond B.C.’s existing 2030 target.

“Some places have more of a responsibility than others,” she said, noting that Canada has benefited from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which are driving the climate crisis.

Excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have already raised global temperatures by 1.2 degrees Celsius with significant consequences, she said, noting that the deadly heatwave that hit B.C. this summer wouldn’t have happened without climate change.

Singh’s call for more ambitious measures from B.C. echo a warning from the United Nations Environment Programme Tuesday that the current emissions reduction pledges fall far short of what’s needed to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The UN’s latest emissions gap report found that the updated commitments from countries around the world would only reduce emissions by 7.5 per cent from projected 2030 emissions — when 55 per cent reductions are needed to keep warming to 1.5 degrees.

Shxwhá:y Village Long House in Chilliwack, B.C., was opened to evacuees of the deadly Lytton wildfire in early July 2021 during an unprecedented heatwave. The United Nations Environment Programme recently warned countries are not doing enough to limit dangerous warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts of the climate emergency. Photo: Amy Romer / The Narwhal

A higher carbon tax and more clean electricity 

Among the measures announced in its roadmap the B.C. government said its $45 carbon price will either match or exceed the federal price, which is expected to rise to $170 per tonne by 2030, with annual increases of $15 starting in 2023.

To address concerns about the impact of the tax on low-income families and the competitiveness of some B.C. industries, the province says it will “explore other approaches to help make low-carbon options more affordable for low- and middle-income people in British Columbia” and “work with the federal government to explore ideas such as carbon border adjustments — ensuring that goods from places without strong climate policies face similar costs to those produced domestically.”

At the same time, the government announced additional steps to expand low carbon energy.

While 98 per cent of B.C.’s electricity comes from hydro and other renewable sources, the province still relies on fossil fuels for almost 70 per cent of its energy use.

The province plans to expand the low carbon fuel standard, which requires producers to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuels by incorporating biofuels for instance, to cover marine and aviation fuels beginning in 2023. 

The government also plans to introduce an emissions cap for natural gas utilities, meaning they will have to find ways to lower the emissions from the natural gas used to heat buildings across B.C.

Finally, the province is also moving to adopt a 100 per cent clean electricity standard, to ensure that the last two per cent of electricity produced in B.C. from fossil fuels will be generated from renewable sources instead.

More walking, biking, transit and zero-emission vehicles

Among the early successes Heyman mentioned Monday is B.C.’s adoption of zero-emission vehicles.

“British Columbians had the largest uptake of electric vehicles per capita on this continent,” he said.

While this is a positive sign, transportation still accounts for 40 per cent of the province’s emissions and remains a crucial component of B.C.’s climate plan.

In 2023, the province plans to release a Clean Transportation Action Plan detailing the next steps to reduce emissions by 27 to 32 per cent by 2030.

In the meantime, the government has laid out goals to reduce the distance people travel in their cars and trucks to 25 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030, by getting more people walking, biking or taking public transit.

The province is also ratcheting up its zero-emission vehicles targets. In 2020, zero emission cars and trucks accounted for 9.4 per cent of all new light duty vehicle sales. By 2026 the government is aiming to hit 26 per cent and by 2035, 100 per cent of new vehicles sold in B.C. will be zero emissions, according to the plan.

While promoting zero emission vehicles, the province is promising to bring in “right-to-charge” legislation to ensure more people can install charging stations in condo and apartment buildings, while also continuing to build out public charging infrastructure.

The government is also looking at ways to make commercial transportation more efficient, and more details are expected in the 2023 strategy.

Carbon pollution standard to be added to B.C. building code

Buildings account for about 10 per cent of B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions, with natural gas still relied on heavily for heat.

To help reduce emissions in the building sector, the government is planning to add a carbon pollution standard to the B.C. Building Code with the goal of having all new buildings be zero-carbon by 2030.

Regulations will also be updated to ensure that incentives aimed at increasing energy efficiency target electrification and other measures such as new insulation and windows, rather than new furnaces or boilers that may be more efficient but still rely on natural gas.

The province is also promising to bring in new energy efficiency ratings for houses being sold and to develop a low carbon building materials strategy by 2023.

B.C. aims to eliminate industrial methane emissions by 2035

Alongside the transportation and building sectors, B.C. is targeting deep emissions cuts from industry, though the details of that plan may only be released in 2023 as part of a new industrial climate program.

In the meantime, the government says in its roadmap that it is planning to drive methane emissions from industry to “as close to zero as possible” by 2035.

New research released in July and supported by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission found the province’s oil and gas facilities are producing 1.6 to 2.2 times more methane pollution than current federal estimates, potentially undermining government efforts to meet climate targets.

“Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during its first 20 years in the atmosphere,” the roadmap notes.

The government also plans to incorporate its emissions reduction goals into its revamp of the oil and gas royalty system and to support the development and deployment of technologies to capture and store carbon and remove it from the atmosphere as way to reduce emissions from heavy polluting industries such as oil and gas, cement and pulp and paper.

But some observers raised concerns Monday that the plan still allows for an expansion of natural gas production.

“I think either it risks not meeting our targets, and/or it would misdirect opportunities for investment into clean energy that would support our net zero by 2050 targets as opposed to prolonging the life of the gas sector,” Tam Wu said.

While Horgan emphasized the role of natural gas as a transition fuel that could help replace diesel and marine bunker fuel, for instance, Tam Wu said the focus should be on directing renewable gases to those areas where electric options aren’t available and focusing on electric heat for buildings.

Fracking for natural gas, the transportation of natural gas and the compression of natural gas into liquefied natural gas, or LNG, are all emissions-intensive industrial activities. There are currently four large LNG facilities and two micro-LNG facilities in various stages of planning, proposal and construction in B.C. 

LNG Canada, the province’s largest LNG facility currently under construction, is expected to double fracking operations in B.C., according to the government.

The first phase of the LNG Canada project in Kitimat will emit four megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the provincial government — the equivalent of adding 856,531 cars to the road. The Pembina Institute, however, has pointed out that when both phases of the project are built, the LNG Canada project alone would emit 8.6 megatonnes of carbon per year in 2030, rising to 9.6 megatonnes in 2050.

In a statement, the environmental advocacy group Wilderness Committee raised concerns that the government’s modelling doesn’t include emissions from the second phase of the LNG Canada project or three other proposed LNG projects.

“What happens if and when Shell wants to finish the $40 billion LNG plant it’s building in Kitimat? How does this plan prevent them from doing that?” Peter McCartney, Wilderness Committee climate campaigner said in a press release. “And, if they don’t plan to allow any more LNG facilities — why not just say so?”

A graph displaying B.C.'s climate emissions, climate targets and projected emissions from LNG Canada
Just the emissions from LNG Canada alone will make it very difficult for B.C. to meet its climate targets. Graph: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

“The natural gas industry is B.C.’s most challenging problem in terms of getting to net zero,” Hoberg agreed. “But what this roadmap does is it sends a signal that we’re getting to net zero by 2050 and if the natural gas industry wants to continue it has to find ways to do things like direct air capture to compensate for the emissions that it’s making,” he said.

If the industry finds it too expensive to produce natural gas in a net zero way the investments will go elsewhere, Hoberg said, including into low carbon technologies.

For Singh though, an outstanding question is how the emissions from the combustion of that natural gas by the end user will be accounted for, a concern for which she’d like to see B.C. take some responsibility.

Province developing new carbon offset system for B.C. forests

While Heyman said the province would have more to say about old-growth forests in the weeks ahead, the roadmap notes the government is developing a new forest carbon offset protocol that will expand the ability for Indigenous communities and forestry companies to generate revenue from standing forests protected as carbon sinks.

The government is also committing to phasing out the burning of slash piles — piles of tree branches, needles and other material left behind by logging — by 2030.

Instead, the government wants to see more of that material used for “bioproducts,” whether it’s incorporated into concrete and asphalt or as a replacement for plastic packaging.

In a statement, Sierra Club BC climate justice campaigner Anjali Appadurai called it a “significant omission” that the roadmap did not offer “a clear path to reduce the staggering emissions caused by clearcut logging.”

“The roadmap calls for an end to slash burning, but not until 2030. Allowing this practice to continue another nine years is a clear indicator that this government is not grasping how little time is left to avoid climate breakdown,” Appadurai said.

No time to waste on implementation of new emissions reduction measures, observers warn

As 2030 nears, Tam Wu said the measures in the roadmap need to be implemented quickly.

The low carbon fuel standard, for instance, was introduced in 2018, but the regulations weren’t amended until this past summer, she noted. 

“Those are the kind of delays that we can’t afford,” she said.

Many of the measures outlined in the roadmap must also be backed up with funding, she added.

“So, we’ll be looking for significant investment from the province in budget 2022.”

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