Cabin gas plant B.C.

In B.C., climate is the challenge of our time. Our politicians aren’t up to the fight

The province's emissions are proof that our leaders need a wartime approach to tackle the climate emergency

A version of this piece previously appeared in The Tyee.

Seth Klein is an adjunct professor with Simon Fraser University’s Urban Studies program and the former B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. His book A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency (ECW Press) was published in September.

All of us who heed the warnings of climate scientists are increasingly alarmed, as we stare down the harrowing gap between what the science says is necessary and what our politics seems prepared to entertain. Despite decades of calls to action, our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not on a path to stave off a horrific future for our children and future generations.

Case in point: The accompanying chart tracks British Columbia’s GHG emissions going back to the year 2000. What is evident is that, in the face of the defining challenge of our time, our politics are not rising to the task at hand.

B.C. election 2020 greenhouse gas emissions

Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada. Tables: IPCC Sector Canada.

Let this deeply disturbing chart sink in. And then let us all agree — political leaders, civil servants, environmental organizations, academics and policy wonks, labour leaders, socially responsible business leaders — that what we have been doing is simply not working. We have run out the clock with distracting debates about incremental changes.

But where it matters most — actual GHG emissions — we have accomplished precious little, and have frequently slipped backwards. 2018 is the last year for which we have GHG data, and granted B.C.’s new Clean BC climate plan was only introduced late that year, so it may yet show some progress, but our track record leaves much to be desired.

B.C. is lauded for its introduction of a carbon tax in 2008, and I support the tax. But a distressing truth is that B.C.’s GHG emissions in 2018 stood at about 66 megatonnes, four megatonnes higher than in 2007, the year before the carbon tax was introduced.

True, emissions might have been higher still without the carbon tax. But that’s ten years with no progress to show. Ultimately, the planet does not care if our GHG emissions are relatively lower than might have occurred under status quo conditions.

At least things have more or less flatlined, you might say; our emissions are no longer rising. But as the great climate change warrior and founder of Bill McKibben has said, “Winning slowly on climate change is just another way of losing.”

Politics, as the saying goes, might be all about compromise and the art of the possible. But there is no bargaining with the laws of nature, and nature is now telling us something fierce, the latest smoke-filled weeks but the latest example of “attacks on our soil.” It’s time to dramatically bend the curve.

And so, a new approach is needed. We need a “wartime” mindset and political/policy agenda to tackle the climate emergency.

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What would a real ‘wartime’ B.C. climate emergency plan look like?

As we’ve all experienced in this pandemic, emergency responses need to look, sound and feel like emergencies. And they need to align with that the science says we must do. I have spent the last year and a half writing a book about Canada’s Second World War experience, searching for lessons for how to confront the climate crisis and quickly transition off fossil fuels (A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, ECW Press). Based on that, here are some markers of what one would expect to see when a government shifts to a wartime footing:

  1. Adopt an emergency mindset. As we’ve witnessed in recent months, something powerful happens when we approach a crisis by naming the emergency and the need for wartime-scale action. It creates a new sense of shared purpose and liberates a level of political and economic action that seemed previously impossible.
  2. Shift from voluntary measures to mandatory policies. Why have we made so little progress on lowering our GHG emissions? Because our governments have mainly sought to encourage and incentivize change, employing price signals and rebates, etc. But that’s not what one does in an emergency. In an emergency we require certain actions, using clear timelines and regulatory fiat. Notably, the City of Vancouver, which has a much more ambitious climate plan than the province, is requiring that all new buildings cease using natural gas or any other fossil fuel for space and water heating by 2021, more than a decade sooner than the province. That date should be province-wide. The province has said all new vehicles will need to be zero-emission by 2040. That should be 2025.
  3. Rally the public at every turn. It takes leadership to mobilize the public. In frequency and tone, in words and in action, our government needs to communicate a sense of urgency as we mobilize to confront this emergency. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry have now shown us what that looks like with respect to the pandemic, but this stands in stark contrast to the lackadaisical communications on climate. If our governments are not behaving as if the situation is an emergency – or they send contradictory messages by approving new fossil fuel infrastructure like LNG – then they are effectively communicating to the public that it is not. And why not ban the advertising of fossil fuel vehicles and gas stations, just as we do tobacco products? Their continued presence also sends a confusing message.
  4. Create the economic institutions needed to get the job done. During WWII, starting from a base of virtually nothing, the Canadian economy and its labour force pumped out planes, military vehicles, ships and armaments at a speed and scale that is simply mind-blowing, much of which occurred right here in B.C. (where we produced about 350 ships in the space of six years). Remarkably, the Canadian government established 28 crown corporations to meet the supply and munitions requirements of the war effort. The climate emergency demands a similar approach. We must conduct an inventory of conversion needs, determining how many heat pumps, solar arrays, wind farms, electric buses, etc., we will need to electrify virtually everything and end our reliance on fossil fuels. And we will need a new generation of crown corporations to then ensure those items are manufactured and deployed at the requisite scale. So far, however, in response to the climate emergency, we have created no new crown enterprises.
  5. Spend what it takes to win. A benefit of an emergency mentality is that it forces governments out of an austerity mindset and liberates the public purse. That is what we have all witnessed in response to the COVID emergency. But with respect to the climate emergency…not yet. In order to finance the war effort in WWII, governments issued new public Victory Bonds and new forms of progressive taxation were instituted. As we confront the climate emergency, financing the transformation before us requires that we employ similar tools. And when we undertake public investments at the scale the climate crisis demands, we can and will put to rest the employment anxieties of those who’s economic security is currently tied to the fossil fuel sector — there will be too much work to do.
  6. Stop trying to appease those who seek to block necessary action. The B.C. government’s current Climate Solutions Advisory Council includes a representative from Shell Canada. Previous iterations of this council have included other reps from major fossil fuel corporations. The government is keen to have a climate plan these companies will endorse. But the hour is much too late to be seeking such approval. If our governmental climate plans aren’t making the members of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers deeply anxious, then they aren’t climate plans worth having.

A year and a half into the term of B.C.’s NDP government, in December 2018, the province released its new climate plan — Clean BC. The plan contains many welcome elements, and it is a great improvement over what the province had seen to that point. The plan was enthusiastically endorsed by the B.C. Green Party and widely praised by key B.C. environmental groups. Core elements include:

  • Maintaining annual increases to B.C.’s flagship carbon tax (although this has been paused this pandemic year), along with enhancements to the offsetting carbon tax credit for low-income households. But, refreshingly, the plan de-emphasizes the role and importance of the carbon tax and focuses instead on regulatory policy measures.
  • Specific dates by which certain things will be banned or required. For example, the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles will be banned as of 2040, and all new buildings must be net carbon-zero by 2032. Firm dates are good, but as noted, these dates are set much too far into the future. (The B.C. Greens now propose to bump forward the date for all new vehicles to be zero-emission to 2035 – an improvement, but still too late.)
  • Promises to continue expanding the electric vehicle charging network and to subsidize EV purchases.
  • Increased spending for building retrofits, and new rebates for those switching to electric heat-pumps.
  • The requirement that all natural gas used in buildings must be 15 per cent “renewable” gas by 2030, meaning, the gas must be captured from landfills or agriculture rather than extracted from the earth, although it is frustrating that this 15 per cent target is so modest.

Clean BC is, quite likely, the most aggressive and comprehensive provincial or federal climate plan in Canada. And yet, sadly, it does not constitute a real climate emergency plan.

The B.C. government’s targets are not aligned with what the latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we must do. B.C.’s legislated targets are to reduce GHG emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 (from 2007 levels), and by 80 per cent by 2050. The IPCC now says we need to hit at least 50 per cent by 2030 and be carbon-zero by 2050.

The difference between a 2050 target of carbon-zero versus reducing GHGs by 80 per cent may feel largely academic, given the extended time frame. But the difference matters greatly. The problem with a target of 80 per cent reductions by 2050 is that so many of us — both individuals and businesses — falsely presume that what we do or plan to do can be made to fit in the remaining 20 per cent of emissions room. A carbon-zero target disabuses us of this notion.

In this election campaign, the NDP announced it would shift the legislative target to net carbon-zero by 2050 (while the Greens committed to meet that target by 2045). That’s an improvement, but such long-term targets lack credibility, given the track-record and their mathematical incompatibility with fossil fuel expansion plans.

LNG Canada project, Kitimat B.C. 2017

The site of the LNG Canada project in Kitimat B.C. in 2017. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

It would seem the NDP are counting on a massive reliance on carbon-offsets and/or methods to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. We will indeed need both technological innovations and natural eco-systems enhancements to pull GHGs out of the air, but such drawdown efforts must be in addition to ending GHG emissions, not a substitute, if we are to get CO2 accumulations back to safe levels.

The current B.C. plan only purports to lay out steps to get three-quarters of the way to the province’s 2030 GHG reduction target (although operationalizing and funding many of these measures remains to be seen). The government had committed to outline how to close the remaining 25 per cent gap by December 2020. So far, that updated plan has yet to arrive.

The lofty commitments of Clean BC are not yet reflected in the B.C. Budget, where one must always see if fine words are backed up with real dollars. When the B.C. government tabled its February 2019 three-year budget plan (the first since Clean BC was introduced), Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives senior economist Marc Lee, a long-time analyst of B.C. climate and fiscal policies, calculated the plan would see the province spend only about 0.1 per cent of provincial GDP on climate-related expenditures. Climate investments are similarly lacking from the COVID recovery plan, where the climate transition gets only passing reference.

The framing of the plan is very positive — Clean BC! It rightly says our future can look nice, with plentiful employment opportunities as we tackle climate change. The plan does not, however, communicate that we face a climate emergency. Indeed, Clean BC never once uses the terms “climate emergency” or “climate crisis” or “climate breakdown.”

Most significantly, B.C.’s climate plan is fundamentally at odds with the province’s LNG plans. Earlier in the same year that the plan was unveiled, the provincial and federal governments celebrated the final investment decision of LNG Canada, an international consortium led by PetroChina and Shell that is building a massive new LNG plant in Kitimat, B.C. “The largest private-sector investment in Canadian history,” both governments repeated ad nauseam.

The problem is that the project represents another huge “carbon bomb” — a massive new source of domestic GHG emissions. Just phase one of the LNG Canada project, along with its “upstream” impacts from extracting and transporting fracked gas, will add between 4 and 6 megatonnes of GHGs to B.C.’s annual emissions. All this when the government has committed to reduce total provincial GHGs to 12 megatonnes by 2050. These folks aren’t making their job any easier.

Given the climate crisis before us, the ambition of the current B.C. climate plan is simply not where we need it to be. Even putting aside the reluctance to speak some hard truths on the future of fossil fuels, nothing is stopping the governments from substantially staffing up its climate action team (B.C.’s Climate Action Secretariat within the Ministry of Environment has about 75 staff), from undertaking much higher levels of climate infrastructure investment and, vitally, from using the regulatory power of the state to drive faster change. The net impact on job numbers would undoubtedly be positive. Yet they have not. The current plan — which, again, represents the most determined climate program in Canada to date — is painfully slow. It does not reflect or communicate a sense of urgency.

Explainer: B.C. election: where the NDP, Greens and Liberals stand on climate and environment issues

The B.C. Green Party platform is more ambitious on climate, and they party’s positions are not riddled with the contradictions that plague the NDP platform. The Greens have been clear that they do not support LNG and are opposed to fossil fuel subsidies.

When Green leader Sonia Furstenau speaks, she uses the language of climate emergency. Yet during the term of the last government, the Greens proved unable to use their position in the minority government and its Confidence and Supply Agreement to extract commitments to end the expansion of fossil fuels. And the targets, timelines and modest climate-related spending commitments in the Green platform still do not constitute a climate emergency plan. (As for the BC Liberals … there is really not much one can say. Their platform contains no targets nor any climate-related spending commitments of any note, and their commitment to LNG remains firmly intact.)

There are climate champions in the current government, among the NDP and Green Party candidates, along with the two Green MLAs (who surely deserve to be returned). Now is the time for them all to flex their muscle. And we need all of our leaders to reflect on the leaders who saw us through the Second World War and to consider who they want to be, and how they wish to be remembered, as we undertake this defining task of our lives.

If our current leaders believe we face a climate emergency, then they need to act and speak like it’s a damn emergency. We need them to name it, speak continually about it, and rally us at every turn. Because that’s what you do in a crisis.

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