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.
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 350.org 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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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