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Taking Real Action on Climate Change by Putting Teeth in Toothless Targets

This is the first of a four-part series on B.C.’s climate action plan. Part One addresses B.C.’s GHG reduction targets. Part Two addresses how that plan is at risk of being co-opted by Big Oil. Part Three takes a closer look at the B.C. Climate Leadership Team’s recommendations for the carbon tax. And Part Four focuses on how the oil and gas industry stands to profit from that advisory team’s proposed climate action plan.

Any day now, the B.C. government is expected to release its updated climate action plan. Then again, it initially promised to do that last December and then last spring, before revising that deadline again to the end of June, so who knows?

Honouring its commitments has never been the Clark government’s strong suit, to put it mildly.

Nothing proves that more than its failure to honour B.C.’s legislated targets to reduce provincial greenhouse gas emissions.

As premier Christy Clark’s Climate Leadership Team determined, the province won’t even come to close to meeting its legal obligation to cut its GHG emissions by 33 per cent below 2007 levels by 2020.

Nor will it fulfill its statutory requirement to reduce those emissions by 18 per cent as of this year.

And it is wildly off-track from being able to meet the 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases that it is legally required by 2050.  

Tweet: BC GHG levels projected to increase by 39% over 2014 levels by 2050 http://bit.ly/29F4p7E @pembina @christyclarkbc #bcpoli #LNGAt the rate we are going, British Columbia’s annual emissions are projected to increase by about 39 per cent over 2014 levels by 2050, according to the Pembina Institute.

The federal government’s Second Biennial Report on Climate Change further suggests that B.C.’s per capita GHG emissions will increase, from 13.7 tonnes per capita in 2013, to 15.3 tonnes per capita by 2020.

In other words, we are headed decidedly in the wrong direction from what is required by the 2007 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Act under our carbon-loving premier’s “climate leadership.”

To put it bluntly, British Columbia’s climate action imperatives have been sacrificed to the premier’s LNG pipe dreams and to the barons of Big Oil.

Enter the Climate Leadership Team (CLT).

It was comprised of 17 handpicked advisors, including its chair, B.C. Liberal MLA Jordan Sturdy, and the head of the government’s Climate Action Secretariat.

Other CLT members included three mayors (all supportive of the B.C. Liberals, including one who is running for the party’s nomination in Comox Valley); three industry representatives (from LNG and forestry, and a former B.C. Hydro executive); three First Nations chiefs; three academics and three environmentalists.

The CLT’s consensus report was submitted to the government last fall. It offered 32 recommendations to get B.C. “back on track” in meeting its legislated GHG reduction targets for 2050.

It is important to note the main difference between the province’s 2008 climate action plan and the Climate Leadership Team’s (CLT) proposed plan.

The former was a very specific, action-laden strategy.

It not only established targets for emissions reductions and recommended broad strategies for achieving those targets. It also identified dozens of concrete policies, partnerships and best practices that other jurisdictions had embraced, and in some cases implemented, that would make B.C. a global leader on climate action.

That tactical action plan touched upon almost every sector of the economy, to target the “low hanging fruit” that was ripe for relatively “easy picking” in mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The challenge now in getting to where we need to go in combating global warming is that so many of the most obvious climate action “solutions” have already been identified and acted upon, with the marked exception of properly pricing carbon pollution.

Fast forward to the CLT’s plan. This passage is especially telling.

“Generally speaking, the Climate Leadership Team has focused on strategic-level recommendations. It is recognized that successful implementation will require much more in the way of detailed specifics at the policy and program level.”

No kidding.

In fact, some 26 of the report’s 32 recommendations are fundamentally aimed at establishing targets and putting in place processes to develop future strategies, best practices, harmonized approaches and adaptation measures.

  • Seven of the 32 recommendations are either entirely or largely fixated on setting or affirming targets that speak to desired goals, yet that are silent on how to achieve them. (#1-3, 12, 15, 19, 20)
  • 13 recommendations call for policy reviews, for the development of best practices, and for new or updated strategies — none of which say much about what specifically, should be done. (#8, 13-18, 20-22, 28-29, 32)
  • Two recommendations call for the creation of task forces to research and recommend strategies to stimulate the low-carbon economy and to review and update best practices in the agricultural sector. (#10, 18)
  • Two recommendations speak to seeking “parity” and “alignment” with other jurisdictions on B.C.’s adopted climate actions and best practices — which makes sense, but does nothing in itself to further reduce B.C.’s GHGs. (#30, 31)
  • Two recommendations are concerned with adaption, rather than with mitigation. (#24, 25)

That is not to diminish the recommended actions that are sometimes included in the CLT’s strategic vision. Rather, it is to point out how hard it will actually be to move beyond its wish list for GHG reductions, to a specific action plan that can be executed with hard policies. 

The CLT’s plan would replace the 2020 legislated emissions reduction target with a new target to reduce B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 2007 levels by 2030.

That is similar to the European Commission’s even more stringent target to achieve at a 40 percent cut in emissions below 1990 levels by 2030.

The CLT report also proposes to establish new sectoral greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2030, including cutting emission levels from buildings by 50 per cent and from the transportation and industrial sectors by 30 per cent, below 2015 levels.

British Columbians might be rightly skeptical that those new targets will ever be met by successive governments over the next 14 years. Especially without clear interim targets that at least notionally hold them to account.

Surely if we have learned anything from the Clark government’s essential dismissal of its legislated GHG targets for 2016 and 2020, it is that targets are a double-edged sword, if they can be cavalierly missed with political impunity.

On the one hand, they can and should be useful tools in prompting and scaling political actions to the magnitude of the task at hand and to the timelines that demand constant incremental improvement.

On the other hand, they can also be held up as legal commitments to reassure people that progress will and must be made. They can be held up as a shield to provide a convenient cover for politicians to ignore, delay or even reverse the hard actions that are actually required to meet those targets.

Over the last five years, Clark and her minions have basically thumbed their noses at the legislated GHG reduction targets and other laws that so many of them voted for under the Campbell administration.

That initial climate action plan, clean energy plan and bioenergy strategy did succeed in meeting the interim target of a six percent reduction in GHGs by 2012. But it has been all-downhill ever since.

Indeed, Clark has systematically dismantled much of her predecessor’s climate action and clean energy plans. 

Most significantly, she froze the globally lauded carbon tax in 2012 and vowed not to increase it again until at least 2018.

Smart politics, no doubt. But downright stupid climate leadership.

As the government itself noted in its own 2014 Climate Action Report, “Some policies lose effectiveness over time if they are not updated. For example, the carbon tax impact effectively diminishes if the rate remains unchanged, as inflation dampens the price signal.”

Exactly.

The eight-year freeze on the revenue-neutral carbon tax runs completely contrary to the logic of that initiative, which was always intended to gradually increase the price of carbon pollution and to return that carbon tax revenue to British Columbians through other new tax cuts.

It is a policy that at least one study suggested has been tremendously successful in reducing B.C.’s emissions.

The Clark government’s record of failure and pandering to its party paymasters on the climate action plan, including the carbon tax, has significantly compounded the challenge of meeting B.C.’s greenhouse gas reduction targets.

What do targets matter if they can be deliberately neglected and missed without any political repercussions?

If they can be abused by politicians to defend their inaction on climate change?

If they have no political relationship to any particular government’s term in office?

If we must wait 14 years to determine if we are “on track” to meet other targets set for 34 years away?

What is the point of having targets at all, if the response to missing them is to simply change the goalposts and set distant new targets that are even more toothless in holding governments to account than the ones that were missed and abandoned?

Instilling real political accountability for meeting GHG reduction targets must be Job One if they are to be remotely credible.

The Climate Leadership Team missed that critical point.

Progress to any new targets for 2030 must be annually measured against annual targets that point to interim legislated targets, which in turn, entail tangible penalties for those who fail to meet them as legally required.

The lesson from the first failed experience with meeting B.C.’s legislated GHG reduction target for 2020 is clear.

We need to legislate hard caps on absolute emission levels, in addition to mandating continually declining emission intensity levels.

The latter reduce the allowable amount of carbon that is released per unit from any particular activity; but they might also inadvertently allow net emissions to rise, if those regulated industrial and consumer activities also increase in volume.

Regulated industries should be obliged to limit their overall emissions in absolute terms, encouraged by an escalating carbon tax that makes carbon pollution ever less profitable.

But relying on a carbon tax that can be frozen by decree for years on end by any government that considers it political opportune to do so, is not sufficient.

It must be complemented by laws that impose hard caps on B.C.’s largest GHG emitters and that make them fully pay the costs of offsetting any emissions in excess of their allowable declining caps, with an added premium that ensures that simply paying to over-pollute doesn’t, in fact, pay.

By the same token, cabinet should be held truly accountable for ensuring that B.C. meets its interim emissions reduction targets.

Once those interim GHG reduction targets are passed by the legislature, they should not be amended without all-party support.

That could be assured through either a simple majority vote in the legislature, upon the unanimous recommendation of an all-party legislative standing committee.

Or it might perhaps be achieved via a requirement that any changes in B.C.’s legislated emissions targets are supported by at least two-thirds of all voting MLAs.

At least every four years, in the final year of its mandate, every government should be obliged to answer for its GHG reduction performance, before the election.

A small portion of cabinet ministers’ paycheques is already withheld to ensure they meet their individual and collective annual budget obligations. An additional portion of their remuneration should be withheld that will only get paid back if they meet their collective duty to ensure B.C.’s climate plan stays on track.

An independent Auditor General for Climate Action should be appointed by the legislature to annually monitor the government’s progress on climate action and its due diligence in meeting provincial GHG reduction targets with appropriate policy responses.

If any government’s efforts are found by that Auditor General for Climate Action to be woefully negligent and indirectly responsible for failing to meet the interim four-year targets for reducing provincial GHGs, those cabinet ministers should be legally precluded from running again for at least the next election.

That would sure make climate action a real priority for future governments.

It would put real teeth in GHG reduction targets that would serve to drive appropriate policy responses, to ensure those targets are met, however politically tough those required climate actions might be.

Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff and a key architect of B.C.’s climate action plan and clean energy plan. He was the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. A frequent contributor to the Georgia Straight, Brown is also the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British Columbia. Contact Brown at towardsanewgovernment@gmail.com.

Image: Christy Clark/Flickr

Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff and a key architect of B.C.’s climate action…

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