How green is BC’s Throne Speech?

My Director, Seth Klein, likes to joke that the Campbell government has somehow managed to resuscitate Chairman Mao’s old speechwriter. We have seen the “New Era of Prosperity” back in the 2001 election, and the “Five Great Goals for a Golden Decade” in the 2005 election. With today’s Throne Speech, we have the “Pacific Century” and the “Pacific Leadership Agenda”.

My first response to the Throne Speech is that there is nothing in there to tackle poverty and homelessness, our top priority for the government. While the first paragraph of the press release touts a “plan to reduce homelessness” there are only a few scant measures that pass the buck to municipalities. And in contrast to the green heart of the plan, which has targets and timelines, no targets are put in place to eliminate, much less reduce, homelessness, even though it is well within the province’s financial power to do so.

But the media attention will mostly focus on the green plan. Expectations were certainly raised in the lead up to the Throne Speech, and there are some good first steps, but also little to offend anyone, whether industrial emitters of CO2 or drivers of SUVs. The big news is a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 33% below current levels by 2020, which would be 10% below 1990 levels. This is indeed a good start, but for short-term targets we will have to wait for reporting from a new “Climate Action Team”.

BC is already in a good position with regard to electricity production, with the bulk of current production from hydroelectricity. So a call for 90% of BC electricity to come from clean, renewable sources is essentially a continuation of the status quo. The big positive change is that two coal-fired power plants approved by BC Hydro will now have to implement carbon sequestration (meaning the may not happen at all due to higher costs). There are also some vague measures aimed at promoting more efficient home use of electricity, which are fine as they go, but nothing radical.

Cars, on the other hand, get off with little action and no targets for the reduction of emissions from the total stock. Some hints are provided that more public transit initiatives may be in the pipeline. Some time between 2009 and 2016, tailpipe emission standards will be introduced that will reduce emissions from NEW vehicles by 30%. And the “carbon-intensity” of all vehicles will be reduced by 10% by 2020, laregly as a result of the previous initiative. But this seems pretty lame to me. How about a big fat tax on SUVs to pay for subsidies for fuel efficient vehicles (a “feebate”)? Or a distance-based charge on public auto insurance? Or mandating that a rising percentage of new car sales in BC be from low and zero emission vehicles?

Technology exists to have much more efficient cars (hybrids reduce emissions by 30%; hybrid-electrics in development can reportedly reduce emissions by 70%, and all-electric prototypes that don’t compromise on speed and torque were developed a decade ago), so why such unambitious targets that exclusively rely on turnover of the existing fleet? The “carbon intensity” target is pretty low, and neglects how much a given car will drive, and how many cars in total are on the road. Which brings me to the Throne Speech’s reiteration of the commitment to the “Gateway Project” that aims to increase highway capacity to accommodate single-occupant vehicles, and that will promote even more suburban sprawl.

The Throne Speech has some measures that are worth praising: methane capture will be required at landfills (the source of 9% of our emissions, according to the government); a $25 million clean energy innovation fund; a commitment to make the government itself carbon-neutral by 2010; tree-planting initiatives; and a proposed “green building code”.

On the other hand, industrial emitters will be wiping their brows, having been spared painful measures to reduce emissions in the short-term. The only industrial mention is for the oil and gas industry to reduce emissions to 2000 levels by 2016, plus a zero-flaring requirement at wells and production facilities. This will prove an interesting, and key, battleground as the plan rolls out.

So, overall, a positive first step, for a government that had no interest in this file a year ago (CCPA published an alternative energy plan for BC in 2004). Simply acknowledging the problem and seeking to do something about it (albeit driven by political considerations) deserves a tip of the hat. And it is noteworthy that this plan goes beyond what the NDP was proposing last week, thereby outflanking them.

But more aggressive action is needed. The devil will be in the details for most of these intiatives. Let’s hope the Climate Action Team works speedily and that meaningful change is not far behind.

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