BC greenhouse gas emission reductions

The BC government has gotten religion on climate change, and has committed to a 33% reduction from today’s greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020. Some of the details of how we are going to get there are now coming out, and a rolling series of announcements is expected through the Fall, leading up to a “green budget” in February 2008 (don’t get your hopes up, as recent themed budgets for seniors, children and housing have not lived up to their press releases).

The Vancouver Sun, based on a senior government advisor’s latest powerpoint presentation, puts some preliminary numbers to the annual reductions. This is similar to what BC Premier Gordon Campbell presented recently at the annual Union of BC Municipalities convention. Beyond very broad aggregate numbers, there are no specifics and the estimates have not been externally verified. From Miro Certenig’s article in the Sun:

* From seven to 10 million tonnes of CO2 reductions from the oil and gas sector plus other industries. It expects the bulk of this to be accomplished by industry buying and trading carbon credits on the new carbon market B.C. has joined, with California and other western states. There are hopes that B.C. will integrate into Europe’s carbon-trading market, too.

* Six- to nine-million CO2 tonnes reduced through efficiencies in transportation. Victoria expects these savings from the adoption of California tailpipe emission standards, a greater use of public transportation and the expected increase in the use of hybrid and smaller vehicles. It also sees a trend to less driving as B.C planners are encouraged to create satellite cities that will make it easier to work close to home and avoid commutes.

* Seven- to nine million CO2 tonnes from electricity savings. This is expected to derive from conservation, the promise of no new coal-fired generation power plants and requiring BC Hydro to buy carbon offsets if it buys dirty power, such as electricity from Alberta’s coal-fired plants. There are also stiff new rules for carbon sequestration — essentially an experimental business of pumping greenhouse gas into the ground forever.

* Two million to three million tonnes of CO2 cut through better waste management, primarily by using methane (considered a far more damaging greenhouse gas than CO2) gas for power generation or at least burning it off.

* Finally, about two million tonnes of CO2 saved by fast-tracking construction of green buildings that better conserve energy and have higher densities, considered key if energy-hungry cities such as Metro Vancouver are to become greener.

One immediate problem with these numbers is that they refer to reductions from a business-as-usual 2020 baseline, not reductions from existing GHG emission levels. That’s why they can claim reductions on new buildings that have yet to be built. The higher BAU amount of GHGs is 80-85 million tonnes, up from the current 67 million tonnes. Thus, they have identified 24-33 million tonnes of reductions off a base of 80-85 million tonnes, which takes us to GHG emissions of between 47-61 million tonnes in 2020.

If that lower number of 47 million could be achieved, it would represent a 30% reduction over current levels, whereas the higher number of 61 million is only a 9% reduction. Also, what we are seeing now is the low-hanging fruit; the really tough decisions will come later. Even the carbon trading may not be that easy if everyone has the same plan – an excess demand for credits over available supply based on real reductions would make those credits very expensive indeed.

BC’s punditocracy are extremely skeptical about the Premier’s climate change targets. They seem to uniformly think that Campbell’s plans were hatched on his last Hawaiian vacation, and that meeting them will kill the economy. I’m not nearly so skeptical about economic pain, if we plan our mitigation and adaptation strategies well, and in any event their concern seems like worrying about having bed head when your neck is on the guillotine. The challenge will be keeping everyone on the bus, and to do that any climate plan must be widely perceived as fair in terms of sharing the load.

In an oped in today’s Sun, Lisa Matthaus of the Sierra Club advocates some budget measures that would help. First, she advocates a carbon tax with the following qualification – “To offset the carbon tax, provincial sales tax or income taxes would be reduced (with more of the return going to lower- and no-income tax brackets”). Like others drawn in by the “tax shift” mantra, Matthaus is having a hard time giving it up, but seemingly the critique is sinking in. And Matthaus does not recommend a particular dollar value for a carbon tax, which to have a meaningful effect on behaviour is going to need to be pretty high.

Second, Matthaus recommends establishing a Heritage Fund, along the lines of Alaska and Alberta, although only half of royalties would go to the actual fund, and she does not recommend any increase in royalty rates:

B.C. oil and gas royalties must be channelled into a “Climate Solutions Legacy Fund.” Half of the fund’s revenues should be set aside for a “rainy day;” the other half should go toward climate change solutions, especially the transition to renewable energy sources. The 2008 budget should ensure that a minimum of 10 per cent of oil and gas revenues go into the fund, with that number increasing over time. The budget should also start to eliminate the more than $250 million in subsidies given to some of the most profitable companies on earth to drill for increasingly valuable fossil fuels.

Finally, Matthaus rightly hones in on the transportation sector:

B.C.’s 2008 budget must include funding to develop a 40-year vision for transportation — one that will achieve more than a 90 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from light and heavy vehicles combined. This strategy should include significant transit system upgrades and development (particularly in the Lower Mainland), promotion of technologies such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and changes in land use regulation to encourage more compact and climate-friendly communities.

We also need tools and mechanisms to shift the lump-sum costs of driving, such as insurance, to variable costs linked to mileage. These might include Pay-As-You-Drive (PAYD) vehicle insurance, otherwise known as distance-based insurance. In Houston, Texas, a new PAYD insurance scheme saved low-mileage drivers up to 20 per cent in insurance costs.

At least we are having this discussion in BC, and in doing so position ourselves as global leaders. But going from targets and timelines to actual actions that may affect corporate interests and necessitate major economic restructuring is proving to be challenging.

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