Next steps on climate action in BC

Yesterday, the Premier’s hand-picked Climate Action Team released its final report to the government. As is often the case with government, the CAT consisted of a range of “stakeholders”, although with one glaring omission: no representation from labour. The CAT has been deliberating for several months on how to meet the 2020 target of a 33% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2007 levels. Specifically, they are to fill the gap between what the government has identified (it claims to have 73% of the cut from business-as-usual in the bag) and the target.

As a general comment, these numbers are hard to verify. Linking policy changes to specific emission reductions is a bit of a guessing game based on available empirical estimates. A month ago the government released some modelling by Mark Jaccard et al to justify its 73% number; the CAT recommendations that bridge the gap were also done by Jaccard as his model is the only game in town (province, country) for such estimation. While I’m sure Mark is doing his best, I’m as uncomfortable that so much rests on his one model as I would be if all we knew about climate change impacts rested on one model.

The gist of response from environmental NGOs is that this represents a few more positive steps and so the report should be implemented, but there is still much more to do. The BC Sustainable Energy Association, in its press release, summarizes it thusly:

“The policies in the Climate Action Team’s report are part of the essential first steps B.C. needs to take to fight global warming,” said Guy Dauncey, President of BCSEA. “A lot more will be needed as the urgency of the global climate crisis demands, but these are all steps in the right direction.”

Among the Team’s 31 recommendations are a call for wide-ranging campaign of public engagement, a further increase in vehicle efficiency, for all new houses and buildings in BC to have net-zero emissions by 2020, for stronger planning laws to encourage compact community development, for the number of walking and cycling trips to double by 2020, and for industry to have a firm cap on its emissions through a cap-and-trade system by 2012.

In the media, the report is getting played as more carbon tax increases coming. The carbon tax is effectively the safety valve for meeting the targets, although no numbers are specified in the report’s recommendations. Also, the CAT recommends that all GHGs be covered by the tax (or equivalent measures, such as cap-and-trade or regulation), and even goes so far as recommending wood products and bioenergy be included in the climate action plan. These latter emissions are not part of the formal calculations in Kyoto (a tree over its lifecycle is technically carbon neutral). But emissions are emissions, and by including wood burning, we would avert a perverse situation where people stop using natural gas in favour of burning wood, potentially releasing more emissions but not having them count. Environmentalists are also concerned about biodiversity impacts of burning all of the beetle killed wood in the province, preferring to leave it on the forest floor to decompse in its own good time.

This latter recommendation, like many of the recommendations, has a bunch of weasel words attached, but clearly is the handiwork of CAT member Peter Robinson, the CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation. I would also like to take personal credit for one of the 31 recommendations – that the share of transportation trips going by bikes and walking be doubled by 2020. This came out of a meeting Peter and DSF organized with NGOs back in January to consolidate proposals for the CAT process, and one of mine coolly ended up making the cut. The rest of the recommendations out of that day (available here) make for interesting comparison to the CAT report, as does the Pembina Institute’s Mind the Gap report.

Overall, however, I’m underwhelmed at the report’s contents. It accepts the premise of growing exploitation of oil and gas in BC, only calling for electrification of production so that we have low emissions for producing huge emissions burned elsewhere. We just sell the crack; what happens after we get paid is someone else’s problem. The report supports the idea of a hard cap on emissions for industry via a cap-and-trade system, although as pointed out in a previous post, the WCI recommendations leave a lot to be desired. I like that term “hard cap” but I see loopholes a Hummer could drive through. Carbon capture and storage is one whole recommendation unto itself. I hear conflicting reports about CCS – I hope it can be made viable because a lot of our planning seems to ride on it coming into play big-time in the next few decades.

There is some good progress on buildings and transportation, but strikingly, no “big bang” public transportation plan. One would think this would be a no-brainer, especially with an election coming next May. Double the buses, build streetcars everywhere, high-speed rail corridors through the Lower Mainland and between cities. Much of the emphasis in the report is on building more compact communities, a big part of the challenge, though a nod to the need for affordable housing in those communities would have been nice. Some carrot and stick but municipalities are going to have to wear this one.

Finally, the CAT was also tasked with setting 2012 and 2016 targets that will be legislated. They call for 5-7% below 2007 levels for 2012 and 15-18% for 2016. These seem reasonable to me, given the size of the ship we need to turn around – if we can actually start moving the numbers in a downward direction year after year this lil’ baby that just learned to walk might actually get running.

3 comments

  • Thanks Marc, and colleagues, for all your work on these issues.

    You have correctly expressed reservations regarding many of the proposed mechanisms.

    These reservations need to be elaborated upon, and soon. Already corporations are taking the cue and opting for the lowest common denominator.

    A number of global corporations with Canadian affiliates are now moving ahead with carbon offset projects, mediated by consulting companies who design market trades.
    For example, a company can continue to pollute, by buying offsets of monoculture tree plantings.

    The fact that these trees will, in a few decades time, likely be cut down for industrial processing or burning is ignored. The immediate carbon accounting offset is all the carbon market is interested in.

    Whether these plantations are in North America or Africa is irrelevant to the market.

    What results, however, is a global version of rotating resource exploitation.

    The rotation is played out on physical space, and in time, with carbon capture and storage simply passing the destructive buck to ocean and groundwater systems to absorb.

    The tax has to be on profits generated from carbon production, and cross-correlated to carbon volumes produced.

    Caps are essential, along with funding for public compliance monitoring and data analysis.

    Offering additional options, like trades, offsets, storage, pricing, etc. on a menu for rapacious corporations to pick and choose from is, quite literally, to let them get away with murder.

  • ‘For example, a company can continue to pollute, by buying offsets of monoculture tree plantings.

    The fact that these trees will, in a few decades time, likely be cut down for industrial processing or burning is ignored. The immediate carbon accounting offset is all the carbon market is interested in’

    It’s get’s even better, Leigh. There are companies working in BC for local government parks and recreation departsments who log existing trees, then plant new seedlings and claim some kind of carbon credit. It’s the best scam since the numbered company building the leaky apartment building.

  • Much care is needed when enforcing various new measures to reduce carbon emissions.

    For example; the introduction of higher carbon taxes or specifically carbon-trade programs, many firms (due to differences in size) are put either at an advantage or an acute disadvantage. While a possible state of equilibrium could hold on paper, in reality many firms (with relative inelasticity to the extra costs) will be at a significant advantage to the (often smaller) firms – which will be impacted upon (even though their carbon footprint may be much smaller). Thus, a myopic approach – which assumes that the same treatment should be applied across-the-board would be fair – is an erroneous assertion.

    Moreover, the inclusion of certain industries, and the exclusion of others (due to economic concerns) can alter the efficacy of any carbon trading regime. This problem has indeed been witnessed in New Zealand, where ultimately the system failed, as too many industries were “left out” on the basis of specious arguments, not unlike the infamous protectionist “infant industry argument”.

    In addition, when the CAT advances figures such as 15-18% for 2016 (below 2007 levels), the opportunity costs need to be weighed up. How would these decisions affect the volatile and uncertain state of the current economy? Much care is needed indeed.

    Dmitriy N. Kinaev

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