We mobilize to put fires out, but — so far, at least — not to prevent them.
British Columbia is having its summer of reckoning with the climate emergency. Like other places before — California, Australia, Honduras, the Philippines — the province in which I reside is now experiencing a shift in the popular zeitgeist. With a jolt to our collective consciousness, most of us now understand the emergency is well and truly upon us.
First it was the extreme heat event that shattered temperature records, killing about 500 people in less than a week (over a third as many as died in B.C. from COVID since the start of the pandemic), and cooking to death as many as a billion coastal sea creatures. This has been followed by hundreds of wildfires, forcing the evacuation of thousands from their homes and, most dramatically, burning the entire town of Lytton to the ground. Already the province has spent over $95 million fighting the fires, and it’s only mid-July. It’s been an unsettling summer, as we emerge from one crisis and stumble into the next — out of the frying pan and into the fire.
And no, this is not the new normal. It is but a taste of things to come. If you thought the last 16 months of pandemic living was disruptive, you ain’t seen nothing if we don’t get serious about the climate crisis. As disruptive as COVID was, it didn’t upend our food and water systems the way the climate crisis will. And as anxiety-producing as the pandemic was, it didn’t have the physical effects that extreme heat does, as it messes with our brains’ capacity to cope just when we most need to call upon our best selves.
We need our governments to approach the climate emergency with the same ambition and urgency with which they confronted the pandemic. Only they aren’t. Not federally (as I’ve written previously), and not here in B.C., the focus of this column. We meet this moment unprepared, without a genuine and robust climate emergency plan, and with a political leadership that seems unwilling or unable to “get it” on climate.
CleanBC, the province’s official climate plan, introduced in late 2018, is frequently touted as the strongest such plan in Canada. And relatively speaking, it likely is. But that’s not saying much. What the plan is decidedly not is an actual climate emergency plan.
Let’s consider B.C.’s current climate plan against what I call the “Four Markers of Emergency Mode.”
B.C. is in a state of climate emergency with no emergency plan, @SethDKlein writes for @NatObserver. #ClimateCrisis #FossilFuels
Marker 1: Spend what it takes to win
Nope. The B.C. government isn’t even close.
The lofty commitments of CleanBC are not yet reflected in the B.C. budget, where one must always see if fine words are backed up with real dollars. Former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, has said governments should be spending two per cent of their GDP on climate-mitigation efforts, which in B.C., translates to about $5 billion per year. But total climate spending by the B.C. government amounts to about $1.1 billion a year ($800 million of which isn’t actual climate spending, but rather, represents the carbon tax credit for lower-income households, offsetting the cost of the carbon tax). So the province isn’t spending a little less than it should, it’s underspending by at least a five-fold order of magnitude.
Of course it’s not just that the government isn’t spending what it should on climate actions and infrastructure. It’s that, on the contrary, they are spending like bandits on the wrong things: B.C. allocated $1.3 billion last year subsidizing the extraction and production of fossil fuels, mostly in the form of royalty credits and other handouts in support of “natural” gas fracking.
Marker 2: Create new economic institutions to get the job done
Again, nope. While past NDP governments in the 1970s and ’90s created new Crown corporations to meet strategic needs (public auto insurance, BC Housing, the Agricultural Land Reserve, Columbia Basin Trust, etc.), this NDP government has created no new public enterprises to meet the climate emergency (although last week it announced a new partnership with, wait for it, Shell Canada to build a so-called Centre for Clean Energy and Innovation). The province should establish a new generation of public entities to mass produce and deploy the items we need to electrify our communities — heat pumps, solar arrays, wind farms, electric buses, etc. — and end our reliance on fossil fuels. BC Hydro, with visionary leadership, could be driving much of this. But so far, no such luck.
Marker 3: Move from voluntary and incentive-based policies to mandatory measures
When a community is facing an approaching wildfire, we do not say, “We encourage you to leave.” Rather, we say, “You’ve gotta go!” Yet the former is pretty much how our governments approach the climate emergency.
Here, for the record, is a chart of B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions over the last 20 years (up to 2019, the last year for which we have data).
The chart is a deeply disturbing indictment of our failed approach to climate policy. To put this in the language we’ve all come to know in the pandemic, B.C. governments have failed “to bend the curve.” But why?
Because almost every climate policy to date is voluntary. For the most part, our governments have sought to encourage and incentivize change, employing price signals and rebates, etc. But that’s not what one does in an emergency. In an emergency, we require certain actions, using clear near-term timelines and regulatory fiat.
CleanBC makes a modest shift in this direction, setting dates by which certain things will be required, but the dates are all out-of-whack. For example, the sale of new fossil fuel vehicles will be banned as of 2040, and all new buildings must be net carbon-zero by 2032. Firm dates are good, but both these dates are set 10 years too late. The government should declare that no new buildings will be allowed to tie into natural gas lines or use other fossil fuels as of next year. And the date by which zero-emission vehicles should be mandatory for new sales should be 2025. This is, after all, an emergency.
The government’s overall climate targets are not aligned with the science or what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we must do. B.C.’s legislated target is to reduce GHG emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 (from 2007 levels), whereas the IPCC says that reduction should be at least 50 per cent, but for a rich country like ours, should more appropriately exceed 60 per cent.
By its own admission, the government has thus far only presented plans to reach 56 to 72 per cent of its inadequate 2030 target (it has promised to show how it will close that gap by the end of 2021). And even the policies presented to date lack sufficient detail to provide confidence that they will achieve their promised GHG reductions. On the buildings front, a mere 709 households in the entire province claimed the government’s heat pump rebate in 2020, while that same year, FortisBC saw a net increase in its gas-using customer base of 12,000 households, so we’re not off to a great start.
Marker 4: Tell the truth
In an emergency, we need leaders to be forthright about the severity of the crisis, and rally us to the task at hand. That’s what we’ve all witnessed during the pandemic, with daily briefings on the state of the emergency. But try searching the CleanBC plan for the words “climate emergency” or “climate crisis.” You will seek in vain. Nothing about the plan or how the government talks about it communicates urgency.
Most significantly, the B.C. government continues to propagate a deadly falsehood, namely that we can take meaningful climate action while continuing to double-down on the production of fossil fuels, specifically in B.C.’s case, fracked gas and LNG. That’s the opposite of telling the truth.
Here’s the simple truth: B.C.’s climate plan is fundamentally at odds with the province’s LNG development goals. Earlier the same year that CleanBC 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. The project is a “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 four and six megatonnes of GHGs to B.C.’s annual emissions when it is operational in 2025 (meaning, this one project could account for 10 per cent of total provincial emissions). And just last week, we learned the B.C. fracking fields (which will expand to feed any LNG facilities) are producing about twice as much methane — a highly potent GHG — as previously reported.
Symbolic of this incoherence, the B.C. government’s current Climate Solutions Advisory Council includes a representative from Shell Canada and another from Teck Resources. Fossil fuel corporate reps don’t belong on an official climate advisory committee that seeks to operate by consensus. The government is keen to have a climate plan that the fossil fuel companies will endorse. But the hour is much too late to be seeking such approval. Again, the uncomfortable truth is that any climate plan these companies can support won’t be a climate plan worth having.
So here we sit, facing down the climate emergency, with a B.C. government climate plan that is zero for four when it comes to a convincing emergency response.
There are things this provincial government is doing with respect to social and economic justice, housing and homelessness, and tax fairness for which I am grateful. The advancements with respect to child care are especially noteworthy. But the future of those children is now under threat. Decisive action is needed to protect them, as well as other vulnerable populations who are more likely to experience the worst ravages of the climate crisis.
The Horgan government needs to hear a resounding wake-up call: Reboot your climate plan and transform it into a real emergency plan. Invite us to join in a grand societal undertaking, one that leaves no one behind and banishes unemployment as we undertake this task of our lives.
Sometimes, in a time of emergency, the leaders we have need to be replaced with new ones ready to meet the moment. And other times, the leaders we have become the people we need them to be. John Horgan, which kind of leader will you be?