Martyn Brown: B.C.’s new climate targets—so much hot air
“This legislation is another step forward towards making B.C. a leader in climate action once again,” B.C. Green party leader Andrew Weaver gushed in the government news release.
He was referring to the NDP’s proposed new Climate Change Accountability Act, which Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman introduced on May 7.
Yup, nothing screams climate “action” like waiting 10 months to table new emissions reduction targets for 12 years and 22 years in the future, for which no government will have to answer until at least three elections hence.
As for the actual climate action plan that is supposed to achieve those results? Like global warming, it is a silent work in progress.
We won’t see it until next fall, a year-and-a-half after the NDP formed the government, as the endless planning continues at its glacial pace.
Better late than never, no doubt. Yet, given the history of climate inaction in Canada that politicians have cloaked as the opposite, it is hard not to be cynical.
Regrettably, Bill 34 largely reinforces that cynicism.
You want bold? Hang on to your hat, because Bill 34 declares: “The title of the  Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Act … is repealed and the following substituted: CLIMATE CHANGE ACCOUNTABILITY ACT.”
As if in blithe mockery of that proclaimed new emphasis on accountability, the very next clause reminds us all of the cruel joke that laws play on that principle when they can be broken with impunity.
It repeals the now unreachable legislated requirement for a 33 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2007 levels by 2020.
In its place, Bill 34 prescribes two new, equally toothless targets: a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions below 2007 levels by 2030, and a 60 percent reduction by 2040. In addition to the previously required 80 percent reduction in GHGs by 2050.
Climate change accountability?
An act to avoid it, is really more like it.
Not that you would get that sense from the “co-opted cooperative” otherwise known as the government’s Climate Solutions and Clean Growth Advisory Council. It uttered not a peep about what was not in Bill 34, which is at least as important as what is in that bill.
Two weeks ago, the council wrote a letter recommending that the “government adopt targets for 2025 and 2035, to help ensure that we are on track for the 2030 and 2040 targets.”
It failed to say what those interim targets should be. Nor did it explain why there should be no target at all before 2025—two elections hence—that would help to hold the current and the next government accountable for their climate actions.
In any case, Bill 34 ignores the council’s advice: it has no interim targets for 2025 and 2030.
That flies in the face of the NDP’s platform commitment to “work towards implementing [the advisory council’s] full suite of recommendations under our core principles for climate action.”
Sectoral targets can be repealed without legislative approval
To the supportive cast of validators that volunteered to be part of premier John Horgan’s photo op on that announcement, I suppose any progress on the file is better than none, no matter how underwhelming it may be.
The bill does empower the minister to set sectoral greenhouse gas emission reduction targets at some later date.
Those sectoral targets will not require legislative debates or recorded votes.
They will be set by the stroke of a minister’s pen. And they will be equally subject to amendment or repeal by any future minister or government, without any further legislative approval. No wonder the Liberals will embrace Bill 34.
Again, the NDP platform promised the government would establish “separate sectoral reduction goals and sectoral reduction plans for transportation (30 percent reduction by 2030), industry (30 percent reduction by 2030), and buildings and homes (50 percent reduction by 2030).”
Accountability? Why are those promised targets not specifically prescribed in the legislation? Because if they are to be embraced at all, they can be instituted, amended, or done away with as political expedience demands, without the messy business of parliamentary debate and approval.
In a nod to the Auditor General's 2018 damning indictment of the Clark government’s failures on climate policy, the bill does require new bi-annual mandatory reporting on climate adaptation risks, progress, and responses, in addition to existing statutory requirements for such reporting on mitigation measures and progress.
That is a welcome improvement, for sure.
It should shine new light on how the province is acting to cope with the ravages of climate change.
Rising ocean levels, flooding, forest fires, droughts, increasingly violent storms—the list of consequences from those and other impacts is already upon us.
But most of those “future” threats only really seem to hit home when they hit homes, people, and precious property, to the extent that we even accept that they are all symptoms of global warming.
New reporting and hopefully much more action on that adaptation front is good and long overdue.
But even that first report for the 2020 calendar year won’t be legally required until sometime in 2021—“as soon as reasonably practicable” the bill says. Which suggests that perhaps we won’t see it until after the next scheduled provincial election.
Accountability starts tomorrow, is the theme, with little to back up that promise.
In essence, the Horgan administration has assured itself that it will not have to meet any short-term climate targets in this term. Nor will it have to meet any statutory targets within its subsequent two terms in office if it should be lucky enough to govern beyond 2021.
No government will be obliged to meet B.C.’s legislated emissions reduction targets for at least 12 years from today, or nine years after the next scheduled provincial election.
Which means that another three elections will pass before anyone has to legally answer for meeting the 40 percent reduction target by 2030.
That is anything but accountability. It is rather a prescription for further procrastination, avoidance, and failure, all implied by an impotent law that is made to be broken.
Honest to God, did we learn nothing from the fiasco that this law is supposedly aimed at correcting?
Apparently not. If anything, the new Climate Change Accountability Act offers even less accountability than the law it proposes to amend.
At least the Campbell government’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Act also required interim targets to be legally mandated for 2012 and 2016.
They were set by regulation: a six percent reduction in GHGs by 2012, and an 18 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2016.
As the auditor general reported: “In its Climate Action in British Columbia: 2014 Progress Report, government announced that including emission reductions from forestry offset projects, it had met the  emissions reduction target.”
Yet by freezing the carbon tax, unravelling much of her predecessor’s climate action strategy, and encouraging fossil-fueled growth, Christy Clark essentially thumbed her nose at the law.
Emissions dropped at first, but went up under Clark
The province’s most recent Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report shows that under her leadership, British Columbia’s “carbon dioxide equivalent” emissions (CO2e) actually increased from a low of 60.6 million tonnes in 2010 (down from 64.7 Mt in 2007), to 63.3 Mt in 2015, not including so-called “offsets”.
To put it another way, in the first three years after the legislated targets were introduced, real emissions fell in B.C. by 6.2 percent.
But over the next five years, they rose by 4.4 percent.
In fact, the most recent provincial GHG inventory report states that B.C.’s carbon emissions were only 2.1 percent lower in 2015 than the 2007 base year, before forestry offsets are factored in.
The Clark government’s flagrant disregard for meeting B.C.’s statutory emissions reduction targets in 2016 and 2020 rendered them impossible to achieve, in brazen contempt of the law.
As of 2015, B.C.’s emissions were 8.9-million tonnes higher than the 54.4 Mt target that was legally prescribed for the next year, which we still don’t have figures for yet.
The now defunct 33 percent emissions reduction target for 2020 was supposed to oblige B.C. to cut its carbon emissions by 21.4 million tonnes annually—from 64.7 Mt in 2007, to 43.3 Mt by 2020.
Instead, we are told, the province’s emissions are supposedly down a total of 4.7 percent: from 64.7 Mt CO2e in 2007, to 61.6 Mt in 2015, including 1.7 Mt CO2e in “offsets” (i.e. planting trees that theoretically would not have been otherwise planted) from forest management projects in B.C.
But that accounting trick is quite misleading.
The government’s emissions inventory for 2015 does not include the estimated 95.4 Mt of annual emissions from the decomposition of harvested wood products (46.7 Mt) and from wildfires (48.7 Mt).
Nor does it factor in the untold emissions from slash pile burning, which would drive that forestry-related related number higher still.
Nor does it include the estimated net benefit of 28.4 Mt from growth minus decay, which arguably reduced net annual forestry emissions to about 67 million tonnes.
It is something to keep in mind when considering the other 63.3 Mt of human-induced GHGs that B.C. actually produced in the most recent reported year.
That figure is not even half of the over 130 Mt in overall emissions that B.C. pumped out into the planet’s atmosphere in 2015.
A single forest fire could easily wipe out any reduction claimed in any given year by forest management offset projects.
Be that as it may, you can bet forest offsets will be as central to the GreeNDP’s climate action plan as they were to the B.C. Liberals’ widely panned 2016 climate "leadership" plan.
Such dubious carbon “accounting” aside, the facts remain.
In the eight years since B.C. first got supposedly serious about combatting climate change, we have only actually reduced B.C.’s real annual greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.4-million tonnes.
That is barely a rounding error, it is so small.
Bottom line is, without any short-term legislated GHG reduction targets, or hard penalties for noncompliance, or enforcement mechanisms of any sort, the new legislated targets are really so much hot air.
Don’t get me wrong, I am still hoping that the forthcoming climate action plan will suggest a somewhat plausible path for substantially reducing B.C.’s emissions.
But to say I am doubtful is an understatement. Especially given John Horgan’s push for LNG and massively increased natural gas development.
Delays make targets extremely tough to achieve
As someone who played a central role in formulating the Campbell government’s globally lauded 2008 climate action plan, I can tell you, the whole business of climate modelling and carbon accounting is a dubious enterprise at best.
I refer you to Appendix I on page 99 of that plan.
It set out a quantitative analysis of that plan. It aimed to project the anticipated emissions reductions that would flow from the plan’s identified strategies, based on a wide range of assumptions. Many of them were subsequently shattered by the 2009 financial crash.
The government was told—as it also was quick to brag—that its sweeping new climate action plan would “take B.C. approximately 73 per cent towards meeting the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent by 2020.”
That estimate was predicated on introducing the carbon tax, raising it to $30 per tonne, and then indefinitely freezing it, as Christy Clark did.
Instead of a 73 percent reduction in GHGs, after the Clark government turned its back on climate action, a decade later, we got at total reduction of maybe five percent.
And truth be known, much of that limited achievement had more to do with the downturn in the global economy than with the reams of climate action measures that the Campbell government implemented and initiated.
Now think of this.
Instead of a 33 percent reduction in GHGs over 12 years, as that plan envisioned, the NDP’s new targets will require about a 35 percent further reduction beyond 2015 emission levels, by 2030.
That is a reduction of almost 22 million tonnes a year, below B.C.’s 2015 emissions level, including its claimed offsets.
From 2005 to 2015, Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions only dropped by 2.2 percent, from
738 Mt to 722 Mt—or by 16 million tonnes.
So, to meet B.C.’s new target for 2030, the province would have to cut its annual GHG emissions by almost 38 percent more than all of Canada managed to reduce its national emissions over a decade.
And that’s assuming that B.C.’s emissions did not actually continue to rise in the last three years, as they actually did for much of the Clark government’s term. A dubious assumption at best.
Colour me skeptical.
Certainly, that level of emissions reduction will not be achieved with a mere $20 per tonne increase in the carbon tax, as compared the $30 per tonne carbon tax that has been frozen since 2012.
Hell, the whole national carbon pricing scheme might yet come crashing down on its head, with Alberta’s Jason Kenney, Ontario’s Doug Ford, Saskatchewan’s premier Scott Moe, and federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer all vowing to kill it.
Moroever, we should not forget that the Clark government’s climate “leadership” team recommended increasing the carbon tax by $10/tonne each year through 2050.
It claimed that was absolutely critical to meeting its recommended 40 percent emissions reduction target for 2030 and the 80 percent cut already mandated for 2050.
Even with that pie-in-the-sky carbon tax scheme that would raise the tax to $360 a tonne by 2050, the climate action recommendations that group made were woefully inadequate to meet the task at hand. (For a very deep dive into that issue, see my four-part critique.)
As it turned out, even its limited suggestions were mostly ignored.
In her recent report, B.C.'s auditor general compared Clark’s climate leadership team recommendations with her administration’s subsequent climate “leadership” plan.
Carol Bellringer found that “21 per cent of the recommendations were fully included, 16 per cent were partially included and 63 per cent were not included. Recommendations not included related to carbon pricing and adaptation.”
So far, at least, there is no sign from the Horgan administration that it is willing to seriously contemplate higher carbon taxes. Least of all while it continues to blame Ottawa for not doing more to lower gasoline prices, including by increasing Canada’s refining capacity.
The Horgan government will likely do much on the adaptation front to help B.C. better plan for and respond to the challenging realities of climate change. That’s terrific.
But by definition, those measures will be aimed adapting to those problems, not at reducing/mitigating emissions as part of a global effort to combat climate change.
Fact is, with the exception of tackling so-called “fugitive emissions”, rapidly electrifying all modes of transportation, expediting rapid transit, further reducing buildings emissions, and a handful of other obvious strategies, most of the “low hanging fruit” has been picked.
It will be way tougher to eliminate the next 21 million tonnes of annual carbon emissions over the next 12 years than it was to eliminate the scant few megatonnes that we have managed to eradicate over the last 11 years since the initial targets were legislated.
Time and time again, promises are made and not kept. Targets are set and almost never met.
George Heyman's words not matched by actions
At the risk of saying "I told you so," let me quote from the Straight’s interview with George Heyman before the last provincial election campaign:
Georgia Straight: Martyn Brown says the NDP climate action strategy is a plan to develop a new plan under the auspices of a reconvened Climate Leadership Team. Is that accurate?
George Heyman: "No, that's not accurate. We adopted the carbon-pricing regime set out by the federal government. We've told British Columbians exactly how we're going to implement it in a predictable and gradual way. We've told them how we're going to give rebates to 80 percent of B.C. families—low- and middle-income families—as well as support green initiatives. And then we've endorsed all of the other recommendations of the Climate Leadership Team.
"The reason we're bringing the Climate Leadership Team back together is in order to meet the recommendations they've made, which include very aggressive targets for emission reduction—as well as targets for zero-emission vehicles and reductions in housing, transportation, and industry. We need to bring people together to outline the very specific steps that we can and must take in order to meet those targets."
Over a year later, I stand by my assessment, which has been borne out by the NDP’s actions in government.
At best, those actions have been a plan to develop a new plan, aside from the $5/year increase in carbon tax to implement the federal government’s mandated carbon pricing scheme a year earlier than required, as it will grow from $30/tonne to $50/tonne over the next four years.
Contrary to Heyman’s election claim, the NDP has not told British Columbians anything whatsoever about the rebates it intends to provide to 80 percent of B.C. families. Nor has it yet outlined has it plans to reallocate what will likely be the lion’s share of incremental carbon tax revenues to help industrial emitters lower their carbon tax costs and capital costs for lowering their GHG emissions.
The NDP government chose not to explicitly entrench its sectoral emissions reductions target for housing, transportation, and “industry” in Bill 34. The new law includes no targets for “zero-emission vehicles.”
Nor has the government endorsed “all of the other recommendations of [Clark’s] Climate Leadership Team”.
Rather, it has expressly rejected its principal recommendation for an carbon tax hike that is double what the NDP has implemented.
Heyman was either woefully mistaken when he made his comments, or more likely, he is simply doing the post-election dance that most politicians do when they break their election commitments and reveal themselves to be as duplicitous as the politicians they criticized to get elected.
As the federal and provincial auditors-general have recently collaboratively reported, Canada’s climate “action” efforts from coast to coast to coast are a woefully inadequate, uncoordinated, unaccountable mess.
Seven of the 12 provinces and territories that participated in that joint assessment did not even have an overall target for reducing greenhouse gases by 2020. With the NDP’s new amendments, B.C. makes that eight.
As Quebec’s auditor general has reported, that province’s cap-and-trade system also throws its climate action plan into serious question. And don’t get me started on the Trudeau government’s climate plan, which is as dishonest as the day is long.
Our governments are way off-track in meeting their emissions reductions targets.
They are not ready for the impacts of a changing climate. They have no credible, measurable, properly considered, or reported plan to achieve what they all claim they will.
It is great that the GreeNDP power-sharing agreement aims to expand the carbon tax to include fugitive emissions and slash-pile burning and vows to “implement a climate action strategy to meet our targets”.
Yet we would have to all be especially stupid to believe that any plan to reduce Canada’s methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent—or to cut B.C.'s "fugitive" emissions by 45 percent by 2025—will ever be realized if natural gas production is dramatically increased, as Horgan hopes.
As it is, B.C.’s oil and gas fugitive emissions have gone up by about 10 percent since 2007, from a low of 3.9 million tonnes of CO2e in 2010, back to about 4.3 Mt in 2015.
To put the challenge in perspective, consider this.
The annual estimated emissions that will directly result from the operation of Kinder Morgan’s added Trans Mountain pipeline is 407,000 tonnes per year of CO2e, excluding upstream and downstream emissions.
Bad as that is, it is only one-tenth of the annual four million tonnes that the proposed LNG Canada facility would directly generate at full build-out, not including its associated upstream and downstream emissions.
Even the first phase of that project would directly emit more than five times the GHGs that Trans Mountain’s second pipeline would directly generate, strictly from its operations.
If upstream emissions are included, you can more double those impacts from LNG Canada.
LNG emissions will enlarge B.C.'s carbon footprint
Last August, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions teamed up with the Pembina Institute to research the impact of LNG on carbon pollution.
Their report estimated that the LNG Canada project alone would account for about 8.6 million tonnes of annual emissions by 2030, and about 9.6 Mt by 2050 from the plant and its additional related upstream emissions.
Add in B.C.’s other most likely LNG project, the much smaller Woodfibre LNG, and you can tack on perhaps another half-a-million tonnes of annual emissions.
To quote the report: “The two approved projects analyzed in this paper would collectively increase carbon pollution by 9.1 Mt CO2e/year by 2030, further increasing to 10.2 Mt CO2e/year by 2050—leaving less than 3 Mt CO2e/year for the rest of B.C.’s economy and making it virtually impossible for the province to meet its 2050 target.”
That does not even begin to tell the whole picture, since it does not include the downstream emissions that those two plants would effectively generate, as that LNG gets shipped across the Pacific and eventually burned as fuel for power, heating, and transportation.
So what, you say? Apparently, that’s John Horgan’s position as well.
In his dream world, it just means that the rest of the economy will just have to “work a little harder” to meet B.C.’s new emissions reduction targets.
Trouble is, as Andrew Weaver has pointed out, “If the LNG Canada proposal goes ahead, then every aspect of our economy will have to collectively cut emissions by more than half in twelve years and by 95 per cent by 2050.”
How much is the estimated 8.6 million tonnes of added annual direct and upstream carbon emissions in B.C. from LNG Canada, in comparative terms?
It is six times more than the total amount of annual emissions reductions we have managed to “achieve” in B.C. over the last decade.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it is the equivalent of over 1.7 million passenger vehicles driven for one year, or over 3.4 billion litres of gasoline consumed.
It represents a 72 percent increase over the 11.6 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent that B.C.’s natural gas industry currently generates, which now accounts for about 18 percent of total provincial emissions.
It is more than double the amount of the combined total (3.7 Mt) in carbon emissions from all “light duty” gasoline vehicles (i.e. cars) in B.C.
It is 74 percent more than the combined total emissions (4.6 Mt) from light duty gasoline trucks (i.e. SUVs and pick-ups).
And it is almost double the amount (4.2 Mt) of so-called “fugitive emissions” in B.C.
Yet the Horgan government is so desperate to “land” that Canada LNG project, it has offered to exempt it from the added $20 per tonne in higher carbon taxes that the rest of us will be obliged to pay as that tax continue to increase each year by $5 per tonne until at least 2021.
I will have much more to say about that project and the NDP’s unconscionable subsidy program for the natural gas industry in a future article.
I agree with Andrew Weaver: no climate action “strategy” can credibly “prove” that we can cut B.C.’s carbon emissions by 40 percent below 2007 levels by 2030, let alone by 80 percent over the next 32 years, while also intentionally ramping up emissions from B.C.’s oil and gas industry.
Those incremental GHGs are the problem we are trying to mitigate and reverse, not newly instigate and make worse.
Least of all with costly new tax breaks, subsidies, and incentives for Big Oil to encourage more fracking aimed at releasing and exporting humongous new volumes of natural gas and synthetics.
Even without the impact of LNG Canada’s added emissions, B.C. is way off-track from where the law supposedly “requires” it to be.
In 2016, the Pembina Institute estimated that at the rate we are going, British Columbia is “projected to see a 39 per cent increase in emissions by 2030.”
Horgan’s tax “relief” to entice more natural gas development from the likes of Canada LNG will only aggravate that problem.
Especially in the absence of any interim targets or hard penalties for noncompliance that might hold the politicians accountable.
Greens must become far more green
Indeed, what is now happening exceeds my worst fears about Horgan’s tepid commitment to climate action, as I previously discussed, both before and during the election campaign.
His new natural gas incentive package is just the tip of the iceberg.
It suggests a melting moral claim to credible climate action, floating on a sea of subsidies for Big Oil that are grossly compounding the very problem we need to solve.
If Horgan was really serious about climate action he would not be adding billions of dollars in subsidies to encourage some of the world’s largest climate polluters to dramatically expand emissions from B.C.’s carbon intensive industries.
He would instead legislate annual GHG reduction targets, starting next year.
He would insist on holding his own government and all future governments accountable for their progress, or lack of same, in reducing B.C.’s carbon emissions.
For example, a new climate action auditor could be appointed as an independent officer of the legislator.
That person would serve as an expert in carbon auditing and accounting—something that B.C.’s current auditor general is not.
The climate action auditor would independently report on the province’s mitigation and adaptation actions, progress, gaps, risks, and accounting systems, in addition to shaping the latter.
As I wrote last year in the Straight, “Just as cabinet ministers have a portion of their salary held back each year which is only returned if they live up to their balanced budget obligations, we should hold back a further five percent of their cabinet pay that they would only get back if the climate auditor determines they have acted responsibly.
“That would be real accountability. It would sure focus the politicians’ minds on that vital task at hand, as compared to the status quo, where climate action is entirely off the radar and our government breaks its own laws with impunity.”
Horgan could ask that Climate Action Auditor—or even his advisory council—to recommend a suite of fair and tangible compliance measures that would assure real accountability in meeting targets that are today little more than empty statutes of wishful thinking.
What enforcement resources are needed? What penalties should there be for politicians that willfully ignore their legally mandated responsibilities? What means are most appropriate to properly punish climate negligence and to perhaps even reward climate leadership?
Those are just some of the accountability issues we should be discussing that are nowhere contemplated by the Climate Change “Accountability” Act.
Then again, if anyone in the legislature really cared enough to address those glaring weaknesses, they could propose amendments.
I gather the three Green MLAs did not propose or insist on those improvements as a condition for their support.
Like the government advisory council, they are now partner-authors of the NDP’s new climate accountability avoidance legislation.
As I say, it’s hard not to be cynical when B.C.’s most ardent champions of principled climate action seem content with an “etch-a-sketch” approach to emissions reduction targets.
Bill 34 was certainly not the “shakeup” I was hoping to see from the NDP, drawn up in partnership with the B.C. Greens.
Something tells me that few, if any, among the ranks of NDP supporters or climate advisors will see fit to echo the types of changes and fixes I am calling for.
As usual, politics trumps all. And that’s exactly why our planet is rapidly sealing its own fate, at the expense of all life on Earth and common sense.More