Jens Wieting: The gap between carbon talk and carbon action in B.C.

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      Earlier this month, Environment Minister Terry Lake gave a “Carbon Talk” organized by Simon Fraser University in downtown Vancouver. The minister shared an overview of the provincial climate action plan and efforts to meet the legislated goal of reducing B.C.’s emissions by 33 percent by 2020. (So far, we are only 4.5 percent below 2007 emissions.)

      After his presentation, I asked Minister Lake about the uncounted greenhouse gas emissions resulting from fossil fuels exported from B.C. I mentioned last year’s warning by the International Energy Agency that new fossil fuel infrastructure built over the next few years will lock the world into catastrophic climate change. I pointed to the emerging conclusion that the fight against climate change now appears to be primarily about who will step up to the plate and decide to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

      I raised that our Sierra Club B.C. report Emissions Impossible found that, in addition to B.C.’s 62 million tonnes of official carbon dioxide emissions, we have over 100 million tonnes of emissions from coal and gas extracted in British Columbia—and that could increase to over 200 million tonnes in the next few years, if the province goes ahead with proposed new coal mines and LNG terminals. Specifically, I asked the minister if the government will add up the massive uncounted carbon dioxide emissions resulting from current and planned fossil fuel export projects and propose a path to reduce our economic dependence on exporting fossil fuels.

      Since the carbon talk format didn’t allow to follow up on Minister Lake’s response I am using this post to comment on some of the points the minister made. Spoiler alert: he didn’t answer the question.

      He started by pointing out that “it is a very interesting debate, because in our liquefied natural gas strategy, one of the things we’ve said is...if we can take British Columbia natural gas and use it to displace coal in Asia, we will see a global reduction in greenhouse gases.”

      Unfortunately there is no evidence that gas will in fact displace coal in Asia. For example, China’s economy continues to grow rapidly, burning ever more fossil fuels, and the country has not yet committed to emission reductions. Even more importantly, a full carbon footprint analysis of unconventional gas shows that it is not climate friendlier than coal!

      On coal, the minister had this to say: “Now, most of the coal, almost all the coal that we ship is metallurgical coal; it’s not thermal coal. However, it still creates greenhouse gas emissions. And unlike vegetarians, who are willing to give up beef for their beliefs, I haven’t met too many people against mining that want to give up copper, or...all the things that we use every day that come from mining. So...unless we all make a commitment that we want to change our lifestyles dramatically, I think we will have that problem....”

      First, not all B.C. coal mines, operating and proposed, produce metallurgical coal. A number of them produce or will produce thermal coal. All of them will produce millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide. Yes, we have a lifestyle problem. But the science is clear that we are on a path towards a climate that would brutally disrupt our civilization as we know it. By endorsing new coal mines and new gas terminals, the B.C. government is not even beginning to leave that path. The technologies exist for a world that requires less fossil fuel energy (conservation, renewables) and less stuff (reduce, reuse, recycle, et cetera). It is great to hear the minister acknowledging that we have a problem, but real climate leadership would require withdrawing any support for new fossil fuel projects and shifting all available resources to alternatives.

      The minister continued by acknowledging that “we’re going to have a hard time meeting our targets. And I think...up to 2020, we’re probably going to be okay. After 2020, unless we see some real game shifters in technology, which I’m optimistic that we will, beyond 2020 we’re going to have trouble....I hope that people are starting to understand that, we’ve got to do something differently. But as government, it’s very difficult to shift dramatically....You have to set targets and make incremental steps towards it.”

      Again, good to hear that the minister hopes things will change. But the fundamental gap between his hopes and the B.C. government’s actions is abundantly clear. As long as new coal mines and new gas terminals (plus new pipelines from the tar sands) go ahead, we are not even making incremental steps toward addressing the challenge.

      In the minister’s view we are making progress because we have reduced official emissions within our borders by 4.5 percent in three years. But in the real world, with only one atmosphere, B.C.’s true carbon footprint is at least four times higher than officially accounted for, and will be 10 times higher in coming years, if proposed fossil fuel export infrastructure gets built.

      Minister Lake ended his response by stating: “As you mentioned, you’ve locked in this capital, we’ve got all this infrastructure based on fossil fuels. If we said tomorrow, we’re just not going to do that anymore, we’d throw hundreds of thousands of people out of work. Hundreds of thousands of people would lose billions of dollars in their pension funds, in their RRSPs. So, while we know intellectually what needs to be done, practically it’s very difficult doing that without effecting dramatic change on people’s lifestyles.”

      The pattern that repeats itself here is that Minister Lake doesn’t distinguish between fossil fuel infrastructure already built and proposed new projects. Yes, it is a challenge that our economy is currently dependent on highly unreliable revenue from energy exports.

      But why on earth should the government support more of the wrong type of energy projects, when the International Energy Agency, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the World Bank all warn that we have to phase out fossil fuel energy as quickly as possible, when there is enormous economic risk investing money into energy projects that will likely be stopped when the international community gets serious about saving our civilization, and when far more jobs can be created by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency compared to fossil fuels?

      Jens Wieting is a coastal forest campaigner for Sierra Club B.C.




      Nov 28, 2012 at 1:42am

      carbon talk is nice but do people get the full picture. most electricity is generated by coal and nuclear power so if people want to scapegoat the coal business they need to come up with alternatives for electricity generation which so far they haven't. instead electric cars are promoted which will result in more coal needed to generate the electricity for people to recharge their car batteries. it's not that simple. perhaps humans can stop gassing/farting and that might help a bit already.

      Barry Saxifrage

      Nov 29, 2012 at 3:56pm

      I was at that Carbon Talk and couldn't believe Minister Lake's tortured logic in trying to greenwash his government's push to develop NEW coal mines, BIGGER coal ports and NEW fossil methane drilling, pipelines, freezers and export ports. A massive leap into increasing crown carbon extraction without even a nod to the risks it brings British Columbians. Thanks for writing a response and highlighting the critical issue of "existing vs new" fossil fuel infrastructure.