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Enviros Wary of Campbell's Plans

Secret, conflicting climate change actions hurt support.

By Tom Barrett 3 Jun 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee with a focus on global warming policy and politics. You can reach him here.

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BC Premier Campbell: carbon tax soft sell?

[Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series on the politics of climate change in B.C.]

Environmentalists see plenty of room for improvement in the B.C. government's climate change plans.

Although the relationship between eco-groups and the government is generally painted as a love-in, the environmental movement still sees lots of flaws in Gordon Campbell's Liberals.

Last week, the legislature wound up a sitting that saw several historic climate change bills passed. We asked some environmentalists how the government and opposition had performed.

They gave the government high marks for recognizing the significance of the problem, but lower marks for developing a coherent plan to fight global warming.

The Liberals were given credit for introducing North America's first comprehensive carbon tax, but were criticized for a lack of consultation and the absence of an apparent overall strategy.

And the environmentalists were particularly disturbed by government policies that run counter to the goal of reducing greenhouse gases.

'More needs to be done'

Ian Bruce, of the David Suzuki Foundation, gave the government credit for a significant shift in priorities in recent years.

He praised the government's carbon tax and the adoption of California vehicle emissions standards.

"Certainly there's been some progress there, but there's lots more that needs to be done," Bruce said.

What we haven't seen, he said, is a comprehensive plan showing how the government intends to achieve its ambitious overall greenhouse gas emission targets.

The carbon tax, important as it is, is just one tool to reach those targets, Bruce said.

"The B.C. government has yet to show the blueprint and the entire toolbox that it is using to reduce greenhouse gases," he said.

"They've had sufficient time to come out with a plan showing how to reduce emissions."

Such a plan would help start a conversation with British Columbians on how to reach the government's goals, he said. It would show how the government intends to work with key players and how households and industry fit into the reduction strategy.

And it would show how policies such as cap and trade are going to fit into the mix.

The government needs to reconcile its targets with some of its other projects, like the push to build more highways, Bruce said.

"Providing more green options such as better transit service would seem to be the priority versus spending billions of dollars now on expanding highways," Bruce said.

People 'need to buy in'

Andrea Reimer, of the Wilderness Committee, gave the Liberals an "A" for embracing change, but a "C" for consultation and public education.

And she handed out "the biggest possible 'F' for continuing to not only pursue, but accelerate, emission-causing activities like oil and gas exploration."

"On balance it's a 'C,'" she said. "It has some very wonderful things and some very crappy things."

The Liberals' awakening to climate change as an issue is inspiring, Reimer said. Not so the government's approach to implementing change.

Consultation is important, she said, because "these are big changes and people need to buy into them."

'Baffling' oil and gas policies

Reimer called the government's commitment to boosting the greenhouse gas-spewing oil and gas industry "baffling."

"It's really hard to reconcile one set of their actions, the cutting edge stuff, which seems quite genuine, with their emissions-causing activities. It's not just ongoing, it's really accelerating."

Kevin Washbrook, of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, agreed with Reimer, saying that "overall it's a mixture of cutting-edge leadership and aggressive expansion of status quo emissions-producing mega-projects.

"It's a real mixed bag."

He praised the carbon tax, calling it "unique in North America."

"Some people say it's the best in the world," he said. "As far as we're concerned, the tax is transparent, it's well laid out, it's well defined, it's quite an open piece of work.

He said his group would have preferred a higher tax, but said he understands why the government chose to set it relatively low and increase it gradually.

And he said the Liberals have been "really smart" to hold out against calls from northern and Interior communities for exemptions.

However, Washbrook said he believes local governments and agencies such as school boards and health authorities should be receiving help from Victoria to cut emissions and thereby lower their carbon taxes.

"I wouldn't say [government should] provide exemptions for those agencies, but make sure they have some sort of source of funding to make sure they can reduce their emissions."

Campbell accused of soft sell

Washbrook also criticized Premier Gordon Campbell for not selling the carbon tax.

"I think Campbell needs to own this policy if he wants it to be a success," Washbrook said.

He noted that Campbell refused to mention the tax when he spoke recently to a gathering of northern mayors.

"It's hard to interpret that as not being arrogant," Washbrook said, adding that the premier should at least have acknowledged that he has heard the complaints about the tax.

He also questioned the other big plank of the government's climate change strategy so far, cap and trade.

The legislation that enabled the cap and trade system is vague and leaves many important questions about the system unanswered, he said.

At the same time, he noted, the regional cap and trade regime that B.C. has joined, the Western Climate Initiative, has greenhouse gas reduction targets of only 15 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

That's much less ambitious than B.C.'s goal of a 33 per cent reduction below 2007 levels by 2020.

"Where is the difference going to come from?" Washbrook asked.

Unless the government explains the apparent gap, he said, it leaves itself open to arguments that it is punishing ordinary people through the carbon tax while giving a break to big emitters, who would fall under cap and trade.

"You can look at that and say the NDP's got a point here."

Secrecy slammed

If the government doesn't address the valid concerns around its climate change legislation, it risks having its goals eroded by future governments, Washbrook said.

"These are some of the biggest pieces of legislation that we're going to see in years in terms of confronting the climate crisis here in B.C. and the government owes it to all British Columbians to roll this out in a really big tent fashion," he said.

"No secrecy, full public consultation, making sure all relevant concerns are addressed."

Washbrook was also critical of the government's clean fuels legislation, designed to increase the use of biofuels to five per cent of all fuels sold in the province.

The bill came out just as concerns were beginning to emerge about ethanol being linked to food shortages, Washbrook noted.

"Hopefully, when they get to the regulations there won't be any mandated requirements for ethanol," he said. "It doesn't show any flexibility. You'd expect this government to be a bit more nimble than that in terms of addressing these things as they arise."

He was also critical of the government's Gateway program.

"Most people I talk to think Gateway is a complete contradiction to the ambitious emission goals they have," he said.

Will carbon tax grow?

Susan Howatt, of Sierra Club B.C., praised the carbon tax, calling it something her group has been advocating for as long as it's been around.

"These are pretty exciting, heady times," she said.

Bringing in the tax took a lot of courage and implementing it won't be easy, she said.

The tax will lower the cost of green technology and increase the cost of polluting, she said.

"And that's just the direction we have to go."

Howatt said she sympathizes with northerners, but noted that Statistics Canada data indicate that northerners have much shorter commutes than people in the Lower Mainland.

The carbon tax, she said, "can't be an opt in or opt out process. We're all in this together."

The current legislation, however, does not go beyond 2012, Howatt noted. The government needs to give some indication of where tax levels will go after that, she said.

She praised the Campbell government for responding to criticism that the cap and trade legislation created "a wall of secrecy" around corporate greenhouse gas emissions.

Like other environmentalists, Howatt gave the government low marks for its continuing subsidies to the oil and gas industry.

The government should phase out subsidies to carbon-emitting fossil fuel industries and adopt a "broader, more holistic energy strategy" with a greater emphasis on conservation and reducing demand, she said.

Down to the details

Matt Horne, of the Pembina Institute, praised the Liberals for bringing in some important pieces of legislation, especially the carbon tax, but added that there are problems with the details.

He agreed with Howatt that the government should explain what will happen to the carbon tax after its first five years.

"We haven't seen a clear commitment to what the schedule of increases will be or even if it will be increasing beyond 2012," Horne said. Most economic modelling suggests that the tax will have to go much higher to be effective, he said.

And the cap and trade legislation doesn't answer any of the key questions about what the scheme will look like or what level of reductions will be sought.

Said Horne: "We don't feel yet that the policies that they've introduced match the ambition of the targets."

Tomorrow: the NDP report card from environmental groups.

Related Tyee stories:

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