The British Columbia government has set aside $1.5 billion to fund economic recovery as the pandemic eases, but it’s been sending mixed messages on whether it will use the money to build a more resilient, lower-carbon economy or just return to the status quo.
The province headed into the pandemic after 18 months maintaining that the CleanBC plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions was also its economic plan. A 20-member Climate Solutions Council with representation from businesses, environmental groups, unions, local governments and First Nations gives government advice on green economic growth.
But in April, with large parts of the economy closed due to the pandemic, the government appointed an Economic Recovery Task Force whose 19 members include the premier, cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, the president of the BC Federation of Labour and the leaders of major business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and Vancouver Board of Trade.
The government’s press release quoted Premier John Horgan saying “This task force will help us keep in close contact with community leaders to ensure the steps we are taking now are working and to plan for a long-term economic recovery after the crisis has passed.”
The task force’s membership makes sense for responding to the immediate crisis, but is far from ideal for planning a longer-term recovery, said Karen Tam Wu, B.C. director of the Pembina Institute energy think tank and a member of the Climate Solutions Council.
“Some of the associations at the table represent heavy industry and certainly there’s a lot of potential to reduce emissions from those industries,” she said.
But other sectors also provide jobs and have potential to grow while reducing emissions, she noted. “Heavy industry is two per cent of our provincial GDP, and so how do we make sure we’re supporting the other 98 per cent.”
People with perspective on rebuilding a resilient and low-carbon economy should be on the task force to ensure those goals are at the core of decisions, Tam Wu said. Pembina has called for “green stimulus” spending.
“Certainly thinking longer term into where can stimulus dollars go and what does economic recovery or rebuilding look like, the idea of clean and resilient recovery wouldn’t necessarily be the priority of the current constitution or makeup of the task force,” she said. Environment Minister George Heyman isn’t one of the ministers on the task force, she added.
Bruce Passmore, executive director of the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, shared the concern.
“There is not necessarily a strong environmental voice on that committee,” he said. “Right now it seems very focused on purely an industry perspective and not looking at it more broadly.”
While some advocates for a cleaner economy are hopeful the task force is a stopgap focused on the short-term response to the crisis, the provincial government has sent contradictory signals.
There was the initial news release saying the task force would be planning the long-term recovery.
And Michelle Mungall, the minister of jobs, economic development and competitiveness and a member of the task force, stressed the task force’s importance during a recent Vancouver Board of Trade webinar.
“That economic recovery task force is in my view extremely important to helping guide how we start rebuilding once we can,” she said. “[It] is going to be involved in identifying ways in which we can take that funding and then implement it province-wide so that we’re stimulating the economy.”
She didn’t mention CleanBC or the Climate Solutions Council, but did say that the province will do what it can to get mining projects started and have strong natural resource sectors after the pandemic.
In a recent conference call with leaders of a dozen or so environmental organizations, Horgan said many British Columbians just want the sense of security that comes with returning to how things were.
The comment left some listeners with the impression the government was losing interest in building a cleaner economy, but others saw it as reasonable given the current challenges and were reassured when the premier stated his continued commitment to CleanBC.
Pembina’s Tam Wu said it’s clear the premier and cabinet ministers have to balance many interests.
“They have restated their commitment to CleanBC and they have stated this is the moment in B.C. to be transformative,” she said, “but also recognizing the government serves a lot of different perspectives... and they do have priorities around ensuring that what they put forward benefits all British Columbians. And that can be interpreted a lot of different ways depending on where you are.”
The interim leader of the BC Green Party, Adam Olsen, said his party has raised concerns about who is and isn’t on the task force, but that overall he’s comfortable with the government’s direction.
“The most positive signal we’ve got so far is the openness to hearing a wide variety of opinions and a wide variety of ideas,” said Olsen.
“It’s not that we’re getting mixed signals on exactly how they’re going to be investing, it’s just that they’ve got multiple things going on and from what I can see the biggest focus right now is still on getting through the initial stages of the public health and safety emergency.”
As the government considers how to reopen safely, it’s listening to economic, environmental and social perspectives, Olsen said. “The breadth of the challenges that we face are so wide and so diverse that it’s going to be very, very difficult for any government to deliver everything that they’re hearing.”
He said he’s happy so far with the government’s willingness to listen, put programs forward and then adjust them where needed.
But some of the bigger decisions on stimulus spending are still coming and may be contentious, he said.
CleanBC needs to remain central to the government’s planning, Olsen said. “There’s a huge opportunity for very important economic growth and economic benefits to be invested in greening our economy, in energy efficiency, in the investments that need to be made to reduce emissions. There’s huge opportunities there for our economy, so I think it’s really important we’re leaning into those.”
Merran Smith is executive director of Clean Energy Canada and co-chair of B.C.’s Climate Solutions Council. Its work continues, she said.
“We’ve got a mandate, a legislated mandate, to provide advice to the government which includes advice on building a sustainable economy using CleanBC and moving forward the agenda of a low-carbon sustainable economy that links with competitiveness, jobs and affordability.”
The council continues to meet and talks with the government regularly, Smith said. “We have a mandate to provide this advice, so whether it’s during a COVID pandemic or any other times, that’s what we’re doing and so we’ve continued to do it.”
She said she’s been in meetings recently with Horgan and Finance Minister Carole James, as well as other ministers and people in the government. “They are definitely interested in understanding how to align CleanBC with their stimulus,” she said.
“B.C. has maintained its clear commitment to CleanBC and is still in the throes of dealing with the relief stage, the emergency and how to deal with it, so I think the opportunity now is to continue to work forward and ensure that we use this stimulus to really accelerate some of these CleanBC initiatives that have been committed to.”
Retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient and constructing affordable housing out of B.C. wood products are examples of much needed projects that could move forward quickly with stimulus spending and meet the province’s goals, both short and long term, Smith said.
“CleanBC, it’s a blueprint for the economic strategy in British Columbia that strengthens the economy, reduces the carbon pollution but also creates jobs and a stronger more competitive economy,” she said. “Right now there’s some things in CleanBC that would be really well aligned with stimulus that are going to help put people back to work and move the CleanBC strategy forward.”
Smith added, “We need to find not just shovel ready projects to put people back to work, but shovel worthy projects.”
The federal government has said $1.7 billion of its stimulus spending will go to clean up abandoned oil and gas wells, and governments in New Zealand, South Korea and Europe have said spending will be tied to reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to cleaner energy sources.
Both the International Energy Agency and the International Monetary Fund have called on governments to keep climate goals in mind as they spend to stimulate their economies, Smith said.
“This idea is pretty mainstream and it’s smart fiscal policy to be using this stimulus to move us forward on this cleaner energy, lower-carbon transition that was already under way,” she said. “B.C. has benefited from climate action before. We have a very strong economy. We’ve been moving forward on climate action. So the idea of clean stimulus and investing in clean stimulus aligns already with the success we’ve had here before.”
In a May 1 news conference James said cabinet will decide how to spend economic stimulus money following wide consultation.
“It’s going to take business leaders, it’s going to take environmental leaders, it’s going to take not-for-profits and charities, it’s going take every British Columbian working together to be able to look at how we help each other as we grow the economy and as we go back to economic recovery,” she said.
CleanBC remains a critical part of the economy, James said. “No one will be left out and I can tell you we are just as firm in our commitment to CleanBC and to environmental work being part of our economic work as well. There’s no wavering on that.”
Passmore at the B.C. chapter of the CPAWS said that while CleanBC is a starting point, he’d like to see some of the spending used to address the chronic underfunding of BC Parks and for conservation projects like restoring mountain caribou habitat or building salmon-friendly dykes that prevent flooding.
Others said the government shouldn’t overlook improvements that can be made to agriculture and forestry as it plans for the recovery.
“We need government to be looking a lot more forward,” said Passmore. “We’re hopeful they will use CleanBC as a tool and we won’t see the rollback of regulations and those types of things in a sort of rapid back to normal. This is our golden opportunity.”
The government is spending money now that in normal times would have been spent over several years, he said. “If we’re front-loading the costs, then we sure as heck better be front-loading what projects are most important to us down the road and be looking at it through that lens.”
Smith at Clean Energy Canada has a similar view.
“This is really a once in a generation opportunity to invest this kind of capital into our economy, to make it more sustainable, but also to make it more resilient. We need to aim this stimulus at the economy we want in British Columbia, one with less pollution and one with more resilience.”