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BC Budget Hits Snooze on Climate Action

If governments around the world take our approach, says one expert, ‘we’re fried.’

Michelle Gamage 9 Mar 2023TheTyee.ca

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. You can find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

Last week's B.C. budget took a nap on the climate front, spending about one-fifth of what is needed to tackle the current emergency and setting the province up to miss its own climate targets, experts and advocates told The Tyee.

Moreover, the budget sets B.C. up to overshoot its own climate targets — putting it in a weak position to tell polluting industries to meet their own emissions reductions targets.

The provincial government came into this fiscal year with a surplus from higher-than-normal fossil gas royalties and a new premier who pledged to transition government subsidies from oil and gas to renewable energy, says Sven Biggs, Canadian oil and gas programs director with Stand.earth.

But that’s a promise he’ll have to fulfil another day.

“This was a once-in-a-generation budget where the government gets to open the purse strings and spend,” Biggs says. “Instead it was a missed opportunity to start the [green] transition in earnest.” 

Biggs says it was good to see the government increase spending in other vital areas like health care and housing, but adds it would have been good to see similar investments for the climate emergency.

Biggs and Seth Klein, team lead and director of strategy at the Climate Emergency Unit, applauded the government for implementing the Carbon Action Credit, which makes the carbon tax progressive — meaning low- and middle-income families won’t have to pay the full carbon tax, which is set to be $170 per tonne by 2030.

“Rebates to everyone through ICBC or BC Hydro ends up helping out the rich who don’t need help,” Klein says. “This offers more targeted support to folks who actually need it.”

Overall the budget pledges around $1.6 billion to climate-related action through CleanBC, the provincial climate plan, the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness and public transit, Klein says. “That’s one-fifth of what we should be spending to treat this emergency like it’s an emergency.” 

Most of that funding is going towards building climate change-related resilience and preparedness, rather than mitigation, which would see increased efforts to decrease climate-change causing greenhouse gas emissions, Klein adds.

“It feels a bit like we’re giving up the game and moving into adaptation mode,” he says. If all governments around the world take this approach “we’re fried,” Klein says.

The Tyee asked the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy how it would respond to critiques that B.C.’s budget sets the province up to overshoot its climate targets, does not do enough to mitigate climate change and is further subsidizing LNG.

In response the ministry sent The Tyee a list of positive steps the budget took for the environment, adding, “We’re taking the necessary action to fight the climate crisis and make sure people and communities across B.C. are ready for the challenges — and opportunities — ahead.” The province’s climate action plan, CleanBC Roadmap to 2030, is “one of the strongest climate plans on the continent,” the statement said.

Remi Charron, associate professor and program director for the master’s of energy management at the New York Institute of Technology’s Vancouver campus, adds that the majority of the $300 million pledged for “climate and emergency response” will be spent rebuilding communities after floods and wildfires that have already happened. Another $85 million will be spent over three years to increase emergency management capacity, he adds.

Charron, who is an engineer with a PhD in net-zero energy buildings, says he is disappointed the budget didn’t offer support for municipalities working towards the goal of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and communities by up to 64 per cent by 2030.

“Achieving these reductions will require significant retrofits which will cost a lot,” he says. “This budget focused on affordability and getting money back into people’s pockets,” he adds, but helping people reduce their energy use and the total emissions from the building sector wasn’t part of that.

Outside of the budget Charron notes how the new BC Energy Step Code will help municipalities set greenhouse gas targets for new buildings, which should lead to fewer new homes being hooked up to fossil gas infrastructure.

However, FortisBC, the province's main fossil gas utility, is working on ways to get around this new anti-gas strategy, says Eoin Finn, research director at My Sea to Sky.

To do this FortisBC has created a private carbon credit trading system, Finn says.

The logic goes something like this: FortisBC claims its fossil-fuel burning heating and hot water systems are low-carbon and can therefore be installed under the new Step Code because FortisBC bought methane that was captured from compost heaps, sewage and landfills in places like Iowa, Pennsylvania and Ontario, Finn says. FortisBC is buying the “environmental attribute,” or positive environmental impact of the captured methane and then using that to offset the emissions from the fracked gas it sells to homes in B.C.

This allows FortisBC to sell its customers up to 100 per cent “renewable natural gas” when FortisBC’s gas supply is 99 per cent made up of fracked fossil gas, Finn says. It's helpful to remember that the utility doesn’t actually ship methane in from Iowa, Pennsylvania or Ontario, and the pipe that feeds gas into your home doesn’t distinguish between fracked gas and renewable gas, he adds.

Finn says he was hoping to see the province support municipalities trying to prohibit fossil gas hookups in new buildings by blocking FortisBC’s new strategy, but no such luck.

In its list of attributes the Ministry of Environment noted how it is requiring all new buildings to be zero emissions by 2030 through its CleanBC Roadmap to 2030.

Finn was also hoping to see funding for the creation of legislation to give the government “some teeth” when it comes to ensuring the oil and gas industry reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 38 per cent by 2030 and for industry other than oil and gas by up to 43 per cent.

Electric power for the people

The budget provides $40 million over three years through the Electric Commercial Vehicle Pilots Program to support businesses who want to electrify their fleets, including trains, medium-to-heavy duty on-road trucks, planes and off-road equipment.

Electrification requires the use of minerals in order to build components such as batteries, so the government is committing $6 million over three years to develop a B.C. Critical Minerals Strategy to “drive potential future clean economic development,” according to the budget.  

But Nikki Skuce, director of northern confluence for the BC Mining Law Reform is skeptical.

“More than a Critical Minerals Strategy we need a circular economy strategy,” she says, where we reduce, reuse, redesign and recycle the metals already mined.

“You can't just focus on getting everyone into an electric vehicle,” she adds. “We need to invest in public transportation, active transportation and walkable cities and really think about the impact of mining from a waste, water pollution and development of areas with high biodiversity perspective.” 

B.C. mainly mines gold and coal, she adds — not minerals that are critical to a transition to a low-carbon economy. (The province also mines a somewhat significant amount of copper, which is used in the production of things like electric vehicles, but copper supply is ample and the mineral is highly recyclable.)*

The budget committed $100 million over three years to build “community-specific active transportation networks that are safe, accessible and convenient for pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders and motorists — of all ages and abilities.” Basically anything that gets people out of personal vehicles. This builds on $48 million pledged through Budget 2021 and 2022.

It also commits $1.2 billion in capital funding and $1.3 billion in operating funding for BC Transit. This commitment more than quadruples BC Transit’s capital funding, according to the Ministry of Environment.

Within the Lower Mainland the budget commits $2.5 billion for the Surrey Langley SkyTrain and Broadway SkyTrain projects, which increases the SkyTrain system by 27 per cent, the ministry continues.

The hydroelectricity that will emerge from the construction of Site C may ultimately be used to subsidize the production of fossil fuels, a fact that concerns Stand.earth's Biggs and My Sea to Sky's Eoin Finn.

“We’re paying $17 billion to build Site C and the province is seriously considering giving that power to LNG plants like LNG Canada to power its Phase 2 of operation. LNG Canada would consume all of the power of Site C,” he says. Without access to electricity generated by hydro power LNG Canada says it will build Phase 2 using fossil-gas generators and switch to hydro power as it becomes available.

Thanks to an agreement from 2016, Finn calculates LNG Canada would pay $0.06 per kilowatt hour, when the cost to produce that power is $0.15 per kilowatt hour.

A 2018 decision John Horgan let LNG Canada access BC Hydro’s industrial rate of $47.71 per megawatt-hour to build Phase 1, which the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives B.C. office calculating is a subsidy worth between $32 million and $59 million per year. Phase 1 was also given a pass on the provincial sales tax and the LNG income tax.

LNG Canada could access further power discounts through BC Hydro’s eDrive electricity rate for the liquefaction process needed to ship the gas overseas.

“It's another fossil fuel subsidy and I don’t see anything in the budget amending that,” he says.

LNG Canada could also benefit from a $3 billion transmission line connecting the fossil-fuel exporting facility to Site C power, and for a tax break on the carbon tax it has to pay, Biggs adds.

The carbon tax is currently set at $50 per tonne of emissions created and is set to rise to $170 per tonne by 2030, but LNG Canada only has to pay $30 per tonne.

“The irony is that it’ll be B.C.’s largest source of pollution but will be paying less in carbon tax than regular British Columbians filling up at a gas station, even though LNG Canada will produce two megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year,” he says.

If LNG Canada cannot access hydropower and instead needs to run on fossil fuels, it calculates it will emit four megatonnes per year. This does not include emissions created by eventually burning the fossil fuel that the facility is exporting — that’s just what it’ll take to liquify the product for shipment overseas.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives B.C. office estimates that by 2030 the facility would produce 13 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year, including the four megatonnes from the facility itself.

* Story updated on March 16 at 7:18 p.m. to include that B.C. also mines a significant amount of copper, as well as gold and coal.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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