I wish I didn’t have to write this. I count myself a friend of the NDP-Green alliance, and I had high hopes for the government’s new climate action plans.
B.C.’s Ministry of Environment has published a series of Clean Growth Intentions Papers and asked for public feedback in the heart of this fire- and smoke-filled summer. They have been framed in a very positive way, emphasizing the multiple economic benefits of engaging in climate action, reframed as clean growth.
But the draft policies contain little that is new. They are really timid. And by downplaying the climate crisis, the authors have written the urgency out of the picture. I feel as if they have been written by a holiday season policy-drone operating on autopilot. Hard words, but that’s what I feel.
Our forests are burning, not just in B.C. and California but also in Russia, Europe, and even in the Arctic Circle. A persistent heat wave has been breaking all weather records in Canada, the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Torrential downpours and mudslides have been killing people. Flooding has inundated cities. Some cities in India, Pakistan and the Middle East have been having temperatures as high as 50 C, the level at which “human cells start to cook, blood thickens, muscles lock around the lungs and the brain is choked of oxygen.” A report published in Nature this month found that the warming Arctic is slowing the circulation of the jet stream, causing prolonged weather patterns and making the weather less able to moderate itself. These things will all become common, unless we get an urgent grip on what’s happening.
This is crazy. Another study published this month found that we are pushing our planet toward an irreversible “Hothouse Earth,” with catastrophic warming of 5 C or more causing an eventual long-term sea level rise (after many hundred years) of up to 70 metres. Its authors warn us that we may be much closer to the point-of-no-return than most people realize. It suggests that because of numerous feedback factors, the path to catastrophic climate collapse is more like a cliff, and once you cross it, it triggers a rockslide that will quickly bring ruin. Large areas of B.C.’s Lower Mainland are less than three metres above sea level.
Turning climate despair into climate determination
People are becoming afraid at what they see being reported in the daily news. They are anxious. They worry. They feel dread. When they see their elected politicians doing so little about it, they become cynical. And when they become cynical, they don’t bother to vote. A few are turning climate despair into climate determination, but nowhere near enough.
Speaking globally, the British economist Nicholas Stern has warned us that “The speed of action is still far too slow. Emissions have to be peaking now and turn down very sharply. We have not yet acted on the scale needed, even though the ingredients are there.”
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a senior advisor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union, warned in the foreword to the new Australian report What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, “Climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences."
So what unprecedented action is the B.C. government proposing to address the advancing catastrophe? It feels a bit like “punt it into the future and let the next generation sort it out,” with goals of reducing emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 and 80 per cent by 2050, but without annual goals or carbon budgets or the needed policies. Our NDP MLAs should be embarrassed. Our Green Party MLAs should be screaming from the legislature rooftops. It’s just not good enough. (I don’t expect the Liberal MLAs to contribute much; they have never seemed to understand the issue.)
LNG should mean ‘Leave it N the Ground’
And what about liquefied natural gas, which is not even mentioned in the paper on Clean Growth Program for Industry? B.C.’s carbon emissions in 2015 were 63.3 million tonnes a year and rising. The climate plan requires a reduction to 38 million tonnes by 2030. The carbon emissions from the proposed LNG Canada facility at Kitimat and the Woodfibre facility to be built near Squamish will increase them by eight to 12 million metric tonnes a year. We need to learn that LNG means Leave it N the Ground. It’s a technology of the past, not of the future.
The Liberal government used to claim that LNG would reduce emissions in China by replacing coal. That was never true, since it didn’t account for the fugitive methane emissions from fracking needed to extract the gas, and which may make it as bad a coal.
Nor did it account for the possibility that it would be used to power additional growth in China or replace renewable energy. The use of such arguments assumed that people wouldn’t have much interest in the details. The development of LNG is completely incompatible with the need to reduce our emissions. LNG is an old play from an old playbook, sold by big energy corporations to unwitting governments with a promise to create jobs at the expense of future generations.
In 2007, the provincial goal was a 33-per-cent emissions reduction by 2020. By 2015, our emissions had fallen by just two per cent. During that time our GDP increased by 16 per cent, so we’re making progress, thanks to the carbon tax and to Vancouver’s commitment to 100-per-cent renewable energy, but we are way off track from reaching our original goal. The NDP’s revised goal of a 40-per-cent reduction by 2030 is good, but insufficient to prevent climate catastrophe if other nations and jurisdictions adopted the same goal.
So what is needed? Twelve steps to change.
1. We need 100-per-cent renewable energy by 2040
We need it by then at the latest, with 50 per cent by 2030. Various jurisdictions have embraced a 100-per-cent target, including Vancouver, Victoria and Saanich. We don’t need to know in detail how to get there. NASA did not know how to get to the moon when John F. Kennedy made his commitment in 1961. Take technology, add innovation and resources, add determination, stir until ready. Battery technology is improving all the time, and there’s a vast amount we can get on with while electric vehicle technology improves for trucks, ships, airplanes and industrial equipment.
2. We need a 95-per-cent GHG reduction by 2040
We need to up the current goals of 40-per-cent reduction by 2030, 60 per cent by 2040 and 80 per cent by 2050. To minimize the risk of climate disaster we ideally need to reach 100 per cent tomorrow. That’s not achievable, but 2040 is. As progress gathers steam, and as people gain confidence that it's possible and awareness about the climate reality expands, we could advance the goal to 2035.
3. We need legally-mandated annual carbon budgeting
We need this to hold the government accountable. Britain has been successful with this approach, reducing emissions to the level they were in 1890. If ministers meet their annual targets they should receive a bonus, to be given to the charity or non-profit of their choice. For a good summary of government carbon budgeting, I recommend Marc Lee’s Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives submission to the government’s consultation.
4. We need province-wide public engagement
We also need a movie to show the scale of the looming catastrophe and to get people excited about B.C. becoming a leader in what’s possible, showing examples from around the world where it’s already happening. The failure to focus on the energy transition and its many solutions has been the bane of the climate movement for years.
The Age of Fossil Fuels lasted 300 years. The Solar Age will last for three billion years, and with each passing year the efficiency of renewable energy will increase and its cost will fall. This transition is technologically smart, just as the transition from horses to cars was smart in the years between 1890 and 1920, ridding city streets of a plague of piled-up horse manure. Far too many climate presentations focus on the negatives, not the positive vision of a solar world.
I blame Al Gore. In his movie An Inconvenient Truth he only gave a cursory nod to the solutions as the credits rolled. I blame myself, too, for not having had whatever was needed to make the amazing climate solutions movie that people should have been celebrating around the world for years.
5. We need to stand firm against the pipeline
The Kinder Morgan/Justin Trudeau Memorial Pipeline will let tarsands corporations pump yet more carbon into Earth’s distressingly overheated atmosphere, while endangering our ocean. I thank the NDP for its determined stand so far.
6. We need all new cars to be electric by 2025
We need to follow Norway’s example by ending conventional car sales by 2025, not by 2040 as the government intentions paper proposes. We need continued support for new electric vehicles and for their charging infrastructure. By 2025, a new electric vehicle with a range of 400 kilometres will cost the same as a gasoline vehicle.
The Clean Transportation Intentions Paper suggests continuing the $5,000 rebate for electric vehicles but phasing it out once sales hit five per cent of new vehicles. This is not how Norway has progressed to the point that more than 50 per cent of all new car sales are now electric. Electric trucks, short-haul passenger planes and ferries are all being developed. The Norwegians are even building an electric container ship for local ocean travel, to be delivered in 2020.
7. We need massive support for urban cycling
We need to aim to achieve levels similar to those in Holland (27 per cent of all trips) and Copenhagen (41 per cent of all trips to work and study). This will have the welcome side-benefits of reducing health-care costs and making people happier. Where there are hills, e-bikes eliminate gravity. The intentions paper hardly mentions cycling.
8. We need a huge expansion of transit
This means electric transit. China has 400,000 electric buses on the road. Together, transit, cycling, car-sharing, Pay-As-You-Drive vehicle insurance and closer commutes could end the increasingly long traffic congestion delays that are so frustrating, and make our cities happy, healthy, delightful and green. The intentions paper barely mentions transit.
9. We need all new buildings to be zero carbon by 2024
We need to learn from the example of Brussels, Belgium. In 2011 they announced that every new building in the city must meet the “Passive House” standard by 2015. Since then, every new building, large or small, public or private, has been super-efficient and carbon neutral. They needed just four years for carpenters to train in the new approach.
In Victoria, Mark and Rob Bernhardt have been building Passive Houses for only 4.4 per cent more than the cost of conventional building — and their homes have no heating bills. The Clean, Efficient Buildings Intentions Paper simply re-states the current goal that most new construction will need to be “net zero energy ready” by 2032, which is code (one hopes) for zero carbon. The building industry has been whining about change, and the B.C. government and some energy NGOs have bought into it.
10. We need building energy labelling
We need to require all buildings to be energy-labelled to rate their efficiency by 2021, so that buyers and leasers know what they’re getting. The intentions paper says the province is considering this, but without any target date. I took part in a government workshop considering this 10 years ago. Why are we not seeing any progress? Someone, somewhere, doesn’t give a damn.
11. We need no oil-heated buildings by 2025
We need to follow this with no gas-heated buildings by 2030, accompanied by a world-class program to support building retrofits, from single-family homes to condos to commercial buildings.
BC Hydro does not really want us to make our homes more electricity-efficient, since they are already generating surplus electricity and the unfortunately approved Site C Dam will turn that into an expensive and embarrassing surplus.
It’s not electricity that matters for climate planning, however, since our electricity is already in effect 100-per-cent zero-carbon. It’s heating, which means insulating our buildings much more to reduce heat loss and using district heat systems and electric heat-pumps to replace gas and oil. The intentions paper supports doing something in this direction, but it’s not clear what. The Pembina Institute’s response to the intentions papers, while mistakenly stating that they “give us reason for optimism,” is excellent on what’s needed for our buildings, but fails to call for a speeding up of the proposed changes in keeping with the scale of the looming climate catastrophe.
12. We need a climate test for all new industrial projects, and zero carbon by 2040
We need yearly targets for reduction and sectoral councils involving business, labour and government to plan the annual reductions, as proposed the CCPA’s Lee. The carbon tax should continue to increase, as planned, and the Clean Growth Program for Industry Intentions Paper quite wisely in my view (but not Lee’s) calls for some of the carbon tax revenue to be used in a Clean Industry Fund to help industry reduce its emissions. Three sectors — transportation (39 per cent), buildings (10 per cent) and industry (40 per cent) — account for 89 per cent of B.C.’s emissions.
The government will release more intentions papers next year covering such things as global energy opportunities, low carbon energy, tech strategy and communities and waste. There’s no mention of forests, which are an increasing source of emissions, of the need to protect the remaining ancient old growth forests, which store so much carbon, or of the livestock industry (people eating meat and dairy), which causes 15 per cent of the global climate crisis.
There’s also no mention of the urgent need for carbon sequestration to begin re-absorbing the 300 gigatonnes of surplus carbon that has accumulated in the atmosphere, and no mention of fracking for natural gas in northeast B.C., which produces so much methane.
And there’s no mention of public education and engagement, the absence of which is the primary reason climate indifference and denial have been able to spread.
In terms of jobs and economic growth, implementing these policies will create tens of thousands of jobs with decent wages, many more than will be lost. The result will be loads of technical innovation, and cities that are embarking on a green urban renaissance, to the delight of their residents.
As the forests burn
I’m 70, so I don’t have time to dilly-dally while the catastrophe that is going to wreak so much pain, misery, death and economic distress grows stronger, month by month. I may have another 30 years, or I may drop dead tomorrow. I need to speak truth to power — to speak truth as the forest fire smoke warns our province of what’s to come. Because of our forests, and the fact that Vancouver and the Lower Mainland are so close to sea level, B.C. stands to suffer a greater negative impact from the climate crisis than any other province.
Globally, we are heading for an unmitigated disaster. I have worked in the climate trenches for 25 years. I know this stuff inside-out. I have written two award-winning books on the solutions, which have been praised by climate scientists like James Hansen and by climate activists like Bill McKibben. I founded the BC Sustainable Energy Association 15 years ago to try to make an impact. I co-founded the Victoria Car Share Co-operative (now part of Modo).
It troubles me to see so little progress. These intentions papers are the unwitting prelude to disaster. We are selling our children and grandchildren down the river, to struggle or drown in an increasingly dark future.
This is an urgent personal plea to Premier John Horgan, cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and MLAs. Please do not let this pass. These intentions papers are as weak as the sky is yellow in our ominous forest-burning world. We can, and must do better.