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Premier's Shaky Global Warming Pitch

His targets are bold, but aim seems wobbly.

By Mitchell Anderson 14 Feb 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. His blog is at http://mitchellanderson.blogspot.com/.

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Throne speech slim on details

Will he or won't he? That was the question on the minds of many British Columbians this week as Gordon Campbell prepared to release the throne speech and announce whether B.C. was really going to follow the lead of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and bring in mandatory caps on carbon emissions.

The verdict? Nice wrapping, but not much inside yet.

First, the good news. While some North American governments are still questioning the science behind climate change, that time has now thankfully passed in B.C. Campbell has gone on record as stating this is an urgent problem requiring serious action.

According to Lisa Matthaus of Sierra Club B.C., "the province is now saying out loud climate change is real, the science is indisputable, we can no longer procrastinate, and that living up to these obligations is going to mean economic opportunities for British Columbia." The public can begin holding him, and future governments, to that self-evident truth.

It's about time.

A major milestone

The other significant point about yesterday's announcement is that the B.C. government is for the first time committing to hard caps on carbon emissions. Specially, Campbell committed B.C. to reducing reduce carbon emissions 10 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. While that is more than Arnold Schwarzenegger announced last August, 2020 is long way off and it remains very unclear how (and if) we are going to get there.

On the bright side, Campbell has let the carbon cap genie out of the bottle and it will be very difficult to put it back in. That milestone, no matter how mushy at present, should be applauded.

There is also the old political principle of "only Nixon could go to China." Campbell is a pro-business premier. It would have much more difficult for the NDP to make the same announcement without howls of indignation from the business community.

But before we get too giddy, let's have a hard look at the details -- or in this case, the lack thereof.

Distant targets

The major concern is timing. Governments are inclined to make sweeping announcements that come into effect only after their current term in office expires. This announcement is no exception.

Of all the initiatives announced yesterday, only two have any immediate impact. First, all new vehicles bought or leased by the B.C. government will be hybrids.

Big deal.

More importantly, Victoria will now begin requiring all new coal-fired generating plants to sequester 100 per cent of their carbon emissions. This new requirement may well kill the two proposed coal plants planned for the B.C. Interior. That would be significant, but time will tell what actually happens.

The rest of the throne speech dealt largely with policy to be developed at some undetermined time in the future, or targets fully 13 to 43 years from now.

How Schwarzenegger did it

While there have been many glowing comparisons between Campbell and what Schwarzenegger introduced in California, let's not get too starry eyed. The Governator legislated hard targets, with hard short-term milestones, after a long period of meaningful consultation with a variety of stakeholders.

Campbell consulted with no environmental groups prior to this week's announcement, the first target is not until 2020, and there is currently no legislation to back it up. In the words of Lisa Matthaus of Sierra Club B.C., "I think Gordon's still has a bit of beefing up to do."

For these reasons, the response from many in the environmental community has been largely lukewarm. "I think it's a start, I don't think it's a good start, but I think it's a start. We still have a long way to go," said Karen Campbell of the Pembina Institute. "Climate science is telling us that we need to act now. The longer we wait, the more action it's going to take later on. The quickest, most decisive action needs to happen now, not thirteen years from now."

Also worrisome is that while the 2020 target is province-wide, the interim targets (yet to be determined) are "sectoral" targets. That means that car emissions might go down while oil and gas emissions could go up. Without short-term province-wide caps, there is no guarantee that we would reduce overall emissions.

Absences noted

Perhaps most concerning was what was not announced yesterday. For instance, a good chunk of the throne speech was devoted to limiting urban sprawl but there was certainly no talk about cancelling the much-disputed Gateway project to expand local highways and twin the Port Mann Bridge.

The province is actually maintaining with a straight face that this $3 billion megaproject will actually reduce greenhouse emissions by reducing cars idling in traffic, rather than instead encouraging single-occupancy commuting and further urban sprawl in the Fraser Valley.

There was also no talk of cancelling proposed new subsidies to the oil and gas sector. This month, Provincial Energy, Mines and Petroleum Minister Richard Neufeld announced that he was considering a "net-profit" royalty scheme for oil and gas companies that would let them avoid paying B.C. taxpayers until their capital costs are paid off.

This type of perverse corporate giveaway helped fuel the explosive growth in Alberta's tar sands, and is something that even the federal Conservatives seem to be cooling to. Oil companies do not need more taxpayer money to assist them in making our climate problems worse, especially while health care, child care and education are going begging.

Yesterday also would have been a fine time to announce a tax on carbon emissions. This simple policy shift would negate the need for much costly and cumbersome regulation by putting an economic cost on something that currently is a freebee, namely dumping climate-altering carbon into the air. We charge a tipping fee at the dump; what's the difference? This policy was noticeably absent from the throne speech.

No to Kyoto?

Lastly, it was ironic that a speech so focused on meeting the enormous challenges of climate change was completely silent about meeting our obligations under Kyoto. That glaring omission was not lost on environmental policy experts. "I am concerned that by [B.C.] walking away from Kyoto, that this may actually be giving an out to the Harper government so that they can walk away from Kyoto too. This is not the time to be walking away from Kyoto," said Pembina's Karen Campbell.

It seems that what was really announced this week was that the political ground in B.C. has shifted a long way to the green end of the spectrum. Future governments of any stripe can no longer ignore the environment, and that is a major accomplishment.

While Campbell deserves some credit for yesterday's announcement, the real accolades should go to the B.C. public. What is driving this sea change in environmental policy in Canada is not some enviro-epiphany on the part of our elected leaders. It is pure political pragmatism. Soaring public concern about the environment means that politicians ignore this growing issue at their peril.

So give yourself a pat on the back. Don't get too comfortable though. The devil is in the details and we all need to keep a close watch in what is announced in next weeks budget.  [Tyee]

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