The politics of nature (Part 1)

By Briony Penn, April 2013

What the auditor general and the scientists are saying.

Nature rarely makes it onto political platforms, but this election it could become a wedge issue amongst the progressive parties—especially in the capital. Here, if there is one thing that we rally around it’s the natural world. We gather in large crowds to save the salmon, the old growth or other iconic symbols of nature.

Yet the political parties are, as ever, reluctant to lead with the words “nature” or “biodiversity” in their platforms. 

But that might be changing. Auditor General  John Doyle states in his March report—An Audit of Biodiversity in BC—that “Biodiversity is critical for the health and well-being of British Columbians.” And the BC Liberals have left a perfect vacuum for other political parties to fill, since, according to Doyle, the current government has no comprehensive understanding of biodiversity in BC, doesn’t know whether its actions are resulting in conservation of species, and is neither adequately measuring nor reporting on its progress. 

How the NDP and Greens position themselves on this file could influence the critical swing voters. This month, I’ll report on the AG’s report, background and responses from the scientific community and NGOs. Next month, as platforms are unveiled, I’ll report on the political responses. 

Lying just behind the AG’s report are the key findings on BC’s performance on nature, distilled from major scientific reports which have been raising the alarms over the last few years. These include the AG’s earlier report on BC’s protected area management. But leading the charge were our own government scientists warning us, five whole years ago, that our “globally significant” flora and fauna “without immediate action, were vulnerable to rapid deterioration, especially in light of climate change.” In Taking Nature’s Pulse by Biodiversity BC, a collaboration of government scientists and NGOs, scientists recommended:

• Increasing the network of protected areas in British Columbia with larger areas and corridors to enable species to shift their distributions in response to climate change.

• Addressing climate change by protecting sinks and reducing emissions that result from cutting down forests and converting land-uses. 

• Slowing down conversion of natural ecosystems to urban development and agriculture in the three rarest ecosystems in Canada, right on our doorstep: Coastal Douglas-fir/Garry oak ecosystems, and the Okanagan’s bunchgrass and Ponderosa pine ecosystems.

• Reducing ecosystem degradation from forestry, oil and gas development, and transportation and utility corridors.

• Addressing cumulative impacts of human activities in British Columbia, which are increasing and resulting in the loss of ecosystems’ ability to adapt to changes—i.e. ecosystem resilience.

“Cumulative impacts” are the hottest political potato for biologists to handle these days because they involve the assessment of impacts of any new project, such as a pipeline, in the context of all the other impacts going on in a region, e.g. mining, shale gas, hydro, forestry, etc. In other words, scientists ask the question, if you are a moose population in the Peace River country, will one more resource infrastructure—an LNG pipeline or Site C dam, for instance—put your survival over the edge?

The other hot topic is how much is enough? How much land needs to be protected to provide resilience for the changes coming. We once used to think that 15 percent protected areas was a goal and humans could do whatever we wanted on the other 85 percent. But that was 1972. Things have changed.

Ex-provincial forest ecologist Dr Jim Pojar asked the question about how much land to protect in his seminal 2010 report, A New Climate for Conservation. After reviewing the existing literature on BC’s biodiversity, he concluded that if our life support systems are going to weather the storms ahead, then legal protection for biodiversity needs to cover at least half of the provincial land base. That means we have to think about wildlife everywhere, not just in parks. And this is not just because we need room for bears, but to ensure air and water quality and carbon sequestration. 

Pojar’s recommendation is to integrate a climate strategy with a nature strategy and utilize climate-funding mechanisms. The reason is simple when you connect the dots. Climate change scientists call for cutting emissions and saving carbon sinks. BC has sinks galore. From our rainforests to our estuaries, they all capture carbon with natural forests capturing the most. And when you destroy a forest, you also release emissions. In fact, more net emissions are released from liquidating forests than comes out of the tailpipes of BC’s cars (this dirty secret is buried in the BC Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report 2010). So consuming forests is hardly carbon neutral—rather it adds carbon twice, once in losing emissions stored, and again by losing that productive sink for 30 years until it is replanted and starts growing again. 

On the other hand, if you protect your carbon sinks then you end up saving salmon, grizzlies and emissions. So our wild places provide a double benefit, and climate policy should recognize that saving nature is the first line of defence against climate change. 

So the AG is on good authority when he recommends the government get serious about rehiring scientists and listening to them. In some ministries, scientists were axed by as much as 50 percent when research branches were dismantled. When we have $400 billion of industry projects on the books with only a $9 million budget for review by the Environmental Assessment Office (less than the premier spends running her office), we have some problems.

The AG points out that our current laws don’t support the objective of conserving biodiversity on our public lands that lie outside of protected areas (94 percent of the province is Crown land; only 15 percent of that is protected). And even in our parks, wildlife isn’t getting much help. 

The remaining AG recommendations are: Make biodiversity protection a high priority in all our land use laws and planning; monitor our progress; assign the responsibility to someone who can enforce it with timelines and report back to the public. 

There have been some solid endorsements from the NGOs on these recommendations. The indefatigable Jessica Clogg of West Coast Environmental Law in Land Use Planning for Nature, Climate and Communities makes comprehensive suggestions for the legislative overhaul, including a reinstatement of provincial land-use planning that takes public input, scientific/indigenous knowledge, and climate change into account, targetting areas where biodiversity and high carbon storage areas coincide. It calls for rigorous assessments of cumulative impacts and using those assessments to guide decisions within an integrated land use system. 

Meanwhile, another team of ecosystem-mapping specialists and scientists, including what is left of our once-enviable Ministry of Environment, has translated these principles into actions on the ground in a brilliant mapping exercise and report called Drawing the Line, written by Marlene Cummings of ForestEthics. They have cross-referenced maps of existing conserved lands or lands restricted from certain resource activities and demonstrated that existing conservation lands have no ability to protect biological diversity; in fact only 15.6 percent of these lands have a higher conservation potential. Especially in this era of dramatic climate change, this is simply not enough.

Recommendations from Drawing the Line are consistent with the other two reports: Establish a conservation network across the province that connects legally-designated protected areas and conservation lands. Beef up land-use plans at all scales. Manage the land base for conservation outside of protected areas and conservation lands and get the laws and policies in place to do that. 

The language used in these reports doesn’t veer from the message that has been delivered by the scientific community now for over a decade—we have to do this to safeguard our life support systems. 

The big question, however, is: How will any political parties frame this in terms of the current rhetoric around jobs, families and the economy? For example, there is no escaping the fact that removing forests from annual allowable cut calculations leads to a decline in revenue for the business-as-usual types. So what are the politicians recommending to deal with such realities? If we are looking at cumulative impacts of pipelines and a real commitment to biodiversity, will the NDP forego LNG pipelines and plants in favour of wildlife populations in the Peace? What of the exports of coal and bitumen that some argue we require to fund our social services? The Green Party of BC advocates a full-cost accounting approach to energy harvest, transportation and use, with taxes used to deter emissions. But how will they prioritize and balance biodiversity and economic health? Stay tuned for some answers next month. 

Briony Penn has been reporting on the environment since her first article in The Islander in 1975 on Garry oak meadows and has been a columnist in Victoria publications since 1993.