The politics of nature (part 2)

By Briony Penn, May 2013

The Liberals have fumbled the biodiversity ball; so what are the alternatives offering, and what are they hedging on?

As mentioned in last month’s article, the BC Liberals have left a perfect vacuum for other political parties to fill on the biodiversity file. It’s been five years since government scientists warned that immediate action was necessary to avoid rapid deterioration of BC’s flora and fauna, especially in light of climate change.

During the last provincial election, the NDP’s axe-the-carbon tax policy cost them seats in tightly-contested ridings as environmentally-concerned voters migrated to the Greens. This time round, the wedge issue could be around the very stuff that sucks the carbon out of the atmosphere: BC’s biologically rich flora—and the fauna that digest it. 

So key questions for candidates in the upcoming election are: How much and how quickly are their respective parties prepared to act? More specifically: How much of the land base are they committed to protecting? How dedicated to the concept of “cumulative impacts” are they—especially when such impacts could halt major projects like LNG plants and the Kinder Morgan pipeline? How committed are they to applying the polluter-pay principle (which could influence industrial practices)? And how are they going to generate revenue if they really take biodiversity conservation seriously and revenues from resource extraction are reduced?

I spoke with Jane Sterk, leader of the Greens, and Rob Fleming, environment critic for the NDP, about their commitment to protecting biodiversity should they form the next government. 

First, let’s quickly review the “safe” policies that both parties agree on. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline is a non-starter for both. Both parties are also committed to getting more scientists back on the ground doing inventory, monitoring, reporting, and developing a proper conservation strategy. Both parties are set to “deliver science and evidence-based environmental assessments.” Both parties are calling for a Species at Risk Act with protection of critical habitat a key element of that legislation. And both agree on public participation in land use planning with a less fragmented approach across the ministries, with minor variations on how they will do it. 

Fleming wants to get “democracy back into land use planning for public lands,” noting the legislative Standing Committee on the Environment has not met since 1996. He is proposing a citizen’s assembly on climate change and energy (“Is nature in there?” I ask. “Is that a suggestion?” he replies.), resourcing the Environmental Assessment Office, and bringing back reviews by First Nations and local government, with strict timelines. 

Greens are proposing something similar, as well as a new “Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change” with an independent Commissioner of the Environment. 

Where the parties diverge is on how much and how fast they will move to protect biodiversity. 

On expanding protected areas with some level of biodiversity protection, the top provincial scientists are recommending the protection of a full half of the province as critical for adaptation and resilience to changing climate. The Liberals claim, in their rebuttal to the Auditor General’s recent report on biodiversity, that 37 percent of the land base already has a biodiversity designation. The Auditor General challenged the efficacy and enforcement of those designations, so there’s lots of room for improvement—and timing is everything. 

Fleming said we need “a comprehensive conservation strategy in BC. We only have fragments of what government can be accountable for and the Conservation Framework hasn’t been funded for years.” But he is providing no numbers or timelines. “I think the case has been made that there are areas in BC that need more protection than the existing designations, but a Conservation Strategy would prioritize the most threatened ecosystems: grasslands, coastal Douglas-fir. That figure can only go up.” How high will it go? “There is a range of opinions out there in the scientific community, so where everyone agrees that ecosystems are under threat and we are going to lose these areas, we will look at it.” 

A desire to maintain wiggle room was clear in the NDP’s response to coastal old-growth logging. Fleming stated, “the word ‘moratorium’ is difficult because of cutting rights and tree farm licenses.” The NDP are interested in “securing” additional coastal old-growth lands and improving connectivity—not, it appears, through legislated moratoria or forest practices, but through alternative financing. Fleming studiously—and somewhat curiously—steered the conversation towards philanthropists and supporting federal government initiatives, which echoed much of the BC Liberals’ response. On provincial jurisdiction, Fleming was guarded. “If the provincial government signals its intent on securing old-growth forests, partnerships might emerge; this is where we think there will be the most traction and do the most for taxpayers.” Fleming was not to be drawn out on this issue, so my guess is that there is no appetite from NDP brass at this stage to voluntarily reduce the provincial annual allowable cut by pulling out any old-growth. This means they want someone to pay for saving it.

Greens have integrated biodiversity conservation through a variety of policies, but there is some inconsistency in how they label protected areas and how much land they are pledging to protect. And the pace of protection seems slow. They’ve suggested a very conservative five percent increase of protected areas—bringing the total of BC’s protected lands to only 20 percent of all lands over “the next 100 years.” They do advocate an increase in the Ecological Reserves program and they’ve pledged to eliminate logging of old-growth forests. These might add to that 20 percent, but it’s not clear. What is clear is we don’t have 100 years, and these recommendations fall far short of the “nature needs half” principle advocated by scientists. 

However, the Green Party is proposing a new Environmental Protection Act that will place biodiversity on an equal footing with economic considerations, so that on the larger landscape view, biodiversity values will determine which projects go ahead through an assessment process. 

On the basis of cumulative impacts, the Greens are saying an outright no to “potentially disastrous” projects like the Kinder Morgan pipeline and new fracking projects. They have identified their proposed Environmental Protection Act as the best mechanism to evaluate biodiversity impacts. 

The NDP, though recently throwing cold water on Kinder Morgan's plans, is not saying an outright no to such projects. They are stating that cumulative impacts need to be considered and that industry understands that need. Fleming stays right on message with wanting to provide certainty for industry. “With proper assessments for cumulative impacts, then it is either ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ no rubber stamps. We will raise the bar and projects will either require certain types of mitigation or they will not be doable. This will impact the pace and scale of the current projects on the books.” But are more studies really necessary in places like the Peace Country—where up to 90 percent of the land base is already impacted by resource extraction and wildlife populations are perilously close to collapse? 

This is one area of definite divergence between the Greens and NDP. Sterk said, “The NDP are calling for studies on impacts, but we don’t need anymore studies to tell us that these projects are a problem.” Fleming argued, “The studies aren’t in one place and there is nothing to guide development, reclamation activities or government permitting. You need to take all these studies and do an overarching assessment of the cumulative impacts…” 

On adopting the polluter-pay principle, where nature’s services to slow climate change are valued, Fleming responded: “We certainly need to make the link between carbon storage in forests and estuaries and biodiversity conservation more explicit. The trick is to find ways of forest conservation, legally and monetarily, for carbon sequestration benefits and in the absence of the reporting system.” I imagine this means the NDP will be looking at some kind of carbon pricing mechanism to help pay for keeping old growth standing and restocking the vast backlog of inadequately replanted forests. 

The Greens have adopted a polluter-pay principle as one of their main policy platforms and revenue drivers. Sterk acknowledged that “forest practice can have a profound impact on climate change, so we need to value the services that retain carbon dioxide in the system.” The Green party proposes to convert 50 percent of Crown tenures to community and First Nation woodlots overseen by Regional Resource Management Boards.

Still, neither party has really integrated their biodiversity strategies with climate/energy strategies, and in both party’s responses, climate, forest and biodiversity policies were curiously disconnected. This is not unusual across the Western world where the economic drivers behind environment policy are energy-related. You have to go to Bhutan and Bolivia, where charters of rights include nature, to get integrated policy.

Lastly, if the Greens and the NDP really did take nature’s needs seriously, how would they make up for the revenue that might be lost with diminished resource extraction? Sterk proposed “strong local economies with tax shifting to polluter-pay principles. That should be the foundation on which our communities are based. We can’t continue the economy that we have got.” Faced with forming the next provincial government, the NDP are saying little about Plan B should their “evidence-based” processes suggest putting the brakes on expanding LNG plants, Site C, coal developments, fracking, etc. Fleming simply says, “No one should be getting a free pass.” But any pass, even with a hefty fee, doesn’t bode well for biodiversity.

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.