Clean tech, collaboration, and civility

By Leslie Campbell, June 2013

Will the break-through win of a green politician reshape BC’s politics?

The historic election of a Green Party candidate to the BC Legislature should be encouraging to that party and to the rest of us too. Let’s forget the complaints about “splitting the votes,” which can be used against any candidate—or voter—and embrace the possibilities inherent in a Green win. It’s a party that foregoes the old right vs left dichotomy, and for now at least, endorses free votes in the legislature and proportional representation, and is opposed to corporate and union donations. These are some of the measures I believe are needed to re-energize our democracy.

Curious to know on what else our new Green MLA will focus his considerable energies, I meet him for coffee exactly one week after the election. Climate scientist Dr Andrew Weaver first tells me he accepts that he’ll have to work with and through others to get movement on important issues. He says he has good relations with individuals in both other parties, will work collaboratively, but also be tenacious: “If you want to solve a problem in science you have to bash your head against the wall a hundred times before you find an answer…I don’t give up easily; I don’t quit.”

Without hesitation Weaver explains his first priority: “We have been sold a pipe dream on natural gas. The market is simply not going to be there…Russia has more than 20 times the reserves of all Canada combined [and] has just signed 30-year contracts to provide LNG for China and…they can do it through regular pipelines. Australia has just cancelled plans to build a big new LNG facility because the market is dropping.” That’s all going to spell doom to the Liberals’ revenue-generation plans in the not-too-distant future, says Weaver. But he also says there’s a solution: “Clean tech…Rather than focussing on yesterday’s technology to meet a market that won’t be there, we should be positioning ourselves for tomorrow’s technology. What we have in BC is a very skilled workforce and we have a lot of innovation in the companies that reside here—there are 202 companies according to a 2011 KPMG report—just waiting to break out, but they need to have a level playing field and they don’t right now.”

Instead, he notes, we have a long history of vested interests lobbying hard for subsidized fossil fuel development, and that dynamic will continue for LNG, especially in light of the collapsing market: “The only way LNG will work in BC is with massive, massive public subsidies…nobody is going to risk the capital otherwise,” says Weaver. He predicts even the Liberals won’t want to subsidize LNG to the tune necessary. The prosperity and jobs were a convenient myth, a carrot to attract voters. (See David Broadland’s story in this edition.)

Clean tech—companies involved in wind and solar power, geothermal, biomass, transportation, and energy storage—would provide, he says, far more jobs than LNG—“something like four times as many as the whole oil and gas sector. Oil and gas jobs and LNG jobs are largely construction jobs and those will be met by transient workers.” Clean tech jobs, on the other hand, would be long-term and spread throughout BC. “It’s a much better way of creating distributed job growth,” he says.

BC is blessed, he points out, with large hydro dams—“big capacitators”—that, combined with a smart grid system, can act to stabilize base demand for electricity. “We could be…providing base demand largely from the other renewables and using the dams to provide it when, say, it’s not windy…that’s how we should move forward. We don’t need Site C, for example, because we have the ability with our existing demand and all the other renewables.”

 

Dr Weaver’s second provincial priority is health care delivery, particularly that of VIHA. “We have amazing staff,” says Weaver, “but an organizational structure that’s dysfunctional…This is the biggest single thing in our budget [at 40 percent] so you need to look at how it’s delivered.”

He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers on the health file, but his working hypothesis seems to be that the administrative costs have got out of hand, especially in comparison to staff salaries and equipment. He wants to see the data and trusts it will be revealing. He’ll be pushing for a legislative committee on health care, “filled with people who really want to make a difference on this file,” that meets regularly. “The problem is not the existence of services—because they exist, but there’s not enough of them,” whether it’s beds in some facilities (he mentions Leger House) or specialists. He also cites the recent dispute between VIHA and doctors at the Health Point Care Centre for seniors that resulted in the doctors quitting, fearing it will result in even higher costs to taxpayers as the patients’ care suffers and they are forced to use emergency services more. “There’s got to be a better way,” he concludes.

The third provincial issue Weaver cites as a priority is forest policy, specifically stopping the logging of old-growth forests, which he labels a “travesty”—both economically and environmentally. Old-growth coastal rain forests contain about twice as much carbon per hectare as second-growth forests, so from a climate scientist’s perspective, it’s a no-brainer to preserve old-growth forests. But at the same time, says Weaver, it’s important to provide some sort of incentive like tax credits to mills so they can retool to be able to process second-growth trees. 

In the US, he points out, legislation to protect the spotted owl (and its old-growth habitat) meant companies modified their mills towards second-growth trees. But BC mills haven’t retooled and, as we know, many have closed and jobs have evaporated. Instead—and infuriatingly—a lot of BC’s logs are shipped directly to US mills. “It’s stupid,” says Weaver. “So we could have enhanced stumpage fees in British Columbia for exported logs; provide incentive for retooling local mills; and keep jobs in Canada.” Admitting some of these decisions may be tough, he argues that “they would be fantastic in the long run for the stability of our economy.”

Besides the fact that preserving old growth preserves wildlife habitat, biodiversity, salmon spawning streams, tourism, and carbon sinks, there’s the simple reality that old-growth forests are dwindling. “Better to deal with it now before all the old growth is gone, than to deal with it once it is gone,” says Weaver. “Either way we’re going to have to deal with it, retooling our mills sometime.”

We then turn to sewage treatment. Weaver says, “We have to treat our sewage. The problem is everyone is entrenching themselves in these positions and putting walls up…The real problem is we have artificial deadlines...with no scientific reason for them.”

His personal preference is to see tertiary treatment of waste through a distributed network of small facilities. “That would allow you to do it through time [and] place less burden on taxpayers. It would allow you to actually deal with the problem—we’re not dealing with the problem with a secondary system—and allow you to deal with those areas where you have some really critical issues, like, frankly, in Oak Bay where the sewage and storm drain are one and the same.”

On his blog he proposes “a broader engagement of international waste experts, especially from countries like Sweden and The Netherlands, whose innovative waste treatment systems are often held up as best-practice examples.” He even offers to find sponsors for an international “waste technology event here in Victoria so decision makers and citizens could better inform themselves of the issues and potential solutions.”

Towards the end of the interview the discussion returns to the need to nurture the clean tech sector to provide economic sustainability. Stressing that last word, and purposefully avoiding using the word growth, the scientist (definitely not sounding like a politician) says: “You cannot have continued growth. There’s only one end point of infinite growth in a finite system, and that is collapse. That’s true whether it’s phytoplankton in the ocean, people on Easter Island, or caterpillars on a tree.”

Perhaps, I muse aloud, he’ll inspire other scientists to get involved in politics—perhaps some of those laid off by the Harper Government. “I’m trying to!” he laughs; “I would love to see more scientists involved—because we argue, but we know at the end of the day that science moves forward by agreeing on something—you don’t just hurl abuse back and forth.” Dr Weaver seems determined to bring civility and collaboration to the legislature, along with evidence-based ideas.

Editor Leslie Campbell doesn’t live in Andrew Weaver’s constituency, but like many others in the CRD, she congratulates him and wishes him good luck on his varied projects.