On emissions, LNG, and a new vision for the 21st century

By Andrew Weaver, November 2014

BC's shift from a policy of absolute emission reductions to reducing emission intensity is an illusion of action. What’s needed is a shift in direction to develop clean tech industries.

In the 2007 speech from the throne the BC government launched a climate action plan which included the first ever in North America revenue neutral carbon tax, a program to participate in a regional carbon cap and trade system, and public sector carbon neutrality. At the centre of the policy was a legally binding obligation to reduce provincial greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 30 percent from 2007 levels by 2020 and a reduction target of 80 percent by 2050.

That leadership on climate policy is still heralded as visionary by environmentalists and economists, and in the ensuing years has been cited in other jurisdictions as they format legislation and regulations to deal with the current and future effects of climate change. 

Fast forward to 2013 where the governing party, lagging in the polls leading to the election, threw a Hail Mary pass on the economic and job creation potential through liquefied natural gas exports with a now familiar refrain of 100,000 jobs, a $100-billion prosperity fund, a debt free province, and ending of the sales tax.

Little was mentioned by the government on how they could balance a massive increase in natural gas production and liquefaction plants with the legislated mandatory emissions reductions.

Since the spring 2013 election, the economic promise is unravelling with main proponents Petronas, Chevron, Apache and others either reducing expectations or pulling out of planned LNG projects, and goading the government into paring down tax and royalties and loosening environmental—especially emissions—regulations.

If there is one clear message from the scientific community it is that action on climate change is urgent. The United States is moving ahead with reductions in coal-fired electrical plant emissions and plans to support renewable energy.

Washington, Oregon and California have effectively banned exports of thermal coal, with California’s carbon pricing regime set to expand to the US partners in the Pacific Coast Climate Action Plan, of which British Columbia is a signatory.

While our US neighbours are demonstrating leadership on climate and energy policy, we are at best stagnating, at worst regressing with a singular government-led push on LNG. Certainly the point might be moot if no liquefaction plants materialize, but even one or two could impact the ability to reach our own emission targets.

This came into focus recently with the introduction of Bill 2: The Greenhouse Gas Industrial Reporting and Control Act, a piece of legislation that would see British Columbia repeal legislation enabling us to enter a cap and trade framework with our Pacific Coast climate action partners. In its place, we would adopt new legislation that would see us embrace what’s called an “emissions intensity” scheme along the lines of what Alberta and the Harper Tories have done.

Whereas a cap and trade framework would force us to reduce the total amount of carbon we emit into the atmosphere, an emissions intensity scheme would only require businesses to reduce the amount of carbon produced in liquefying a specified quantity of natural gas.

Here’s the problem: Our climate doesn’t care about emissions intensity. Our climate cares about the overall magnitude of emissions. If we increase the production of LNG, even if it is produced more and more efficiently, emissions are still going up. Ultimately, the climate only cares about the total amount of carbon pollution a facility would release and how much carbon pollution is in our atmosphere.

An emissions intensity scheme wouldn’t limit the overall carbon emissions. That’s why if you compare Alberta’s emissions to BC’s, you will see that while our emissions decreased in the last few years, Alberta’s increased.

So why are we going down this path? Because the government knows that emissions are going to skyrocket if we develop our LNG industry. And an Alberta- or Harper- Government-style emissions-intensity model will provide the illusion of action on global warming at the same time as our overall magnitude of carbon emissions continues to increase. That’s all this is: The illusion of action.

The simple fact is, if this bill is passed we may as well say goodbye to all of the progress we have made, for we will be stepping into a new era as one of the most polluting provinces in Canada.

As part of the debate on Bill 2, I introduced an amendment that proposed that the Legislature delay debate on this Bill for six months. This would allow us as MLAs to put more time and thought into this bill, and to ensure that we have carefully thought through the consequences of losing our leadership in addressing global warming. My amendment was voted down 40 to 28, with the BC NDP voting in support of the amendment.

In this fall session response to the throne speech, and in response to the LNG emissions legislation, I highlighted these issues and laid out a vision that would take us from the current backward-looking 20th century strategy to a 21st century economy which will return our province to a place of leadership.

My work on global warming and past, present and future climate change and climate variability has allowed me to see firsthand the potential that BC has to develop a leading 21st century economy. From our access to cheap, renewable energy, to our educated workforce, to our innovative business community, to the quality of life we can offer here, together with British Columbia’s natural beauty, we have an opportunity to develop our province into one of the most prosperous jurisdictions in the world. But such a vision requires real leadership—leadership that is honest about the challenges and the opportunities in front of us; real leadership that also takes the challenge of global warming seriously, understanding the need to build a sustainable, diversified and resilient economy for this generation and the next.

When we singularly focus on LNG, we fail to value the sectors in BC that actually exhibit promise for growth: The number of jobs in digital media and life sciences are either greater than or on par with those in the oil and gas sector. There are three times as many jobs in information and communications technology as in oil and gas industry at present. Why are we not looking to further develop these already thriving sectors? They do not represent the same risky gamble as LNG and they could help us attract and retain skilled workers.

Instead of banking on empty promises, why do we not look instead to industries like clean tech, a sector that is already characterized by fast growth. From 2012-2013, investment in the clean tech sector tripled in Canada. Canadian individuals and business alike recognize the opportunity clean tech poses, even if our government does not. Furthermore, clean tech provides us with a rare opportunity to both mitigate climate change by reducing our emissions and to adapt to it with more resilient and localized energy systems.

Global warming is part of the 21st century’s reality. It is already affecting every single British Columbian and will cost the government more every year that we choose inaction. In the 21st century, the jurisdictions that embrace this new reality, and make addressing the mitigation of, and the adaptation to, global warming part of how they develop their economy, will find great prosperity over the long term.

Now is the time for British Columbia to take control of our own future. Instead of enslaving ourselves through reliance on hypothetical exports of a commodity that may or may not find a market elsewhere, we could, and should, show leadership in the development of a diversified, sustainable, 21st century economy.

Dr Andrew Weaver is the MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head and was the first Green Party candidate elected to a provincial seat in Canada. He is a climate scientist and has been a lead author on the UN’s IPCC assessment reports.