Embracing decarbonization

By Leslie Campbell, December 2015

It’s time for Christy Clark to wake up from her LNG dream before it becomes a nightmare for the rest of us.

After 20 years of climate negotiations, most nations now seem determined to take serious steps towards a stabilized climate. However, as delegates from 196 nations meet at the Paris climate summit, there are still huge hurdles to leap before any agreement is made, especially one with the teeth needed to force nations to live up to it. One look at the 51-page draft agreement (available online), with it’s multitude of pivotal options sitting undecided between over 1500 square brackets, and you’ll get a glimpse of the challenge. Getting to yes ain’t easy.

Canada’s robust presence at COP21 should at least help reverse our country’s reputation, earned at earlier climate summits, as Fossil of the Year. Simon Fraser University professor Marc Jaccard recently suggested Canada’s delegation pass on some lessons learned from our dismal progress on realizing emissions reductions: “If anything good is to come from Canada’s three-decade climate-policy charade it is the lesson that voluntary…targets are delusional unless intimately tied to one or two of three compulsory policies.” Those polices, according to Jaccard (and others), are a rising carbon tax, a declining hard emissions cap, and increasingly stringent regulations on emission-causing technologies and fuels. “This is all that is needed. Everything else is fluff,” he wrote.

Scientists in the past had urged climate negotiators to consider a “carbon budget” to help frame the talks. We know globally how much more carbon we can burn in the foreseeable future without deadly consequences. So the question is how to divide that total fairly, keeping in mind the developed nations have already used a vastly greater share than the undeveloped nations. Unfortunately, this approach was dismissed as politically impractical, so we are now depending on voluntary pledges from individual countries. The pledges of the US, Europe and China alone will use up the entire remaining the carbon budget.

 

ANY WAY WE LOOK AT IT, we are in for massive disruption over the next few decades and beyond, as carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere plays out and as we attempt to decarbonize our economies. A new study from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction  demonstrates that 90 percent of all UN-defined “disasters” are now weather-related—and the average of 335 such disasters per year in the last 10 years is twice that between 1985 and 1995. Those weather-related disasters lead to others—witness the migrant and refugee crises, now linked to droughts in the Middle East.

Will humans be bold enough to do what is necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change? Can we leave our carbon behind despite its many, varied and portable pleasures? Virtually everything we do, wear, eat, live in, and move around in, relies on hydrocarbons. Unplugging from the carbon economy requires boldness, on our part and that of our leaders. There will be risks and discomfort for sure, but as Goethe famously said: “Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”

Regrettably, it seems we may be more like the frog in boiling water, putting off jumping out of the pot until it’s too late. 

I think of that frog a lot these days when I hear politicians and pundits talk about proceeding slowly because of possible economic difficulties. Of course, we need to minimize job losses—as part of a rational, compassionate, and speedy path to decarbonization. 

 

SPEAKING OF THAT FROG, let’s think about BC Premier Christy Clark for a moment. Right about now, in Paris, she’s croaking about her creds as a green hero because of a carbon tax that she had no part in initiating and, in fact, froze in 2012.

During the 2013 election, she played the jobs card—promoting a hastily-concocted LNG fantasy with promises of 100,000 jobs and a “Prosperity Fund.”

Since then, despite being informed over and over again that her dream is not compatible with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and is also very probably a lost cause economically, she’s refused to jump out of the near boiling pot of LNG. 

Soon after her election, a cabinet document indicated that the envisioned LNG industry could result in a doubling of BC’s total emissions. The Pembina Institute and others have since calculated that just one plant—Petronas’ on Lelu Island—would add 10.7 million tonnes of CO2 annually, or 17 percent of BC’s entire annual output (and almost the entirety of its 2050 target). Clark’s hoped-for three plants would increase emissions more than 50 percent. (BC’s natural gas sector, even without LNG, accounts for 16 percent of emissions.)

The BC Liberals have tried to side-step such wrong-direction realities by exempting Clark’s proposed LNG industry from calculating GHGs on 70 percent of its operations. And BC’s environmental assessments ignore the GHGs that are emitted from the ultimate end use of the LNG. 

Last summer, Carbon Tracker, a London-based financial think-tank, sounded another alarm bell that should have woken the sleepy BC Liberals to the need to start hopping. Spelling out the incompatibility between an LNG industry and a liveable planet, it warned that if nations successfully agreed to a treaty limiting global warming to an average temperature rise of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the planned Kitimat, Prince Rupert and Pacific Northwest LNG projects will likely be “stranded assets.” Which leads one to ask: What do Clark and the Liberals want—LNG ignition or a cooked planet?

Two more warning bells rang in late November. First Premier Clark was served a declaration demanding the Province take a leadership role on the transition to a clean energy economy. The cities of Vancouver and Victoria, BC Government and Service Employees’ Union, Clean Energy BC, Concert Properties, the Pembina Institute, and UBC were among the 145 signatories. Its spokesperson, Karen Tam Wu, pointed out the disconnect between the Province’s green image and the premier’s enthusiasm for LNG. “To be blunt, the way that BC is planning to develop LNG—to their ideal of three LNG terminals—we are going to have a really hard time meeting our climate targets,” she told the Georgia Straight. 

A few days later, the government released the report of the BC Climate Leadership team—with representatives from academia, local government, the environmental community and business (including a top LNG lobbyist). It made 32 recommendations. First among them was increasing and expanding BC’s carbon tax. The government’s official response stated: “The provincial government has frozen the current $30/per tonne carbon tax until 2018 in order to allow other jurisdictions to catch up to British Columbia.” How accommodating. Why don’t we, instead, proudly lead the race to decarbonization?

The leadership team acknowledged the need to create targeted support for certain “emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries,” out of concern for BC’s industrial competitiveness. While this seems inconsistent with the bold decarbonizing direction needed, the Province’s response is even more alarming: “The Province would only consider an increase in the carbon tax under a regime where emission-intensive, trade-exposed industries are fully protected from any carbon tax increase.” (Italics added).

This “let’s-give-special-advantages-to-our carbon-spewing-industry-friends” is not going to get us out of the boiling pot and into more climate-friendly waters.

BC may have introduced one of the world’s first carbon taxes—with Christy Clark gripping its coattails—but it will be hard to maintain that grip in the roiling times ahead if she won’t wake up from her dangerous LNG dream and boldly tax all carbon. 

The Province will begin public consultations on the leadership team’s recommendations in January. You can find their report online. Please let the government and Focus know your thoughts.

 

CONGRATULATIONS TO Roszan Holmen. Roszan won the Jack Webster Award in Community Reporting for her investigative report “E&N: More Red Lights Ahead” (Focus, December, 2014). In it she provided clear evidence about how the rail line had been allowed to deteriorate, making it a safety concern for crew and passengers. She also showed how the suggested costs of fixing it were seriously underestimated. 

Finally, we are pleased to bring you a report by Rob Wipond (another winner of Webster Awards) this month. We know many Focus readers have missed his insightful, bold reporting. He’s working on a book and other projects, so we can’t promise it will be a regular gig for him but we’ll work on him!

Merry Holidays to you all!

In keeping with the spirit of decarbonization, Leslie will be sourcing Christmas gifts and food locally and counting her blessings—Focus’ many thoughtful readers among them.