Apr 5, 2013

Climate justice and BC’s political moment


The following is based on a talk at the Bring Your Boomers election forum on April 3 at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver, the fourth in a series of intergenerational dialogues from Gen Why Media, and was co-sponsored by the CCPA, Get Your Vote OnLeadNow and Vancity credit union. I was asked to set the stage for a conversation on climate justice between three youth and five politicians seeking office in the coming election. 

BC’s 2013 election comes at an important moment in history. Worldwide, extreme weather events from drought to floods to powerful storms and record-breaking temperatures are making a powerful statement that climate change can no longer be denied.

Down under, Australia recently added new colours to its weather maps to accommodate higher temperatures of up to 54C. Arctic sea ice has shrunk dramatically and hit a new record low last summer. The US is entering is third year of a drought that has devastated crops and led to massive wildfires.

Costs are piling up, with one recent estimate of $1.2 trillion per year in global damages already from climate change, and related environmental disasters and impacts from a carbon-intensive economy. These huge costs are often imposed on people who have done the least to contribute to the problem – a fundamental matter of justice.

BC, too, has experienced climate change first hand in the form of wind and hail storms, landslides, floods, and perhaps most notably the devastation caused by the mountain pine beetle because temperatures are no longer cold enough in the winter.

We know that humans are causing climate change by taking carbon in the form of fossil fuels from underground, and releasing it into the atmosphere. Our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing us towards ever more destructive ways of accessing dirty energy, such as bitumen and shale gas.

We subsidize fossil fuel extraction through our tax system, cheap electricity and public infrastructure. And we’re not just an addict; we are a dealer: BC exports twice as much carbon as we combust in province.

But the painful reality is that 80-90% of our known fossil fuel reserves constitute “unburnable carbon” – if we want to prevent catastrophic climate change. On the basis of this math, students in the US, and now in Canada, are leading a new movement calling for divestment from fossil fuel stocks.

BC’s Crossroads

The good news is that, starting in 2007, BC took some important first steps on climate action. BC brought in a law requiring greenhouse gas emission reductions – 1/3 by 2020 and 80% by 2050. We introduced North America’s first carbon tax; aimed to reduce and offset emissions in the public sector; provided subsidies for energy efficiency; integrated emissions into official community plans; and, set out a clean energy mandate for BC Hydro.

Between 2007 and 2010 (last year for which we have data) BC’s emissions fell by 4.5%. Much of this may be due to the recession, but BC’s climate policies arguably deserve some of the credit. And there’s no evidence that those policies have caused economic harm.

Unfortunately, new developments threaten to lock us in to a carbon-intensive development path. Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline to connect Alberta bitumen to Asian markets has sparked protests across the province.

Of note, Alberta’s tar sands are powered in part by BC’s natural gas. The advent of “fracking” has enabled record gas production, but has raised concerns about the impact on water supplies, earthquakes and leakages of methane. Plans to build the Site C dam on the Peace River would provide new power for fracking and mining operations.

BC’s Natural Gas Strategy envisions a doubling or tripling of fracking in the Northeast, to feed a new Liquified Natural Gas export industry. This development would be like putting 20-40 million cars on the roads of the world. And even though most of those emissions would occur outside of BC, it would mean that BC would not be able to meet the targets enshrined in our GHG law.

Here in Vancouver, plans to dramatically expand exports of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, from the Port have met local resistance. As have plans from Metro Vancouver to build a new garbage incinerator.

These projects are all connected to climate change, but are also about the inalienable rights of BC’s First Nations, and protection of our natural heritage. They create very few jobs, at a heavy environmental price.

Still, we find it hard to say no because resource extraction has been so successful in making BC a wealthy part of the world, and because fossil fuel companies have disproportionate influence in the corridors of power. Our governments are wedded to a vision of the province and the country as a quarry for foreign interests, from whose favour come revenues to backfill the public service needs of tax cut politics.

BC’s climate actions have also stalled: funding has run out for energy retrofits of BC homes and public institutions; the government has stated it will not continue with annual increases to the carbon tax or expand it to exempted industrial sectors; BC built the widest bridge in the world to ease car traffic, while public transit funding is in crisis; and BC’s claims of carbon neutral government have been exposed as an accounting fiction.

Searching for Climate Leadership

There is still time to return to strong leadership on climate and energy. This is about what kind of economy BC has in the future, and what role BC will play within Canada and on the world stage. But we can’t have it all: we can’t be a climate leader and at the same time make huge investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure.

That’s why this election is so important. CCPA’s Climate Justice Project issued an open letter in February, signed by 66 organizations from a wide range of civil society, calling on all BC political parties re-commit to our provincial GHG law and table actions that get us to our 2020 target. Leading environmental groups have called for a Better Future Fund that increases BC’s carbon tax to build public transit and clean energy solutions. A coalition of labour and environmental groups has called on parties to table a bold Green Jobs plan.

The path to a zero carbon economy is rooted in ensuring renewables power our daily needs, but also dramatic improvements in the efficiency with which we use energy. It is in the development of zero waste policies that dramatically reduce waste generation and GHG emissions in a move to a closed-loop economy. And over the longer term, it is in the development of complete communities, where people live closer to where the work, shop, access public services and play.

A zero carbon BC is do-able, and would create tens of thousands of jobs, and a province where all jobs are green jobs. It is a project with a purpose, one that will occupy a whole generation. What has been lacking so far is the political will to embrace real leadership and a new vision of what BC can be. This election season we need a race to the top among our political parties, and an end to the view that doing the right thing, by tackling climate change, is a political loser.

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