BC political parties roll out varied climate policy visions

Written By Rob Shaw

Do B.C.’s climate change policies go too far, or not far enough? It’s a question provincial politicians spent last week debating, after two opposition parties pledged to scrap the NDP government’s marquee CleanBC plan because, they argue, it’s too expensive and fails to produce meaningful results.

“I’ve never, in all my time as a former finance minister, as someone in the private and public sector, seen a government come forward with a plan that so explicitly says, to their credit, that it is going to be devastating for the economic future of this province,” said BC United Leader Kevin Falcon.

“So number one, we’d scrap that plan. And number two, we would say we’re going to do things that actually get meaningful reductions in emissions.”

Premier David Eby finds himself under attack on all sides — from environmentalists and BC Greens who want more ambitious pollution-fighting efforts, to BC United and BC Conservative MLAs who think measures, like mandatory electric vehicle sales by 2035 and pollution caps on the oil and gas sector, should be abolished altogether.

Hampering efforts is the province’s lacklustre performance on actually reducing climate pollution so far.

The NDP’s goal is a 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030. Yet after almost two decades of Liberal and NDP governments pushing climate change initiatives, B.C. has cut emissions by barely three per cent.

BC United pledges ‘all-in’ on LNG to reduce Asian reliance on coal

Whether the pollution targets in the NDP’s CleanBC plan are even achievable anymore within the timeline is a matter of much political debate. 

Hitting them would require curtailing large portions of the economy, laying off thousands of people from resource-sector jobs and skyrocketing the cost of fuel as the carbon tax triples, said Falcon, citing a recent economic study done by the B.C. Business Council that used the province’s own modelling data.

Instead, United has promised to go “all-in” on liquified natural gas, to help bigger polluting companies get off coal and onto less-polluting natural gas.

“Why don’t we do what we can do — help Asia move from dirty coal-fired power into clean LNG?”

Kevin Falcon

“We have to recognize B.C. only represents 0.17 per cent of global emissions,” said Falcon.

“We could shut down our entire economy in British Columbia, park every car, shut down every truck, turn off every light, and it’s going to represent less than two days of emissions out of Asia.

“So why don’t we do what we can do — help Asia move from dirty coal-fired power into clean LNG, and see massive reductions, a 50 per cent reduction in emissions. That’s a great contribution.”

Keeping economy hooked on fossil fuels ‘nonsensical’, says BC Green Leader

The NDP’s CleanBC was first authored in 2018, in partnership with the BC Greens. It sets a path to a net-zero economy by 2050, with a law that mandates all new car sales be zero-emission by 2035, as well as emissions caps on heavy-polluting sectors like oil and gas production.

The Greens no longer think it goes far enough. 

The NDP are still subsidizing the oil and gas sector, have failed to properly tackle issues like drought and water insecurity and aren’t yet going all-in on locally-produced clean energy projects, said Green Leader Sonia Furstenau.

“In 2021, it cost B.C. $17 billion dollars just to recover from the climate disasters we had that year, the heat dome, the drought, the fires and the flooding,” said Furstenau. “And we have political parties who are complaining about putting a price on solutions. They think industry should be able to put its trash out into the atmosphere at no cost.”

She called United and Conservative MLAs “a loyal foot soldier for the oil and gas industry” and said it is “nonsensical” from an economic point of view to keep the economy hooked to fossil fuels when their use is expected to begin to decline at the end of this decade.

New green tech coalition pushes for more government support

Even with the shortcomings identified by the Greens, the NDP’s CleanBC plan represents a massive transition for B.C.’s economy, which has been traditionally dependent on natural resource extraction. 

There are business allies who think it can be done. 

The premier surrounded himself with such folks this week when he spoke to a new coalition of business, environmental and Indigenous leaders called New Economy Canada. Its non-partisan members are pushing for more government support to move faster into clean technologies for the forestry, mining, concrete, steel and battery sectors.

“We have to show British Columbians in a time of an affordability crisis that our strongest future is the one where the rest of the world is going, which is a low carbon future,” Eby told the group, during a meeting in Victoria on Thursday.

“In a time of an affordability crisis… our strongest future is the one where the rest of the world is going.”

David Eby

“And that’s where the jobs are, that’s where the opportunity is, that’s where the growth is. 

“That’s why I’m so glad that the business community has come together today to have this discussion with us and we’ll continue having the discussions with British Columbians, and we’re going to stand strong on fighting carbon pollution in this province and showing leadership, developing the technologies.”

‘We need to act now’

The coalition includes advisors from companies like Teck Resources (one of the largest mining companies in Canada, located in B.C.), the Canadian Steel Producers Association, the Cement Association of Canada and the BC Council of Forest Industries, all of whom are seeking ways to improve the environmental performance of their sectors so that they can function within the NDP’s ever-tightening climate benchmarks.

“This is not just another industry group, these are companies and organizations really saying yes we can,” said Merran Smith, who left Clean Energy Canada in September to become president of New Economy Canada.

“They are taking actions today, not delaying until 2040 or 2050. And that’s really because they recognize they need to act now, not just in response to the climate crisis but to remain competitive in this global economy that is increasingly rewarding low- carbon participants.”

“They recognize they need to act now, not just in response to the climate crisis but to remain competitive.”

Merran Smith

Smith cited the trillions of dollars earmarked by the United States, China, and the European Union to invest in emerging clean technologies.

“We need to act now and get in the game,” she said in an interview.

“Those decisions are getting made now — where are you going to build your battery plant, your green hydrogen plant, your electric plant. Is there clean energy for you to plug into?”

The clean energy piece is a particular challenge for B.C., which currently has an abundance but is forecasted to come up short of what’s required to hit 2030 goals. The premier has ordered BC Hydro to do a new clean energy call, to help fuel the needs of companies looking to invest in British Columbia, such as Fortescue, an Australian firm that wants to build a green hydrogen plant in Prince George but will need an enormous amount of electricity to do so.

“I understand that BC Hydro needs to be fiscally responsible, however, it does become a bit of a chicken and egg situation where businesses cannot commit to a project without a firm source of energy,” Frank So, executive vice president of E-One Moli Energy told the premier at the New Economy Canada meeting. 

E-One Moli’s criticism stings doubly for B.C., because the company is in the process of planning a $1 billion battery plant in Maple Ridge that could generate 350 jobs and has attracted the support of both the Prime Minister and premier. But it needs power that B.C. has been slow to develop.

The cost and demand of all that electricity is unrealistic to CleanBC’s critics.

‘Unrealistic climate policies,’ say BC Conservatives

BC Conservative leader John Rustad, who unveiled his climate plan this week, said he’ll focus instead on rolling back pollution taxes like the carbon tax, fuel tax and fuel standards, so that people can save money on home heating fuels and when filling up their vehicles.

“We need housing, we need food, and we need energy, everything else is about our quality of life,” said Rustad. “And what I’ve found is the climate policies, particularly from this NDP government, are attacking all three of those factors that we need to survive with these unrealistic climate policies.”

“We need housing, we need food, and we need energy, everything else is about our quality of life.”

John Rustad

Climate policy is a particularly sensitive issue for the Conservatives, who have been branded climate-deniers by the NDP. 

“You know, I honestly don’t know which is worse — the continued denial of human-caused climate change by the Conservative party, or the leader of the Opposition’s desperate pandering to try to win back conservative voters by ripping up the climate plan,” said Environment Minister George Heyman.

Rustad said he believes climate change is real, and human-caused, but is not the apocalyptic crisis it is made out to be, and that other immediate affordability issues are more of a priority. Critics say he’s splitting hairs on what is effectively climate denialism.

“The Conservative Party of British Columbia will not go down this rabbit hole of taxation, hype, scare tactics and false promises,” said Rustad. “We need to make life more affordable for British Columbians, and that’s what we want to focus on.”

Climate policy a wedge issue for 2024 BC election

The linkage between the affordability crisis and climate policy has become a political football ever since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exempted the carbon tax from home heating oil in the Atlantic provinces several weeks ago. To many, it showed the federal government buckling to immediate pocketbook politics at the expense of the long term health of the climate.

It also kickstarted a debate about the carbon tax in B.C. The Greens want to increase it, Falcon has promised to exempt home heating fuels of all types, Rustad wants to kill it entirely and Eby is holding steady — in fact, according to a recently leaked memo, he’s even considering using carbon tax revenues to cut or freeze Hydro rates to respond to the affordability crisis.

Doing nothing would hurt B.C.’s economy more in the long run, argued Eby, because of the rising cost of worsening floods and wildfires.

“The climate crisis is real, B.C. is seeing an outsized impact from it and we need to respond,” he said. “And I think that’s why British Columbians have supported, through multiple political parties, climate leadership.”

“It’s important not to get discouraged,” the premier added.

But as climate policy becomes a political wedge issue heading into next year’s provincial election, some voters are bound to be disappointed at the rhetoric, promises and politicking they see, no matter where they stand on the issue.