Christy Clark gets it right with climate policy revisions, raises ire of eco-activists

Christy Clark
Premier Christy Clark, left, and Environment Minister Mary Polak. Photo: BC Government.

Tzeporah Berman: “Being asked as member BC’s Climate Leadership Team what I think of this plan: Pathetic and cowardly. U can quote me”

British Columbia’s newly revised climate plan is being panned by environmental groups. That might be the most obvious sign the revisions are actually on the right track.

christy clark
Tzeporah Berman speaking at an anti-Northern Gateway pipeline rally.

Before I address criticisms from eco-activists, let’s put a little context around the discussion.

As regular readers know, I start from the premise that the global economy is five to 10 years into a 100-year transition from fossil fuels to clean energy technologies (tidal, wind, solar, alt fuel vehicles, etc.). That century-long timeline can be compressed, but doing so increases risk and cost. Clever and thoughtful public policy can minimize risk and cost, while poorly designed policy (think Ontario’s wind energy experiment) can raise risk and cost to unacceptable levels.

For policymakers, getting it right is more important than getting it fast.

National and state/provincial governments in North American have been debating for the past five or so years how to speed up the transition without imposing unacceptable risks and costs on their consumers and economies.

christy clark
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The conclusion of that debate from the American, Canadian, and Mexican governments, if you read it correctly, was contained in the tripartite agreement on climate and energy announced in July. The document talks about many specific government programs, such as fugitive methane emission reductions and decarbonizing power generation.

But if a careful reader backs up and approaches it from the 35,000 foot view, the strategy is based upon two very important assumptions: 1) that government can’t get too far in front of the technology required to decarbonize the energy system; 2) that governments will continue to rely upon markets, investors, and the private sector to do the heavy lifting throughout the energy transition.

Accepting those assumption puts limitations upon any government’s climate change strategy, including British Columbia’s.

And it ensures a very public tension between political stakeholders in climate change strategies: eco-activists will push government to the ragged edge of what is possible, while business and consumers will argue for a go slow approach because they have to bear the cost and risk of moving more quickly.

That tension – and current negotiations over a national climate mitigation plan – essentially explains why Clark chose not to be more aggressive with her government’s revisions to its climate change programs.

christy clark
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Eco-activists like Tzeporah Berman are mad because Clark didn’t fully implement any of the recommendations made in the report from the government’s climate leadership team. “Being asked as member BC’s Climate Leadership Team what I think of this plan: Pathetic and cowardly. U can quote me,” Berman tweeted. “Number of our 32 recommendations accepted in full today? Zero.”

Recommendations included increasing the carbon tax by $10/year starting in July 2018, expanding it to apply to all greenhouse gas emission sources in BC after five years, adjusting the tax mechanisms to account for economic competitiveness and fairness to low income groups.

For many critics, the focus of their attacks was the carbon tax, which has risen to $30/tonne carbon tax on fuels, an extra 6.67 cents per litre at the pump. Gasoline consumption fell about 15 per cent as a consequence. BC’s revenue neutral carbon tax is often praised by economists for its design.

Why didn’t Clark agree to boost the carbon tax?

“The Climate Leadership Plan will be further updated over the coming year, in response to work underway between the federal government and the provinces and territories to develop a pan-Canadian approach to climate action,” said a statement from the Premier’s office.

Translation: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proposed a national carbon tax that wasn’t well received at a spring meeting with the premiers, repeated his commitment in the tripartite agreement with the USA and Mexico, and is expected to make carbon pricing mechanisms a key part of his political and policy agenda this fall.

christy clark
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Why, then, would Clark raise the BC carbon tax before the details of a national carbon tax are agreed upon? Best case, the BC tax has to be rejigged to fit the national scheme. Worst case, Clark has painted her government into a corner and the provincial economy suffers unforeseen consequences.

And let’s not forget the Premier’s enthusiastic commitment to growing a liquified natural gas industry in BC. As the eco-activist site DeSmog put it, “Clark desperately wants to develop a natural gas industry — but she can’t do that and meet BC’s climate targets.”

According to the climate team’s report, “natural gas production accounts for 16 per cent of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the largest industrial sector.” If the LNG industry gains a toehold in the next few years, that percentage would climb significantly.

Recommendation #15 from the climate team’s report calls for “a goal of 40 per cent reduction for fugitive and vented methane within five years.”

But the tripartite agreement calls for a reduction of 40 to 45 per cent and national regulations to achieve it. How is Clark supposed to accept the recommendation and avoid conflict with future federal regulations?

The answer is that she can’t. Methane emission reductions will be part of the Pan-Canadian solution being negotiated by the feds and the provinces, and Clark needs to wait until those negotiations are concluded.

Most of the climate team’s recommendations run into similar objections. Given the current state of clean energy technology and the market’s ability to incorporate it, the recommendations are too far aggressive. And given that national climate policies are in flux, Clark has to be part of the discussions and tailor provincial policy accordingly.

Sorry, Tzeporah Berman, but you and your climate team colleagues will have to be patient while the political and policy processes play out and technology and markets catch up.

christy clark
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