Friday, October 05, 2007

Fuzzy battle plans in B.C.'s climate-change war

There’s likely one question on most peoples’ minds after Premier Gordon Campbell’s big climate-change speech.
What’s he talking about?
At the Union of B.C. Municipalities last week Campbell said the climate-change battle is as significant as the two world wars Canada has fought. But when it came to our marching orders, he didn’t really have that much new to offer.
The premier promised laws to set tough limits on emissions in B.C. — far stricter than the targets set by the Harper government or Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he had announced the same limits in the throne speech in February. And the how of it all is still mostly a mystery.
Here are the basics. By 2020, B.C. is committed to reducing missions to 33-per-cent lower than today’s level. (Even as the population grows to more than five million.) It’s an ambitious target that reflects our desire to see a real action on global warming; interim targets will be set for 2012 and 2016. But how we get there is still pretty vague.
A “blue-ribbon” Climate Action Team, with representatives from environmental organizations, business and industry, the scientific community and First Nations will set interim targets by next summer, Campbell said.
He promised regional meetings on reductions in forestry, mining, energy, landfills and agriculture. Municipalities will get more power to give incentives to green developers and B.C. will adopt California standards for vehicle emissions. (The only money attached to any of the activities was a $50-million commitment for new buses.) And Campbell announced that the government would become “carbon neutral” by 2010.
That doesn’t mean that the government is going to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions — or carbon-dioxide emissions, to use another term — to zero. Instead, the government’s solution will be found in Campbell’s announcement of a new B.C. Carbon Trust.
The trust will sell emission credits to government, business and individuals. The theory is that it will then use the money to support projects that achieve an equivalent reduction in emissions.
Take an example. The premier announced B.C. would immediately be carbon-neutral in its government travel. When Campbell hops on a float plane or Helijet to spend the day in Victoria, and then flies back to Vancouver, he generates about one-sixth of a tonne of greenhouse gases in the round trip.
The trust will sell emission credits at $25 a tonne. So if the premier sends it a cheque for $4, his trip will be carbon neutral. The trust will then spend the money in a way that results in a one-sixth of tonne reduction in emissions somewhere else. It will plant some trees, improve transit or subsidize a windmill so less natural gas is burned to generate power.
The carbon-credit trading deal Campbell has entered into as part of the Western Climate Initiative takes a similar approach. B.C., Manitoba, California and five other states have set emission limits and agreed to establish a carbon-credit trading system by next summer. Jurisdictions that are under their limits will sell the credits to those that can’t cut emissions enough.
It’s a reasonable approach. Organizations know they have to pay for each tonne and have an incentive to reduce their emissions. And a similar market in the European Union — after some initial difficulties, mostly around setting emission caps fairly — has by most accounts worked well.
But these kinds of exercises are also tricky. For example, the B.C. Carbon Trust might not achieve real reductions with the money it takes in.
And setting the cost of credits, in non-market versions like the trust, is a challenge. If the cost is too high, the economy could be hurt; too low and it becomes a cheap licence to continue business as usual. At $25 a tonne, B.C. could achieve half its goal for 2020 by writing an annual cheque for $500 million. (Though $25 is in the ballpark of the emission value set by the active markets.)
There are questions about other aspects of the province’s plans. Campbell has set up both a cabinet committee on climate action and a $4-million climate secretariat within the premier’s office. The committee has had 177 presentations from industry, green groups, scientists and ministries, he said. But not one has been made public.
The secretariat, with six senior managers, hasn’t produced one report on its work. And although Campbell said the government has already identified ways to meet up to 80 per cent of the 2020 goal, the public is still in the dark about what’s ahead — the costs, the opportunities, the industry issues.
None of this is to criticize the commitment. Campbell has grabbed the climate-change issue and set some tough goals. But setting targets without telling the public anything about how they’ll be achieved raises concerns about the soundness of the government’s plans.