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BC leads the way to a better future for people and planet

Maybe it was the months of smoke-filled skies or the flash floods following hard on the heels of long droughts. Or maybe it was mountainsides covered in beetle-killed trees or glaciers melting to slivers of ice. Whatever the reason, British Columbia has got the message when it comes to climate change.

The province’s new CleanBC climate action plan combines precision with ambition in a way that makes the token effort released by Ontario just the previous week almost laughable. First, there are the ambitious – but completely rational – targets: 40 per cent by 2030, 60 per cent by 2040 and 80 per cent by 2050. These targets demonstrate that the government has listened to the growing warnings by scientists that we have little time left to get our act together. Compared to Ontario’s decision to actually roll back its targets by close to 30%, this is refreshing recognition that we need to act now – before it is too late.

The precision lies in the way the government has laid out a multi-sectoral strategy for achieving these reductions, from introducing a mandate that all vehicles sold in the province be zero emissions by 2040 to requiring that every new building is “net-zero energy ready” by 2032. The 68-page plan (compare that to the 16 pages of vague commitments in Ontario’s effort) outlines a slew of initiatives, from ramping up production of biofuels and electrifying industrial operations (including oil and gas operations) to improving the energy efficiency of social housing stock and expanding use of energy-saving heat pump technology.

But the most refreshing thing about BC’s plan is that rather than positioning climate action as a social burden or an economic cost, it recognizes the huge opportunities that can be realized by taking a proactive approach to a devastating problem. The BC government understands that action to address climate change can be a way to drive growth in the province’s already thriving clean-tech industry (270 plus companies generating $1.8 billion in annual revenues and employing 8,500 people). It contains numerous examples of companies hard at work developing and commercializing innovative low carbon solutions – from air-source carbon capture to batteries for electric ships – and sees in that a promising new direction for a province that has long been a hewer of wood and drawer of water.

The province is, of course, advantaged with abundant clean energy, but it will need more, and the plan commits to continuing development of solar and wind resources, which can be combined with the existing water power system to create a steady renewable power supply for a wide range of uses, from remote communities now dependent on dirty diesel to energy hungry resource industries.

Equally, it recognizes the often synergistic benefits of moving to low-carbon solutions, whether it is eliminating the harmful byproducts of burning diesel or making the commute to work a little bit easier with better transit and better-planned communities. 

Interestingly, while putting the positives of climate action front and centre, the plan does not shy away from acknowledging that change can be difficult. It recognizes the need to help average people “shift” to new approaches, noting “making these changes cannot leave anyone behind.” And it seeks to ensure that heavy industries are also able to adjust to a steadily rising carbon price, which will increase to $50 per tonne by 2021. Its industrial incentive program is designed to reward companies that meet “world leading” emissions benchmarks, which clearly differentiates it from Ontario’s largely unexplained plan to require companies to hew to unspecified emission levels while simultaneously exempting entire industrial sectors, such as the auto industry.

This approach, of course, is a strong counter narrative to the ritualistic doom-saying of Conservative leaders across Canada, who find pricing pollution somehow abhorrent. The BC government understands that pricing pollution is fundamental to achieving its ambitious plan to move the province to a modern, low-carbon economy, but smart enough to realize that people will need help with the impacts – whether it is through assistance with money-saving home retrofits, a break on a zero emissions vehicle or skills training to be part of a new green workforce.

One of BC’s biggest challenges will be squaring the circle on achieving its climate targets while promoting LNG development. The government says it has factored in the additional emissions that will be created by LNG into its plan and that they will not throw the province off track. But clearly, LNG adds some heavy lifting to the necessary carbon reduction in the years ahead.

Perhaps the best omen for success in the BC plan is its commitment to equity and reconciliation. Reconciliation with the First Nation peoples who are often seeing viscerally the damage being done by climate change to beautiful BC, and reconciliation with the planet itself. BC has essentially mapped out a bridge to a low-carbon future that includes everyone in the journey. Other provinces would be wise to follow its lead.