Climate Action as Leadership: The View from B.C.

Minister of Environment Terry Lake discusses the debate over climate action.

Terry Lake

Minister of Environment

The report on carbon neutral government released this week by auditor general John Doyle has sparked debate about climate action and in particular, about the policy tools government can use in building its response.

Climate change is widely recognized as the greatest environmental threat facing society in this century – and has already cost B.C. millions of dollars in lost jobs, extreme weather events, health and safety impacts and stressed infrastructure. B.C. has shown leadership in standing up to this threat through its Climate Action Plan, and this leadership has not gone unnoticed.

Prominent articles in the Economist Magazine, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have pointed to the success of our policies and our economic growth – provincial greenhouse gas emissions fell 4.5 per cent from 2007 to 2010 while at the same time our GDP growth outpaced the Canadian average. Recently, both Oregon and Washington have expressed keen interest in learning more about our climate plan as they prepare plans of their own.

In 2008, the B.C. government set the target for all public-sector organizations to become carbon neutral, which created awareness and incentives for energy conservation and emission reduction projects.The Province passed the B.C. emission offsets regulation and created Pacific Carbon Trust to regulate and develop the provincial offsets market. The B.C. public sector is the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the province.

The sector also spends nearly $400 million a year on energy. The obligation to lead is therefore good governance and good business – putting government’s house in order as it asks businesses, communities and individuals to take action. And as B.C. steps up to and crosses this threshold of leadership it joins others taking action while there is still time to do so.

By including core government, school districts, health authorities, post-secondary institutions and Crown corporations, B.C. has engaged 300,000 public-sector employees in a strategic conversation about climate change and the need for individual and collective action.

Beyond that, the two million British Columbians who learn in, use or visit public sector institutions – 6,500 throughout B.C. – are included in the conversation as well.

B.C.’s investments in carbon offsets support innovation, new jobs,economic opportunities and green technologies in communities in the province. The revenue from offsets sales helps make clean technology projects a reality, resulting in economic and social benefits, an economy ready to compete in a carbon-constrained world, and greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

Since 2007, B.C.’s offset investments have leveraged an estimated $300 million of private-sector investment in B.C. We are now well situated to attract additional investors who are purchasing offsets for voluntary and regulatory markets. This means jobs and other economic benefits, and support for cleaner technologies to take root in our province.

A key accomplishment of our carbon neutral government program has been focusing attention on the costs of energy and working with public-sector organizations to reduce those costs through investments in energy efficiency. Since 2008, B.C. has committed $75 million in this regard and it expects annual energy cost savings of $12 million and substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions as a result. A new kindergarten-to-Grade-12 capital innovation fund will drive further energy savings in school districts throughout the province.

Greenhouse gas emissions are an unfortunate byproduct of an old economic idea based on carbon-intensive fossil fuels. As the world struggles to come to grips with the effects of accelerating climate change, B.C. is at the forefront of a new idea, a new economy, creating incentives for low carbon economic innovation. This kind of leadership isn’t easy, and from time to time those who don’t like what we’re doing or who disagree with our approach will make themselves heard. The report released this week signals that this is such a time.

Healthy and constructive debate is critical to good public policy.

While we disagree with the Auditor General, we genuinely welcome feedback that helps us further improve our leadership position on climate action.