In the grips of a record drought, with our forests burning and our salmon rivers running as warm as tap water, British Columbians are acutely aware that climate change is a big problem.
It could be argued the province is doing more than most about it, having implemented a carbon tax as early as 2008, and with Premier Christy Clark last spring appointing a climate leadership team to provide advice on "how to maintain B.C.'s climate leadership."
But a new paper by the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) at the University of Victoria has called into question B.C.'s commitment, saying we are largely failing to deal with the root cause of climate change: the emission of greenhouse gases.
"Climate change has already triggered destruction of vast B.C. forests, historic droughts, catastrophic storms, devastation of fisheries, agricultural failures and unprecedented wildfires. And it seriously threatens the quality of life of our children and future generations," the ELC states in a submission made Monday to the climate leadership team. "Yet there are profound flaws in the B.C. environmental assessment of proposed industrial projects, and these flaws could worsen climate change."
It states that B.C.'s environmental assessments "fail to consider the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that will be produced by the burning of our coal and oil in Asia – and generally ignore the impact of proposed projects on the province's GHG reduction targets. If those blind spots are not fixed, we may fail to meet the threat that climate change poses to British Columbia and to the global community."
While the carbon tax puts a price on emissions created by individuals, businesses and industry within the province, B.C. does not consider the impact of resources such as coal when it is burned beyond our borders.
The ELC argues it is wrong to have an environmental assessment process that looks at the GHGs produced by the trucks and other equipment at a B.C. coal mine, for example, but then to ignore what ultimately happens to coal that is shipped out of the province.
The paper says the province has "failed to adequately consider climate change" when assessing numerous projects, including several coal mines, two proposed oil pipelines and a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal.
It observes that the Murray River coal project alone will result in the release of more than 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – but those releases were not part of the environmental assessment because that coal is bound for Asia.
The paper says B.C.'s environmental assessment process must be reformed so that in future, whenever substantial GHG-emitting projects are proposed, a "climate test" is applied requiring consideration of both upstream and downstream emissions.
In other words, the ELC is calling on the B.C. government to start taking into account the bigger global picture, not just the local impacts of resource projects.
The paper (written on behalf of the Sierra Club by articling student Erin Gray, researched by law student Rosanna Adams and overseen by ELC legal director Calvin Sandborn) says progressive jurisdictions – of which B.C. claims to be one – are increasingly taking into account the broader "atmospheric reality" of local projects.
"Governments are expanding the scope of the GHGs that they evaluate to include GHGs eventually released beyond their borders," the paper states. "This is a sensible approach, because climate change is not a problem that restricts itself to jurisdictions and is inherently transboundary."
If B.C. wants to legitimately be considered a climate leader, the province will have to start taking environmental responsibility for the end use of the coal, oil and gas it produces. That will be difficult, but the province can't claim to be tackling climate change while blindly increasing shipments of the resources that fuel the problem.