Skip to main content

Even a few short months ago, the idea that Alberta would be considered ahead of its neighbour to the west when it comes to environmental stewardship would have been laughable.

British Columbia, after all, was the climate-change pioneer that had introduced the first, broadly based tax on carbon long before it became fashionable. At the Paris climate talks last fall, Premier Christy Clark basked in the glow of admiration from world leaders, all talking about how nations needed to follow B.C.'s lead. But there was one problem, and few of these devotees were aware of it: Where once it was an environmental leader, B.C. had become a climate-action dawdler.

This fact was confirmed in a report this week by the Pembina Institute. Eight years after British Columbia introduced its much-heralded carbon tax, emissions in the province are projected to rise almost 40 per cent above 2014 levels by 2030. Meanwhile, the report said, carbon pollution in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec is expected to decrease by 26, 22 and 23 per cent, respectively, over the same period as a result of aggressive new actions those provinces have introduced recently.

Think about that for a second. Once universally condemned as a notorious global polluter, Alberta – Alberta! – is now viewed as a more aggressive climate-change fighter than British Columbia, a province that has smugly self-identified for years as being this great protector of the environment.

In an election year, I can't imagine this is a circumstance that Ms. Clark and her Liberal government are going to find acceptable. But the truth is the Premier has mostly coasted on the coattails of a carbon tax that was introduced by her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, and in the interim, she has not done much to address the province's growing emissions problem.

Last fall, a climate leadership team assembled by the Premier made 32 recommendations on what the government needed to do to meet 2050 targets. Forget 2020. Those goals are never going to be met. Everyone acknowledges that now. Same with 2030. The province's best hope is to aim for 2050 and see if it can get back on track by then. But doing that would mean adopting every one of the climate group's recommendations. And the most notable involves the vaunted carbon tax.

First introduced at $10 a tonne, it now sits at $30. It's been frozen there by Ms. Clark since 2012. Her climate team is recommending lifting the freeze and starting to hike the tax $10 annually for the foreseeable future. Many climate scientists believe the tax needs to get into the $100-a-tonne range to force the kinds of cuts in emissions the province needs to meet future targets.

Can you imagine a politician campaigning on that?

Ms. Clark's government is expected to unveil a new climate plan later this month. The Premier knows it will be highly scrutinized and judged, especially against a new narrative that suggests the province has become an environmental slacker on her watch. For her part, Ms. Clark has held the position that, until recently, British Columbia was the only province that had a carbon tax, one that is punitive to businesses. Why, she argued, should she put B.C. companies at a further disadvantage against their interprovincial competitors if no other provinces are going to do the same?

A fair enough point at one time, but other provinces have now moved on this front. And moved ahead of British Columbia.

My guess is Ms. Clark could be waiting to see what the federal government is planning to do in this regard. There is talk of a federal carbon tax. What would that look like? B.C.'s tax would likely still be higher than whatever the new national, entry-level carbon tax rate would be, so would that let the province off the hook to increase its own?

Personally, I don't see how it would. The greater fact here is we now have a federal government that seems committed to real action on climate. It is looking for a new plan from British Columbia that shows advanced measures to tackle rising emissions before it okays a major LNG proposal in the province. That puts even more pressure on Ms. Clark.

The B.C. Premier is as competitive as they come. I can't imagine that she will not want to reassert the province's position at the vanguard of climate-change action. Right now she's associated with the province's falling reputation on this front.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe