British Columbia

B.C. shows climate action is about the economy, not just the environment

Every day, the drumbeat of countries taking action on climate change gets louder. In the past two weeks alone, Norway, a major oil producer, said it wants to see no gas-powered vehicles sold in the country by 2025; Alberta passed ground-breaking legislation to cut carbon emissions and boost clean energy generation; and Ontario launched an $8.3-billion climate-action plan.

Norway and Alberta are oil-producing jurisdictions and Ontario is a diversified manufacturing province. But what these economically distinct jurisdictions have in common is a recognition that climate action isn’t just about the environment – it’s also a necessary step for ensuring prosperity in the transition to a low-carbon economy. In taking these steps, these jurisdictions are catching up to British Columbia and setting a new bar for further climate action in the years ahead.

For nearly a decade, British Columbia has been a leader and an innovator in the transition to a low-carbon economy. With B.C. poised to announce its next phase of climate action, the question is whether the province will maintain and enhance what we call “the B.C. low-carbon advantage” – an advantage that, over all, has served British Columbians well.

So what is this advantage and how do we maintain it?

In a world intent on addressing climate change, companies will increasingly compete not just on our traditional understandings of cost, but also on carbon. That’s good news for British Columbia, because we have two major advantages.

The first is our abundant supply of low-carbon electricity. Since electricity is a significant source of carbon output for many industries, this gives B.C. companies a “low carbon” head start over many of their competitors.

The second advantage comes from being a first mover in introducing world-leading climate policies, including a carbon tax. In place since 2008, these policies have created incentives for companies to reduce their carbon emissions, putting them ahead of competitors in jurisdictions that have been slower to introduce climate policies.

The result is that British Columbia now has some of the most carbon-competitive industries in the world. We’re home to some of the globe’s lowest-carbon mines, pulp mills, factories and other industrial activities.

Just as consumers now demand fair-trade coffee and certified-sustainable wood products, the carbon content of products will not only need to be disclosed but will become a bigger factor in the purchasing decisions of major corporations and consumers alike. We have already seen this with companies moving to “net-zero-carbon” buildings and travel policies.

With the right moves today, we can build on this advantage, enhancing our reputation as a global leader that has figured out how to reduce carbon emissions without compromising competitiveness. Clean Energy Canada’s analysis concludes that the resource sector would grow by 35,000 people as carbon emissions decline using smart policy.

The low-carbon advantage can be British Columbia’s calling card to the world, something that all our industries can leverage – something that will attract more jobs and investment and provide a consistent message across all sectors of the economy.

Of course, maintaining leadership is not a given. It takes continual action from government, industry and all British Columbians.

Today, B.C.’s carbon emissions are once again on the rise as the province’s economy and population continue to grow. British Columbia will need to be bold to maintain its position as a global climate-action leader and a leader in sustainable economic growth.

At the same time, while the original B.C. carbon tax got a lot right, one thing it didn’t was ensuring our province’s energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries have a level playing field when competing against jurisdictions with weaker climate policies.

Neither the environment nor the economy wins if a lower-carbon mine or pulp mill closes, while ones that produce more carbon emissions continue to operate elsewhere. This is a real risk, especially during a time of sustained low commodity prices.

Similarly, our carbon tax won’t do its job if it stays at the same level it’s at today. It has to change with the times. That means the next wave of climate leadership needs to include well-structured measures to increase the carbon tax over time – creating meaningful incentives for industry and British Columbians to use cleaner energy, while safeguarding jobs, and addressing affordability and competitiveness.

As an industry executive and a civil-society leader, we believe British Columbia can continue to raise the bar on climate leadership, including increasing the price on carbon, while also protecting jobs and our most vulnerable citizens.

Done right, the new climate-action plan can grow the B.C. low-carbon advantage and set the stage for our companies, workers and communities to prosper in an economic future that rewards jurisdictions that most effectively marry business savvy with climate leadership.

Written by Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada, and Marcia Smith senior vice-president of sustainability and external affairs at Teck Resources.

Originally published in the Globe and Mail on June 24, 2016. 

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