British Columbians may be feeling lonely in their ambitions to save the planet.
Five years ago, when the Canadian province enacted a bold set of climate change policies designed to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, they assumed the U.S. would follow suit. A coalition of only seven U.S. states joined forces with four Canadian provinces to establish the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) with a regional carbon cap-and-trade system, according to a National Geographic report.
In 2007 they established the Climate Action Plan, which set ambitious targets for B.C.'s GHG emissions reductions—reducing them by 33 percent from 2007 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050.
But U.S. progress skidded to a halt when six U.S. states withdrew from WCI last November, leaving just California.
"I think it is safe to say that we expected more jurisdictions to be coming up and joining us in this kind of public policy," said Terry Lake, British Columbia's minister of the environment, in an interview. "That hasn't happened." To further the debate, British Columbia has steadily increased its carbon tax since 2008 from a rate of $10 per ton of CO2 to a staggering $30 per ton this July. The last legislated increase is set for this July. It covers all fossil fuels burned in the province, accounting for an estimated 77 percent of B.C.s domestic GHG emissions, according to the government.
But because sectors of the agriculture and cement industry rely heavily on fossil fuels and the carbon tax puts them at a disadvantage, the government recently called for a comprehensive review of the carbon tax to consider constituent concerns.
"This is a good time to pause and examine how the carbon tax is affecting our economic competitiveness," said B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon, in a recent budget speech. "To that end, we will carry out a comprehensive review, examining the tax's impact—both positive and negative—on every economic sector."
British Columbia gets more than 80 percent of its power from hydroelectricity instead of fossil fuels. Its GHG emissions are relatively low, accounting for just 9 percent of Canada's emissions. Transportation accounts for the largest share of GHG emissions, followed by their rapidly-growing oil industry. The remaining 23 percent of emissions, which are exempt from the carbon tax, come from non-energy agricultural uses, non-combustion industrial process emissions, and fugitive emissions from coal, oil, and gas extraction.
The most recent government figures show a 2.3 percent decrease from 2008 to 2009 in overall GHG emissions in British Columbia, from 69.2 Mt to 66.9 Mt CO2. But Lake notes that the economic recession was likely a factor. "Reduced economic activity usually results in reduced greenhouse gases," he said. “The government plans to release emissions figures from 2010 sometime this year."
But the competitive disadvantage the taxes create against the U.S. market does not help contain our global fossil fuel problem. "The problem for B.C. is that no other provinces or U.S. states have chosen to follow the same path since B.C. instituted its carbon tax in 2008," said Jock Finlayson, executive vice president of the Business Council of B.C. in an email. "So while the 'cost' of carbon is rising in B.C., it is not rising in tandem in our principal competing jurisdictions."
As for the future of saving the planet, British Columbia’s lawmakers will have to decide between industry interests and popular sentiment. Seventy percent of the province’s population agreed in a poll that they should continue to make strides toward reducing fossil fuels despite other jurisdiction’s ability to catch up.
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