British Columbia

The case for a carbon tax

Illustration by Kali Ciesemier

B.C. is Canada’s greenest provinces for a number of reasons, but its decision to put a price on carbon stands out as its greatest single achievement.

The motto for Canada’s most western province is splendor sine occasu, which translated from Latin means “splendour without diminishment.”

As a guiding principle, it couldn’t be more appropriate for British Columbia. For Canadians, the province is both a gateway to the Pacific Ocean and a place to cherish the greatest hits of nature, from the ruggedness of the Rocky Mountains to its oxygen-rich ancient forests and the biodiversity they nurture.

Not to suggest B.C. has no blemishes. Logging, mining, fossil fuel exploration and other industrial activities have left their combined mark on Canada’s third-most populous province. But when compared to its provincial cousins, B.C.’s splendour is comparatively least diminished.

That’s why Corporate Knights ranked B.C. as 2014’s greenest province. It stands out for having the highest density of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations per capital and the highest percentage of protected land. British Columbians also drive the fewest kilometres per capita – 38 per cent less than worst-ranked Alberta.

But B.C. also performed well because it scored consistently high across most of the key performance indicators used in this year’s ranking. It is the third-most economically efficient user of energy and emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, and it has the third-highest rate of municipal solid waste diversion in the country. Waste and air pollution produced per unit of economic output were also among the lowest.

It didn’t score so well on our water indicator, however. B.C. residents are the fourth-highest users of water per capita, nearly twice as thirsty as best-ranked Prince Edward Island.

As for bonus points, B.C. tied Nova Scotia and Alberta for second place with a total number of five out of 10. Ontario earned the highest number with seven.

One likely contributor to B.C.’s top-notch performance is a carbon tax it introduced in July 2008. It’s estimated that CO2-equivalent emissions from gasoline consumption fell in the province by 3.5 million tonnes in the four years after the B.C. carbon tax was enacted, according to a study from researchers at the University of Ottawa.

Another study, by Ottawa-based think tank Sustainable Prosperity, found that B.C.’s per capita consumption of fuels just four years after the carbon tax was introduced declined by 19 per cent compared to the rest of Canada. It stands to reason that air pollution associated with the burning of fossil fuels also fell as a result of the carbon tax – all with little, if any, negative economic or political impacts.

“The implementation of British Columbia’s carbon tax is as near as we have to a textbook case,” Angel Gurria, Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, said in a speech last October.

The bigger question is what’s next? B.C.’s carbon tax began with a rate of $10 per tonne of CO2 or equivalent GHG emissions, and has climbed to $30 as of July 2012.

But some observers, such as University of Ottawa law and economics professor Stewart Elgie, say there appears little political will at the moment to raise the tax further. Another problem, he cites, is that the carbon tax currently exempts fugitive emissions – such as methane leaks – from the oil and gas sector.

This latter point is important, considering how determined the B.C. government is to turn the province into a natural gas powerhouse. The province has hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas locked away in various land formations, which can be extracted through a combination of traditional and alternative drilling methods, increasingly involving hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" techniques that can also threaten freshwater resources.

To get that gas to foreign markets, the current Liberal government is pushing for the construction of at least three liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities within the next six years – and up to seven over the coming decade. These facilities, in addition to the expected wave of new gas development, are expected to substantially increase B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Much of those emissions would not be subject to B.C.’s carbon tax, as currently designed.

“From fracking to liquefaction, each point along the supply chain would produce carbon pollution,” according to the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based energy think tank. It estimates that emissions from the industry could reach 73 tonnes by 2020, which is nearly three-quarters of projected emissions from Alberta’s oil sands. “The potential carbon pollution from the LNG facilities and associated shale gas extraction and processing would make B.C.’s climate targets unachievable,” Pembina has warned.

There are other, smaller signs that B.C., after making so much progress, is getting knocked off course. For example, a rebate program designed to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles expired in March. That program, which offered a rebate of up to $5,000, is not expected to return, despite a pledge by the B.C. government to have EVs represent 10 per cent of new vehicles – in both public and private fleets – by 2016.

Clearly, B.C. has reason today to celebrate being Canada’s greenest province. That it will keep that crown by the time our next green report card comes out is not so certain.

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