Pembina Institute

BC's 2020 Emissions Reduction Target: How Do We Get From Here to There?

Matt Horne

Published Nov. 26, 2007

By Matt Horne, Associate Regional Director, British Columbia

Last week the Government of British Columbia introduced a bill that will turn its targets to slash provincial greenhouse gas pollution into a legal obligation. The government's move demonstrates real commitment to the imperative of deep reductions in global warming pollution, and shows true leadership for the rest of Canada.

The government has announced a number of first steps towards its target for 2020 - to cut British Columbia's emissions by 33 per cent below current levels. But are they enough? What will it really take to cut the province's contribution to global warming by one-third? How much greener do our homes and cars need to be? How much oil and gas can we continue to produce?

The Pembina Institute has analyzed these questions in our recently released report Mind the Gap. Our analysis shows that strategies and technologies exist to both meet and exceed British Columbia's 2020 target - but that will happen only if governments move urgently to implement strong policies that either regulate or put a price on emissions, in all sectors of the economy.

We found a significant gap between the emissions reductions expected from existing and announced government actions, and the target to cut British Columbia's emissions by 33 per cent in the next 13 years. The government agrees that at least 36 million tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions will need to be cut by 2020. But we found that actions announced to date will only cut about five million tonnes, based on the information provided so far.

In other words, Premier Campbell still has a long way to go to turn his commitment and determination into reality. The good news is that the government has a number of actions on the drawing board, and we look forward to including these actions, as more details become available, in future analysis.

To be successful we will need to ramp up quickly. For example, following through on the government's commitment to match California's tailpipe emissions standards could cut 1.3 million tonnes of annual emissions by 2020. But we will likely have to go further. Going beyond California to meet EU or Japanese standards could yield an additional reduction of 2.6 million tonnes. Designing our communities more effectively could cut 2.2 million more tonnes by reducing the need to drive.

We also identified major potential emissions cuts from changes in the oil and gas sector. Better technologies that focus on reducing losses from pipelines and other operations could yield reductions of over 4.5 million tonnes by 2020.

These examples are only part of the solution. Action will be required by all sectors of the economy and all individuals. This will require strong government policies. We can no longer allow the atmosphere to be used as a free dump for greenhouse gas pollution.

The single most important policy is one that puts a price on emissions from a wide range of key polluters, including the oil and gas sector. This can be done through a "cap-and-trade" system where the government sets a cap on emissions and requires companies to obtain tradable permits to emit greenhouse gases within that cap. As the cap is reduced, emissions fall while the price of each emissions permit goes up, strengthening companies' incentive to take action.

For businesses that are not included under cap-and-trade, the government needs to use alternative ways to put a price on emissions, such as a carbon tax that levies a charge for each tonne of pollution. We also need a series of regulations to require better efficiency and lower emissions.

Fighting climate change by putting a price on emissions enjoys overwhelming popular support. According to a recent poll for the BBC, eighty percent of Canadians support higher taxes on the most harmful types of energy if the tax revenues are reinvested in clean, efficient energy.

British Columbia is poised to become a world leader in combating climate change, but we must act swiftly to close the gap between our aspirations and reality. It's not too late to mind that gap and get on the path to a healthy, low carbon economy. Strong policies and financial incentives and disincentives are fundamental to the task ahead for the government, its Climate Action Team and all British Columbians. We look forward to leadership that drives all citizens to apply their ingenuity to find solutions on the scale needed.

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