Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens, and unchecked carbon emissions are threatening the welfare of all. What can the government of British Columbia and other governments do to be leaders in resisting global climate chaos?
Lower Carbon Emissions
The world operates on a market economy and that is unlikely to change in the near future. Therefore, to some extent the law of supply and demand will apply. Stated very simply, the price of a commodity is influenced by the supply of that commodity and the demand for the commodity. At the same time, the supply and demand are both influenced by the price.
With this in mind, we can see that in the world market economy there are a number of ways to influence carbon emissions.
- By restricting the supply of fossil fuels. This will have the beneficial effect of raising the price which will reduce consumption by encouraging users to find other sources of energy. At the same time, raising prices will have the undesirable consequence of making resource extraction more profitable.
- By reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. Lowering demand will also lower prices, which will encourage greater consumption. On the positive side, it will discourage additional resource extraction.
- Raising the price of fossil fuels through taxation, the so-called “carbon tax.” To be most effective, this tax should be levied in the form of increased royalties at the coal mine or well head. For carbon being shipped across BC, it should take the form of charges at the port. Carbon taxes discourage consumption by raising prices. They also discourage extraction by lowering profits.
Clearly, carbon taxes are the best strategy and the only ethical action BC can take is to reduce, as rapidly as possible, both our contribution to the world’s supply of fossil fuels and our own carbon emissions. The mining and export of coal is our largest contribution, oil and gas wells make smaller but significant contributions to world supply. Methane that escapes in the mining of natural gas is an additional concern.
A government that cares about climate change will impose increasing taxes/royalties on both the mining and transportation of fuel until costs reach a level that make them uneconomic. Increased costs will encourage conservation both in BC and abroad and our example may encourage other producers to take similar actions.
Three compensatory actions will be required by this policy:
- Compensate for the loss of jobs in the coal, oil, and gas industries. This can probably best be done by continuing to mine these resources at a low rate and developing a chemical industry to convert them into useful products that don’t endanger the atmosphere.
- Create the infrastructure required to maintain the economy in a low-carbon environment. This will include development of renewable energy resources and support for conservation – home insulation grants, better bicycle paths, improved public transportation, and so on. This will also create jobs to compensate for losses in the resource industries.
- Re-structure the taxation and benefit system so that increased prices for fuel do not have negative impacts on children, the elderly, or other people with limited incomes. The costs of caring for the future should be shared fairly in the present.
Increase Carbon Sequestration and Storage
BC can also play a significant role in carbon sequestration – removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Plants in forests and wetlands store carbon as they grow. At present, the potential for forests and wetlands to sequester atmospheric carbon is not being adequately exploited. Carbon dioxide is released from the soil for decades after an old growth forest is logged. With a 60-year rotation in second-growth forests, very little carbon is sequestered. In order to be effective carbon sinks, the rotation time needs to be much longer than it is currently, probably more than 100 years.
Healthy wetlands and estuaries store carbon in the mud. Dredging, draining, and construction releases this carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon sequestration can be maximized by leaving these natural systems intact.
Becoming carbon-neutral or carbon-negative, both domestically and in terms of exports, is a human rights issue, not an environmental issue. As a result of our inaction, our children and grandchildren will live in a dangerous and degraded world. But there are numerous local and regional environmental issues related to the emission of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases:
- The risk of spills of oil from pipelines, tankers, and trains.
- The risk of methane release from natural gas wells, pipelines, and storage facilities.
- Pollution of water and air from mining for coal, oil, and gas.
- Threat to wildlife from clearcut logging, wetland disruption, and mining.
- Air pollution from burning fossil fuels.
- Environmental destruction due to climate change. We have already seen the devastation caused by the mountain pine beetle, forest fires, and extreme storms. There is more to come.
These environmental issues, which are local, visible, and immediate, might be politically more inspiring than the more distant and gradual destruction due to climate change.