Ecojustice Blog – Climate change Posted on March 22, 2021 (updated: April 14, 2021)

If B.C.’s emissions were a household budget, we’d be overspending. New targets could change that.

Matt HulseLawyer
Deer in front of oil and gas activity and farmers fields, Fort St. John,
Photo by Province of British Columbia via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

British Columbia released new sectoral targets on March 26, 2021.

Unfortunately, the province squandered an opportunity for more accountability on climate action by setting targets that lack specificity.

In this op-ed, originally published in the Victoria Times Colonist on March 17, 2021, Ecojustice lawyer Matt Hulse explains why sectoral targets are like a budget – they only work if they divide things into specific, trackable, and manageable categories:

At the end of this month, British Columbia will redefine its approach to tackling climate change.

By March 31, the province must set “sectoral targets” — greenhouse gas emissions targets for individual sectors of the economy. Done right, sectoral targets will provide the accountability B.C. needs to meet its climate goals.

Done wrong, they could provide cover for industrial emitters to keep polluting while letting the burden of reducing emissions fall on everyone else.

B.C. already has emissions targets for 2025, 2030, 2040 and 2050. These apply to the province as a whole, not individual parts of the economy. Currently, the province’s 2030 target requires an emissions reduction of at least 40 per cent below 2007 levels.

Provincial targets are important, but they are like setting a household budget to manage your monthly spending. 

Picking a single dollar figure for the entire month only gets you so far because it is too far removed from your day-to-day spending. You’re more likely to stay on track if you divide the budget across where you will spend it: rent, utilities, groceries, etc.

This is what sectoral targets could do for the climate: Divide B.C.’s total emissions among sectors of the economy in order to keep our “spending” in check.

B.C. has blown through all of its provincial targets to date, and our 2018 emissions (the most recent data available) were seven per cent above 2007 levels and trending upward. Sectoral targets could improve accountability on climate action and help ensure we meet our upcoming provincial targets on time.

But sectoral targets will only be effective if they carve up B.C.’s economy with enough precision to let us see who is reducing emissions and who is not. A number of B.C. NGOs agree that the most effective approach would establish 12 to 15 sectors corresponding to unique types of economic activities such as oil and gas, private passenger vehicles, buildings, mining and cement production.

If the government opts to lump multiple economic activities into three or four big sectors, it risks allowing heavy emitters to hide in the crowd and avoid public scrutiny. If it’s not clear who is responsible for what, emissions reductions won’t happen.

That’s why setting appropriate targets is also important. Each sector must do its fair share to reduce emissions and ensure the province meets its targets. Setting weak targets for some sectors would force others to pick up the slack. No sector should get a free ride.

This is especially true for oil and gas, an industry that will make or break B.C.’s climate goals. Currently, oil and gas activity produces 20 per cent of B.C.’s emissions, but only three per cent of provincial GDP and 0.5 per cent of employment.

Fuelled by billions of dollars in provincial subsidies, this sector — and its emissions — are expanding rapidly. The LNG Canada terminal will add four million tonnes of emissions per year when completed in 2025 — a 30 per cent increase in oil and gas emissions.

If oil and gas expansion is allowed, other sectors — basically everyone else in B.C. — will have to drastically cut their emissions to have a chance at reaching our provincial targets.

Finally, sectoral targets are an important planning tool. A target sends a clear signal to stakeholders about what emissions they are expected to cut in the coming years and allows them to invest, innovate and plan accordingly.

For sectors like oil and gas and coal mining, which cannot be fully decarbonized, this helps inform how and when these activities must be phased out in order to protect our climate.

These are not easy decisions, particularly for communities that depend on those industries. That’s why the government must be transparent and inclusive when developing strategies to reach sectoral targets, ensuring that unions, NGOs, academics and Indigenous communities have as much input as industry.

Otherwise, the transition to a low-carbon economy will not benefit from the expertise of these groups, reflect their needs or receive their buy-in.

B.C. is not the climate leader it says it is. It has missed its previous climate goals, it’s subsidizing an expanding oil and gas sector and it still doesn’t have a complete plan to meet its 2030 emissions target.

But — if done right — sectoral targets could help the province keep its emissions “spending” in check and reclaim its climate credentials.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist on March 17, 2021. It was written with contributions from Emily Chan, of the Ecojustice communications team.

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