British Columbia

Canada's climate leader no more: how B.C. fell from the top

Climate researcher Tom Pedersen says one crucial political mistake — freezing the carbon tax — had a devastating effect on B.C.'s climate and reputation as a Canada's climate leader.

The last 10 years saw B.C. rise and fall as Canada's climate leader

B.C.'s once sterling green credentials have significantly diminished over the past few years, according to climate researcher Tom Pedersen. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

2007 was supposed to be the green turning point in British Columbia.

That year, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a memorandum of understanding on climate change and pledged to lead the West Coast into a brave new green world.

The two leaders' commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage green, clean economic initiatives led them to become the de facto leaders for their respective country's climate change responses.

Fast forward ten years and California — with some of the strictest climate regulations in the United States — continues to forge ahead.

The state signed an agreement with China on June 6 to expand trade between the two jurisdictions with an emphasis on green technologies that could help address climate change.

In the meantime, B.C.'s ambitious carbon tax plan stalled.

The provincial government quietly rejected the majority of the recommendations of its climate change leadership group last year, and B.C. effectively seceded its position as Canada's climate leader to provinces like Quebec.

'A template for the world'

University of Victoria professor Tom Pedersen, the former executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, says he can pinpoint the date when B.C.'s climate change policy took an about-turn — July 1, 2013.

"That was the day the carbon tax was frozen by ... Christy Clark," he explained.

Pedersen said the carbon tax was the crown jewel of B.C.'s climate policy.

"The design of the tax was brilliant," he said. "It was a small increase per year and it was ongoing and it was persistently up."

Former Musqueam chief Ernie Campbell, at far right, watches a dance performance with former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation Leah George and former B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell in 2007. (Chuck Stoody/ Canadian Press )

Pedersen recalled a meeting where leading British economist Paul Ekins had come to B.C. to look at the province's climate change policy with then B.C. Minister of the State of Climate Action John Yap.

"Paul leaned across the table to the Minister at the end of our meeting and said, 'Mr. Minister, I want you to know that your carbon tax is a template for the world'," he said.

"John Yap just beamed."

Stopping it five years after it was implemented had a devastating effect, Pedersen said.

"Our per capita fossil fuel consumption fell 19 per cent relative to the rest of Canada over that five year period [when the carbon tax was initially implemented]. That's a remarkable decline in fossil fuel use, " he said.

"[But] since that time, it's sort of stabilized. We've essentially reversed the progress we've made."

Economic concerns

It was concerns about the economy that ultimately stalled the tax.

During the 2013 election campaign, Christy Clark — who had taken over leadership of B.C.'s Liberal Party from Gordon Campbell — used the economy to justify her promise of freezing the carbon tax for five years if re-elected.

At the time, Clark said even though B.C.'s economy was stable, the cost of living was becoming too unaffordable for British Columbians.

"We're at a point where people are finding it really difficult to afford to live in British Columbia and other places and people are concerned about their future, and with an unstable world economy we have to work hard to keep life affordable for people," she said.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark froze the carbon tax, saying the province needed to prioritize affordability. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Other opponents of the tax worried that because no other provinces had stepped up their own climate change policies or carbon pricing, British Columbia had a competitive disadvantage of its own making.

B.C.'s newly appointed Environment Minister Jordan Sturdy said the decision to freeze the carbon tax was to allow other jurisdictions to catch up to British Columbia, and pointed out the province is part of the Pan Canadian climate framework.

"[We had] North America's first and most comprehensive carbon tax," he said. "[But] it's important to note B.C.'s initial Climate Action Plan was only designed to get us partway to our GHG reduction targets."

He said the province's new "revitalized" Climate Leadership Plan — released last summer — has strategic actions spanning the province's transportation and industrial sectors intended to reduce GHG emissions.

"We know there is more to do to achieve our long-term climate goals, and we will continually update our plan."

A way forward

Ten years on, the province of British Columbia is at another green turning point.

The NDP, in agreement with the Greens, could soon govern. They've committed to re-evaluating major projects like the Kinder Morgan pipeline and Site C dam for environmental reasons, and most importantly, increasing the carbon tax by $5 per tonne per year, beginning on April 1, 2018.

Federally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has made a firm commitment to climate action — including a national carbon pricing plan.

Internationally, world leaders have almost unanimously renewed their commitment to the Paris Climate Accord in retaliation for U.S. President Donald Trump withdrawing from the historic global agreement.

"If we do want to get back to getting serious about addressing the climate challenge and to demonstrate leadership to the world, we have a lot of work to do now," Pedersen said.

"We've let it slip for too long."

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Roshini Nair is a writer for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at