Moving beyond the carbon tax in B.C.’s election

Opinion article from Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation

May 6, 2009 – B.C voters can take heart that the environment is a key issue in this election. That all three major parties have made the environment central to their platforms gives citizens the opportunity to push whichever party forms government to follow through with its promises.

Inevitably, though, campaigns tend to boil issues down to either-or, black or white, left or right. When it comes to protecting the planet that sustains us, things aren’t always that simple. In this election, much of the debate has been about the carbon tax, or about carbon tax versus cap-and-trade. But it isn’t an either-or proposition, and climate policy shouldn’t be the only focus.

Putting a price on carbon is important
The reasons for this focus are easy to understand: Global warming is one of the most critical issues facing humanity today. Most climate scientists, environmentalists and economists believe that putting a price on carbon, through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade – or better yet, both – is a highly effective tool in the fight against climate change. A think tank at the University of Ottawa, Sustainable Prosperity, recently said that B.C., with its carbon tax and developing cap-and-trade system under the Western Climate Initiative, has the best climate policy in Canada.

But carbon tax needs improvement
That doesn’t mean our province’s climate plan is perfect – a point made clear by Sustainable Prosperity. To fully realize the benefits from transforming our economy to one that is greener and more productive, the price on carbon will need to go higher. Furthermore, much of the good that comes from carbon-pricing could be undone by things such as unnecessary highway expansion and increased oil and gas production.

It’s not all about the carbon tax 
There’s also important work to be done on issues such as endangered-wildlife and habitat protection, pesticide use, salmon-farming, run-of-river power, and oil and gas exploration. The three main parties agree on some of these issues, but are far apart on others.

Endangered species protection
All three agree on the need to protect endangered wildlife and habitat, although their approaches vary. B.C. has a rich biological legacy, yet experts tell us that hundreds of plants and animals are at risk of disappearing, including rare desert flowers, grizzly bears, orcas, great blue herons and many songbirds.

The province needs a Species and Ecosystem Protection Act to ensure our biological richness flourishes in the face of climate change and other threats. This includes protection for the places where plants and animals live, in order to maintain biodiversity and help keep ecosystems resilient to the impacts of climate change. Whoever wins this election will need to move quickly to increase protection for species at risk, as many of B.C.’s plants and animals are in imminent danger.

Run-of-river power
One area that has been the subject intense debate in this election is of run-of-river power. Run-of-river power could be an important part of the clean-energy mix needed to help British Columbia address the issue of climate change, and a key aspect of the provincial government’s environmental agenda.

But before going further, B.C. needs an overarching strategy to make sure enough water continues to flow in our rivers to support basic ecosystem functions, including wildlife and habitat needs such as salmon spawning, and to prevent wild spaces from being fragmented by access roads and power lines. So far, the parties have been unable to agree on the right approach, which is unfortunate, as each party’s platform contains important elements for a comprehensive energy plan.

Oil and gas
Oil and gas is another divisive issue. We believe the current moratorium on drilling for oil and gas on the B.C coast must be maintained and oil tankers must be prevented from threatening the B.C. coastline. The risks are just too high compared to the alleged benefits. It’s time to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and invest instead in energy conservation and renewable energy.

Fish farms
Fish farms pose additional threats to our coast. Scientific studies show that sea lice from salmon farms are putting wild salmon at risk of extinction. B.C. must not allow any new farms, and must enforce protection for wild fish and invest in a closed-tank industry that can provide jobs and protect the environment.

Cosmetic pesticides
Two of the top election issues, health and the environment, intersect when it comes to the use of pesticides that can be toxic to humans. Several provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, have banned or proposed banning the use of unnecessary pesticides used to keep lawns and gardens looking good. And close to 20 towns and cities in B.C. have passed bylaws restricting the use of these pesticides, but the province has not yet followed suit.

Let the politicians know you care
These aren’t the only environmental issues in this campaign, but they are among the most urgent. Voters should look at the records and the platforms of the parties on these issues and encourage their candidates to address all the significant environmental issues facing British Columbia.

Let’s deliver a mandate to those elected to represent our interests on May 12: Continue to make B.C. not just the “best place on Earth” but the greenest as well.

Peter Robinson is CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation.


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