British Columbia Awash in Greenwash

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By Roger Annis

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The Liberal Party government of BC Premier Gordon Campbell, first elected in 2001 and then re-elected in 2005, has carried out some of the worst attacks on social and political rights in recent Canadian history. Education and health services have declined, trade union rights have been trampled on, poverty has worsened, and Indigenous peoples have been stonewalled in efforts to gain control over their destiny.

Campbell’s government has also opened up the province’s natural resources to its corporate backers for plunder and trashing. One of the government’s first acts in 2001 was to abolish the ministry of the environment, whose responsibility, at least on paper, was to protect the natural environment from excessive plunder.

Can such a government transform itself by changing its costume, à la Superman, and emerging as a champion of the environment? According to the mainstream environmental organizations in British Columbia, the answer is “yes”.

Carbon taxes and “climate action”

On June 26, the government issued a “Carbon Action Plan”. This is to fill in the details of ringing declarations at the beginning of the year announcing that the province of British Columbia was embarked in a radically new direction. It would take the lead in Canada in reducing carbon emissions with bold policies.

According to the plan, British Columbia will reduce carbon emissions by 33 per cent by the year 2020. The government says it has already put in place measures that will get it 73 per cent of the way there. “We can’t wait for others to tackle global warming,” the government says in a July 5, two-page newspaper advertisement. “Waiting for others to act is not a solution, it’s just an avoidance of our responsibility.”

The centrepiece of the declaration at the beginning of the year was a proposed carbon tax, Canada’s first, to begin on July 1. It consists of a sales tax on fossil fuel consumption, beginning at 2.4 cents per litre of gasoline and eventually rising to ten cents. The tax will purportedly be returned to taxpayers and businesses in the form of income and corporate tax reductions. Tax reductions under the Campbell government have always been weighed towards corporate beneficiaries, and they are always followed by corresponding rises in indirect taxes such as fees for government services and reductions in quantity and quality of same.

Environmental groups hail government moves

Twelve environmental groups issued a statement on June 26 vigorously supporting the carbon tax. They include the David Suzuki Foundation, the Wilderness Committee, West Coast Environmental Law, Sierra Club of Canada, and the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives.

Writing on the government’s “climate plan”, Ian Bruce of the Suzuki Foundation declared, “This is one of the most comprehensive climate action plans in Canada. It shows a strong commitment to reduce global warming and provides a model for the federal government and other provinces to follow.”

Barely mentioned by the environmentalists are the gaping exemptions to the carbon tax given to the province’s largest polluters, including the oil and gas industry and cement producers.

The price of the carbon tax has been dwarfed by a forty five cent rise in the average retail price of gasoline since the beginning of the year, to an average of $1.50 per litre. These huge price rises have made but a small dent in reducing gasoline consumption because there are no alternative methods of transport for so many people and because consumers of fossil fuels in industry and transport will simply pass on the increased cost of doing business by raising their final prices.

A scandalous silence surrounds government and industry’s plans for the provincial economy. These will lead to massive increases in carbon emissions and produce the exact opposite result to the government’s carbon-reduction siren song. Three projects stand out.

One is the multi-billion dollar expansion of roads, railways and port facilities in Vancouver, called the Gateway Project. It aims at doubling the import and export of commodities in and out of the port of Vancouver. To achieve that, more railway lines and road space for trucks are needed in the Vancouver area.

Two is a massive expansion of oil and gas production in northern British Columbia. A major part of this is the planned production of natural gas by extracting it from shale, a form of rock. Shale gas production is equivalent to tar sands production in its degradation of the natural environment and surrounding human settlements. An unprecedented number of permits is being issued by the government for the assault on the shale deposits.

Three is the expansion of the port facilities, rail and roads serving the northern port city of Prince Rupert. The city is to become a major gateway (there’s that word again) for the import of fossil fuels needed for tar sands and shale gas production, and for the export of raw and refined products.

Transit to the rescue?

It is true that the government’s climate policy announcement at the beginning of the year included $14 billion of expenditure on public transit between now and the year 2011, most of it in the Vancouver region. But the province will only pay $4 billion of this. The rest is expected to come from the federal government and from hikes in taxes and service fees by municipalities and the transit authority.

The big question in all this is the following. If this $14 billion was a solution to the transportation problems in the Vancouver region, why is the government simultaneously building new highways and roads?

The transit plan will not come close to meeting the region’s transit needs. It is as much about assisting business to make millions from real estate deals in the areas surrounding future rapid transit (“skytrain”) stations as it is about providing effective public transit. And, at the heart of the government transportation plan, and it is embarrassingly frank about this, is the goal of freeing up road space for the movement of commodities by trucks in and out of the port.

NDP says “Axe the tax”

Last month, the opposition New Democratic Party launched a much-publicized campaign against the carbon tax, dubbing its campaign “Axe the Tax”. The campaign targets the 2.4 cents of carbon tax. It criticizes the tax breaks given to oil and gas producers in the province, but has nothing to say about the bloated profits being earned by the refiners and sellers of gasoline who have hiked its price this year by twenty times the amount of the carbon tax.

The NDP has issued an eight page “climate action framework” as an alternative to the government plan. It says an NDP government would institute “emissions pricing at source,” which is another way of saying “carbon taxes”. The statement says Denmark has model energy policies that should be copied in Canada. There, carbon taxes have long been in place and today amount to approximately $1 on each litre of gasoline.

At the heart of the NDP proposal to reduce carbon emission pollution by industry is the institution of a “cap and trade” regulatory system. The Campbell government says it is moving in the same direction. “Cap and trade” proposes to set maximum pollution limits on industries and then use a regulatory system whereby the “excess” pollution is measured and offset by investment in projects in other regions of Canada or abroad that have purportedly reduce carbon emissions.

“Cap and trade” of greenhouse gases has been in place in Europe for a long time and has been denounced as a fraud and a failure by serious environmental advocates. Climate and Capitalism recently listed documents on the subject that are available through the UK research group The Corner House.

A very good analysis of the failings of “carbon taxes” can be read on the website of the Australia’s Democratic Socialist Perspective in a 1999 article by Dick Nichols. Summarizing the article and looking at the achievements of Cuba’s economy, Nichols writes, “This is the social essence of the alternative to the false dilemma of end-of-the-pipe regulation or green taxes that supposedly drive “entrepreneurial creativity”. Public ownership of the key means of production combined with political power in the hands of an environmentally aware working people, offers the possibility of drawing on the stifled creativity, not of a handful of entrepreneurs, but of the vast mass of the population.”

And further, “All this goes to underline one reality: that social ownership of the major means of production and democratic decision-making is the only way of running society that is compatible with an environment which is itself ever-increasingly social. It is the only road to a sustainable economy.”

Roger Annis is an aerospace worker in Vancouver and a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network. He is the author of the Socialist Voice pamphlet Haiti and the Myth of Canadian Peacekeeping.