In 2008, British Columbia committed to taking leadership on climate change, including world-leading policy initiatives such as the Revenue Neutral Carbon Tax. After several years, the results look promising. B.C.’s population and GDP are up while greenhouse gas emissions are down. British Columbians are using less fossil fuel and we are seeing more signs of a growing green economy.
A founding principle of B.C.’s approach was that if we were to expect families and businesses to change, then government would have to lead by example. As a result, in 2010 the province became the first carbon neutral government in North America and we have now completed that accomplishment three years in a row.
It was a bigger project than many of us first thought. Every school, university, college, hospital, Crown corporation, and government office developed a carbon footprint. This was an unprecedented initiative requiring the development of entirely new systems and tools.
It was also an unprecedented public engagement process as we reached out to the 300,000 public sector employees and the approximately two million British Columbians that visit public sector buildings each year. And it sparked an unprecedented level of awareness of the significance of the choices public sector employees make:
• We have been able to reduce travel in core government by 60 percent since 2008, resulting in significant cost savings;
• We now know we spend over $400 million each year on energy, presenting huge cost savings opportunities for the public sector going forward; and,
• New projects, such as biomass energy at University of Northern BC or geo-exchange systems in Delta School district, are demonstrating innovative clean technologies to B.C. communities as well as to export markets.
Becoming carbon neutral requires us to measure and reduce our emissions. It also means that for those emissions we can’t yet reduce, we purchase “offsets” that reduce emissions elsewhere in the province. In 2007, we challenged British Columbians to come up with innovative ways to reduce emissions and now use offsets as an investment tool to help finance these ideas in overcoming barriers. We now have 32 projects across all regions of the province and all sectors of the economy that have leveraged $320 million in private sector capital and reduced over two million tonnes of emissions.
The biggest strength of B.C.’s carbon neutral government initiative is that we are not in this alone. Over 95 percent of our 190 local governments have signed the Climate Action Charter committing to their own leadership on climate action, including becoming carbon neutral for their own corporate operations: 139 local governments have now completed a carbon footprint; 28 have become carbon neutral; and another 22 have undertaken projects to get part way there.
As a result, local governments are finding similar opportunities to reduce energy costs, engage staff and citizens, and demonstrate new, clean technologies. Most British Columbians already know about green initiatives in the Metro Vancouver area. We are now recognizing new leaders in communities across B.C. including North Cowichan, Campbell River, Colwood, Duncan and Telkwa.
The ripple effect is that as provincial and local governments change their own operations, they become part of local efforts to develop clean, healthy communities. Hospitals and universities that switch to biomass district energy systems become anchors to broader community efforts to use clean energy and have cleaner air. Local governments deploying new organic waste programs offset their corporate emissions while engaging citizens in sustainable practices.
While taking a strong leadership position is often controversial, and policy choices are often debated, generally everybody likes the outcomes: lower energy costs, clean technologies, and healthier communities. So much the better if we can solve the climate change challenge in the process.