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Under new emissions plan, B.C. accelerates phase-out of gas-powered cars

New plan puts caps on oil and gas emissions, phases out gas-powered vehicles and moves to regulate zero-emission buildings. But critics say it fails to properly regulate the future of gas production in B.C.
EV charging
The plan calls for another 10,000 EV charging stations to be installed across the province, ensuring geographic coverage.

The B.C. government has released a roadmap to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade, offering an accelerated timeline to phase out new gas-powered cars while putting a cap on emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Policy experts and leading climate scientists say government action over the next decade will deliver a make-or-break moment to achieve a carbon-neutral world by 2050. That’s the threshold the world must hit in order to stave off a global temperature rise beyond 1.5 C — a path scientists say will lead to catastrophic damage to the world’s climate.

“We have to have the same common purpose to attacking climate change that we have had to attack COVID-19,” said Premier John Horgan.

“This transcends political boundaries, it transcends regions of British Columbia, all of us working together with a singular focus on lifting up everyone as we put a price on carbon pollution.”

Under the new CleanBC Roadmap to 2030, the province is aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 per cent of 2007 levels by 2030, and by mid-century it plans to absorb as much carbon as it emits, effectively achieving a globally agreed-upon target of “net-zero.”

Nancy Olewiler, director of the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University, described the plan as “exceptional news” given that the 2018 CleanBC plan failed to set benchmarks that would meet the province’s emission reduction targets.

“It is an ambitious plan. It is bold. If all goes well, it will meet the targets,” said Olewiler.

CARBON PRICING TO MEET OR EXCEED FEDERAL TARGETS

Carbon pricing has always been a big part of that plan. With the roadmap, the province has committed to raising the price on carbon to $170 per tonne by 2030, putting it in line with federal targets. That B.C. carbon tax, currently at $45 per tonne, is scheduled to rise to $50 by next spring.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman said B.C. would continue to “meet or exceed” federal targets going forward, while Horgan said it would be a “collaborative effort.”

First launched in 2007, B.C. was an early pioneer of putting a price on carbon. Under the program, the next decade saw overall emissions climb 17 per cent, even as per-capita emissions went down. 

On Monday (Oct. 25), newly released emissions data showed overall emissions climbed another one per cent in 2019, the last year data is available. It’s not clear how close the province is to reaching peak emissions.

Heyman said missing the 2019 target was expected. The new plan, said Heyman, will get the province back on track to reaching its emission reduction targets by 2030.

ACCELERATED PLAN TO BAN NEW GAS CARS 

Under the roadmap, the B.C. government said it would accelerate the phasing out of new light-duty gas-powered cars to 2035, five years earlier than its previous target.

The plan calls for another 10,000 EV charging stations to be installed across the province by the end of the decade. By 2024, the government said it will ensure “geographic coverage” of fast-charger sites across B.C.

Current electric vehicle rebate programs are being reworked to target people who need them most. 

Every $5 increase in carbon tax adds roughly one cent to the price of fuel at the pump, so that by 2030, it would add roughly $0.25 to the cost of gasoline. 

But the rising price of gas is also expected to be mitigated by a boost in the amount of renewable fuels British Columbians pump into their combustion-engine car. By 2030, the province plans to raise its low-carbon fuel standard to 30 per cent, a 10 per cent increase from today.

The average British Columbian is also expected to change their habits over the coming decades. The plan aims for a 25 per cent reduction in vehicle travel by 2030 compared to 2020, as well as a boost in the number of trips by foot, bicycle and transit, climbing 30 per cent by 2030 and 50 per cent by mid-century. 

The roadmap offers no plans to connect rural communities through public transportation.

BIG QUESTIONS ON B.C.'S LNG FUTURE

Alongside transportation, burning gas to heat buildings ranks among the top sources of carbon emissions in B.C. 

The new plan will put tough efficiency standards on new builds and water heating equipment by 2030, and eliminate subsidies for fossil-fuel-burning furnaces.

George Hoberg, a University of British Columbia researcher focusing on environmental and natural resource policy and governance, called the ratcheting up of the province's ambitions “impressive.” But he's also concerned about a lack of clarity when it comes to capping emissions on oil and gas utilities.

“Even more importantly for me is what happens after 2030,” he said. “How are they going to accomplish net-zero by 2050?”

On the production side, the province is committing to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector 75 per cent below 2014 levels by 2030. And by 2035, fugitive methane emissions from industry is projected to be “virtually eliminated.”

“Yesterday, we didn't have a plan to meet our 2030 targets, and today we do have a path forward,” said Karen Tam Wu, B.C. regional director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank focused on climate change.

“[This plan] takes a lot of the policies that have been laid out to the next level.”

Wu lauded the province for accelerating the uptake of zero-emission vehicles, increasing the use of renewable fuels and pushing new buildings to produce zero carbon by 2030.

But like Hoberg, Wu points to one big glaring gap: the future of oil and natural gas in the province. Eliminating subsidies for gas boilers is a good step, but that doesn’t stop gas utilities like FortisBC from providing their own incentives, Wu said.

“Heat pumps are already available in the marketplace,” she said. “They could have gone further and been more explicit.”

More importantly, said Wu, the plan fails to provide a long-term vision for the phasing out of gas exploration in B.C.

“If we don't get more clarity on the future of gas… we won't hit our targets,” she said. “The targets that are set out in today's plan leave us very narrow margins.”

Minister Heyman assured LNG production was calculated into the province's emission targets. And when questioned by reporters over the future of natural gas in the province, Premier Horgan said “it can continue to play a role.” 

Critics charge LNG may burn cleaner than oil or coal over the long term, but it’s still a dangerous source of global emissions, especially when its transportation and escaped methane are factored in.

Industry spokespeople, meanwhile, cast natural gas as a part of the solution to fight climate change, one that opens up a cleaner path for shipping and to get nations like China and India off coal-fired power plants. 

“The plan is inclusive of the existing projects,” said SFU’s Olewiler. “The issue remains, what happens if there is more LNG production occurring? That’s something the province has to work out. The plan needs to include that. The role of all of us is to hold the province to account on that.” 

Andrew Gage, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, was also concerned about a lack of clarity around the future of LNG in B.C.

“There are good elements of the plan, but the urgency that the premier mentions is not in evidence, especially where it relates to the oil and gas industry,” said Gage.

When asked how much of the emissions reduction plan was “locked in” and what still had to be negotiated with industry, officials could not give a direct answer.

MISSING DETAILS ON CITY CLIMATE FUND, OLD-GROWTH FORESTS

The emissions reduction plan also failed to provide clarity on what would replace a popular rebate program to municipalities that was axed last spring without warning.

Since 2010, a conditional grant program known as the Climate Action Revenue Incentive Program (CARIP) had paid back cities 100 per cent of the carbon tax levied at the local government level. That offered a steady funding stream to take action on climate change. In May, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs said it was ending the program, triggering a backlash among several local governments.

The province’s plan says it will move to replace CARIP. But when asked how the province will replace the popular rebate program, officials said details wouldn’t be provided until the 2022 provincial budget. 

The roadmap also sets targets to reduce emissions from agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors, including the “near elimination” of slash pile burning by 2030, planting more trees and creating a forest carbon off-set protocol.

The plan stopped short of committing to the end the controversial practice of logging of old-growth forests in B.C.