B.C. GHGs on the Rise – But Intensity is Getting Better

Several weeks ago, B.C. released its updated greenhouse gas inventory.[1] While some were surprised by the data, no one should be, really. Transitioning the B.C. energy system is going to be hard, even harder than for most other places in the world, mainly because electricity generation in the province is already more than 95% clean. Virtually all advanced economy jurisdictions that have achieved significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions have done so in large part by shifting from coal to natural gas and renewables in their electricity sectors. That option isn’t available in B.C.

The good news is that, despite an increase in absolute emissions over the last several years, B.C. is making headway on reducing per capita emissions, relative to both population and GDP. B.C. today is less energy intensive on a per capita basis by 25% (i.e., total emissions/population) than it was in 1990. This works out to a steady improvement in emissions intensity of around 1% per year. Roughly two thirds of the decline has occurred since 2007, when we each emitted about 15 tonnes of CO2e per year. By 2017, this had dropped to approximately 13 tonnes CO2e per person.

Using greenhouse gases per unit of GDP, a measure of energy efficiency relative to economic output, we perform even better. B.C.’s intensity improvement is sizable, 44% since 1990, with half of this coming since 2007. This exceeds the average global improvement of about 35%.[2] But while B.C. has one of the highest carbon prices in the world, it turns out that we have made fewer gains in reducing GHG emissions intensity than many other advanced economy jurisdictions, for a few reasons:

  • Hydroelectric base — because we are blessed with an almost carbon-free electricity sector, marginal abatement costs for the next increment of GHGs are far more expensive than in places that have the option of fuel switching in electricity generation.
  • Industry composition — B.C. relies heavily on natural resource-based industries to provide export earnings, and these industries tend to be quite energy-intensive. They are also concentrated in areas of the province that are distant from populated urban regions.
  • Geography and population density — B.C. occupies a very large geography, creating obligations to deliver goods and services to people and places across 944,735 km2 with an average population per square kilometre outside urban centers of just 2. By itself, that tends to push up energy demand and use.

The general trend toward a lower-carbon economy continues and the Business Council is committed to working with the provincial government around the implementation of its ambitious “CleanBC” plan. But it should be clear to decision-makers in the public and private sectors that achieving large reductions in GHG emissions from current levels won’t be easy or inexpensive. In truth, with our already carbon-light electricity sector, expansive geography, heavy dependence on natural resources, and existing carbon pricing system, B.C. has very little “low-hanging” fruit to harvest as the province looks to further slash GHG emissions. That suggests that reducing emissions in the coming years will be accompanied by rising economic and financial costs for most B.C. households and businesses.

[1] https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/environment/climate-change/data/provincial-inventory/2017/2017_provincial_inventory.xlsx.

[2] https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions#co2-intensity-of-economies.