Let’s build BC back better

“Looking back, the COVID-19 deaths and lockdown were awful. But thank goodness that we seized the opportunity to rebuild our economy and communities in ways that improved our province – made us safer, more sustainable and prosperous. Life is better now.”
– A voice from 2030

On May 6th, in announcing plans to reopen BC after the COVID-19 shutdown, Premier John Horgan highlighted the opportunity to build back our province in ways that fight climate change, inequality and injustice – and build a stronger province.

Climate Change continues to be the challenge of our time. The wildfire season is starting and the flood season has not yet ended. And as we meet all of these challenges, we must recommit to putting Clean BC, our climate action plan, at the centre of our recovery. … Together we can build back BC better than ever.

The need to “build back BC better than ever” should be a matter of common sense. The idea of “building back better” is a key principle of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which BC has adopted. The Sendai Framework warns that it is crucial to address future risks when recovering from a disaster – and that includes health and safety risks, environmental risks, and economic risks.

A number of studies show that building a greener, safer economy makes more economic sense than reinvesting in old industries. A recent global poll fielded by Ipsos found that 61% of Canadians believe that governments should “prioritize climate change” in the economic recovery after COVID-19, while a Google survey* fielded by West Coast found that 55% of British Columbians want provincial recovery efforts to build more sustainable and equitable businesses, rather than just reopening the exact same economy.

But there will also be many voices encouraging the provincial government to just “get back to normal” as quickly as possible. We understand that the Premier has asked his ministers to speak with their respective sectors and report back on ideas for “shovel worthy” economic stimulus opportunities – an approach that favours voices that are currently economically powerful and vocal. We would like to see all ministers considering sustainability and a green, safer future as a lens on stimulus opportunities, rather than charging the Environment Minister to bring forward such opportunities which then need to compete against “back to normal” proposals.

It’s also cause for concern that the Premier’s Economic Recovery Task Force includes a lot of business interests, few social justice voices, and no poverty or environmental voices (although we have been told that the task force’s focus is currently on immediate needs rather than the future recovery, and that other voices will be included in future stimulus conversations).

If we use scarce recovery dollars to recreate the same mistakes, inequities and hazards that existed in our pre-COVID society, then this pandemic will be both a disaster and a missed opportunity. To avoid that, British Columbians need to start talking about what future we want and telling the Premier what projects should receive economic stimulus money to make our communities more resilient, safe, sustainable and equal.

What does building back better look like?

So if we’re going to rebuild the economy through work that supports a safer, more equitable, more resilient future, what projects should we be focused on? Obviously we do not have all of the answers. In addition to environmental sustainability, the Province should be talking to experts in poverty reduction, emergency preparedness, food security, zero waste economy, etc.

However, we would like to suggest that BC’s plans to build back better include the following ways to make us safer and stronger as a province:

  1. Prepare BC communities for future climate disasters;
  2. Make British Columbian homes and buildings more energy efficient (and comfortable); and
  3. Think locally – build more resilient, self-reliant communities.

Preparing BC communities for future climate disasters

“I no longer worry each year about my home being flooded or burnt down. I feel safe.”
– A voice from 2030

BC declared emergencies in both 2017 and 2018 due to wildfires; about 65,000 people were evacuated in 2017. Flooding in 2017 and 2018 also led to thousands of evacuations.

BC has had its share of emergencies in recent years, and the independent BC Flood and Wildfire Review recognized the “undeniable impact of climate change manifested in these events.” A recent climate risk assessment by the Province confirmed that we should expect more, and more severe, floods and wildfires, among other climate-fueled disasters. So there is a lot of work that should be done to make our communities safer as the world warms.

In our recent Google survey* of British Columbians, 61% said that it was “very important” that in recovering from COVID our communities do more to prepare for future disasters, such as flooding, wildfires and pandemics, while a further 24% said that it was “somewhat important.” There is a lot of interest in building back better in ways that helps keep us safe in the future.

Although the Province has not yet completed its provincial climate adaptation strategy (promised for 2020), a lot of work has been done on figuring out how to keep British Columbians safe from climate impacts. This work has been conducted by individual government ministries (for example, the Ministries of Transportation and Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations) and by many local governments. Work to be done includes developing flood protection measures, reducing the fuel load in wildfire interface areas, managing unstable slopes, etc.

We also cannot lose sight of the fact that many communities have existing challenges and emergencies that must be addressed – for example, the ongoing drinking water advisories in 11 different First Nations communities in BC. In addition to addressing future risks, stimulus funding can help deal with current environmental health and safety issues.

West Coast would like to see the provincial and federal governments setting aside a significant amount of stimulus funding for climate adaptation and other emergency preparedness work. Part of that must include funds to help municipalities that are not yet at the “shovel-ready” stage to get there as soon as possible – so that all BC communities can be a bit safer.

Make British Columbian homes and buildings more energy efficient (and comfortable)

“My neighbours and I spend less now to heat our homes – and I know that we’re helping the planet.”
– A voice from 2030

What if we could make keeping warm (and cool in the summer) easier and more affordable for British Columbians, while also reducing our contribution to climate change and the threats that it poses to communities around the world? Win-win, right?

The NDP, prior to their election, campaigned on a job-creation, energy-saving program called Power BC. It proposed an aggressive program to retrofit older buildings – both public and private – to make them more energy efficient.

Energy efficiency retrofits create twice as many jobs as building a new dam, and the jobs are long-lasting, good-paying, and close to home in every community across British Columbia. Conserving energy is the most efficient way to meet BC’s energy needs... Making buildings more efficient will also help BC meet our climate change goals by conserving the energy used to heat buildings.

The Province’s Clean BC plan includes retrofitting buildings, but arguably with less ambition than promised in Power BC. Clean BC and Budget 2019 pledge significant funding for retrofitting public buildings, and promise that by 2030 greenhouse gas emissions from public buildings will have been reduced by 50%. However, according to Clean BC, by 2030 just 70,000 private homes (or only about 3.7% of BC’s building stock) will have been retrofitted.

Retrofits can include putting insulation into houses, reducing drafts, installing cleaner and more efficient heaters (like heat pumps) or installing renewable energy sources like solar panels. In addition to keeping us warmer in the winter, many of these retrofits keep out the heat in the summer.

One great thing about energy efficiency retrofits is that they pay for themselves. If the retrofits are to public buildings, then taxpayers don’t need to pay as much to heat those buildings going forward, and those savings can pay off the up-front cost. If the retrofits are to private homes and buildings, then Power BC (like many others) proposed a “pay as you save” program, where an up-front loan made by the government is paid back through the energy savings – at no increased cost to the propertyowner.

Think locally – build more resilient, self-reliant communities

“I feel safer because I know that my community can look after us – our solar energy comes from our rooftops and a lot of our food comes from our neighbours.”
– A voice from 2030

One lesson that many of us have learned from the pandemic is that, in a disaster, our communities should strive to be more self-reliant, rather than dependent on the global economy. Self-reliance can help increase the ability of our communities to respond to emerging disasters – as well as to provide our basic needs in a sustainable manner.

That’s not how we’ve structured our society right now: for instance, much of our food comes from California and our consumer goods from China.

Food security is critical in creating more self-reliant communities. As we wrote recently, in recovering from COVID-19, “sustainable local food systems should be among the important priorities for supporting employment in a manner that also helps us transition to a more resilient, just and ecologically sound future.”

But let’s think about energy as well. Former Hupacasath Chief, Kekinusuqs (Judith Sayers), once summarized the need for energy self-sufficiency:

… I really think that every community in this province needs to be independent electrically. There’s going to be disasters that happen, and if Vancouver Island is cut off from the Mainland, if there’s an earthquake, there’s not going to be enough power on Vancouver Island to power everybody.

She’s right. The overwhelming majority of BC’s electricity comes from large dams in the province’s North East. While that will continue for the foreseeable future, our communities should be looking at whether solar, wind, geothermal energy and micro-hydro can provide our own needs, at least partly, closer to home.

Community self-reliance also includes being able to rely upon our local ecosystems, to provide clean air and water, absorb rainwater and provide other “ecosystem services,” but also to support local jobs and economies. For example, forest communities should not see raw logs shipped oversees without at least having an opportunity to work with the wood locally. So stimulus measures could include restoring degraded ecosystems and increasing community control of local resources.

A word of caution in talking about using stimulus funding to promote self-reliance: a community program that is dependent on government funding in the long-term is not self-reliant, and will be at risk if government priorities change. That being said, up-front government loans or funding can help community projects get up and running – for example through buying land and building infrastructure – so that they can benefit the community for years and decades to come.

Tell BC what you want to see in 2030

“In 2020 we found our collective voices – and told the government that we didn’t want things to just go back to normal after COVID-19. Instead we wanted things to get better. As a result, they did.”
– A voice from 2030

So what do you think? How shall we build back better in BC? As we stimulate the economy, what could the Province do that will make your home and community better, safer, and stronger in 2030?

Please take a moment to write to Premier John Horgan to thank him for pledging to build BC back better and to put climate change at the centre of BC’s COVID-19 recovery. But also tell him what specific projects you want to see him invest in, what steps you think the province should be implementing. Feel free to steal our ideas, but we’re guessing that you’ll have exciting proposals and priorities of your own.


* A survey of 1000 British Columbians conducted through Google Surveys, fielded April 24th to May 14th, 2020.

Andrew Gage - Staff Lawyer