What will be on the environmental to-do list of BC’s new ministers?

In the coming days, BC Premier John Horgan will appoint his cabinet. For those who are concerned about the environment, climate change and resilient communities, we may pay special attention to who the Premier selects as Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy; Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development; and Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources; among other portfolios.

But in addition to appointing the ministers, the Premier will be giving each of them their marching orders – instructions about what to prioritize, what they are expected to deliver – in the form of what are called mandate letters. The NDP promised a whole lot in their election platform, but the mandate letters will tell us which promises the Premier has prioritized for implementation, how, and by whom. A number of election promises align closely with priority campaigns of West Coast Environmental Law. Based on our analysis of these issues, here is what West Coast hopes to see in the mandate letters.

Climate Change

The NDP’s election platform promised to legislate a new climate target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 and to “move forward ambitiously with the next stages of CleanBC.” These are important commitments, and they need to be done right.

In our view, it is important that BC legislate the new “net-zero” by 2050 target while also keeping the existing 2050 target of an 80% reduction. Net-zero emissions refers to the balance between emissions entering and leaving the atmosphere, while the 80% reduction refers to an actual reduction in BC’s emissions.

The two targets measure different things and the 80% reduction target provides an important back-stop against over-reliance on technological solutions aimed at artificially removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Sweden is one country that has adopted a similar two-part target (net zero by 2045, and 85% lower than 1990 levels).

The “next stages of CleanBC” could refer to a number of future initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases in the province. But at a minimum, it must include:

  • Completing work on a plan to achieve BC’s current 2030 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% (which the government had promised to achieve by this December at the very latest);
  • Setting an interim target between now and 2030, so we can monitor our progress towards the 2030 goal. This is required, by law, to be established before December 31st, 2020; and
  • Setting targets for specific sectors, which the law requires the government to do before March 31, 2021.

Although there is, of course, more work to be done, these existing requirements are presumably the “next stages” and we urge the Premier to include all three in the Environment Minister’s mandate letter, to be completed early in their mandate.

The BC NDP also made an important commitment when it was asked, “If elected, would your government seek to ensure the companies responsible for producing fossil fuels pay their fair share of [climate change] costs?” In response the BC NDP promised that, “Going forward we will require industry to be bonded for the full cost of environmental damages that are outside their permit conditions and environmental laws and regulations.”

This commitment, which builds on the platform commitment to require bonds for industrial operations that may require remediation, sounds like a proposal for climate risk bonds – bonds to cover the climate change impacts of fossil fuel infrastructure. Climate risk bonds are an important tool in ensuring that taxpayers are not alone in bearing the costs of climate change, and they could be an effective way for the government to take action on this commitment.  

Ecosystem Health, Biodiversity and Climate Resilience

Premier Horgan and the BC NDP made several key promises related to the health of lands and ecosystems in BC. We’ve written about a key commitment – implementing the “full slate” of recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review (OGSR) – here.

As we discuss, one of the signature recommendations of the OGSR is that BC enact a new, overarching law to establish ecosystem health and biodiversity as priorities across all sectors in British Columbia, similar to the construct of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. To fulfill the pledge to “fully” implement the OGSR we recommend that the mandate letters instruct the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy and the Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development to:

  • Enact a new law that establishes ecosystem health and biodiversity as overarching priorities across all sectors, and sets out a framework to align all land-related provincial legislation, management systems and processes with this goal; and
  • Implement in full the recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review in cooperation with Indigenous nations and with meaningful public engagement.

Similarly, in light of commitments to “expand BC parks and protected areas” and to “work with Indigenous Nations as they bring forward a specific proposal for a protected area,” we will be watching for direction to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy to:

  • Work with Indigenous nations to expand and create new protected areas in a manner that prioritizes Indigenous jurisdiction, ecosystem health and biodiversity protection, connectivity, retention of carbon stored in healthy living land and seascapes and other ecosystem services; and
  • Co-develop legal pathways for the recognition of Indigenous protected areas and to remove implementation barriers.

Wild Salmon and Watersheds

Salmon and watersheds are hugely important to British Columbians, and this was reflected in many of the NDP Platform commitments.

Some examples which we hope will find their way into the mandate letters include promises of “a watershed security strategy,” collaboration with the federal government to “develop new strategies that protect and revitalize BC’s salmon populations,” and increased “protection of fish habitat through our biodiversity strategy.”

We also note the platform commitments to build ongoing relationships with Indigenous nations and to “seek a partnership with the federal government to establish a Watershed Security Fund to fund Indigenous, local and regionally led clean water initiatives and create good, sustainable, local jobs for British Columbians in watershed restoration, monitoring, technology and education.”

To this end, we recommend that the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy:

  • Work with Indigenous nations to implement watershed restoration and protection strategies and measures for clean water and salmon habitat across jurisdictions;
  • Support Indigenous-led analysis, monitoring and restoration activities (and related job creation); and
  • Ensure that long-term, sustainable funding for watershed restoration and fish habitat in these regions is directed by these strategies.

We note that Indigenous nations and organizations have already begun this work in a number of regions, such as the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance in the Lower Fraser.

Coastal Protection

West Coast Environmental Law, together with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, has been sounding the alarm that coastal ecosystems are at risk, and that the province has no coherent strategy or law for coastal management. As we wrote on our Blueprint for the Coast site:

The BC coast is a global treasure. It makes British Columbia unique, beautiful and abundant. That’s why it’s so hard to believe BC is one of the only coastal jurisdictions in North America without a united plan and law to protect it.

So of course, it was exciting to see the BC NDP’s election promise that:

A re-elected BC NDP government will develop and implement a new provincial coastal strategy – in partnership with First Nations and federal and local governments – to better protect coastal habitat while growing coastal economies. If it is determined that legislation is necessary to implement the strategy, an NDP government will introduce it.

As a priority first step to implement this commitment, we recommend that the government:

  • Establish a dedicated coordinating body, mandated to develop the new provincial coastal strategy, within a ministry or the Premier’s office, such as a Coastal Strategy Secretariat or Task Force, co-administered by Indigenous nations, and able to lead consultations within government and with the public. 

Resilient Communities and Ecosystems

The BC NDP platform, in addition to many commitments to work with Indigenous nations, address climate change and protect watersheds, promises to “updat[e] emergency procedures and infrastructure to keep our province safer.” These may seem like distinct commitments, but the area of flood management brings them together – with the potential to work with Indigenous communities to restore watersheds while addressing flood risks made worse by climate change. 

We call on Premier Horgan to direct his ministers to:

  • Create an intra-governmental working group to identify linkages between flood management, watershed protection and restoration, including Indigenous-led watershed restoration and protection, and emergency preparedness initiatives, and work with Indigenous authorities to shape funding and regulation to support the design and implementation of nature-based approaches to flood management in the Lower Fraser and elsewhere in the province.

We also support Premier Horgan’s commitment to create a dedicated Secretariat to ensure that government legislation and policies are consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Looking forward

We at West Coast Environmental Law look forward to working with BC’s new cabinet, which ever of our new or returning MLAs the Premier selects. Based on our review of election promises, we believe that there are opportunities to build stronger, more resilient communities and protect our shared natural heritage. But it’s important that the Premier give these new cabinet ministers the right instructions, prioritizing actions that will move us forward as a province.

What do you think should be the government’s top environmental priorities and what would you like to see in the mandate letters? Let us know in the comment section, below.


Top photo: Province of BC Flickr

Andrew Gage - Staff Lawyer