Former chief medical officer urges B.C. to shut industrial work camps during coronavirus pandemic

Some projects still house more than 800 people at camps — deemed ‘essential services’ by the province — while small businesses shut their doors and most people stay at home, raising concerns about double-standards and risks to local communities

Construction Site C Dam

The Site C dam, LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink pipeline projects should not be designated essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to David Bowering, former chief medical officer for Northern Health, who compared project work camps to cruise ships incubating the coronavirus.

Essential services are “what’s required to keep society going,” such as food and medical supplies, Bowering said in an interview with The Narwhal.

“The last thing that seems to me [to be] reasonable is to have large work camps — that we know will be sources of infection both within themselves and in the local communities, and in the home communities of the workers when they go back,” Bowering said, referring to workers from across B.C. and Alberta, and as far away as Newfoundland, who are typically flown in and out of large camps on charter and commercial flights for two-week shifts.

“You can gloss it over and say that it’s essential that they carry on. But for me, I think everybody in society is making huge changes to their lives right now in order to try to flatten the curve and it’s really important that we do it.”

While most Canadians hunker down at home and practise social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has infected 787,000 people worldwide and killed more than 36,000, the B.C. government has classified resource projects — including oil and gas and mining projects — as essential services.

At a press conference on March 30, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said many, “if not all,” industrial camps have “gone to a very reduced staff.” However, even at reduced capacity, some large industrial projects still house more than 800 people at work camps.

“We don’t want as many people coming in and out of the community,” Henry told reporters.

“They’ve done things like extending the length of time that people are there, going to safety staff only. I think it’s important to recognize you can’t just abandon a large mine or industrial site. That’s not safe, it’s not safe for the community, or for the environment as well.”

Coastal GasLink work camp 9A

A Coastal GasLink work camp near Houston in October, 2019. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Site C dam camp has 911 workers

Teck Resources currently houses 320 coal workers at its Elkview mine site camp in the Kootenays, after scaling back its workforce by 50 per cent. Teck workers recently came forward to express concern that adequate social distancing cannot be practised at several coal mine sites in the Elk Valley.

BC Hydro said it has sent 700 workers home from the Site C camp, six kilometres from the small oil and gas city of Fort St. John, where off-shift workers are still free to travel for food and personal supplies in a “Site C leisure bus” operated by BC Hydro, as long as they sit apart.

As of March 31, there were 911 workers at the camp, an increase of almost 100 from two days earlier.

The workers included four in self-isolation with flu-like symptoms, according to BC Hydro’s daily update on camp numbers, which began on March 23. BC Hydro has not reported the number of positive COVID-19 tests since March 27, when it said there were zero.

BC Hydro has also not said what happened to 12 additional workers it previously reported were in self-isolation with flu-like symptoms, noting in an email to The Narwhal that “these numbers do change daily as workers’ symptoms improve and they go back to work, or return home if their two-week shift schedule is over.”

The NDP government designated the Site C dam — slated to be completed in 2024 — an essential service even though energy demand in B.C. has been flat since 2005 and recent mill closures have reduced provincial energy consumption.

LNG Canada, a consortium of some of the world’s most profitable oil and gas corporations, cut its workforce in half in response to the pandemic, leaving about 875 people at its Kitimat camp to build a marine export terminal for fracked gas from northern B.C.

Coastal GasLink, the Calgary-based subsidiary of TC Energy (formerly TransCanada Pipelines) that is building a 670-kilometre pipeline for the LNG Canada project, has reduced its workforce from 1,200 to 400.

Bowering said there’s no doubt a certain number of workers are required at projects to ensure the safety of sites.

“But I can’t imagine it’s not significantly less than 400 and 800 [workers],” he said.

“The determination of what’s essential seems to me to be coming from the companies rather than coming from government.”

Local governments worry about strain on small hospitals

Some local governments are growing increasingly concerned about the continued operation of nearby industrial work camps, pointing out their small hospitals are ill-equipped to handle a potential influx of COVID-19 patients.

On March 24, Fort St. John’s city council followed other B.C. municipalities and declared the pandemic a local emergency, briefly granting the city extraordinary powers such as the ability to manage people’s movements and ration goods. City councillors said BC Hydro should “send everybody home” during the pandemic.

Two days later, the provincial government suspended all municipal emergency orders except for Vancouver’s, citing the need for centralized pandemic coordination.

The decision left Fort St. John, which has a 55-bed hospital with seven ventilators, powerless to place any restrictions on the movements of workers from the Site C camp or other nearby industrial camps.

BC Hydro said it is following provincial guidelines for COVID-19 testing, which prioritize testing for health-care workers, care home residents and workers, people returning from other countries and those identified as being part of viral clusters. Most people in the province with COVID-19 symptoms are not tested and recover at home.

“The general advice to everyone is if you have flu-like symptoms, stay at home and you don’t need to be tested,” Bowering said. “But these people aren’t at home.”

Bowering said people in work camps who display COVID-19 symptoms should be tested, just as they would be in a care home or on a cruise ship.

“My inclination would be to require that at least a few of them be tested. If they have COVID-19, that has big implications, even if they aren’t acutely ill.”

On March 30, the BC Centre for Disease Control released new interim communicable disease control guidelines for industrial camps, including for handwashing and cleaning supplies. Disposable gloves and masks, or tissues if masks are not available, are to be issued to workers with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the guidelines.

concrete-slab-intakes Site C dam BC Hydro

Workers place a concrete slab as part of ongoing construction work at the Site C dam in March 2020. Photo: BC Hydro

COVID-19 can’t be contained in closed settings

Bowering said he’s not aware of any evidence that enhanced cleaning and disinfectant measures and other precautions taken in closed settings have managed to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“The best examples that we’re all so familiar with are cruise ships and, believe me, cruise ships have been working hard for years to figure out how to control communicable disease in a closed setting where people are living together and eating together,” he said.

“It literally can’t be done, especially with a virus where the symptoms are potentially very minimal, where the men working in these camps have a lot of incentive to not report on the risk  [in case] they may be locked down and quarantined rather than get to go home after the shift is over. The last place you want to be in a COVID-19 outbreak, where things are really unusual and restrictions are everywhere, is not at home.”

Workers on industrial projects need to be able to protect themselves by staying home like everybody else “unless they’re saving lives, providing food, providing care services,” Bowering said.

“It seems to me this issue of what’s essential is a really key one here.”

Henry said Northern Health is working with the industrial camps to reduce the risks in those camps and “make sure they are scaling back appropriately.” The region is also putting measures in place to reduce risks to local communities, she said.

First Nations chiefs point to ‘overbroad’ definition of essential services

The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs said current measures fail to provide sufficient protection for local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

On March 30, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and the two other members of the union’s executive released an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier John Horgan, urging swift action to protect the public’s health from the heightened risks of COVID-19 transmission posed by continuing construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

“Most vulnerable to the spread will be frontline health-care workers, project workers and local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities forced to shoulder the consequences for any disregard for health and safety,” said the letter, which was also addressed to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Coastal GasLink recently announced the successful completion of winter construction even though B.C. is in a state of emergency, the chiefs pointed out.

“The B.C. government has enabled this with overbroad classifications of ‘essential services’ that allow the work on to continue,” the chiefs wrote, noting that “critical activities” cited by Coastal GasLink include pipe delivery and stockpiling.

“With the urgency to move materials comes the associated movement of people and spillover risks to every person and community they interact with delivering supplies to the project,” the chiefs said.

“Corporate exceptionalism cannot become a pandemic response strategy for the governments of B.C. and Canada.”

On March 26, the chiefs also sent an open letter to Henry and Dix, calling on the province to take immediate action to halt all construction on the publicly funded $10.7-billion Site C dam due to the risk a COVID-19 outbreak in the work camp would pose to local Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

Health officer warns no community will be immune

As of March 31, there were 15 reported cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Health region, an area the size of France, and 998 cases in the rest of the province.

Bowering said the B.C. government should disclose the areas where people have tested positive, in part because outbreaks of communicable diseases such as the flu tend to be localized within subregions in the north.

“If you had a cluster of five, or if all [15] were in one part of Northern Health, it would be totally inappropriate to be not telling that part of the population that that’s the case,” he said.

Henry said measures to tackle COVID-19 are the same across the province, regardless of whether people live in the Lower Mainland or in Terrace.

“We need to physically distance from each other and we need to make sure that if we’re sick at all that we’re staying away.”

She said staff from Northern Health are working with industrial camps and local communities to reduce risks, while Indigenous communities are putting measures into place to protect their Elders and making plans in the event that COVID-19 spreads through their communities.

“There is no community that is immune to this virus,” Henry said.  SOURCE


Most of us see the COVID-19 pandemic as a health crisis. Big polluters saw an opportunity.

We’ve all heard the line. Never waste a crisis.

Well, the nation’s top polluters took it to heart this week.

Because while the rest of us were taking care of our families and anxiously watching the news on the stimulus bills, fossil fuel companies and other industries were lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies for a free pass to pollute the environment. Because, you know, the coronavirus.

The sad news is that they won, for the moment. Yesterday, EPA issued a blanket waiver so polluters no longer have to report their compliance with environmental laws. This order covers the entire nation and most polluting industries. Oh, and it’s for an indefinite time.

This is worth repeating: While the country is dealing with an unprecedented health crisis and millions are out of work, EPA gave polluters a free pass to dump whatever chemicals they want into the air we breathe and the water we drink.

It simply boggles the mind. The order is insane.

But if your only measure of the health of the country is the stock market, it makes perfect sense. Businesses are hurt by the coronavirus, polluters argued, so let’s make it easier for them to operate.


The fact of the matter is that this order is dangerous and gives bad actors with recent incidents of pollution free reign.

As just one example, the Sinclair Oil Refinery in Sinclair, Wyoming has a lengthy history of significant Clean Air Act violations with three informal and two formal enforcement actions in five years and has racked up $1.6 million in penalties from EPA cases. Under the order, Sinclair Oil can use the EPA’s license to pollute to continue its violations penalty-free just by papering it over.

Violators of federal environmental laws are all over the country and they are prolific. In Boulder County, Colorado alone, the EPA lists 96 facilities with current violations, including 50 facilities with significant violations. Total penalties in that county in the last five years have been over $7 million. Over the agency’s national purview, there are 86,443 facilities with current violations, 26,738 with significant violations.

As long as this indefinite order is in place, we can safely expect these polluters to dangerously pollute and pollute without consequence.


Here’s something EPA won’t tell you: the order will make some of us more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

One of the groups most at risk of severe illness or death fall from the coronavirus are people with pre-existing conditions like asthma, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis.

So how does the order threaten this group?

Let’s take those with asthma as an example. Allowing power plants and industry to pollute without limits opens the door to increasing particulate matter pollution as well as SO2 and NO2, which can trigger asthma attacks.

This increased pollution alone can severely sicken asthma patients. But COVID-19 will make it even worse. According to the CDC, “[p]eople with asthma may be at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. COVID-19 can affect your respiratory tract (nose, throat, lungs), cause an asthma attack, and possibly lead to pneumonia and acute respiratory disease.”

The danger doesn’t end there. If more asthma attacks mean more patients heading to the hospital, it means more people not at home and in danger of contracting the virus at the hospital. And when they get there, they could find a hospital already overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and unable to provide proper treatment or access to equipment.

This is not a hypothetical danger. We’re already seeing reported shortages of asthma inhalers due to COVID-19.

The bottom line: This irresponsible order puts those most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus at even greater risk. It’s a chance we can’t afford to take.


This blanket EPA waiver for polluters is also simply unnecessary. We know industry lobbyists have pushed hard for this, but if staff at facilities can be safe enough to pollute, then staff should be able to comply with environmental rules in a safe manner as well.

Waivers during disasters are something the EPA has issued routinely in the past. And that makes sense. Emergencies mean we all need to be flexible. But there is no reason it can’t be done on an industry-by-industry or a company-by-company basis. Or, preferably, on a case-by-case basis during this crisis.

Another head-scratcher is that the order itself creates requirements where polluters need to record their non-compliance. The order states that noncompliance needs to be carefully documented. Polluters need to “[i]dentify the specific nature and dates of the noncompliance” and “[i]dentify how COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance, and the decisions and actions taken in response, including best efforts to comply and steps taken to come into compliance at the earliest opportunity….”

So here’s a question. If a workplace needs to record all noncompliance in detail, how is that protecting workers more than requiring them to document compliance with environmental laws?

All this concern about worker safety is also quite ironic given that the EPA has been severely criticized for not allowing remote work sooner (and now at least two EPA employees have tested positive). It seems clear that the point of the order is not protecting people, but protecting polluters.

Some have been saying we need to make sure the treatment is not worse than the disease and a waiver like this is necessary if we are going to keep the economy going. But this is simply putting people’s portfolios before other people’s lives. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made the unholy argument in its most blunt form, saying that senior citizens should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the economy. This order amounts to the same thing. It is motivated by a belief that the health of the economy needs to come before the health of people.

The argument defies both commonsense and any sense of morals. The economy needs healthy workers earning paychecks to keep the gears turning and buying goods from the marketplace. Anyone outside the White House can see that we can’t address the economic fallout without first addressing the public health crisis. The federal government is now taking laudable steps to help people get through the crisis, but until it’s over, the economy won’t rebound. SOURCE

Amid covid-19 crisis, aggregate lobbyists are pushing for deregulation and environmental cuts

Quarry aggregate with heavy duty machinery

Quarry aggregate with heavy duty machinery.

The aggregate industry lobbyists are demanding that rules protecting important environmental areas, called Natural Heritage Systems, be gutted. These areas are currently protected from new developments because they’re home to endangered species and their critical habitats. Our planet is currently in a biodiversity crisis, so these protections are more important now than they ever were before. Habitat loss is the number one threat to endangered species, so all rules to protect their habitat must remain intact. 

Another attack on Ontario species at risk 

The aggregate industry says the rules protecting Natural Heritage Systems (NHS) aren’t needed because the industry already needs to meet the standards of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). They neglect to mention that Ontario’s ESA was gutted last year. The ESA has now been reduced to rubble and is ineffective at protecting species in Ontario.  Those changes came at the call of similar demands by the aggregates industry and sprawl developers.

The blanding's turtle is one of Ontario's endangered species
The blanding’s turtle is one of Ontario’s endangered species

On top of this, the Ontario government recently made several changes to the industry’s main set of rules – the Aggregate Resources Act (ARA). Now aggregate operations can dig under the water table, regardless of whether the local municipality disagrees. This can threaten the drinking water supply for towns and cities, and providing safe drinking water is the municipality’s job. The threat is so serious that municipalities asked to be abdicated of responsibility if or when below water table operations contaminate the drinking water.

Nature calms in times of crisis 

For many, nature is a solace in times of crisis and uncertainty. Natural heritage, and “Natural Heritage Systems” are just fancy terms for the beautiful and environmentally important natural spaces across our province. These are areas that many are exploring and appreciating even more now, because being in nature, while practicing physical distancing, calms our nerves and grounds us.

Highway 413 would pave over hiking and recreational trails along its path.The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us that along with caring for each other, caring for nature is of the utmost importance. Habitat destruction and biodiversity loss make us more vulnerable to pandemics, not to mention how a  connection to nature helps people in times of stress.

This is why it’s critical we send our local representatives a message that Ontario is not for sale. We will not tolerate the gutting of environmental rules that protect nature and keep our communities resilient and beautiful. Take action here, and sign up to join our growing community of environmental defenders. SOURCE

Construction on Trans Mountain pipeline goes on, company says, as First Nations concerned over COVID-19 risks

Some Indigenous communities are calling for a sharp halt to construction on major projects as COVID-19 cases in Canada continue to rise

Work at a Trans Mountain facility near Hope, B.C., in August 2019.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/File

OTTAWA — Construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline has continued despite concerns over workers contracting and spreading COVID-19, the Crown corporation building the $12.6-billion project said Monday.

Ian Anderson, the chief executive of publicly-owned Trans Mountain Corp., said the company is “continuously assessing this unprecedented situation” around COVID-19, as public-facing businesses across the country shut down in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. Some First Nations have called on Ottawa in recent days to shut down various major projects, including the construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in northern B.C. and the Site C hydro dam.

Reporters asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whether construction of the Trans Mountain expansion would continue, given fears among First Nations that transient workers could spread the virus to their communities.

“There are several decisions being made across the country regarding who is an essential worker, who is not and what work can continue during this time and who should not,” he said, adding he’d aim to clarify the situation Tuesday around Trans Mountain, which the government bought for $4.4 billion in 2018.

Anderson said in a statement that the company “will do everything in our power to not put workers, communities and Indigenous peoples at any COVID-19 risk.”

Designating which industries fall under essential services is a provincial responsibility, rather than a federal one.

Oil and gas workers in both British Columbia and Alberta fall under the “essential services” category, and so have remained on the job. However, in B.C. it is unclear whether those essential services extend to workers building new pipeline infrastructure, rather than existing plants and leases that feed daily demand.

Some Indigenous communities are calling for a sharp halt to construction on major projects as COVID-19 cases in Canada continue to rise. In a letter to Trudeau on Monday, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called on Ottawa to “act swiftly” and shut down all construction of the Coastal GasLink project, which would feed gas into the $40-billion LNG Canada facility on the West Coast.

There are several decisions being made across the country regarding who is an essential worker

“The risks posed by continued work on the Coastal GasLink project are ones that were not consented to, and ones that leaders and officials raised warnings about in advance of the project’s approval,” the group said.

A list of essential services issued by B.C. included infrastructure that is “critical in supporting daily essential electricity needs” as well as oil and natural gas production.

The Alberta government published a list of essential services that more explicitly included “energy” construction projects that “ensure safe and reliable operations of critical provincial and municipal infrastructure.”

Transportation and transit were also included as essential construction projects. SOURCE

Oneida closes territory to help keep COVID-19 out

Chief Jessica Hill said the community is also setting up a hotline for residents

Oneida Nation of the Thames, an Indigenous community of more than 6,800 people, is not the only First Nation to tightening controls to keep COVID-19 from spreading. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The Oneida Nation of the Thames is setting up road blocks into the territory, allowing only residents and suppliers to enter, starting Sunday at midnight.

Chief Jessica Hill said it is one more way to keep COVID-19 from spreading into the community, located southwest of London, and to help ease residents’ fears.

“We don’t have any cases in Oneida, and we want to keep it that way,” she said by phone Sunday.

She explained there has been a bottleneck of cars entering the territory, not of residents returning home, but of shoppers stocking up on supplies.

“We have a long-term care home, families and kids, and people are worried,” Chief Hill explained.

Earlier Sunday, Six Nations reported its first two cases of COVID-19. It’s a First Nation located southeast of Brantford.

Leaders in that community had already announced plans to conduct “community checkpoints” to stop non-residents from entering the area. Chief Mark Hill echoed concerns that non-residents were flooding to the First Nation to shop, going so far as to call on smoke shops to close and gas stations to stop selling cigarettes.

Oneida hotline

London reported its first COVID-19 death Saturday, as positive cases climbed to 31. Across Ontario, public health officials said 21 people had died Sunday.

Public safety measures are tightening. An emergency order was issued by the province Saturday night prohibiting gatherings of more than five people.

Chief Hill said she is working closely with neighbouring First Nations, Chippewa of the Thames and Munsee Delaware, but so far, she said only Oneida has moved to close its border in this region.

Oneida is also in the process of setting up a hotline for residents to call for information about COVID-19.  SOURCE


8 documentaries on climate change you need to watch now

Image credit: Juliette Abitbol and Amélie Pichard

Coronavirus is understandably at the forefront of everyone’s minds. But with a crucial UN summit due to take place in Glasgow in October, experts have warned that 2020 is the year the world needs to urgently ramp up its environmental efforts in order to prevent irreversible damage. To up your climate IQ while self-isolating at home, here are eight must-watch documentaries that will help you stay abreast of the action needed to save our planet’s future.

  1. An Inconvenient Truth (2006) 

For many people, it was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth that first made them aware of the serious consequences of global warming. The former vice president of the US set out the stark facts, before warning of more flooding, droughts, hurricanes and climate refugees caused by rising temperatures — concerns that certainly ring true nearly 15 years later. Since then, Gore has continued to speak out about the climate crisis, with his follow-up documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017) looking at the efforts being made to tackle the issue.


Image credit: The True Cost

  1. The True Cost (2015)

The 2015 documentary The True Cost will change the way you think about your clothes and crucially, about how they are made. Following the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1,134 workers, director Andrew Morgan set about investigating both the human and environmental cost of fast fashion in countries such as Bangladesh, India and Cambodia. The filmmaker also speaks to some of fashion’s best-known environmentalists, including Stella McCartney and Livia Firth, who are calling for urgent change within the industry.

Image credit: RiverBlue

  1. RiverBlue (2016) 

Fashion’s water-pollution problem is highlighted in 2016’s RiverBlue documentary, which shows how the chemicals used in manufacturing our garments are having devastating effects on rivers in China, Bangladesh and India — which can no longer be used safely by the local communities living there. One of the most memorable quotes from the documentary comes from Fashion Revolution co-founder, Orsola de Castro: “There is a joke in China: they say you can predict the ‘it’ colour of the season by looking at the colour of the river.”

Image credit: Getty Images

  1. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)

While veganism is undoubtedly on the rise, the link between climate change and the cattle industry has not always been so apparent. Leonardo DiCaprio-produced documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret sees filmmaker Kip Andersen questioning why no one was talking about the issue back in 2014. The film has had a major hand in making people aware of the environmental impact of meat, despite controversy over some of the claims made in the documentary.

Image credit: Getty Images

  1. Before the Flood (2016) 

DiCaprio took his environmental mission a step further in Before the Flood, this time appearing in front of the camera. The actor and UN Messenger of Peace spent two years investigating both the causes and effects of climate change across the world, from deforestation in Indonesia because of the palm oil industry to melting glaciers in Greenland and the Arctic. The film culminates with DiCaprio giving a rallying speech at the UN on Earth Day 2016, telling world leaders: “You are the last best hope of Earth. We ask you to protect it. Or we — and all living things we cherish — are history.”

Image credit: Sophie Lanfear

  1. Our Planet (2019) 

If you need a reminder of why nature needs us to tackle the climate crisis, look no further than Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet. The eight-part Netflix series looks at how global temperature rises are affecting wildlife around the world, from flamingo chicks in Africa to lowland gorillas in the Congo rainforest. It comes after Attenborough’s Blue Planet II (2017) shocked viewers by showing how ocean plastic and rising sea temperatures are endangering our marine life.

Image credit: This Changes Everything

  1. This Changes Everything (2015) 

Following her bestselling 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein made a documentary that asks the question: “What if confronting the climate crisis is the best chance we’ll ever get to build a better world?” After visiting frontline communities affected by climate change — including those on the south coast of India and the Athabasca oil sands in Alberta, Canada — Klein highlights the connection between our economic systems and the crisis facing our planet.

Image credit: 2040

  1. 2040 (2019) 

Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau sets out a positive vision of the future in 2040, imagining what the world could look like in 20 years’ time if we adopted the technology and thinking already available to lower the carbon present in our atmosphere. This includes having nearly 100 per cent renewable energy, electrifying our transportation systems, moving to regenerative farming and carbon sequestering. Gameau calls it “fact-based dreaming” — something we can surely all get on board with.


Campaigners attack Japan’s ‘shameful’ climate plans release

Proposals criticised amid fears countries may use coronavirus crisis to rein in commitments

 Protesters take part in the global climate strike in Tokyo in November. Japan has been criticised for continuing to build coal-fire power stations. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

Japan has laid out its plans to tackle greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris agreement in the run-up to UN climate talks this year, becoming the first large economy to do so.

But its proposals were criticised by campaigners as grossly inadequate, amid fears the Covid-19 crisis could prompt countries to try to water down their climate commitments.

The UK, which will host the talks, hopes every country will produce renewed targets on curbing emissions and achieving net zero carbon by 2050.

New commitments are needed to achieve the Paris goals of holding temperature rises to no more than 2C, and ideally 1.5C, above pre-industrial levels, as on current national targets the world would far exceed those limits

Japan’s carbon targets – known as its nationally determined contribution (NDC) in the UN jargon – as announced on Monday morning are almost unchanged from its commitments made in 2015 towards the Paris accord, however.

The country’s target of a 26% reduction in emissions by 2030, based on 2013 levels, is rated as “highly insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker analysis, meaning that if all targets were at this level, temperature rises would exceed 3C.

The country, the world’s fifth biggest emitter and third biggest economy, is one of the only developed countries still building new coal-fired power stations, although there are signs it may hold back.

Japan’s energy systems were thrown into turmoil by the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011, after which the country shut its many nuclear reactors. The country’s politics have also been affected by intensified competition from neighbouring China, which overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010.

Once a strong proponent of climate action – and proud of the 1997 Kyoto protocol signed under its auspices – Japan in recent years has appeared lukewarm in its commitments at a succession of UN meetings, before and since the landmark Paris conference of 2015.

Campaigners fear the coronavirus pandemic will be seen by some countries as a way to weaken their commitment to the Paris accord and present less stringent targets instead of the strong cuts needed.

“Japan should not slow down climate actions even amid the Covid-19 global fights, and must revisit and strengthen this plan swiftly in order to be in line with the Paris agreement,” said Kimiko Hirata, the international director of the Kiko Network, a climate group in Japan.

She added that the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, appeared content “to settle for a low target and policies to continue to fund coal, which are firmly taking us down the path to economic and environmental ruin”.

Kat Kramer, the global climate lead at Christian Aid, said of the latest Japanese plan: “The fact they are smuggling it out during a global pandemic, when it will avoid the scrutiny it deserves, is shameful.”

Laurence Tubiana,the chief executive of the European Climate Foundation and the French architect of the Paris agreement, called Japan’s move disappointing and contrasted it with those of economic rivals the EU, UK, China and South Korea, which she said were moving to a low-carbon economy.

“At one of the most challenging times of recent memory, we need bolder, mutually reinforcing plans that protect our societies from the global risks we all face,” Tubiana said.

Environmental regulations and climate commitments have come under attack in the context of the coronavirus crisis. Under Donald Trump’s administration in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has rolled back key regulations including car efficiency standards. In the EU, carmakers wrote to the European commission last week to demand a loosening of requirements on them to cut carbon.

There is still scope for Japan to revise its targets. Other countries have yet to submit their detailed NDCs, but several – including the UK and the EU, and more than 70 smaller economies – made public their intention to reach net zero carbon by 2050, at last year’s UN climate talks in Madrid.

This year’s talks, called Cop 26, are still officially scheduled to be held in Glasgow this November, although there has been pressure from some quarters to announce a postponement.

Many notable figures, including the leading climate economist Lord Stern, and former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, have spoken out against postponement at this stage. They fear a delay would mean countries slowing their work on emissions cuts.

Under the plans that national governments submitted to the UN under the Paris agreement, the world would reach more than 3C of warming according to estimates – a figure scientists say would be disastrous in terms of increases in extreme weather, droughts, floods, heatwaves and sea level rises.

New plans are urgently needed, campaigners say, as emissions have risen globally by 4% since the Paris agreement was signed.


Tackle climate crisis and poverty with zeal of Covid-19 fight, scientists urge

Actions taken to suppress coronavirus reveal what measures are possible in an emergency, say experts

 ‘The over-riding objective [of governments] has been austerity, and life expectancy for the worst off has declined,’ said Sir Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, pictured in 2017. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Government responses to climate breakdown and to the challenges of poverty and inequality must be changed permanently after the coronavirus has been dealt with, leading scientists have urged, as the actions taken to suppress the spread of the virus have revealed what measures are possible in an emergency.

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed what governments are capable of doing and shone a new light on the motivation for past policies and their outcomes, said Sir Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, and chair of the commission of the social determinants of health at the World Health Organisation.

“The overriding objective [of governments for the last decade] has been austerity, and life expectancy for the worst-off has declined,” he told journalists at a virtual meeting organised by Plan B and Extinction Rebellion. “Health tells us something fundamental about the nature of our society. What the government was pursuing was a worse society – that may not have been the objective, but it was what came out.”

But what had happened in response to coronavirus revealed a new way of operating for governments. “With Covid-19, everything [on austerity] went out of the window. It turns out austerity was a choice,” he said. “The government can spend anything [in the context of the coronavirus crisis], and they have socialised the economy.”

The urgency with which the government had acted showed that the response to an emergency could be swift and decisive, he said. But the climate crisis has been viewed as a “slow-burn” issue and had not elicited such a response. “Coronavirus exposes that we can do things differently,” Marmot said. “We must not go back to the status quo ante.”

Marmot, who led the Marmot review of life expectancy, which earlier this year was found to have stalled for the first time in a century after the austerity policies of the last decade, urged ministers in the UK and other countries to put health equity “at the heart of all policymaking”, as it would lead to better outcomes across a range of issues. “It would lead to better environmental policy, it would lead to better social policy, it would lead to better healthcare policy and better politics.”

Sir David King, who was chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2008, a period that included the foot-and-mouth epidemic that devastated farming in 2001, said governments were quick to forget about dangers in their quest to save money and must learn lessons from coronavirus.

He pointed to his own work on flood defences while chief scientific adviser. After serious floods in the early 2000s and work by climate scientists showing that flooding would become more frequent across the UK, he pushed for more spending on defences and a new national plan.

 Floodwater surrounds houses and residential properties in Snaith. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images


But in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, he said, austerity measures led to many flood defence projects being shelved and warnings ignored. The result was that over the following decade flooding got worse, as scientists had predicted, but many more people suffered and had their homes and livelihoods put at risk because resources were withdrawn.

King also said the government had been warned in 2016 of the dangers of a viral pandemic and should have been better prepared. “In 2016, a report indicated that our hospitals would not be ready for an epidemic of this kind. But that report has not been made public.”

The climate emergency represented a real risk but was being treated too lightly, he warned. “I think the climate emergency is much more serious than people think.”

King served as special representative for climate change to the government after leaving his post as chief scientific adviser, and was one of the experts who pushed for the Paris agreement in 2015. He warned that the Paris agreement goal of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C or 2C was probably too weak, however, to save the world from the impacts of climate breakdown. “We need to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere,” he warned.

He pointed to the economic recovery plans after the second world war, and said that after the coronavirus crisis has passed, governments should consider similar plans to redevelop the global economy to adjust to a fossil fuel-free world.

Some people have pointed out that the response to the current crisis has reduced emissions and air pollution in the short term. But Jason Hickel, lecturer in economic anthropology at Goldsmiths University, warned of taking too many lessons from that.

“When you scale down energy use and industrial production, it does have these ecological benefits but the crucial thing to observe is that this is happening in an unplanned, chaotic way which is hurting people’s lives,” he said. “We would never advocate such a thing. What we need is a planned approach to reducing unnecessary industrial activity that has no connection to human welfare and that disproportionately benefits already wealthy people as opposed to ordinary people. There are much more equitable, just and carefully planned ways to approach this kind of problem.”

A group of leading economists and global health experts including four Nobel prize-winners has urged the leaders of the G20 countries to devote trillions to helping poor countries out of the coronavirus crisis, or face a continuing crisis of migration, recurring global Covid-19 outbreaks, and social breakdown in the developing world.

The experts said: “Developing countries are facing an unprecedented collective threat to human life, social cohesion and economic devastation. Massive economic losses will be incurred as countries desperately try to cope; people will migrate out of fear as the epidemic takes hold, leading to social disruption, violence and security issues.”

Erik Berglof, director of the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics and an organiser of the letter, told the Guardian: “If it will take more than $2tn (£1.6bn), perhaps as much as $6tn, to fix the US, we are not going to fix the rest of the world for less. To attach a specific number now is almost meaningless. What we need are new and creative ways of using global financial muscle to back up existing international financial institutions.”

He said that some measures, such as providing emergency resources and medical help, could be taken quickly, but it was important to manage the process with a long-term view as well, using and expanding existing international institutions and programmes. “You cannot sprinkle money from helicopters in these economies because it would never reach the intended receivers,” he said. “You need carefully managed programmes and projects that can help these countries through this extremely difficult period.”

Infrastructure investment would take longer, but would be vital to ensure that countries can recover from an economic shock that economists say will be greater than that following the 2008 financial crisis.

In providing this help, the developed world would also be benefiting its own citizens, as if efforts to control Covid-19 in poor countries fail, “the virus could become endemic, producing new waves of destructive outbreaks around the world”, the letter warned. SOURCE

With the climate crisis and coronavirus bearing down on us, the age of disconnection is over

We can no longer pretend that we’re separate from each other and from the natural world

 ‘What started to become clear thanks to the fires was rammed home by Covid-19. We are only as healthy as the least healthy among us’ Photograph: Blend Images/Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images

Everything is connected. It’s hard to imagine right now that, just weeks ago, the truism of ecological politics was treated as hippy nonsense by mainstream politics.

Announcing the statutory review of the commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) last October, the Morrison government pitched it as an opportunity to weaken the Howard era laws even further and make it easier still for environmentally destructive projects to be approved. And, regardless of clear statements from scientists and strong advocacy by campaign groups, it looked like it would get away with it because, back then, we were still living in the age of disconnection when the environment and the economy could be seen as separate things, in competition with each other.

But then the summer arrived, delivering one after the other two massive wake-up calls. In the age of consequences, with the climate crisis and a deadly pandemic bearing down on us, it’s impossible to pretend that we are separate from each other and from the natural world.

A pandemic, more than almost any other phenomenon, shows that all our lives are inextricably intertwined, for now and forever, whether we like it or not. It brings into sharp focus the impossibility of trying to keep economics, health, environment, education and social justice treated as separate questions with separate answers. It heightens awareness of our vital need, as social beings, to stay connected to each other as well as we possibly can while keeping our physical distance.

It shows how the “efficient”, on-demand world that capitalism has constructed is so incredibly fragile that a series of shocks can bring it to the point of collapse. And with the rules of neoliberal economics being broken by governments the world over, it demonstrates that massive policy interventions, shifting the entire structure of the global economy, are possible.

With the complete focus right now on Covid-19, it takes an effort to cast our minds back to this summer’s bushfires. They were, of course, far larger and fiercer than ever before, over a season that started when we were barely out of winter. Where previously bushfires had affected a small number of people, this season the smoke blanketing Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, and the repeated evacuation of summer holiday spots, meant that most Australians were affected. 

This heralded a shift in thinking that went deeper than personal impact. Perhaps due to the remarkably low loss of human life compared with the scale of the disaster, there was a tremendous focus on the more than a billion mammals, birds and reptiles killed. We mourned the thousands of koalas and the numerous species being pushed towards extinction if their habitats aren’t restored.

The true legacy of this summer could be a vital turning point in recognising that “the environment” isn’t something “over there”. The environment is the air we breathe and the water we drink; it’s the soil in which we grow our food; it’s the animals we identify with and the landscapes imprinted on our souls; the environment is us, all of us, together, integrally connected with everyone and everything else on this beautiful blue marble floating in space.

Damage the environment and we damage ourselves. And not just some of us – all of us together. Continue to think in our compartmentalised, linear fashion, and we’ll keep missing what’s coming, be it weeks of smoke, runs on toilet paper, or deadly pandemics.

What started to become clear thanks to the fires was rammed home by Covid-19. We are only as healthy as the least healthy among us. Everything we do relies on extraordinary networks of activity by people we’ve never met, crisscrossing the globe. And responding to a health crisis that was likely triggered in part by environmental destruction has world-changing impacts on the economy, on education, on social justice, on geopolitics.

The age of disconnection is over.

To bring us back to where we started, where does that leave the review of the EPBC Act?

We have an opportunity now to not just push for a new generation of environment laws, but to re-evaluate the whole deal, to cultivate a new political settlement based on ecological principles of living well together in harmony with the natural world, understanding our place as part of it as First Peoples did for millenniums, with an economy designed to serve people and planet.

As part of this, in the immediate term we need to advocate for vital improvements to the EPBC. It is extraordinary that the Howard legacy of deliberately excluding a project’s climate impacts from the triggers to require assessment still hasn’t been remedied. That must now be fixed, as must the fact that there is no mechanism for assessing the cumulative ecological impacts of various proposals. After this summer’s destruction of huge areas of remaining healthy ecosystems, we need to institute, in both legislation and the practice of assessment, a presumption of protection instead of a culture of managed destruction.

All this will, of course, be attacked as “green tape” and we have to be ready to actively defend it instead of changing the subject – and defend it on ecological grounds. Regulation is a vital part of the connective tissue which holds the body politic together. Removing it sees us fall apart. Covid-19 is, among other things, showing us the consequences of deregulating markets in health services, food supply and more.

Having that conversation in this way means we won’t just be advocating for marginal improvements, but will be working to change politics. We’ll be building into the political common sense the idea that corporations absolutely should be regulated to enforce environmental and social responsibilities, and that we can no longer consider shareholder profit to be their sole focus. That helps move our politics towards altering the DNA of corporations so they operate as part of the body politic rather than as cancer cells.

The flip side of this systemic shift is to institute legal rights for the natural world. If BHP has legal rights, why shouldn’t the Great Barrier Reef? Rights of nature is an increasingly mature legal field, instituted from New Zealand to Bolivia, India to parts of the US. We can and should at least insert them as a normative principle in the goals of the EPBC.

While we’re thinking at that level, a new ecological political settlement will need a rethink of federalism. Our system sees national and state governments cooperating to shut out community participation and scientific advice to facilitate destructive development. An effective regime based on a presumption of protection would see federal, state, territory and local governments enabling communities to collectively develop creative ideas at their local level, within the context of expert scientific advice, and coordinating those ideas at a regional and continental level.

If we shift environmental regulation from a process that is primarily responsive to demands of developers into a proactive, constructive, community-led system, we can see it morph from a defensive protection stance into one of active restoration, repair and regeneration. It can lead to the greening of cities and towns as we embrace the fact that habitats are not just “over there” but among us. It can create industrial jobs in coalmine rehabilitation. It can support regenerative agriculture, and cooperative sharing of scarce water. It can even open space for community-led conversations about relocation as the overheating world retreats from rising seas and inland desertification is inevitable.

Supporting and enabling communities to make decisions is also vital for rebuilding confidence in democracy, which has collapsed in recent years. The ongoing panic-buying response to Covid-19 suggests that the abject failure of government to provide leadership through the fires worsened this further. This is now an opportunity to rethink governance, reclaim agency for communities, build practices of trust and social cohesion, embedded in respect for expert advice.

Now it’s important to recognise that with this government we’re not going to get these kinds of changes. At best we might hold off the push to weaken the EPBC even further. But that shouldn’t stop us advocating for what we need. Quite the opposite.

Politics, like the natural world it operates within, is a system. It works in complex ways because all it is is the collected actions of humans, influenced by each other and by external impetuses such as the weather. Or viruses.

Over the past three months, a huge number of people made that conceptual leap. In recent weeks the crisis has become such that even mainstream politics finds it impossible to ignore.

At the same time, over this period numerous people decided to just get on with it, without waiting for government. In both bushfire response and the tremendous mutual aid response to Covid-19, millions of us are setting up local projects, or joining existing ones, that make life better, generate social cohesion, reduce our footprint, and cultivate an ethic of care – for ourselves, for each other, for the natural world we are part of.

If enough of us start doing this in our communities, and if enough submissions to the EPBC inquiry call for reforms that are embedded in ecological thinking, we will be putting a whole lot of small chocks under the lever. Each of those chocks is tiny. But together they can tip the balance.

All of a sudden, especially at a moment like this, change will come. SOURCE

 Tim Hollo is executive director of the Green Institute and visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s school of regulation and global government (RegNet)

Bailouts Must Support Workers And Incentivize Environmental Innovation

It seems almost inevitable that the Canadian government will bail out (once again) the oil and gas sector. But should governments around the world give bailouts to the wealthiest and most polluting industry in our economy?

Bailouts Must Support Workers And Incentivize Environmental Innovation, Below2C

“A smart response to this emergency could go a long way to addressing the larger ecological crisis looming on the horizon,” writes The Narwhal. Worldwide, the International Energy Agency is calling for governments to take into account climate challenges when designing stimulus and support packages. “This situation is a test of governments and companies’ commitment to clean energy transitions,” wrote executive director Fatih Birol.

Does a Fossil Bailout Make Sense?

In his recent article (first published in Policy Options and The Energy Mix) Mitchell Beer shows how the pandemic response must mobilize around low carbon solutions.

With the coronavirus pandemic devastating the global economy and pushing world oil prices over a cliff, the federal government has two potential options in dealing with the oil and gas industry. It can give in to the predictable lobbying from fossil fuel interests, or it can use the virtual shutdown of the economy for industry mobilization.

[Recently] Prime Minister Justin Trudeau passed a package of “extraordinary” measures, including $55 billion in business supports, aimed at keeping the Canadian economy afloat while the country largely shuts down to slow the spread of the virus. Right on cue, the prospect of a massive oil and gas bailout emerged as a widely touted, seemingly inevitable next step.

Calls for a fossil bailout began circulating, with the Alberta government and 65 of that province’s CEOs pitching Ottawa on a $15-billion industry relief plan, including share purchases for distressed oil and gas companies and a suspension of the federal carbon tax.

Wisely, federal officials signaled that Ottawa’s priority was to help out unemployed oil and gas workers, while directing funds to rehabilitate a backlog of abandoned oil wells that would otherwise take up to 2,800 years to clean and cost $260 billion in Alberta alone.

“We know the oil and gas sector has been particularly affected, and specific help is needed,” said Carlene Variyan, communications director to Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan. “We’re looking at all options—including helping maintain jobs in the industry by enabling workers to put their skills to use remediating the environmental liabilities associated with orphan wells.”

Should bailouts be linked to net-zero 2050 target?

The government appears to know what to do. December’s Throne Speech, which has been eclipsed by the pandemic, set a 2050 deadline for Canada to achieve net-zero emissions, supported by new initiatives on energy-efficient buildings, zero-emission vehicles, “clean, affordable power”, cleantech investment and climate adaptation.

Before the 2019 election, a two-member Advisory Council on Climate Action urged federal action on a zero-emission vehicle mandate and deep energy retrofits. One of the council co-chairs, Steven Guilbeault, now sits at the cabinet table as Minister of Canadian Heritage.

None of this is to suggest that Ottawa can or should be distracted from its most immediate priority: “flattening the curve” on the spread of the coronavirus.

But protecting the country and stabilizing the economy is not synonymous with shoring up a declining industry that has lost the confidence of international investors, currently loses money on every barrel of oil it produces, and accounts for a massive proportion of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s where Ottawa’s other option comes in. It begins with the industrial mobilization Trudeau has already announced, to deliver the rapid testing capacity, ventilators, masks and gowns the health system needs to confront the immediate crisis. But after that, there are other legitimate needs and important supply chains that can stabilize jobs in every region of the country, while setting the economy up for a quick rebound after the pandemic is under control.

Ottawa can begin tapping into those opportunities by:

Staying the course: O’Regan and Finance Minister Bill Morneau should stand their ground on directing any new oilpatch funding to workers and environmental remediation, not company buyouts. Politicians of most partisan stripes like to argue that governments shouldn’t pick winners and losers in a free market. This isn’t the time to bail out small and medium companies that have already enjoyed years of outlandish government subsidies and tax breaks.

Designing an orphan well program that works: Canadians rightly expect value for money when investing public funds. That means dollars for the orphan well program need independent oversight to deliver real jobs and real results. In the best of worlds, delinquent fossil producers would have cleaned up their own mess rather than leaving as many as 343,000 abandoned wells behind. As it stands, it might take a creative federal response to a solution that really falls (and, so far, fails) under provincial jurisdiction to get the work done and the jobs created.

Investing in low-carbon jobs: In the fall 2019 election that now feels like ancient history, the Liberal Party platform promised interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to support energy retrofits in 1.5 million homes. The intent was good, but the numbers may have been off—we need far more retrofits, and the cost could be much lower. Nearly a decade ago, builders in Windsor, Ontario brought costs down from $85,000 to $10,700 per home, by combining 95 retrofits in a single project. In the age of coronavirus, social distancing has shut down most construction sites. But deep energy retrofits require new skills for a small army of contractors and tradespeople and quickly ramping up e-training creates worthy, needed jobs for community colleges and construction teams. A period of social isolation is exactly the right time to double down on that work.

Fighting two epidemics at once: Rural communities are hurting as badly as urban ones and many of them were in more tenuous shape before the pandemic hit. In February, the co-founder of Canada’s first mental health organization run by and for farmers was shocked to see more than 400 people show up for a public meeting in Edmonton — and to learn that most of them knew a farmer who had taken their own life. The farm mental health crisis is often about deep economic uncertainty made worse by climate-driven weather extremes. Investing now in agriculture extension services and income supports for proven, sustainable, less carbon-intensive practices will make farms more resilient and food supplies more secure, help stabilize rural economies and protect Canadians whose lives were already at risk before COVID-19 arrived.

All these measures deliver cash infusions to help stabilize jobs and incomes during the pandemic. They all strengthen essential building blocks for a more stable, diversified, resilient economy which will be with us long after oil and gas enters its inevitable managed decline.

In the end, putting carbon solutions and community resilience at the heart of Canada’s pandemic response is about value for money. It’s a reliable path to investing in Canadians, especially the most vulnerable among us and not corporate bailouts. As much as any other moment in living memory, this pandemic demands solidarity. Ottawa has an opportunity to meet today’s urgent need, while taking a significant step towards the future economy it already wants to build. SOURCE

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