Just last week, the North Cowichan Climate Change Advisory Committee asked their council not to proceed with a plan for housing development on 20 per cent of Echo Heights forest in Chemainus — opposing the recommendation from municipal planners.
Council’s historical difficulty deciding whether to develop all or some of the Echo Heights forest, beyond the issue of preserving a scarce ecosystem, can be understood by asking one simple question: who profits and who pays the cost of economic damage caused by releasing greenhouse gases into our atmosphere?
On the profit side, converting 20 per cent of forest to housing is an easy calculation. The municipality will get about $7 million by selling housing lots. This money could fund other worthy projects, or be used to lower taxes — both reasonable goals.
But the economic costs of greenhouse gases released when you destroy a forest in order to expand urban sprawl is, to say the least, a more murky calculation. Let me try.
The B.C. government presently charges municipalities a direct cost of $25 per tonne of carbon dioxide that exceeds their stated goal of carbon neutrality. Destroying 20 per cent of this forest will increase carbon emissions by about 1,000 tonnes per year, so this development would have a direct carbon emission cost of $25,000 ($25 times 1,000 tonnes).
But importantly, indirect costs of carbon emissions are certainly much greater than this amount. For example, damage from Hurricane Sandy in New York last year was $70 billion, and other costs keep piling up — flooding in Calgary, droughts in America’s farm belt, rising oceans destroying farmland in Bangladesh and on and on.
We pay these costs indirectly through higher home insurance rates, international aid money to areas impacted by global warming, higher food prices and in ways not even recognized as a cost of climate change — like $10 million for new dikes on Beverly and Lakes Roads. From what I read, these costs could be 10 times the government’s price of $25 per tonne.
Importantly, citizens of the world pay most of these costs, not citizens of North Cowichan. You don’t agree? Well, ask some homeowner in New York if climate change has a cost when he has seen his house value fall to near zero due to damage from flooding caused by unusual storms and rising ocean levels.
This dilemma of obvious direct profits from development but less obvious costs from climate change is why individuals, and governments, are not acting more vigorously to reduce carbon emissions.
That’s a pity — not because I am some eco-freak that opposes any and all development. But because ignoring impacts of climate change means that when a random massive storm eventually hits our community, the cost to North Cowichan citizens may be huge. As I write this, CBC news is reporting a “storm of the century” in England.
Remember, overland flooding due to climate change is considered an act of God and so we can’t get home insurance to protect ourselves from that cost. The irony is that, really, insurance companies have got it wrong — carbon emissions are an act of humans.
Cowichan Carbon Buster