By Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Businesses are urging the B.C. government to capitalize on Ottawa’s offer to invest hundreds of millions to save threatened ecosystems in the run-up to the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal next month.
A total of 250 businesses are backing a resolution urging B.C.’s new Premier David Eby to stave off the extinction and climate crisis by backing the federal government’s 30×30 promise — to protect 30 per cent of the country’s land and waters by 2030.
Canada hopes to secure similar commitments from other global leaders at the UN conference, also known as COP15, where countries from around the world will negotiate a biodiversity framework to slow the human-caused mass extinction event that risks wiping out a million species.
Of all provinces and territories, B.C. is the most biodiverse, but it also has the greatest number of species at threat of extinction. As many as 278 species — including the burrowing owl, southern mountain caribou, American wolverine, and western tiger salamander — are at risk.
The businesses are partnering with the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance and Nature Canada to push for permanent protections in the most endangered areas, such as the southern Interior grasslands, the coastal Douglas fir zone on eastern Vancouver Island, and the province’s iconic coastal old-growth forests.
Businesses have government’s ear
There’s a range of small- to medium-size companies involved, representing the tourism, hospitality and food sectors as well as marketing, tech, design and consulting firms, said Ken Wu, executive director for the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance.
Canada’s business sector and other societal groups outside the environmental movement are increasingly aware that safeguarding biodiversity is critical to protect human health and to foster a more diverse, resilient and prosperous economy, Wu said.
That understanding isn’t limited to Canada. The World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Risks Report warns biodiversity loss is one of the top three threats facing humanity in the next decade, in tandem with climate action failure and extreme weather.
Joining forces with non-traditional allies such as businesses, unions, faith groups and non-profits has a much greater effect in securing conservation goals and the government’s ear, Wu said.
“Businesses exert a disproportionate amount of influence on all governments for the simple reason that they generate a lot of tax revenues, provide jobs and act as a foundation of the economy,” he said.
“So governments tend to listen to the business lobby a lot more attentively than they do the average environmental protester.”
British Columbia has yet to commit to Canada’s targets for protected areas.
The province reports having protected nearly 20 per cent of its land base, but the figure is the result of creative accounting — with only 15.5 per cent truly under robust protection in parks or actual nature conservation areas, Wu said, pointing to a 2022 study by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s B.C. chapter.
Flouting international standards for conservation designation, B.C. is reporting an additional four per cent of “protected” land included in old-growth management areas, wildlife habitat areas and wildland zones, CPAWS BC found.
Though the designations include some protective measures, they are not permanent and can be quietly adjusted by the government, Wu said. Most alarmingly, they often allow for industrial activity such as clearcut logging, oil and gas, and road building in at-risk ecosystems like valley bottom old-growth forests.
Another crack in the province’s conservation effort is that areas featuring some of the highest biodiversity values are underrepresented in the BC Parks system, while alpine or high-elevation areas with lower biodiversity and less competing demand from industry or development are better protected.
Negotiating a Nature Agreement
The province and the federal government are currently negotiating a joint Nature Agreement to strengthen conservation in the province in partnership with Indigenous peoples.
Ottawa has set aside $2.3 billion for the protection of terrestrial ecosystems across Canada, of which B.C.’s share could be between $200 million to $400 million — or more — if it steps up and creates new protected areas, especially those stewarded by First Nations, Wu said. The federal government has also committed $55 million specifically for protecting at-risk old-growth forests. But B.C needs to invest in biodiversity and provide matching funding, he added.
Wu is hopeful that with COP15 around the corner and a new premier in place, the B.C. government will shake off its lacklustre commitment to the environment.
Eby has pledged to block new infrastructure for oil and gas and speed up protections of old-growth forests, but details are still scarce.
Governments may be wary about losing industrial revenue and jobs if they create parks or protected areas, Wu said, but studies show protected, biodiverse areas can generate sustainable local economies and jobs in the tourism, real estate, recreation and hospitality sectors.
“When you protect nature, you have a better environmental quality of life, and it attracts skilled labour to those regions,” Wu said.
Scott Sinclair, a signatory to the business resolution, agreed, saying B.C.’s biodiversity hot spots draw people from all over the world to live and work.
“Protecting our endangered ecosystems is a huge priority that benefits our company, our staff and our economy,” said Sinclair, CEO of SES Consulting, a firm specializing in improving buildings’ energy efficiency.
“SES has been able to hire amazing staff with specialized training in efficiency who share our conservation values, partially because of their desire to live close to the giant trees, spawning salmon, soaring eagles, bears and so much more.”
-Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer