A greener future

Nova Scotia’s government isn’t prepared to spend much on climate change, but environmentalists are cautiously optimistic about its plans 

During the recent Nova Scotia provincial election, I had my eyes on the TV and my phone in a sweat-soaked palm as I watched the punditry. Twitter is such a bubble. An echo chamber of panic from people who share my worry that humanity is in trouble, due to raging toxicity, biodiversity, and climate crises. 

With the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative party set for a big win, it was prognosis negative. 

Until a hopeful beacon from Brendan Haley. 

He’s the policy director for Efficiency Canada, a former energy coordinator at Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre, and long-time Nova Scotia political commentator. He noted that the Progressive Conservatives had campaigned left of the provincial Liberals on many issues. Even more importantly, they “have a legacy of climate leadership.” 

The party’s election platform builds on that legacy and its language, which brought us the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act of 2007. The PCs promise a new “Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act,” intended as a renewal and expansion of its predecessor. 

The 2007 act set the goals and laid the framework for significant growth in the portion of our energy use coming from renewable sources (like solar, wind and hydro) from nine per cent a decade ago to a projected 60 per cent next year, according to Nova Scotia Power. Some key commitments from the PC election platform

• 80 per cent renewable energy by 2030, eliminating dependence on coal,

• Improved energy efficiency programs; greater access to affordable clean energy,

• Greener agriculture, forestry, and fisheries,

• Implementing 2018’s “Independent Review of Forest Practices in Nova Scotia,”

• Protect at least 20 per cent of land and water by 2030,

• Ensure “low-impact, sustainable aquaculture,” 

• 30 per cent zero-emission vehicles by 2030,

• Up to 50 per cent off the installation cost of an EV charging station for each gas station,

• All new provincial buildings will be net-zero emitters, 

• New provincial active transportation strategy with walking trails and cycling paths.

In all, the PCs promised just over $7 million in new environmental spending, most of it going to eco-friendly building and active-transportation infrastructure. By comparison, the entire Liberal pre-election budget plan for the Department of Environment and Climate Change was about $42 million (from an overall budget of nearly $12 billion). Nobody spends much on environment. 

Perhaps the most significant component of the 17-page sustainability platform is the opening sentence: “We are facing a climate emergency and human activities are the main cause, producing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with no signs of slowing down.” Twenty years ago, far more leftist parties scoffed at phrases like “climate emergency.” This time, every party promised at least 80 per cent renewable energy by 2030. 

“They all had substantial and at least in parts ambitious environmental platforms,” says Maggy Burns, executive director of Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. “It’s gratifying to see. The recognition of the need for progressive climate targets is really important. It appears to be a genuine platform.”

“I’m committed to greater land and water protection,” Premier Houston says in a recent interview with Unravel Halifax, “(and) having more renewable sources for electricity and strengthening programs to meet our clean energy goals.” 

Brendan Haley’s comforting tweets the night of the Nova Scotian election were aimed at the whole country. He later told The Energy Mix that Nova Scotia is “the most important province to look at in terms of Canada’s energy transition. It’s doing the things the rest of the country needs to do to transition to a low-carbon economy.” 

Those things started with the PCs and their 2007 environmental legislation, but they continued with subsequent NDP and Liberal provincial governments. Haley feels that the door is open to carefully consider the most effective next steps, based on proven approaches to addressing climate change. 

“Renaming (the existing act) actually welcomes a deeper dive into what the agenda should look like,” he explains. “A lot of the successes have stemmed from a strong evidence-based process.” Haley says that was the case in developing feed-in tariffs, which gave specific communities buy-in and ownership over their own renewable energy programs, making them much less controversial than they were elsewhere. 

When the new government officially introduced its environmental legislation in late October (with a Climate Change Plan promised for spring), however, Haley was underwhelmed by its vague commitments to future energy efficiency programming. There were no clear targets and Haley noted that Nova Scotia Power undervalued energy savings by failing to include carbon pricing in its long-term modelling. The language around net-zero building codes is also unclear and seems to lack ambition. However, “there is still potential to add in some energy efficiency goals,” Haley tweeted. 

The yet-unknown details of what specific measures the province will use to meet its targets, especially the 80-per-cent renewable target, are of course where the devil resides. Haley notes two significant risks. First, our dependence on hydroelectric imports from Quebec, using a still uncertain transmission system. 

Second, our overall demand for energy could grow with an increased population, or if the province succeeds in getting more electric vehicles on the road. That one looks like a tall task. 

“The latest data says only 0.3 per cent of new vehicle registrations are electric in Nova Scotia,” Haley says. “British Columbia is at 8.4 per cent. They have a regulation that requires that a certain percentage of auto sales be electric. They have very strong consumer incentives. They have much more comprehensive charging networks.” 

Haley applauds the goal of expanding the charging network with incentives for gas stations, but says that consumer incentives are also needed. “The policy measures do not match the target. Nova Scotia’s charging network is well behind Prince Edward Island.” 

Whether or not Nova Scotia meets the electric-vehicle and renewable energy goals, our energy use needs to be more efficient. “An Efficiency Resource Standard fits very well with this platform,” Haley says. That means setting goals not only on how much of our grid is from renewable sources, but also reduction targets for overall energy use — for example, a two-per-cent annual reduction due to improved efficiency. He’d like to see such targets added to the new legislation. 

Haley hopes the PCs will take things a step further when it comes to net-zero buildings, wondering why they would stop at provincial buildings when they could simply adopt a new “net-zero, energy-ready and zero-carbon heating building code. Nova Scotia has a long history of adopting latest building codes rapidly. There are going to be clear codes [federally] on how to make all new buildings net zero,” as British Columbia has, he says. 

Efficiency should also reduce energy poverty (the situation in which a household spends more than six per cent of its income on home energy). That applies to 37 per cent of Nova Scotian households — third highest in Canada. It should be natural for a government that campaigned heavily on improved health care to address energy poverty, since the inability to properly heat, or ventilate, your home is a serious health concern. 

Despite those devilish details, Haley sees an opportunity to set a progressive course against the climate crisis. “It’s up to Nova Scotians to demand the new government take this seriously,” he says. “Remind them of their own history and the larger history of achieving meaningful greenhouse gas reductions.” 

Maggy Burns of the Ecology Action Centre is confident that people will hold the new government accountable. “Part of what makes me optimistic is that we know how much people care,” she says. “We’re seeing the impacts of the biodiversity crisis. It’s making businesses and other stakeholders cognizant of the costs.” 

Maggy Burns. Photo: Maddi Tang

A significant concern is what is considered renewable. 

The current goal includes four per cent biomass, which is touted as a more efficient use of forestry byproducts, while crticis say it amounts to clear cutting trees to burn for energy. The target also includes 10 per cent natural gas. The problem with that, according to the Ecology Action Centre, is that “Natural gas infrastructure has methane and other emissions associated with it. Methane is 84 times as powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.” 

Burns was happy to see land and water protection in the PC platform: “They’re the only party that included freshwater protection.” She’s also pleased to see the aquaculture question raised. “We want to see the phase out of the open-pen fish farming,” she says, in favour of land-based facilities and shellfish aquaculture. 

But on the whole, Burns says she and her cleagues are ready to “spring out of bed to call all the new ministers,” because they committed to legislate ambitious targets. 

True to its red Tory roots, the Nova Scotia PC Party platform did not back its commitment with big spending. “The investment was not adequate for the commitments,” Burns says. “It’s inconsistent with the scale of the crisis and what the public wants.” She points specifically to a commitment of $100,000 for six kilometres of painted bike lanes as insufficient. 

What’s worse is that the PCs inherit a commitment to offshore oil exploration; the last budget the Liberals tabled committed about $10-million to it. Houston isn’t planning to reverse course. 

“Government supports the development of our offshore resources when it is appropriate to do so,” he says. “A good example of this is our continued commitment to the moratorium on George’s Bank. As well, we have one of the strongest offshore regulatory regimes in the world, which has established processes for considering and balancing the various interests before allowing any exploration or development activity.” 

However strong the regulations, oil and gas exploration doesn’t jibe with broader human goals of preventing catastrophic climate change. As Burns says, “You can’t chip away at the edges while continuing to exacerbate the crises.” The $10 million investment exceeds promised new spending on climate action, wildland protection, and active transportation combined.

There are also some odd digressions in the platform. The PCs want more environmental
education in classrooms. That’s good, but the focus is to teach kids “how their actions affect the environment and climate change” and “how they can do their part.”

It’s your fault, kids. Now get busy, it’s cleanup time.

More bizarrely, there’s a hefty portion of the platform committed to ramping up fines for litterers (including illegal dumping), as if that will magically generate revenue for active transportation infrastructure. No
mention of added bylaw officers.

Litter is unsightly but there are deeper roots to address. Nova Scotia’s waste management system draws praise around the globe, but waste diversion numbers plateaued nearly two decades ago.

“What you need to be thinking about is extended producer responsibility,” Burns says. Instead of hunting down slobs too lazy to find the nearest bin, focus on the corporations that create the waste in the first place, and hold them responsible. That would be the kind of bold solution that gives us a fighting chance against climate and
biodiversity crises.

Burns feels Nova Scotia is ready for that kind of leadership. “I’m hopeful they’ll want to work with civil society organizations.”

With additional reporting by Ameeta Vohra.

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