Protesters hold signs including one reading, "The climate is changing why aren't we?" in front of a grey and glass building with the Nova Scotia Power logo on the side.
Protesters march from Nova Scotia Power headquarters during the School Strike for Climate Change in Halifax on Sept. 24, 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

 It’s the last day of 2021 – an excellent time to consider how well Nova Scotia applied the brakes on the pace of climate change. 

But answers to related questions remain elusive amid shifting “goals” and “benchmarks,” while concrete actions that would underscore the urgency to keep the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century are rare. Were climate change efforts overshadowed by the pandemic? Just slow to get out of the gate? Or is the driver waiting to apply the emergency brake as we careen down a steep hill? (Spoiler alert: It would be too late then).

HRM floated the idea of a 3% tax increase to make the city much more energy efficient and defend it against rising sea level. The backlash was immediate, and the outcome of the proposed tax increase remains hazy. Despite the received wisdom that an ounce of preventive funding now could prevent a pound of expensive cure later (see year-enders from BC, Alberta, etc), increasing taxation is still a third rail for politicians.

Not much happened to implement professor Bill Lahey’s 2018 recommendations to move to ecological-based forestry. 

Mi’kmaw water protectors at the Alton Gas site. Photo is a still from film “There’s Something In The Water,” courtesy Elliot Page

On the other hand, two proposed megaprojects that would have substantially amped up carbon emissions — Pieridae Energy’s LNG terminal and Alton Natural Gas Storage — were abandoned by their proponents.

One action that did receive attention and offered a glimmer of hope came in October. The Progressive Conservative government of Tim Houston passed a law mandating stronger targets for GHG emissions, more renewable sources of energy to produce electricity, and more land protection.

Here’s a short refresher from the Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act: 

• 80% of Nova Scotia’s energy to be supplied by renewable energy by 2030
• Reduce GHG emissions to at least 53% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2050.
• 30% of vehicle sales by 2030 to be zero-emission vehicles
• Conserve at least 20% of total land and water mass

“We’re thrilled to see this set of wide-ranging targets in legislation,” said Marla MacLeod, director of programs with the Ecology Action Centre. “Now we need accountability, follow-through, and immediate action to address the climate and biodiversity emergencies.”

The new targets are more ambitious than the old targets. So how did the province do in 2021 meeting the old targets?

The province gave Nova Scotia Power a three-year period from 2019-2022 in which to generate an average of 40% of electricity from renewable sources, such as wind, water, solar, and the dubiously “green” biomass. The original 2020 deadline was extended by the McNeil government after years of delay tied to the Muskrat Falls hydroelectricity project. 

Neither Nova Scotia Power nor the province would provide the Examiner with a ballpark estimate of how much renewable electricity was generated during 2021. The final report will be filed in February. It’s probably very close to the amount generated by renewables in 2020 — 29% — because no large source of renewable electricity has materialized. Averaging 40% over three years means that in 2022, the pressure is on Nova Scotia Power to generate well over 50% its electricity from renewable sources if it’s going to hit the target and comply with the legislation.

Nova Scotia had already met an earlier target set under previous legislation to reduce GHG emissions 10% below 1990 levels by 2020. Jason Hollett, the associate deputy minister in the renamed Department of Environment and Climate Change, said the province actually came in 17% below 1990 levels. Nova Scotia Power also has a “hard cap” of 7.5 megatonnes on its emissions. In 2020, the power company emitted 6.28 megatonnes, well below its cap. 

How many goalposts are on this field?

A protester holds a sign reading, “Be a part of the solution not the pollution!” during the School Strike for Climate Change in Halifax on Sept. 24, 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

But wait — the situation gets much more complicated. Translating from the 1990 Kyoto benchmark to the 2005 baseline that emerged after the 2015 Paris Accord is difficult. 

Nova Scotia’s new Environmental Goals legislation passed in 2021 uses 2005 as the benchmark to set new targets for GHG emissions. The first goal is 53% below 2005 levels by 2030. In order to keep temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, the goal needs to be 58%, not 53%, according to NDP leader Gary Burrill. If you were to use the 1990 Kyoto benchmark, emissions would need to drop 50% by 2030. 

Nova Scotia Power accounts for 40% of the province’s GHG emissions. The company claims it is unable to estimate the amount of carbon it emitted in 2021 until a third-party verifies the amount and the numbers are filed with the province at the end of March and May 2022.

Neither Nova Scotia Power nor the Environment Department — which is the regulator — is prepared to make any ballpark estimate in the meantime. While governments routinely go public with budget updates part way through the fiscal year, providing even an estimate of the tonnes of carbon emitted in say, the first nine months of the calendar year is apparently too much to hope or expect.

Provincial cap-and-trade legislation also requires the power company to verify its GHG emissions over a four-year period between 2019 and 2022. Nova Scotia Power says its emissions aren’t supposed to exceed 22.058 megatonnes over four years. In the first two years, the company used up slightly more than half that allocation, hitting 12.85 megatonnes. That put pressure on last year,2021, and next year to accelerate the pace of reducing its carbon footprint. Unfortunately, at this point, there isn’t any available information for 2021.

Last May, Hollett told the Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Growth that climate change was going to affect every facet of our daily life.

“We expect to see between one and 1.5 metres of rising sea levels in Nova Scotia by the end of this century,” said Hollett. “In combination with winds and storms, this can worsen coastal erosion, coastal flooding, and lead to the permanent submergence of land. Lastly, the Atlantic Ocean is becoming more acidic and ocean temperatures are increasing. All of this means changes to species on land and in water, to natural resources and resource-based sectors like tourism, agriculture, fishing, and forestry that depend on stable climate conditions.”

Hollett told politicians a “Risk Assessment Study” that looks at the impact of climate change on every government department would be released in 2022. That study was begun in 2020 and Environment officials now say it will be out this spring. The province may also be able to draw on additional data and expertise from a newly created regional climate services centre announced a week before Christmas. 

Ottawa will spend $1.65 million over the next three years on CLIMAtlantic, which “will provide communities, economic sectors and governments throughout Atlantic Canada with access to regional climate data, information, tools, training and support,” according to the news release from the federal government. It promises at least one regional climate service specialist based in every Atlantic province collaborating with what appears to be a largely virtual office based in New Brunswick.

In the meantime, there are stirrings of activity among some provincial government departments. The Department of Agriculture is working with Christmas tree growers and sheep and beef producers to adapt to changing climate patterns. The Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is collecting data on changes in the ocean that could affect exports from coastal communities as well as potential aquaculture sites. Municipal Affairs is undertaking flood-risk planning. In partnership with Ottawa, some 60 km of dykes along the Bay of Fundy are being upgraded to withstand more frequent storms and increased rainfall. 

As always, talk is cheap and it never runs out of fuel. Proof of action is better.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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