Hundreds of people march through a city street with a banner reading “We are in a climate emergency”
Students and their supporters, carrying a banner reading, “We are in a climate emergency” at the School Strike for Climate Change in Halifax on Sept. 24, 2021. Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

Opposition politicians held the Houston government’s feet to the fire on Wednesday during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, which was following up on a 2017 auditor general’s report on managing climate change.

The Department of Environment and Climate Change has completed nine of 10 recommendations and is struggling to complete the final one: “identifying risks associated with climate change.” That includes coastal erosion due to rising sea level affecting homes and businesses, impacts to farms, fish, and forests due to warmer temperatures, and impacts to the electrical grid and other infrastructure due to more extreme weather.

A man wearing a black suit, grey shirt and grey tie speaks into a microphone at a podium. In the background are three Nova Scotia flags, coloured blue, yellow and red.
Environment Minister Tim Halman speaks to reporters in Halifax on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford Credit: Zane Woodford

The assessment is supposed to tell Nova Scotians what to expect for the next 80 years, using the most up-to-date federal and provincial data. It’s taken almost five years to develop, and the problem — at least from an ecological perspective — is the lack of urgency on the part of the previous and current governments.

Up until two weeks ago, Environment Minister Tim Halman had said the risk assessment would be delivered “by spring.” Now he said he remains “hopeful” it will be released by the end of June.

The risk assessment will be the first shoe to drop. The second shoe will be the Climate Action Plan to deal with those risks and outline concrete steps to achieve the objectives under the Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act (EGCCRA):

In pursuit of sustainable prosperity, the Act establishes the goals of reducing the province’s green-house gas emissions by at least 53% below 2005 levels by 2030, and net zero emissions by 2050.

A headshot of a smiling woman with short curly hair and wearing a black blazar and printed top.
Claudia Chender, MLA for Dartmouth South.

Claudia Chender, MLA for Dartmouth South, will be acclaimed the leader of the Nova Scotia NDP next month. The NDP introduced environmental legislation with significant carbon reduction targets back in 2007. Chender is clearly frustrated it has taken so long to figure out how the province intends to meet them.

“We’ve been looking for these targets, this interim plan, for at least four years. So why has it taken so long?” Chender asked.

“There has been significant commitment to achieving the 28 environmental responsibility goals set out in the legislation and the work is well underway to complete the Climate Plan,” replied Lora MacEachern, deputy minister for Environment and Climate Change.

A deadline in the Act requires the Climate Plan to be filed by the end of this year. MacEachern said she is “hopeful” it will be ready late this fall. The plan will lay out the actions needed to be taken by communities, government departments, businesses, and citizens to comply with legislated targets to reduce carbon emissions that are fueling global warming.

“The Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act (EGCCRA) is legislation that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country,” noted Jason Hollett, associate deputy minister for Environment and Climate Change. “It was groundbreaking when it first came out in 2007 with all-party support that codified provincial goals and objectives… The new version of EGCCRA (passed in November 2021) has greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets for 2030 that are the most aggressive in the country. It codifies our need to get to net-zero by 2050, which is where the science tells us we need to be if we want to make a meaningful contribution to addressing climate change.”

“Not only that, 24 of the 28 goals are specific to climate change and they provide good direction on building codes, energy efficiency programs. It gets into areas such as climate change adaptation. That has provided a lot of work for our team. We are taking the time to get it right and we are excited to get it out.”

Are higher fuel prices ahead?

The Environment Department has other pressing work to do without any apparent increase in its budget to tackle climate change.

The cap-and-trade system that Nova Scotia introduced five years ago to comply with federal emissions standards on carbon is now undergoing a thorough review. It was due anyway, but new federal requirements that will see the price of carbon increase by $15 a tonne next year (2023) and continue until it reaches $170 a tonne in 2030 has intensified the pressure.

Nova Scotia must decide whether to stick with the cap-and-trade system or pass along the increase through a carbon tax as British Columbia and most other Canadian provinces have chosen. Nova Scotia might also choose a hybrid model.

Under cap-and-trade in Nova Scotia, annual auctions among polluting companies allowed them to buy and sell a prescribed number of allowances to reduce the overall amount of carbon being emitted or “capped.” The money raised at the auctions has gone into a Green Fund that has contributed tens of millions of dollars to Energy Efficiency programs (mostly home retrofits) and is municipalities with $15 million over three years for projects to adapt to climate change. Consumers benefited when the price for gasoline at the pumps and home heating oil rose by only 1-1.5 cents a litre each year, a bargain compared to all other provinces.

Yesterday, during the Public Accounts meeting, Liberal MLA Brendan Maguire (Halifax-Armdale) was aggressive in pursuit of answers about what consumers should expect to pay for gas in the future.

“Will Nova Scotians see higher carbon taxes in the future?” he demanded, arguing that the recent price increases at the pumps has voters spooked.

“We are looking at all the options and as soon as we have more information about what the impact will be, we will provide it,” MacEachern replied.

“The federal government’s carbon pricing benchmark is more stringent,” Hollett added. “However, there is still some flexibility for provinces. Until we can land on a negotiated settlement with the federal government, we can’t talk about the impact of the carbon tax on Nova Scotians.”

Both Hollett and MacEachern said they hope to be in a position to tell Nova Scotians whether cap-and-trade will be extended or replaced with something new by the end of this year.

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

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