I don’t know enough about our provincial Liberal government’s overall record on the environment to pronounce on it with any confidence. I have, however, been following their performance on climate change. I know how I feel about it, but finding the right word is a challenge. Perhaps adjectives like “duplicitous” or “contemptuous” are too strong. But consider this.

A couple of weeks ago the legislature approved the Sustainable Development Act. Introduced and passed over a mere five sitting days, it was panned by the opposition as a step backward for overall environmental stewardship but touted by the government as a bold advance in the fight against climate change.

“It puts a high priority on fighting climate change,” said the Environment Minister.“We have been a long leader (sic) in fighting that, and we’ll continue.”

A couple of days later Statistics Canada issued its 2018 tally of fuels used by electric utilities, casting some doubt on the minister’s claim. For the second year in a row, coal consumed to make electricity was up in Nova Scotia, reaching nearly two million tons. And power generation from coal was at its highest level since 2014. So much for leadership.

Coal Generation    
20142015201620172018
5,254,999 megawatts4,869,000 mw4,826,569 mw4,843,661 mw4,970,301mw
Source: Table 25-10-0019-01

There are several facets to the climate change issue in Nova Scotia, but it is generally acknowledged that burning coal to generate electricity is a big part of the problem. The Conservative government of Rodney Macdonald started the off-coal movement. The NDP government of Darrell Dexter followed through with GhG caps on Nova Scotia Power, renewable electricity targets and upgraded energy efficiency programs.

With help from a couple of heavy industry closures, the measures had some positive impact. Greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 30 per cent between 2005 and 2014, from 23 to 16 million tons. In opposition the Liberals attacked the NDP’s carbon pollution policies at every turn. In government, they’ve been content to leave those policies in place. At the same time, they’ve revelled in the province’s past success in cutting emissions and touted those to come from hooking up with the Muskrat Falls hydro project, another Dexter-era initiative.

The new numbers on coal usage expose the hollowness of the Liberals’ pretensions. And the picture becomes worse when comparisons are made with other coal-powered miscreant jurisdictions. Alberta, by far the largest user of coal for power, slashed its consumption by 33 per cent in 2018 as many industrial users abandoned the coal-heavy grid in favour of natural gas cogeneration.

 201620172018Percentage change 2016-2018
Canada33.53mt 33.31mt25.97mt-22.5 per cent
Nova Scotia 1.83mt 1.89mt 1.95mt+ 6.6 per cent
Alberta21.97mt21.78mt14.75mt-32.9 per cent
Source: Statistics Canada
Table 25-10-0017-01

With Alberta sharply reducing its use of coal for electricity, Nova Scotia made a dubious move up the pecking order – from being responsible for 5.67 per cent of the coal used for power in Canada in 2017 to 7.51per cent in 2018.

And then there’s the situation in the United States. Donald Trump famously promised the miners and mine owners of West Virginia and Kentucky he would make coal great again. But despite his worst efforts to undermine international action on climate change, coal production and coal-fired electricity continue to decline in the States. As utilities switch to natural gas or renewables, coal generation is down over six per cent since Trump came to power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nova Scotia – better for coal than Trump – might even fit on a button.

Wrong targets

The McNeil government’s lacklustre record and our increased reliance on coal did not receive a great deal of attention from the 90 or so citizens who made verbal or written submissions on the Sustainable Development Act when it was the subject of a one-day once-over at the Law Amendments committee. At the committee the main focus was on the future, specifically the relatively near future – 2030.

The Sustainable Development Act sets a greenhouse gas 2030 target of 53 per cent below 2005, which works out to emissions limited to 11.2mt. Many presenters called for a target of 50 per cent under 1990 levels, or 9.8mt. Each target was framed in the context of Nova Scotia doing its bit to help Canada fulfill international commitments.

At this point Canada, or at least Environment and Climate Change Canada, has a different take on Nova Scotia’s role. Nova Scotia’s bold 53 per cent reduction has already been factored in by the feds in the latest Greenhouse Gas Inventory presented to the United Nations.[1] It’s part of the Reference Case which shows Canada’s emissions in 2030 at 677mt, more than 160mt short of the target of 513.

The report to the UN contains a second scenario, factoring in “additional measures” that will supposedly get the country within 79mt of the target. But here’s the rub for Nova Scotia. Those additional measures – the ones that will leave the country 79 mt. short of its much discredited 2030 targets – assumes Nova Scotia will emit just seven million tons in 2030. New goalposts appear before the current ones have even been proclaimed.

The Sustainable Development Act is the result of a last-minute response to the need for updating of 2020 targets contained in the widely admired Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act. It leaves most of the details to be worked out, including an actual emission-reducing climate change plan, due by the end of next year. One can only hope that the plan and the process for developing it will be an improvement over the travesty just witnessed.

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[1] Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2018 Canada’s Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollutants Emissions Projections.