N.B. government fights climate change cautiously

Written by Norm Knight on April 2, 2018

“To get things greener,” says UNB economist Herb Emery, “we’ve got to get Canadians out of their cars, but that’s very politically unpopular.” Photo by Norm Knight.

Under federal pressure, the government of New Brunswick has introduced climate change legislation.  It calls for a threefold reduction in greenhouse gas emission from the province by 2050.  But critics say the legislation lacks measures to achieve the greenhouse gas reduction goal.

Lois Corbett, Executive Director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, calls the Climate Change Act “uninspiring” and says: “There are no new incentives, financial or otherwise, to innovate, reduce pollution, or change behaviour.”

Bill 39, the Climate Change Act, is New Brunswick’s climate change legislation. It was introduced in December and has two main provisions: it sets greenhouse gas reduction targets, and it establishes a Climate Change Fund to help fight global warming.

The Act is part of Canada’s effort to fulfill the climate commitments it made in Paris, France in December 2015.

Ten months after the Paris accord, Ottawa told provinces they must tax greenhouse gas emissions at no less than $10 a tonne in 2018, rising $10 yearly to $50 a tonne in 2022. Alternatively, Ottawa will accept cap-and-trade schemes if they would result in a 30 per cent reduction from 2005 emission levels by 2030.

Two local experts regard the $50 carbon tax as inadequate.

Louise Comeau, director of UNB’s Environmental and Sustainable Development Research Centre, says $50 a tonne is less than the “social cost” of greenhouse gas emissions.

Herb Emery, Chair of Regional Economics at UNB, says $50 a tonne won’t deter people from using fossil fuels: “To get any reduction in emissions you have to go to $200 a tonne or something like that.”

Speaking of the federal carbon price schedule, Emery says: “Figure it this way. When it’s all through let’s say it adds 20 cents a litre to gasoline.  We were paying that anyway at the pump about five years ago in most parts of Canada. So, the price of gas came down and now they’re going to put a tax on it to put it where it was but it’s not going to change anyone’s behaviour.”

A tax on carbon dioxide can be implemented by taxing the fuel that creates it.  A tax of ten dollars a tonne on CO2 equates to two and a half cents a litre on gasoline.

Bill 39 sets up a “hybrid system” in which the N.B. government will apply the carbon levy on small businesses and consumers, while leaving it up to the federal government to tackle the province’s large industrial polluters: those over 50,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas a year.  They are the Irving oil refinery, NB Power, and the pulp mills.  But Emery predicts that they will be exempted on grounds of economic hardship or other reasons and that the federal government will go after consumers in New Brunswick, not the large emitters.

“The federal backstop is really going to be more about taxes on consumers,” Emery says.

The Climate Change Fund, which is the concrete measure in Bill 39, will consist of monies transferred from the already existing provincial tax on gasoline and diesel fuel.

Gasoline will continue to be taxed at 15.5 cents a litre but starting this year 2.3 cents of that will go into the Climate Change Fund instead of into general revenue.

The amount is notionally in line with the federal price schedule, but represents no additional cost to fuel users and therefore no new disincentive to fuel use.

Corbett and Comeau say Ottawa will reject the New Brunswick plan for that reason. But provincial Environment Minister Serge Rousselle says Ottawa will accept it.

Echoing the federal schedule, the transfers into the Climate Change Fund will be stepped up each year until 2022, when 12.6 cents of every 15.5 cents of the gasoline tax will go into the Fund.  That would put about $180 million into the Fund annually.

A 125 metre high wind turbine of the type deployed at the Kent Hills wind farm south of Moncton costs $6.5 million and delivers about 7 GWh of electricity in a year.  It would take 550 such towers to replace all of the fossil-fuel generated electricity currently consumed in New Brunswick.

Physicist James Hansen, who in the late 1980s was one of the first to bring wide attention to the danger of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming, has called the Paris agreement “just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.”

The scientific consensus is that global surface air temperature at the end of this century must not be more than 2 degrees C above its pre-industrial level, if irreversible and catastrophic effects are to be avoided.

The Paris signatories accepted this target but the emissions reductions they committed to are not on a trajectory to meet it.

A study done at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (M.I.T.) and another by a European team published in the journal Nature in 2016 found that if Paris-type commitments are continued throughout this century, global warming will be more than 2 degrees.  They looked mainly at emissions intensity and found that if reductions occur each decade this century in the same proportion that the Paris signatories have promised for 2020-2030, warming will be about 3 degrees in 2100.

Estimates of the harm to global GDP that would result from serious global warming vary widely.  If the warming is 4 degrees at year 2100, it is thought that the reduction in global GDP will be between zero and 25 per cent, relative to a no-warming scenario.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is the leading scientific body on climate change, global warming will result in species extinctions. However, the IPCC says that loss of habitat due to urbanisation, agriculture, and other human activities will probably remain a more important driver of extinctions than climate change this century.

The rate of species extinction, prior to humans, was between 0.3 and 0.003 per cent of species every thousand years. Humans have accelerated that rate by between 50 and 5,000 times, mainly by destroying habitat.

The main survival response of species to past episodes of rapid climate change has been migration, as opposed to in-place evolutionary adaptation which, for most species, would have been too slow.

Fragmentation of habitat by human landscapes now makes migration more difficult.

Under a high emissions scenario, temperature regions in many parts of Canada would be moving northward 7 kilometres a year by the middle of this century. That is faster than many trees and herbacious plants can shift their ranges.

Per capita Canadian and U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are currently 20 tonnes CO2 equivalent per year.  The world average is 6. New Brunswick’s emissions are near the Canada-U.S. average at 18.  Less industrialised regions have much lower emissions; for example India’s are just 2.5 tonnes per capita. China is at 6 tonnes.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major anthropogenic greenhouse gas.  Others, such as methane and nitrous oxide can be equated to CO2 by factoring in their different global warming potencies. This gives the “CO2 equivalent” value.

Projections by the IPCC indicate that to keep global warming under 2 degrees at end of century, world average emissions will have to be down  to about 3 tonnes per capita in 2050, with further reductions thereafter.

Canada’s Paris commitment is to a 30 per cent reduction from its 2005 levels by 2030.  This equates to a 28 per cent reduction from the present.

There is a small but appreciable chance that climate change will be rapidly accelerated by one or more feedback mechanisms in the environment. This would lead to a temperature increase well above average predictions. Possible feedbacks include runaway melting of one or more polar ice sheets, large-scale permafrost melting and methane release, and a large methane “burp” from previously stable deep cold ocean stores.

UNB’s Emery says one of the main things to do to “get things greener” is “we need to get Canadians out of their cars. We do that with gas prices, tolls, and everything else, but that’s very politically unpopular.”

New Brunswick’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked at 23 megatonnes CO2 equivalent in 2001. They are now 14 megatonnes. The reduction has not been due to government action but to economic causes, most importantly power plant and pulp mill shut-downs.

New Brunswick plans to get off coal by 2030 and is currently seeking a new fuel source to replace coal in its Belledune coal plant.

The Dalhousie electric generation station was shut down in 2012 because the special orimulsion fuel it used was discontinued by the foreign supplier.

The three emissions-reduction scenarios used by the IPCC all envision global energy use continuing to rise. The emissions reductions would be achieved by switching to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, and by increasing nuclear power tenfold or more.

But David Coon of the Green Party says New Brunswickers don’t need to consume more energy.

“Just look at housing,” he says. “We can build houses now using techniques that ensure that the requirements for heat are very low and that much of that can be supplied through passive solar heat just using the windows. You end up using something the equivalent of a four slice toaster to heat the house. If everyone in the future were living in houses like that, it would dramatically shrink the energy requirements of that sector.”

Coon and the Green Party oppose nuclear power. They see the future for electricity as being a smart grid of widely distributed, small, renewable generation sources.

“We need to move to a 100 per cent renewable electricity grid,” says Coon. “The generation will be distributed so that you’ll have thousands of sources of electricity from a whole variety of renewable resources selling into the system.”

Coon doesn’t see Fundy tidal power as being an option in the near term: “It’s probably the most expensive form of renewable energy right now.”  He lists biogas, biomass, wind, solar, and run-of-the-river hydro as being good sources for New Brunswick immediately.

Bill 39 states that the “objective” of the New Brunswick government is that greenhouse gas emissions not exceed 10.4 megatonnes in 2030 and 5 megatonnes in 2050.

The anticipated $180 million transfer from the New Brunswick fuel tax into the Climate Change Fund would represent about 2 per cent of  provincial government revenue and 0.5 percent of provincial gross domestic product (GDP).

Final energy demand in Canada is about equally divided between industry, transportation, and heating of buildings including residences.

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