New Brunswick·Analysis

Has the province hit its emissions goal? Depends which goal, Liberals say

The claim is at the heart of an election-year climate debate in New Brunswick: the province has already achieved targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Premier says province can demonstrate it's hitting emission goals

Have the Liberals already achieved their targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions? That claim is at the heart of an election-year climate debate in New Brunswick.

The claim is at the heart of an election-year climate debate in New Brunswick: the province has already achieved its targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The Progressive Conservative opposition made it first, arguing last year that Liberal Premier Brian Gallant should not impose a carbon tax because the province had hit its emissions goals.

And if Ottawa followed through on a threat to apply its own carbon tax to any province that doesn't bring in its own? That, too, would be unnecessary, PC leader Blaine Higgs argued last October.

"If I'm meeting the standards of environmental targets, then there isn't any grounds for the federal government just to say, 'tax the people more anyway,'" he said.

Premier Brian Gallant adopted a strikingly similar argument after finally unveiling his carbon-price scheme in December. Starting this week, it shifts a share of existing gas-tax revenue into a climate fund, so there's no additional cost to consumers at the pumps.

Premier Brian Gallant said the province can demonstrate to Ottawa it is hitting emission targets for 2030. (Canadian Press)

How would this satisfy Ottawa's requirements and avoid a higher federal tax?

"We are going to be able to demonstrate that we are hitting our emission targets for 2030," Gallant said in a year-end interview with CBC News.

The claim resurfaced last week when carbon-tax opponents pounced on a report by federal and provincial auditors-general that New Brunswick was "on track" to meet its targets.

But it's not as simple as that, for four main reasons.

1. Gallant's claim is based on a non-existent goal

Gallant's claim in the year-end interview seemed to be based on math from Ottawa's response to the Paris climate treaty.

"The 2030 federal emission target for New Brunswick is 14.3 megatons or 30 per cent below 2005 levels," says his government's climate plan update for 2017.

By that measure, New Brunswick is in the clear: our emissions in 2015 were 14.1 megatons, according to federal statistics.

But that formula, 30 per cent below 2005 levels, is the official federal government target for Canada as a whole. It's the same target the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper adopted.

Green Party Leader David Coon said Brian Gallant is applying the national target provincially but it doesn't work. (CBC)
Green party leader David Coon says there's been no federal-provincial agreement that each province must also reduce its emissions by the same percentage.

The overall federal reduction goal could be divvied up among the provinces in other ways, Coon says. Distributing the megatons to be cut proportionally by population would require New Brunswick to reduce emissions by roughly another four megatons.

"The premier misspoke," he said. "He's just wrong. He's taking the national target for reduction and applying it provincially, but that doesn't work."

Coon says the explanation is simple. "It's an election year and he doesn't want this to be a big issue in the election."

2. The target Gallant says we have hit is not Gallant's target

But was Gallant basing his statement on Ottawa's 30-per-cent Paris formulation? New Brunswick also has its own official emissions-reduction target, different from Ottawa's.

It calls for emissions 35 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030 — meaning emissions of 10.7 megatons of carbon dioxide. That goal falls within the range of a regional agreement by the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers in 2015.

Gallant's government literally wrote that target into law earlier this month when the Liberals' Climate Change Act passed third reading in the legislature and received royal assent. It describes 10.7 megatons by 2030 as an "objective."

Lois Corbett of the New Brunswick Conservation Council said it's one thing to achieve a target set a while ago, but there still needs to be urgency in dealing with climate change. (CBC)
It also says the goal for 2020 is 14.8 megatons, and that has been achieved. That's what the auditors-general report meant last week when it said New Brunswick was "on track."

But with 14.1 megatons of emissions in 2015, the province is nowhere near the 10.7-megaton target.

"It's one thing to achieve a target that was set quite a while ago," said Lois Corbett of the New Brunswick Conservation Council. "It's another thing altogether to rise to the urgency to which we have to deal with climate change."

If Gallant's year-end interview comment was based on the federal Paris goal, with higher 2005 emissions as a baseline, he was "moving the starting gate," Corbett said.

In an email statement, Environment Department spokesperson Vicky Deschênes said Gallant's statement was "a reference to our provincial targets," not a federal Paris goal.

But shortly afterward, the premier's spokesperson Tina Robichaud said Gallant was responding to a question about federal standards and was referring to the federal target.

3. Emissions are down, but may not stay down

Assuming Gallant was talking about the federal goal, he was setting an easy marker for the province: between 2005 and 2015, carbon dioxide emissions in New Brunswick declined from 20.3 to 14.1 megatons.

According to data from the provincial Department of Environment and Local Government, most of the reductions came from NB Power closing some of its dirtiest generating stations in Dalhousie, Courtenay Bay, and Grand Lake.

Other factors included a reduced reliance on the Coleson Cove generating station, energy-efficiency measures, and the closure of the UPM Kymmene mill in Miramichi.

But there's no guarantee emissions will stay at 14.1 megatons until 2030. The economy will grow, and the Gallant Liberals are pushing some projects that would increase emissions, such as the Sisson mine north of Fredericton.

4. Gallant's tax argument contradicts other parts of his plan

Gallant and his environment minister, Serge Rousselle, have made the claim about targets achieved while defending their decision to relabel part of the existing gas tax as a carbon tax.

Environment and Local Government Minister Serge Rousselle said federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna will come around about the carbon tax when she realizes the 2030 target has been achieved. (CBC)
That may not satisfy federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who said last December she wants "a price signal that wasn't there before," not a shifting of existing tax.

Rousselle predicted in January McKenna will come around when she realizes that the 2030 target has been achieved. "The federal government will see we're meeting their requirements," he told a legislative committee.

The logic is that a higher carbon tax isn't needed — even though the Liberal plan also asserts more has to be done.

"Although New Brunswick's GHG emissions have declined in recent years, they are not projected to decline in the future under the status quo," says the 2016 climate plan document.

"This, along with increasingly stringent GHG reduction targets adopted by NEG-ECP and the provincial government, means that additional GHG emission reduction measures will be required."

Additional measures

Deschênes acknowledged in her email statement that "additional emissions reduction measures are needed to meet our 2030 target."

The highest-profile "additional measure" is the planned phase-out of coal at NB Power's generating station in Belledune by 2030.

Coon estimates that would remove three megatons of carbon dioxide emissions, getting the province most of the way to its real 2030 goal.

It would also satisfy New Brunswick's share of the federal goal, if that national reduction figure were allocated to the provinces proportionally based on population, he said.

Robichaud, the premier's spokesperson, said "the fact that the province has a more aggressive target [than Ottawa's] that we also plan to meet by 2030" shows the government is serious about climate change.

But Coon says the lack of a higher carbon tax, coupled with a Belledune closure still a decade in the future, shows the Liberals haven't done anything concrete yet to actually reduce emissions.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.