New Brunswick

MLAs warned N.B. climate-change policies need to be tougher

New Brunswick MLAs have been warned that the province’s climate policies will have to get tougher to meet higher federal standards expected between now and 2030.

Committee on climate change heard from environmental groups Tuesday

A committee of MLAs heard the province's long-term policies on climate change will need to be tougher to keep pace with Ottawa's plans. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

New Brunswick MLAs have been warned that the province's climate policies will have to get tougher to meet higher federal standards expected between now and 2030.

More ambitious national emissions targets and stricter carbon pricing rules will force the provincial government to be more stringent too, said Louise Comeau, the director of climate change and energy solutions for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

"It's advisable for government and the legislative committee to think about more pressure, if you will, driving us to think about deeper reduction targets," she said during the third day of meetings of the legislature's committee on climate change and environmental stewardship. 

"New Brunswick needs to expect stronger federal regulations."

Louise Comeau of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick said the province's relative success in meeting carbon emission targets may be standing in the way of long-term climate-change planning. (CBC)

Ottawa has already signalled that starting next year it will no longer let provinces cut gas excise taxes charged at the pumps to offset rising carbon taxes.

The Higgs government did exactly that in 2020 but it won't be allowed to do it anymore, the federal government said in new guidelines drafted last year for 2023 and beyond.

"There's a new set of rules," Comeau said. "New Brunswick is not in compliance with that set of rules." 

The committee of MLAs is hearing from experts and will draft a report with recommendations on a new five-year provincial climate change plan to replace the first one put in place by the previous Liberal government in 2016.

Another witness on Tuesday, Canadian Institute for Climate Choices vice-president Dale Beugin, agreed with Comeau that applying policies like carbon pricing more strictly are essential over the next five years.

"Ultimately it's the policy stringency that's going to matter most," he said. "It's going to be the stringency of policies to deliver on those emissions reductions. There's more to do on some of the policy levers … in terms of driving those emissions reduction plans." 

Both New Brunswick and Ottawa are investing in efforts to develop small modular nuclear reactors in the province, including $5 million to prepare the Point Lepreau site to house one. (CBC)

Comeau said with a growing push internationally for greenhouse gas reductions to keep the planet from warming by more than 1.5 degrees, Ottawa is also likely to adopt an even tougher reduction goal for 2030.

"Every tonne matters, including New Brunswick's," she said.

The current national target announced last year is to bring emissions down to 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Comeau predicts that could be raised to 60 per cent by the end of the decade.

New Brunswick emitted 12 megatonnes of greenhouse gases in 2019, which was 38 per cent below 2005 levels, exceeding reductions called for in the Paris climate agreement.

But the province's official reduction target in its climate change law is to reach 10.7 megatonnes by 2030. 

That's 47 per cent below 2005 levels, which would surpass the new national target unless Ottawa raises it again.

Need for long-term plans

Comeau says the pressure on successive New Brunswick governments to act on climate policy and implement all of the last five-year plan has been "weakened" by the province's relative success lowering emissions. 

"That has undermined, I think, the need for strategic and long-term planning."

But she said 60 per cent of reductions since 2005 has resulted not from policy decisions but from the closure of industrial plants, including large forestry mills and some NB Power generating stations.

Ottawa's carbon pricing plan requires provinces to charge the equivalent of $65 per tonne next year, increasing to $170 by 2030. New Brunswick officials estimate that will equal 37 cents a litre at the time.

The province has complied with the pricing plan so far and two years ago the federal government allowed the Higgs government to offset the tax with a gas excise tax cut.

But new guidelines released last year say that starting in 2023, any amount of carbon pricing offset by a gas tax cut will be considered not covered by the pricing system and subject to federal carbon taxes.

Last year the province opted to cut income taxes to offset the latest carbon tax increase, which is allowed under the federal plan.

Dale Beugin of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices warned against taking unproven technology suchas small nuclear reactors for granted. (submitted by Dale Beugin)

The new rules could also force the province to toughen its separate carbon pricing system on heavy industry.

Comeau also warned MLAs that one of the government's preferred alternatives to fossil fuel-emitting energy sources can't be counted on yet.

She said small modular nuclear reactors like those being researched and developed by two companies in Saint John have other environmental consequences even if they don't emit carbon dioxide.

"There's lot of reasons to do the research, to explore your options, but to be open to the information that's coming from all sides." 

She also said the reactors may not be ready in time to replace electricity from the Belledune generating station, which must stop burning coal by 2030 to comply with federal regulations.

Beugin called small reactors a "wild card" that could contribute to emissions reductions but that is far from a sure thing.

"We shouldn't think of it as a safe bet. There is still uncertainty about the timing and costs of delivering that kind of technology to scale."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.

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