On paper, Nova Scotia has lofty climate goals. But will the province take action?
Lofty climate change goals and a transition to a sustainable economy await the next government
To varying degrees, the leaders of all Nova Scotia's major parties have signalled their intent to protect the environment if they're given the chance to govern — but experts say delivering on those promises will require swift and significant action.
Alana Westwood said there are three big jobs waiting on the other side of the election for any government that's serious about the environment: mitigating climate change, completing the shift to ecological forestry, and increasing protections for biodiversity and endangered species.
Westwood, an assistant professor in Dalhousie University's school for resource and environmental studies, said many of Nova Scotia's existing commitments to environmental protection are "great on paper," but lacklustre in reality.
"We have some of the most ambitious [environmental] legislation in North America, but it really needs to be followed up by action," Westwood said in a recent interview.
Big issues in limbo
Whichever party forms the next government on Aug. 17 will take charge of a legislated goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a new Biodiversity Act in need of regulations, and a court order to live up to the Endangered Species Act.
The day before the election was called, the incumbent Liberals released three new technical guides for practising ecological forestry on Crown land, marking a step toward implementation of the Lahey report on ecological forestry. Westwood said post-election she'll be watching for that work to be completed.
William Lahey, the report's author, was expected to submit a progress report this spring, but he recently told CBC News the work is not yet complete.
Also on Westwood's watch list are concrete plans for reaching Nova Scotia's greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for 2030 and 2050. When those goals were legislated, a plan to achieve them was left for still-unmade regulations. Public consultation on those regulations will wrap up midway through the election campaign, leaving the final steps to the next government.
Incorporating Mi'kmaw knowledge
For Westwood, consultation with the right parties is an essential part of any environmental management decision. She's looking for an update to the law that governs environmental assessments to mandate greater consultation with Mi'kmaw communities and organizations. The federal government's latest piece of legislation on environmental assessments sets a template for this.
Westwood highlighted the Mi'kmaw value of netukulimk, which is the guiding philosophy at the Unama'ki Institute of Natural Resources. UINR's executive director, Lisa Young, said netukulimk is as old as the Mi'kmaq, and is at the core of Mi'kmaw culture.
"What netukulimk tells us is that we can provide for our communities' economic and individual well-being … with the gifts provided by the Creator, provided by the earth, without jeopardizing the integrity or the diversity or productivity of the environment," said Young.
One of Young's goals for the work at UINR is to revitalize traditional Mi'kmaw knowledge and practices related to conservation and sustainability. She said pairing that work with "the best of Western science and technology" could help Nova Scotia reach the goals it has set for protecting the environment, growing the economy and mitigating the effects of climate change.
That pairing of Indigenous and non-Indigenous practices was coined as "two-eyed seeing" by Mi'kmaw elder Albert Marshall.
"Everyone's talking about two-eyed seeing and looking at different ways of how we can apply that," Young said. "And it's not always readily apparent how that's done, but it begins with understanding and having an appreciation for what traditional knowledge is.
"It's not just our understanding of, 'Oh, this is a great place to fish, this is where we traditionally fish,' and stuff like that. It's a whole knowledge system. The important part is that sense of responsibility."
Young said two-eyed seeing requires engagement with First Nations people early and consistently in any project, be it nature-based, like rehabilitating natural ecosystems for carbon sequestration, or science-based, like renewable energy systems and other clean technologies.
Room for growth in clean technologies
The NDP is the only party so far to have released a platform on the environment. The Progressive Conservatives are expected to release their full platform this week and the Liberals have said they'll release a five-pronged platform, but leader Iain Rankin won't say when.
For the NDP, one of the solutions to climate change is creating jobs in green industries. The party's plan includes investing in research and development for battery storage and renewable technologies.
That's the kind of support Jason Vallis said he's looking for.
He's one of the founders of Planetary Hydrogen, which started in Ottawa in 2019 but moved to Dartmouth, N.S., earlier this year to be closer to the ocean — an essential component of its carbon-capture technology — and Dalhousie University, where researchers are investigating the technology's safety and efficacy.
Vallis said a "good chunk" of Planetary Hydrogen's startup costs were paid for by federal and provincial programs. It enabled the company to grow from four founding employees to 17.
"There's no shortage of opportunity," said Vallis. "There really should be zero unemployment in an ideal scenario, because it's going to take everybody to do this transition. This is not a small task."
Vallis said there's plenty of money available from the federal government, and sees an opportunity for provinces to ramp up and align their programs with Ottawa.
Rankin made several environment-related announcements in the lead-up to the election, including money for an electric fleet of buses for Halifax Transit. In his campaign speeches so far, he has said an economic recovery from the pandemic that is mindful of environmental sustainability is his top priority.
He promised to put $45 million over five years into a rebate for businesses to upgrade technology and sustainability. It's a continuation of a 2017 program that Rankin said has had a $150-million return on a $34-million government investment.
The Progressive Conservatives, like the Liberals, have yet to release their full campaign platform.
PC Leader Tim Houston has made passing reference to the environment in his campaign speeches but has not released any specific promises to date.
The last day to vote in Nova Scotia's 41st general election is Aug. 17.