N.B. opposition questions lack of targets in Climate Change Action Plan progress report

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WATCH: On Thursday, New Brunswick released a progress report on its climate change action plan. As Silas Brown reports, critics say the province needs bolder action in order to meet it's more ambitious emission reduction targets in the years to come – Jan 22, 2021

Opposition parties are raising concerns over New Brunswick’s pace on climate action after an interim report on the provincial action plan was released on Thursday.

Green leader David Coon panned government progress on the 118 action items outlined in the 2016 Climate Change Action Plan.

Read more: N.B. climate change committee recommends open, transparent carbon tax fund

“The new initiatives that were imagined and committed to back in 2016 … that would have launched us on this transition to a low carbon economy that was promised in the action plan were never put in place,” Coon said.

“You need to put in new initiatives, not studies.”

According to the report, when it comes to emissions targets New Brunswick is meeting its current goals. The province is 34 per cent below 2005 level GHG emissions, exceeding the Paris Accord target of 30 per cent reductions by 2030.

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New Brunswick has also exceeded the provincial 2020 target of 14.8 Mt, emitting 13.2 Mt in 2018. Provincial targets for future years are set at 10.7 Mt by 2030 and 5 Mt by 2050.

But Coon says more concrete action is needed to meet those goals, with ambitious targets to gauge the success or failure of certain programs.

“The idea was that they would be put in place so you can develop programs to achieve them,” Coon said. “Without targets your programs aren’t achieving anything.”

“We’re just not seeing the implementation of the commitments in the plan that were really designed to help transition New Brunswick to a low carbon economy.”

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The Liberal critic for environment and climate change, Francine Landry, says that much of the progress on emissions targets so far have been a result of losses to industry, not the action of government.

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“It’s largely due to the closing of major industries, like the Brunswick smelter and pulp and paper companies,” she said.

“There were a lot of industry closures, big industries, big gas emitters. It’s not something the government, any government can take credit for.”

Landry is also calling for the action plan to be updated with more ambitious targets and supported with widespread programs to increase energy efficiency for homes and businesses.

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Gary Crossman, the minister of environment and climate change, says there is still a lot of work to be done and admits that it would be nice to have more concrete targets for action items.

When asked about the lack of targets for things like electric vehicles, Crossman said “it would be nice to have a number to aim for.”

But when it comes to setting targets, Crossman sees a role to play for the opposition. He said that future meetings of the standing committee on Climate Change and Environmental Stewardship will be used to set more ambitious targets.

“I really do see the committee as a steering committee to lay down the groundwork and to implement and get these onboard,” he said.

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As of 2018, the majority of emissions in the province come from industry, transportation and electricity generation. Industry and transportation account for about a third each of total emissions, while electricity generation amounts to about a quarter.

Coon said the government is particularly falling short in these areas.

“It’s been extremely frustrating that neither the Brian Gallant government, nor the Blaine Higgs government, has implemented the most concrete commitments in this plan that actually would be the ones to achieve substantial reductions,” he said.

NB Power was mandated to generate at least 40 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, a target it has modestly exceeded, but no further target has been placed on the utility. On top of that, the province is seeking to extend the life of the coal-fired Belledune generating station past the national 2030 coal moratorium through an equivalency agreement.

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“Where we’ve got today is based on a 15-year-old legal target from the Bernard Lord government,” Coon said.

“There’s nothing to replace it. This is a problem. How are we going to make the transition if we’re not building on the successes of the past?”

Read more: ‘Government has really dropped the ball’: N.B. misses 2020 EV targets by wide margin

The province has missed a target for consumer electric vehicles as well. It was hoped to have 2,500 EVs on the road by 2020. The report says there are currently 473. The 2030 target is to have 20,000 EVs in the province.

Landry says the province’s advanced charging network needs to be properly supported by government initiatives to get more people into EVs and hybrids.

The federal government currently offers a subsidy of up to $5,000, which the province says has resulted in a bump of about 63 orders a quarter. But at that rate, it would take about 10 years to reach the 2020 target and 40 years to reach the 2030 target.

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Crossman says he wants to see subsidies for electric vehicles, while also increasing the percentage of EVs in municipal and provincial fleets.

The report says that the executive fleet of 45 vehicles includes 30 hybrids and one EV. Total numbers for the rest of the fleet were not listed, but the report notes that 11 plug-in hybrids were added in 2018-2019. A number of propane and gasoline school buses have been acquired to replace diesel powered buses.

Read more: Carbon tax revenue to go to climate change fund, not rebates: N.B. minister

One of the completed action items concerns New Brunswick’s carbon tax that took effect in April of 2020.

As per the Climate Change Act, revenues are supposed to go directly to the Climate Change Fund, but the government has redirected all proceeds to general revenues with $36 million being set aside for climate change projects.

The minister was not able to give a full summary of what is being done with the money or how it is being distributed, but says it goes out to all departments as needed, using culvert upgrades in flood-prone areas in Sussex as an example.

Read more: Federal government proposes regulations for Clean Fuel Standard

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In the 2020 budget, $83 million was set to go into general revenue to offset the lowering of the gas excise tax by 4.6 cents. New Brunswick’s carbon tax currently sits at 6.6 cents a litre, meaning consumers have been paying 2 cents extra at the pumps.

Each year the carbon tax will increase as per federal rules, but the province plans to lower the gas excise tax by the same amount in order to keep fuel prices stable, which would also theoretically lower the amount set aside for the Climate Change Fund.