Nova Scotia pitches something ‘better than a carbon tax’ to Ottawa

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Premier Tim Houston says his government has a better plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the federal carbon tax, but opposition members say the proposal lacks detail and is all but certain to mean the federal tax will be imposed on Nova Scotia.

Backed by a graphic of a beach with the words “Better than a carbon tax” written across it, Houston discussed a submission his government made to Ottawa on Thursday.

He said his government’s plan would outpace federal greenhouse gas reduction targets while costing Nova Scotians less than what they would pay with the federal carbon pricing system.

“Our path to 2030 is more effective, it’s more affordable and it’s more visionary than a carbon tax,” the premier told reporters.

According to provincial documents, Nova Scotia’s legislated greenhouse gas reduction target is to be at least 53 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The objective of the federal carbon tax is to be 40-45 per cent below 2005 levels.

Provincial officials say the province sits at 36 per cent below 2005 levels and should hit 40 per cent by the end of this year as more renewable energy projects come online.

‘We have a path’

The province’s proposal is based on legislation the Tory government passed last fall with all-party support. It sets climate change action targets related to increasing the use of renewable energy and zero-emission vehicles, increased land protection measures, efficiency programs and closing coal-fired power plants that generate electricity by 2030.

“What we’re saying is we have a path to achieve those targets,” said Houston.

“So if the federal government’s goal is to purely meet those targets, we have that path and our situation is unique to Nova Scotia and they should consider it.”

Houston said if the province fails to live up to its promises in the years leading up to 2030, Ottawa could bring in a carbon tax then.

Although he said the process would be easier with federal support to create the Atlantic Loop — a mega project that would allow for the flow of green energy from Quebec and Labrador into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — Houston said he believes the proposal is still achievable even without it.

What the province is trying to avoid is the increase in gas prices that would come from the carbon tax, starting at about 14 cents a litre in 2023.

Nova Scotia has so far avoided the shock at the pumps experienced by other provinces because it was able to get approval for a cap-and-trade program it designed when Ottawa first brought in carbon pricing requirements.

Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault, left, said officials in his department would review the submission from Nova Scotia. At right is Nova Scotia Environment Minister Tim Halman. (CBC)

But with the federally regulated price on carbon set to increase each year from 2023 to 2030, government documents have shown the cap-and-trade program likely won’t hold up.

While a carbon tax will increase the price of gas and electricity, it will also generate hundreds of millions of dollars — if not more — that the province could use to provide rebates to people to offset the cost increases.

Houston disputed the notion that most families would get more back in the form of the rebate than they would pay out. He said even with a rebate the province expects the carbon tax to cost people on average $1,500 a year by 2030, whereas the Nova Scotia approach is projected to cost about $488 by 2030.

The submission comes just weeks before the deadline from Ottawa and a little more than a month after Nova Scotia Environment Minister Tim Halman wrote to his federal counterpart requesting a pause on a federal carbon tax kicking in next year.

In a statement on Friday, Steven Guilbeault said officials in his department would run the province’s numbers to see how they compare with the federal approach.

“We want to do what’s best for Canadians and for the environment. Provinces have the right to present their plans, and they are aware that if it is not sufficient, we will need to apply the federal backstop system in early September.”

Opposition doesn’t see a plan

Liberal environment critic Iain Rankin, a former Nova Scotia environment minister who worked on the province’s cap-and-trade program, was blunt in his assessment of Houston’s proposal.

“I wouldn’t dignify it by saying it’s even a plan,” he told reporters.

“This is nothing more than a PowerPoint that goes over the targets that have been in place for some time.”

Rankin said the greenhouse gas reduction targets predate the Tory government and so there is little new for the federal government to consider before it makes a decision.

“Effectively, [Houston] announced a carbon tax is coming to Nova Scotia today.”

Wind turbines between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick tower over the Trans-Canada Highway. NDP environment critic Susan Leblanc said Nova Scotia’s greenhouse gas reduction goals are strong, but goals are not enough. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

NDP environment critic Susan Leblanc said the province’s greenhouse gas reduction goals are strong, but goals are not enough.

“If there’s a real plan in place, I think we should be pushing that to the federal government,” she said.

“But, again, I don’t feel like there’s any bones to this.”

Questions about the proposal

With the cap-and-trade program all but certain to end this year, it likely means the end of the green fund.

That fund, which collected the money from the cap-and-trade program, was used to finance energy efficiency programs and other measures to fight climate change.

Houston said he’s committed to doing what’s necessary to meet the provincial targets, although Leblanc and Rankin expressed concern about the lack of details.

They likewise worried about what no price on carbon would mean in terms of efforts to curb pollution from the largest industrial emitters in the province. Leblanc suggested the premier “is a little worried about taxing the rich.”

The premier said there are tools other than a carbon tax that could be used to motivate large emitters to green their operations, although he did not elaborate on what that could include.

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Michael Gorman

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