Brad Walters: NB after Paris

16 12 2015

Will N.B. Rise to the Paris Climate Challenge?

NB Telegraph Journal, Dec. 16, 2015. P. A9

 Paris Signals ‘Beginning of End’ for Fossil Fuels, But N.B. Can Still Thrive

Moncton Times & Transcript, Dec. 16, 2015, p. A9

Commentary by Brad Walters

A new international agreement to take action on climate change was successfully negotiated in Paris this past weekend. Three key elements of this accord are especially worth highlighting.

For the first time ever, all countries have agreed to assume a share of responsibility for the problem and to take action to reduce their respective emissions of greenhouse gases. This is truly a global accord, and Canadians should feel proud that our new federal government played a leadership role in achieving it.

Second, the agreement will require plans and systematic accounting of progress from every nation, to be up-dated through formal negotiations every five years. This will enable the agreement and individual country strategies to evolve and adapt (likely strengthen) over time in response to continued improvements in the science and in the technologies that address climate change.

Negotiators also agreed on a more stringent target, aiming to keep the total rise in global temperature well below 2C, and preferably below 1.5C. This difference may not seem like much, but globally could make a huge difference in the amount of sea level rise and extreme weather that eventually occurs.

But meeting this new target will not be easy. The world is already about 1C warmer due to greenhouse gas emissions that have accumulated over the past century.

Holding further temperature increases to 1.5C or even 2C will require that we achieve near complete de-carbonization of the global economy by mid-century. Pundits claiming this to be the “beginning of the end of fossil fuels” are correct, assuming we achieve our goals… and let’s hope we do.

New Brunswick faces some big challenges ahead, but there are also great opportunities to be seized in a post-fossil fuel world.

We are a small Province, but our per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are third-highest in the country. Premier Gallant thus needs to get going now if there is any chance of our province meeting needed emission reductions.

To start, New Brunswick needs to embark on a strategy to phase-out all fossil fuel electrical generation over the next two decades. NB has a diverse mix of energy sources, but still relies on fossil fuels for about 50% of its electricity.

Fortunately, the Province is blessed with abundant, renewable alternatives, notably hydro, wind and tidal, but also biomass and solar.

The potential is there to increase our draw of renewable electricity from hydro power sources in Quebec as well as the forthcoming Musrkat Falls project in Labrador.

On wind, we are nowhere near our potential. Current installed wind is about 7% of NB power capacity, about half that of Nova Scotia. In fact, many national and state/provincial jurisdictions, including PEI, are already at 20% wind power capacity with plans to reach 30% or more in the near future.

In-stream tidal power, now under development in the upper Bay of Fundy near Parsborro, Nova Scotia, could eventually be economic and energy boon for New Brunswick, but so far the government appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach.

Adoption of an economy-wide carbon tax (like BC and soon-to-be Alberta) would be a smart and timely policy move given the current low price of oil. But exemptions from such a tax for big industry must be resisted, even as low-income residents should be buffeted from its full effects.

Incentives to encourage residential and commercial energy efficiency and solar power installation are now widely used elsewhere and have been proven to work. These could go a long way to offsetting the added costs of a carbon tax.

The Paris climate agreement does not bode well for those whose vision for the Province rests on expanding, rather than contracting fossil fuel infrastructure. Shale gas development looks even less attractive than it did before Paris.

It will also be difficult to reconcile development of an energy-east pipeline with an increasingly carbon-constrained world. Alberta’s high-cost oil producers are already facing strong economic headwinds with the collapse in the price of oil. With the Paris agreement now to consider, smart investors will be looking to renewables, not the tar-sands, for long-term investment returns.

It became clear in Paris that current country plans to reduce carbon emissions are not yet sufficient to meet the global target of keeping warming below 2C. This means we can expect a progressive tightening of our respective carbon ‘budgets’ going forward.

New Brunswick thus faces a critical choice. Do we re-position ourselves to benefit from technologies and economic opportunities that will emerge in an increasingly carbon constrained world, or do we double-down on fossil fuels, making a dangerous bet that the fossil fuel era will thrive for years to come?

Brad Walters (PhD) is a Professor of Geography & Environment at Mount Allison University.





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