NB's emission target: slipping away or within reach?

Published Tuesday, April 14, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

A few weeks ago, an internal government document about NB’s greenhouse gas emissions became public.  It warned that progress in reducing our emissions had stalled, and that we might now miss our 2020 emission reduction target.  

Disappointing news, but perhaps we shouldn’t really be surprised.  Here’s why.

Emissions and targets

New Brunswick’s first Climate Change Action Plan was released in 2007, when our annual greenhouse gas emissions were 18.7 million tonnes – on a per capita basis, among the highest in the world.  The Action Plan determined that, by 2020, our emissions would fall to 14.5 million tonnes.  

It was a reasonably challenging target – could we achieve it?  At first, it seemed we could: annual updates issued between 2008 and 2013 indicated our emissions were decreasing and we were on track.  

But now in 2015, we learn that our emissions are rising and our 2020 target is slipping out of reach.  So what happened?

Number crunching

NB’s greenhouse gas emissions fall into five general categories: landfills; commercial and residential buildings; industry; transportation; and power generation.  When you compare 2007 and most recent emissions in each of those categories, some interesting trends come to light.

Emissions from landfills and commercial and residential buildings have changed little; improved efficiency has offset growth.  But these two categories are small, representing just 12 per cent of our total emissions.

Emissions from industry have changed little (once changes in reporting methods are factored in).  They account for 31 per cent of NB’s total.

Emissions from transportation have changed little.  It would seem we have just as many cars and trucks as ever, they have about the same fuel economy as ever and we drive them just as much as ever.  Transportation represents 27 per cent of NB’s emissions.

However, emissions from power generation have declined significantly.  They now represent 30 per cent of NB’s total emissions, down from 37 per cent in 2007.  That reduction has been partly due to wind farms coming on line, but largely because of energy imports and lower-than-expected domestic power demand (due partly to efficiency, partly to the loss of some energy-hungry industries).  Fossil fuel-fired generating stations in Dalhousie and Grand Lake have been closed, and Coleson Cove runs only a fraction of the time.  

Add everything up, and this uneasy bottom line emerges: most of NB’s emission reductions since 2007 have happened not because we’ve all reduced our consumption of fossil fuels, but because of power plant closures.  

And now, with no more reductions from power generation on the near horizon, overall emissions are starting to creep up again.


Disappointing, but should we really be surprised?  Probably not.  

After all, who among us can honestly say that emission reduction has become a governing factor in our lifestyle choices – our vehicles and how we use them; our vacations and other travel plans; our homes and how we heat them; the food we consume; the goods we buy; and all the other decisions we make?  

Perhaps emission reductions from closed power plants have made it too easy for us to believe we were on track, and too easy for us to neglect our own emissions and how we can reduce them.

Leadership, followership

I have no doubt that NB can meet and surpass its 2020 emissions target, but it will require the engagement and involvement of everyone.

It’s true that leadership must come from government.  We have a plan, but we need more policies and programs to make it succeed – carpool lots, better transit, more public education, carbon pricing, energy efficiency incentives and more.

But it’s also up to each of us to own the issue and do our parts.  Emission reduction is in our collective interest; it’s also our collective responsibility.