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Target practice 

"Since we've passed the Act," said Premier Rodney MacDonald, "people ask me "Do we really mean it?'...I'm here to tell you: "We really mean it!'"

MacDonald was speaking of the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, which was passed unanimously by the legislature in April and establishes real environmental targets as law of the land: 12 percent of the land area of the province will be protected by 2015; California-level auto-emission standards will be adopted by 2010; a zero-net loss policy for wetlands will be in place by 2009.

The Act also establishes real reduction targets for a number of pollutants, including nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, mercury and greenhouse gasses (10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 for GHG).

None of this is particularly groundbreaking, and it says something of Nova Scotia's horrible history of environmental neglect that such a big deal is made of these basic principles.

Be that as it may, if the targets are going to be met, we need to make a big deal out of them, and get business and community leaders on board. MacDonald was speaking at The Power of Green conference at the Marriot last week, which was the province's attempt to corral provincial government and business leaders, give them a two-day course in Environmentalism 101 and point them in the right direction. It was absolutely necessary, and good on the province for hosting the event.

But, do MacDonald and the unanimous legislature really mean it? All evidence points to no. Sure, some of the targets will be met, but only because they are laughably low: We won't dump raw sewage into the ocean after 2017 and the province will meet its existing standards for drinking water and septic tanks in the next few years.

But when it comes to the relatively difficult targets, the province is already punting. Take the GHG reduction target, for example. The conference spent an entire morning underscoring the importance of energy efficiency as a means to reduce GHG emissions. Yet, that very day the Utility and Review Board announced that it was delaying hearings on the creation of a provincial efficiency program until next spring.

The UARB is already gearing up to exempt Nova Scotia Power from the 2020 GHG targets, which will effectively make it impossible for the province as a whole to meet the targets now established as law. By delaying the implementation of the efficiency program, the UARB is making the situation even worse, since NSP planning documents state unequivocally that should efficiency gains fail to materialize, the company will have to generate the lost savings with yet another, new, coal-fired electrical plant, which will actually increase, not decrease, province-wide GHG emissions.

Evidently, when it comes to "meaning it," provincial regulators and their political masters don't. The split between political talk and reality was raised again by the excellent discussion around sustainable city design at the conference. If done right, highrises can help build a vibrant downtown, eliminating much car travel. But it won't happen if—as is currently the case—the highrises become exclusive executive suites and de facto gated communities for the wealthy.

With the UARB's rejection of the Twisted Sisters appeal, it's clear the downtown development gate is now wide open. The City of Halifax now badly needs an affordable housing policy requiring all new developments to include a significant amount of housing for regular working people.

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