Nova Scotia’s big carbon problem | The Coast Halifax

Nova Scotia’s big carbon problem

The province has pledged to be net-zero by 2050—but is that too late?

Smoke from the Tuft's Cove Generating Station in Dartmouth.

It is fitting—and in many ways, chilling—that on the first day many of the world’s leaders met in Egypt to discuss the ongoing perils of climate change, Halifax was experiencing its hottest November day on record.

You felt it if you strolled the waterfront or lay in the grass at the Citadel or wandered the Public Gardens in search of shade. The temperature reached 21.5C at Halifax (Halifornia?) Stanfield on Sunday, an all-time high for the weather station. The previous record high of 20.9C? That was Saturday.

It was 27C in Sharm el Sheikh as UN secretary general Antonio Guterres addressed prime minister Justin Trudeau and his colleagues at the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference, COP27, happening Nov. 6-18. On Monday, Guterres said that the world is on a “highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.

Scientists say that major sea-level rise from the melting Greenland ice cap is inevitable—and it’s happening faster in Nova Scotia. Research indicates global heating is making hurricanes stronger. Thawing permafrost could unleash waves of new diseases in the future. And warmer temperatures are expanding the range—and season—of bacteria-bearing ticks throughout our province.

According to a recent UN Environment Programme report, only an “urgent system-wide transformation can avoid an accelerating climate disaster.” In short, the world—and Nova Scotia—needs a drastic and permanent fossil fuel diet in order to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that lead to rising planetary temperatures.

Both Nova Scotia’s and Canada’s governments, toward that end, have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But environmentalists warn that to avoid the worst effects of climate change, our governments and industries may need to act more boldly—and more quickly.

The 1.5C threshold and why it matters

The world we inhabit is not the same as your gran’s—or your great-gran’s before her. Earth’s temperature has increased by about 1.1C from its average between 1850-1900, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

That matters because for every increment the mercury rises, as climate scientist Sonia Seneviratne told Reuters in 2021, “changes in extremes become larger.” Droughts become longer and more frequent. The same goes for rainstorms and forest fire seasons. Ditto for hurricane seasons.

For decades, scientists have cautioned that a temperature rise of two degrees above pre-industrial levels would spell catastrophe for millions around the world. “At two degrees we see dramatic alterations to the ability of the Earth’s system to maintain the conditions that allow for human life and indeed other species’ life,” University of Massachusetts Boston professor Maria Ivanova told MIT Climate.

Homes would be lost to flooding. Crops and other species—whole ecosystems—would die. Global famines could spark. And as the Earth continued warming, the cycle would intensify.

Limiting global temperature rise to under 1.5 degrees wouldn’t entirely rule out those adverse effects, but it would prevent the most nightmarish ones. So, at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, COP21, the world’s leaders resolved to cap their countries’ emissions with a goal of holding the increase in global average temperature to “well below” two degrees—and ideally below 1.5.

‘We are at a pivotal moment’

Nova Scotia’s government, at least publicly, has spoken in support of those environmental efforts. Last October, the province rolled out what Scott Skinner, chair of the minister’s round table on environment and sustainable prosperity, described as a “broad and ambitious” set of targets to curb its carbon output. Those milestones include conserving “at least 20%” of total land and water, reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and drawing 80% of the province’s power from renewable energy by 2030.

click to enlarge Nova Scotia’s big carbon problem
Photo: Nova Scotia Legislature
Nova Scotia’s environment and climate change minister Tim Halman says the province is at a “pivotal moment” for climate action.

“We are at a pivotal moment,” the province’s environment and climate change minister Tim Halman said in a statement at the time, “and this legislation will showcase Nova Scotia as a world leader in adopting and achieving bold environmental goals.

“Nova Scotians have shown—in environmental action and through this pandemic—that we can have a greater and more positive impact when we work together.”

Nova Scotia’s environmental record is less than stellar. A 2018 survey of Canadians’ household greenhouse gas emissions found our province produced more carbon per capita (6.0 tonnes) than anywhere else in Canada, except for PEI (6.3 tonnes) and Newfoundland and Labrador (6.0 tonnes). That same survey also found Nova Scotians’ emissions had increased by half a tonne per person from 2009 to 2018.

click to enlarge Nova Scotia’s big carbon problem
Image: Statistics Canada
Household greenhouse gas emissions per capita, by province and territory, 2018

Part of the province’s problem is its sourcing. In 2021, nearly half of Nova Scotia’s power came from coal—and a further 16% came from natural gas and oil. More than 70% of the province’s energy came from non-renewable sources, according to Nova Scotia Power.

Even Nova Scotia’s so-called renewable resource projects aren’t all that they seem. In May, premier Tim Houston gushed about the “incredible potential” of green hydrogen—essentially, using renewable energy sources to isolate hydrogen from water—and Nova Scotia’s potential to be a “real leader” in the resource field. By mid-September, the privately-owned EverWind Fuels had announced its plans to “unlock the potential of Nova Scotia’s green economy” with the opening of a 1,400-acre “clean fuels” site at Cape Breton’s Point Tupper. The project would produce and deliver up to 500,000 tonnes of ammonia to Europe each year, as early as 2025. The promise was for that production to use renewable resources. But a recent joint investigation by the Energy Mix and Halifax Examiner revealed the project would initially be powered by coal.

Is 2050 too late for net-zero?

Twenty-six countries—including Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and France—have signed on to reach carbon neutrality (or net-zero emissions) by 2050. But some scientists, including the independent Climate Crisis Advisory Group, warn the timeline is “too little, too late.” The CCAG’s chair, former UK chief scientific advisor David King, wrote in 2021 that the world had reached its “now or never moment,” and that countries “must revise global targets beyond net zero, and commit to net negative strategies urgently.

“It’s clearer than ever that there is no carbon budget remaining, and there really is no room left for manoeuvre,” King added.

There are myriad concerns around net-zero accounting: Carbon offset credits, for one, are difficult to standardize and verify. (They also allow countries to continue polluting.) And carbon credits can be bought for environmental benefits that won’t be realized for years. (Picture a tree seedling that won’t sequester carbon for decades.) Any overspending on emissions before 2050, even if offset by carbon credits, means we’ll need to eventually make back the difference with negative emissions. And that can be costly: One report found that to reach global net-zero emissions by 2050, the world’s annual clean energy investment “will need to more than triple” to around $4 trillion by 2030.

‘AI will be the engine’

If there is hope for Nova Scotia to meet its emissions targets, it may well come—at least in part—thanks to the efforts of two Halifax-based entrepreneurs. A longtime specialist in corporate sustainability, Allison Murray has spent the past 20 years leading and consulting on companies’ climate efforts. Her co-founder, Dawne Skinner, has specialized in circular economies and environmental engineering.

Together at Acuicy, they’ve been prototyping a software solution to help companies large and small ramp up their carbon-cutting efforts by choosing the most effective—and cost-efficient—options.

“Particularly with small- and medium-sized companies, they really find it difficult to be able to identify the right clean technology investments for their business—be that rooftop solar, or switching their fleet to EVs [electric vehicles] or energy-efficient manufacturing,” Murray says, speaking by phone with The Coast. “There’s lots of different options for them, but it’s a struggle to figure out which one’s the right one.”

The solution, Murray feels, is in using artificial intelligence and machine-learning to provide “really tailored recommendations” to each business, based on its size, budget and industry type. But the real bet is on data. The two have been working with Nova Scotia Community College’s data science lab and research scientist Trishla Shah to develop “a really deep data set” to glean insights from.

“We're still considered very early stage,” Murray stresses. The two expect they’ll have a prototype within the month. They’re still looking for early adopters and willing businesses to help them “build it out into a real product,” but they’ve already found a backer in Volta. Last week, the Halifax startup hub announced Acuicy as one of five winning entrants in its federally-funded Scale AI partnership. Each startup gets up to $14,000 in grants, use of Volta’s office space and access to mentorship.

“It’s fantastic to see them leveraging AI to do the data-driven type of insights that they’re providing,” says Volta CEO Matt Cooper.

Soon, Murray and Skinner have plans to move their operations into The PIER’s portside tech incubator—where they’ll be just a block removed from the glass-walled offices of Nova Scotia Power. Murray says they’ve been “talking to a lot of businesses” about carbon-cutting solutions.

“We definitely see this as a tool with global possibilities,” she says. “Companies around the world are setting net-zero targets. And to really accelerate action on climate change… we need to be able to have a way to really scale the uptake of these solutions.”