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Atlantica RIP

Requiem for a stupid trade deal by Tim Bousquet.


Our political and business elites have been telling us that Nova Scotia's economic future depends on Americans buying a bunch more plastic crap from China. But here's a news flash: It ain't gonna happen.

In case you've somehow missed the sell of "Atlantica," it goes like this:

Despite being bankrupted by their fruitless imperialistic adventure in Iraq, a looming collapse in the housing market and gas prices reaching into the stratosphere, American Midwesterners will somehow manage to increase the amount of goods they purchase from China each year—forever, in fact. Shipping companies, frustrated by long lines at west coast ports, will opt to send the stuff all the way around the world to east coast ports.

These shippers won't worry about the added fuel costs of circling the globe but, suddenly, in the mid-Atlantic, they'll want to shave a couple of hundred kilometres off the trip, so they'll stop in Halifax and deal with all the logistics hassles of crossing the border, instead of simply going direct to New York or the Virginia port of Norfolk.

Halifax, the argument goes, has to get ready to become the mega-middleman of mega-trade by building a mega-highway direct to Buffalo, and by cutting wages and consumer protections. That way we all get rich!

That's a load of horseshit, of course. But don't take my word for it. Last week, China Shipping Agency announced it's shutting down operations in 20 ports, including Halifax. China Shipping had 10 ships running the much-ballyhooed China-Suez-east coast route, but couldn't turn a profit with it.

The China Shipping news comes on the heels of a January announcement that the Maersk shipping line is discontinuing its Halifax operation. That business—50,000 containers annually—comprised almost 10 percent of the entire port's business and fully a quarter of traffic through the Halterm terminal at Fairview Cove.

Port of Halifax officials are scrambling to capture some of the lost traffic. Port spokesperson Michele Peveril tells me they're pursuing increased Caribbean shipping and have landed some Canadian Tire shipments to Quebec. But whatever the marketing abilities of the port, they can't get around the simple truth: No matter how hard we might wish it true, the road from China to the American Midwest will never go through Halifax.

What does this have to do with the environment? Plenty.

The province has signed on to an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent in coming decades. But if the Atlantica fantasy of trucking unlimited plastic crap from China over a superhighway to Buffalo were to come true, we'd see an increase in GHG emissions by something like five million tonnes a year.

We can responsibly address global warming, or we can fantasize about becoming a superport. We can't do both.

The Maersk and China Shipping news should prompt our political and business elite to concentrate instead on supporting local green industries. The "Select Nova Scotia" labelling campaign, which identifies locally produced ag products for consumers, is a good first step. A second step would be for the province to enter the 20th century and require local governments to create zoning protections for farmland, and to put real money behind community supported agriculture organizations.

But Nova Scotia won't be marching to economic and environmental success until it adopts a coherent and forward-looking energy plan. More on this next time.

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