Is the GNWT on track to meet its climate goals?

Last modified: November 7, 2022 at 3:04pm


The territorial government is making progress on its strategies to address climate change, according to the latest annual reports, but experts say efforts are falling short.

On October 27, the GNWT released a batch of progress reports on its climate change actions plans and initiatives. The work is guided by policy measures designed to help the territory adapt to a changing climate, improve knowledge on climate change impacts, and transition to a lower carbon economy. One of the GNWT’s goals is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030.

The annual reports, which document the 2021-2022 fiscal year, outline the status of work conducted to implement the territory’s vision.

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One of the reports provides an update on a five-year climate change action plan, which was initiated in 2019.

Among the successes listed in the report is progress on clean energy projects, such as the Inuvik Wind Turbine Project – which is over budget by at least $20 million and is expected to be operational in 2023 – and transmission lines to replace diesel with hydroelectric power in Fort Providence, Kaskisa and Whatì.

The report also highlights the completion of the Tłı̨chǫ Highway in 2021, which the territory says is an example of a climate change adaptation project. The highway was designed to help communities adapt to the negative impact of climate change on seasonal ice roads, the GNWT reports.

In addition, the territory continues to increase the carbon tax to comply with federal requirements. Last summer, the GNWT raised the price of carbon to $50 per tonne and last week, it announced the price will increase to $65 per tonne in April 2023.

“There is a lot of work going on,” said Cory Doll, the NWT Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ manager of climate change and air quality. Of the 132 action items laid out in the five-year plan, 64 are complete and 68 are on track, the GNWT reports. “Basically, there’s progress happening on all of them,” Doll said.

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The GNWT’s category of “complete” action items includes those that are “fully met,” such as growing the permafrost science team. It also includes items that are “ongoing,” such as conducting wildlife climate change vulnerability assessments.

Looking back on the past year, getting the territory’s climate change council up and running was also a big step, Doll said. The council, which includes representatives from Indigenous governments and organizations, met four times during the 2021-2022 fiscal year. “It’s a way to improve our coordination and communication on climate change with our partners,” Doll said.

A lot of work went into assessing climate risks and their impacts on people, too, Doll said, which will help prioritize adaptation efforts. Doll said the work has put the territory in a good position for the federal government’s upcoming national adaptation strategy, which he hopes will come with a new dollars.

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Altogether, the GNWT invested $73 million to respond to climate change between April 2021 and March 2022, according to the report.

An update on emissions

How is the territory’s work shaping up to meet its 2030 emissions target?

The territory’s greenhouse gas emissions totalled 1,401 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020 — the most recent year for which emissions data is available, according to another GNWT report released last month. This represents a 19 percent reduction in emissions compared to 2005 levels, the report states.

“With continued federal funding, we are broadly on track to meet our 2030 emissions target,” Diane Archie, the NWT’s minister of infrastructure, wrote in the report.

Actions and initiatives conducted under a four-year energy action plan have led to a 12.8-kilotonne drop in emissions to date, and projects currently under development are expected to reduce emissions by 47.3 kilotonnes in total by 2025, according to the report.

Based on the latest national inventory, the territory needs to reduce emissions to 1,208 kilotonnes to achieve its 2030 target, Robert Sexton, director of energy for the NWT’s Department of Infrastructure, said by email.

“Removing emissions reductions from currently known projects (47.3 kilotonnes) leaves a gap of 147 kilotonnes to achieve the 2030 objective,” Sexton wrote.

To meet the 30-percent target, the territory is working on several “transformational projects,” such as transmission lines to Fort Providence and Kakisa, the Inuvik Wind Project, and the installation of electric vehicle charging stations, Sexton wrote. As these projects are deployed or scaled up, they will help further reduce emissions, he said. Indigenous-led energy projects, the carbon tax, and federal policy and funding are contributing to emissions reductions too, he wrote.

Sexton acknowledged that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic also partially explain the drop in emissions seen in 2020. Although meeting the 30-percent emissions target will be a challenge, he said the GNWT is well on its way.

Not everyone agrees. Dave Lovekin, director of the Pembina Institute’s renewables in remote communities program, points out that to meet its target, the territory previously forecasted that its four-year action plan would result in a reduction of roughly 57 kilotonnes of emissions by 2022.

“So they’ve achieved 12.8 kilotonnes of greenhouse gas reductions, as opposed to the 57 kilotonnes that was forecasted by the end of 2022,” Lovekin said. “Just from those two numbers alone, they don’t appear to be on track.”

The territory is not the only jurisdiction falling behind on its emissions target. According to a report issued by the United Nations last month, countries around the world are falling short on their promises to cut emissions and that there is “no credible pathway” to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Although the NWT represents a relatively small portion of Canada’s total emissions, the fact that the GNWT is falling behind on its 30-percent goal — let alone a 40-percent reduction like the federal government’s commitment — is an indication that jurisdiction need more accelerated plans and policies to get back on track, Lovekin said.

Adaptation lagging, carbon tax criticism

Reducing emissions is not the only area of the GNWT’s work that is lagging. Dylan Clark, research lead in adaptation policy with the Canadian Climate Institute, said that the NWT, like many jurisdictions, is falling short in terms of investments and the speed of progress to make sure that communities are resilient to climate change.

While the territorial government has done good work in identifying climate change risks, there is a need to move forward with adapting infrastructure and communities to a future climate, he said. “That next step is what’s required to protect people.”

The sooner it happens, the better. His research has shown that early investment into adaptation can substantially reduce climate-related damages and costs in the long-run, Clark said. Although more federal funding is needed, infrastructure is being built every day, he points out. With each of those decisions, there is a choice to build for a past risks or think about ways of making a more resilient future, he said.

The annual reports and the territory’s plan to continue raising the price of carbon also faced criticism from MLAs in the legislature on Tuesday.

“Cabinet’s approach to the climate crisis is failing, and failing dismally,” Kevin O’Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, said.

In her opening remarks, Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland called carbon pricing “a northern double jeopardy” – residents are charged for using the NWT Power Corporation’s aging infrastructure and then charged again through the carbon tax for using the energy monopoly, she said.

“Carbon pricing is about recognizing the cost of pollution and accounting for those costs in daily decisions, but here in the NWT it’s largely the only decision,” she told the legislature.

According to Lovekin, the territory might benefit from putting more resources towards supporting Indigenous-led projects to reduce diesel in remote communities. He also thinks the GNWT should set clear targets for the number of electric vehicles that would need to be on the road to meet emissions targets as well as work with Indigenous communities and governments to reduce inefficient housing.

Lovekin hopes the GNWT will acknowledge their shortfalls and provide more details on how the emissions gap is going to be closed in the next energy action plan, which is currently under review.

The GNWT needs to not only commit to completing the initiatives that are supposed to be achieved by 2022, he said, but also ramp up their objectives for 2022 to 2025.

This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.