A solar array in Łútsël K'é basks in what sun it can find on December 3, 2021. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
If you’ve had a hard time keeping track of how the territory is progressing toward its climate change goals, it might be them, not you.
Parts of the NWT government’s recent energy report are confusing, two outside experts say, muddying public understanding of progress to date and hampering climate action.
The issue was brought up in a recent letter sent by Alternatives North, a social justice coalition based in Yellowknife, to Premier Caroline Cochrane in response to the territorial government’s 2021-2022 Energy Initiatives Report, which was released in the fall.
Among comments about the territory’s “inadequate” 30-percent emissions reduction goal and recommendations for more efficient emissions reduction methods, the letter questions the transparency with which the GNWT reports on climate-related progress.
“It really is, in some cases, government gobbledygook,” said Bob Bromley, who wrote the letter on behalf of Alternatives North. “Straightforward things are being made very complicated, unnecessarily.”
One of the issues Bromley underlined in the Alternatives North letter is that the report does not clearly show the GNWT’s current performance against its plan or target.
For example, in 2020, the NWT’s greenhouse gas emissions were 19 percent lower than 2005 levels, according to the report. But the report also states that a decline in energy demand between 2019 and 2020 was largely attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Business in the territory has since recovered, Bromley said, and there is no indication as to what this means for the territory’s emissions. In other jurisdictions, he said, greenhouse gases have surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
“There may actually be a net increase in emissions,” Bromley said. “Whether or not that’s the case is not even addressed.”
He also pointed out that it’s unclear if the government is fully accounting for emissions from liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is associated with methane leaks during production and processing. (Although estimates about the extent of these emissions vary widely, methane has 28 to 36 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe.)
In addition, Bromley said the report portrays routine maintenance as progressive climate action.
For example, under the objective to “develop the NWT’s energy potential, address industry emissions and do our part to meet national climate change objectives,” the GNWT lists work to refurbish the Taltson and Snare hydroelectric systems, which contain components that are nearing the end of their useful life.
“That’s clearly not really climate change action,” Bromley said. “That’s just essential, routine business for operational requirements.”
Bromley said the issues he noted in the report have been typical of the GNWT since the territory launched its climate change strategy.
“It doesn’t need to be this way,” he said.
GNWT ‘respectfully disagrees’
In response to the letter, Robert Sexton, director of energy for the NWT’s Department of Infrastructure, said by email that context is important.
The Energy Initiatives Report documents work conducted under the territory’s 2030 Energy Strategy. This strategy’s overarching goal is to guide long-term development of secure, affordable and sustainable energy for transportation, heat and electricity in the NWT, Sexton said.
“We take this responsibility seriously,” Sexton said.
But the strategy “is not solely about the greenhouse gas reductions, it is equally about ensuring secure, reliable, and affordable energy for northerners.” The reporting needs to reflect that, he said.
This means that many actions under the strategy are about addressing the NWT’s electricity infrastructure deficit and the cost of energy, according to Sexton. “Critical projects in this regard are things like the Snare and Taltson hydropower overhauls.”
Although he said the department appreciates the feedback in the letter, “we respectfully disagree with Alternatives North that our reporting is unclear and misleading.”
Can something be complete and ongoing?
Bromley is not the only commenter who thinks the GNWT’s reporting on climate change is confusing.
Dave Lovekin, director of the Pembina Institute’s renewables in remote communities program, said the territorial government is doing OK in some ways but more transparency would be helpful.
The way the Energy Initiatives Report is laid out is confusing, Lovekin said, making it hard to add up emissions reductions and costs associated with each project. The information is spread across case studies and different initiatives are lumped together. For some case studies, he said, emissions reductions are not even reported.
“When we did our analysis of it, it made it quite hard to put together the numbers and some of the numbers didn’t make sense,” Lovekin said.
The report also focuses on cumulative emissions, Lovekin said, which might show that the territory is on track toward its 2030 target, but progress over the past few years has been minimal. Most of the emissions reductions toward the 2030 target are the result of actions taken before 2018, he said.
Not only is reporting on emissions confusing, but information about actions and initiatives is also lacking. Based on the latest Energy Action Plan, for example, Lovekin said it’s not clear how the GNWT plans to increase Indigenous engagement and leadership on energy solutions. Although a few lines in the plan refer to this goal, no funding is allocated.
“What does that mean?” he asked.
In addition, Lovekin said the way planned projects are categorized in one of the Energy Initiatives Report’s appendices is confusing: five percent of projects are listed as “not complete,” whereas 95 percent are listed as “complete/ongoing.”
Complete and ongoing are “two very different things,” Lovekin said. The result, he argues, is that the actual number of completed projects is obscured.
‘Not a frank look’
When Cabin Radio asked the GNWT for a breakdown of which projects are complete and which are ongoing, Sexton sent a 14-page document with details on progress to date or referring to another report for each initiative listed in the appendix.
For the bulk of initiatives – ranging from supporting the development and implementation of community energy plans to expanding Taltson’s generating capacity – the document states: “This action has been initiated and is considered complete and ongoing.”
Sexton added that many of the actions undertaken as part of the energy strategy have become regular business and will likely continue indefinitely.
“This adds a bit of complexity to reporting on the status of our actions and initiatives,” he said.
Still, Lovekin said, transparency issues in the GNWT’s reporting on climate progress have consequences.
The result is limited public understanding that the government is behind on its stated goals, he said, and that means less public pressure to provide clarity on what will be done to catch up.
As a start, both Lovekin and Bromley would like to see the GNWT acknowledge that progress has been slower than required.
“They’re not taking a frank look at the situation,” Bromley said, which “continues to render effective action unlikely.”