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Despite change in baseline emissions, NWT keeps 2030 target

A solar array in Łútsël K'é basks in what sun it can find on December 3, 2021
A solar array in Łútsël K'é basks in what sun it can find on December 3, 2021. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio


The baseline 2005 data that the Northwest Territories uses to set its 2030 emissions target has been revised, but the territory says it will keep its original goal.

When the GNWT committed to reducing emissions by 30 percent in 2018, as part of its climate change strategy, it reported the territory’s 2005 emissions – the starting point for that reduction – to be 1,563 kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent.

That 2005 number would put the 2030 target at 1,094 kilotonnes.



But according to recently published federal figures, the NWT’s emissions in 2005 are now estimated to have been 1,723 kilotonnes, which would mean a 30-percent reduction equals 1,206 kilotonnes.

Increasing the 2005 starting point would have the effect of making the target much easier for the NWT to hit if it adopted the new number, but the territorial government – after some initial confusion – said it would stick with the existing target of 1,094 kilotonnes, effectively moving away from a percentage-based goal to an absolute target.

Robert Sexton, director of energy for the GNWT’s Department of Infrastructure, told Cabin Radio via email that the territory’s 2030 Energy Strategy and Climate Change Strategic Framework – documents that set out the territory’s long-term approaches to energy and climate change – were based on an absolute emissions target of 1,094 kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2030.

While the territorial government plans to continue making progress toward that objective, he said, it has also committed to starting a five-year review of the strategy and framework.



Revisions ‘nothing to be concerned about’

The latest emissions figures come from the federal government’s 2023 National Inventory Report, released in April and submitted annually to the United Nations.

The report sets out Canada’s human-caused emissions by source and accounts for how carbon sinks are removing carbon from the atmosphere.

As part of the report, Ottawa released data on emissions by province and territory for 2021 – the latest year available due to a 16-month lag in reporting.

In 2021, the NWT emitted 1,287 kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent, the data shows.

Figures for the territory also reveal changes to emissions estimates from years past, including the 2005 baseline.

According to Anna Kanduth, a research lead and project manager for the Canadian Climate Institute’s 440 Megatonnes project, these kinds of revisions are not unusual and “nothing to be concerned about.”

Every year, Kanduth said, the National Inventory Report team goes through a routine process of updates and improvements to align its methodologies with the best available data and science. Whenever this happens, she said, annual emissions in the inventory going back to 1990 get adjusted.

For example, federal estimates for 2005 emissions in the NWT have fluctuated almost every year since 2018.



At the national level, too, the 2023 National Inventory Report estimated Canada’s emissions to be 8.9 megatonnes lower than previously thought.

In addition to these annual updates, Sexton said the GNWT has been working with the federal government to fix several issues in the territory’s energy use data that have affected emissions estimates.

“These issues included misalignment between GNWT fuel tax data and Statistics Canada’s surveys in diesel and gasoline demand, as well as substantial unexplained variations in year-over-year consumption of natural gas in the building sector,” he said.

Fixing these issues led to a full recalculation of the NWT’s historical energy emissions, according to Sexton, which is another reason why the 2005 figure changed.

As a result of the work, Sexton said he expects less variation in future reports.

Cory Doll, manager of climate change and air quality for the NWT’s Department of Environment and Climate Change (ECC), echoed this statement. He said the territory now has more confidence in both 2005 levels and emissions figures for more recent years.

Confusion over shifting baseline

When Cabin Radio first reached out to two GNWT departments to understand what the updated 2005 figure meant for the 2030 goal, initial responses suggested some internal confusion.

Doll, from ECC, said the territory was working with the revised 2005 figure of 1,723 kilotonnes in an interview on May 4.



Given the NWT’s reported emissions in 2021, he said the territory was now only about 80 kilotonnes away from meeting the 30-percent reduction target.

But Sexton, from the Department of Infrastructure, offered different information in an email on May 5. He said the territory planned to continue toward an absolute emissions target of 1,094 kilotonnes by 2030.

That would mean the territory still has 193 kilotonnes to slash by 2030 – more than twice the amount were the territory to adopt the new 2005 figure.

On May 12, ECC spokesperson Mike Westwick clarified via email that the correct figure for the NWT’s 2030 target remains 1,094 kilotonnes.

Shifting baselines and the confusion they cause are not unique to the NWT.

In fact, these kinds of issues are one of the reasons that relative targets – in which entities promise to cut emissions by a certain percentage relative to a given year – are not as widely used as they once were, said Maurya Braun, a senior consultant with Sustainability Solutions Group who used to manage the City of Edmonton’s greenhouse gas inventory.

By going through several rounds of emissions adjustments and forever having to change the target, Braun said people realized they spent more time explaining changes and understanding details of past emissions than actually reducing emissions.

“The urgency is great enough that we want people to focus on that rather than on disagreeing about where [emissions were] in 2005,” she said.



She added that revised baselines and changing targets can also end up encouraging entities to relax their climate ambition.

Braun said the company she works for now recommends different kinds of targets. Large Canadian cities, for example, might consider striving to hit a certain per-capita emissions goal, she said. Companies may set a short-term target of completing a large project that would significantly reduce their emissions. 

Rather than getting hung up on details, Braun said these types of goals keep people focused on doing as much as they can, as fast as they can.

How is the NWT doing as of 2021?

The federal data shows that the NWT’s emissions rose slightly in 2021 compared to the previous year’s total of 1,213 kilotonnes. The 2020 figure is thought to represent the extent to which travel and industry were disrupted by Covid-19.

Emissions in 2021 were still lower than they were in 2019, which came in at 1,402 kilotonnes.

“Similar to what we saw at the national level, emissions didn’t rebound to pre-pandemic levels,” said Kanduth, from the Canadian Climate Institute.

Federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault said emissions had been expected to increase in 2021, despite sustained efforts to decrease the amount of carbon Canada produces, because 2020 was such a pandemic-affected anomaly.  

Nationally, emissions decreased by more than 50 million tonnes in 2021 compared to 2019, he said, calling that decline over two years “quite impressive.”



According to the latest, revised data, the territory’s emissions in 2021 were 25 percent lower than they were in 2005.

“There’s obviously a few things contributing to that,” ECC’s Doll said, including impacts from Covid-19 and the associated economic slowdown, mine closures, as well as a shift to renewable energy and more use of biomass for energy.

Although there is still a way to go, Kanduth said the territory is making progress toward its target.

Looking at the biggest categories of emissions in the territory, she said the largest drops since 2005 have come from the building and transportation sectors.

Kanduth added that emissions from heavy industry – another major contributor to the territory’s emissions – have actually increased since 2005.

“Mining is a pretty huge consumer of diesel, which is a big source of emissions in the territory,” she said.

Asked where the NWT still has work to do to cut emissions, Guilbeault said the federal government is looking at how it can help reduce the North’s dependency on fossil fuels and diesel-generated electricity. He pointed to renewable energy projects, such as hydro and wind, as well as work to extend transmission lines.

Guilbeault said that the cost of producing electricity through renewables is rapidly declining.  



“The day is not very far where most of us will have solar panels on our rooftop, we’ll be using geothermal energy, [or] community members will get together to get some of their power from a wind turbine that they will have purchased collectively or cooperatively,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean that we won’t rely on large sources of electricity production,” he added, “but more and more, we are talking about a decentralized grid.”

Although some renewable technologies may not be immediately useful in the North, Guilbeault said there are “tremendous developments in the energy sector.”

As progress continues, he said, “we will see more and more of those technologies used, even in the North.”

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