The territorial government just provided its first annual update on a plan to reduce emissions by 2030, but not everyone believes the progress being shown will properly address the climate crisis.
On Monday, the GNWT released its opening progress report on a four-year climate change action plan designed to help the territory bring its greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels in 10 years’ time.
Alongside an update on the territory’s carbon tax, Monday’s report also documented the creation of a climate change council and progress on a big-ticket project to connect the South Slave’s Taltson hydro dam to the North Slave, theoretically providing cheaper, greener power to more residents and mines.
So far, the territorial government says, its programs – things like building retrofits and grants related to emissions reduction – have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by six kilotons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Territorial officials say work has started on all but five of more than 100 action items in the four-year plan.
“We’re off to a good start in this first year of implementation,” Julian Kanigan, the territory’s director of environmental stewardship and climate change, told reporters.
The progress report lists among the territory’s accomplishments the establishment of the Thaidene Nëné and Ts’udé Nilįné Tuyeta territorial protected areas, implementation of the NWT’s carbon tax in 2019, and construction of the Tłı̨chǫ Highway, which is due to open later this year.
The territory says the highway is an example of adapting to climate change by building an all-season road that extends the annual life of the ice roads beyond it.
An NWT climate change council, delayed by Covid-19, will meet for the first time next week according to Kanigan. Its members will include Indigenous and community governments.
Robert Sexton, the NWT’s director of energy, said the territory was “well on track” to meet 2030 goals like cutting transportation emissions by 10 percent per person, reducing diesel-reliant communities’ emissions by 25 percent, and increasing the share of renewable energy used to heat homes by 40 percent.
“The energy strategy is not just about emissions reductions,” Sexton said. “It’s also about delivering secure and affordable energy as well.”
Projects funded so far include funds for low-income families to winterize their homes and for residents to acquire wood stoves.
Sixty-six stoves were delivered in the past year and 54 installed at a value of $230,000.
Yellowknife MLAs question plan
While territorial officials expressed optimism, two MLAs cast doubt on whether the plan’s goals are sufficient.
MLA for Frame Lake Kevin O’Reilly, for one, said he was unimpressed by the six-kiloton sum of reduced carbon dioxide equivalent.
To meet its 2030 goal of reducing emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels, the territory needs to cut annual greenhouse gas emissions to 1,094 kilotons.
In 2018, the most recent year for which emissions figures are available, that figure stood at 1,260 kilotons – a gap of 166 kilotons.
“We’re not going to make the 2030 target at this rate. It’s just not going to happen,” O’Reilly said of the statistics.
“That’s quite alarming that, even at this early stage, we’re not going to make the target.”
MLA for Yellowknife North Rylund Johnson also expressed disappointment.
He told Cabin Radio that while the GNWT appears in many respects on-track to meet its goals, the goals themselves aren’t nearly as far-reaching as they should be.
“I think anyone who reads them – or understands the extent of climate changes, impacts and costs on people living in the North – recognizes that these plans are just simply not ambitious enough,” Johnson said.
“I think it’s slightly dishonest to give yourself a pat on the back and say we’re climate leaders because we’re meeting the targets set out in our plans and strategies, without actually addressing whether they’re the right plans and strategies.”
Both Johnson and O’Reilly pointed to the Taltson project, a foundational piece of the GNWT’s emissions reduction plan, as a problem area.
The territorial government believes expanding Taltson, located around 60 km north of Fort Smith, is vital to the NWT economy as it would provide cleaner and cheaper power to residents and mines in the North Slave.
The GNWT estimates completing the Taltson expansion would on its own provide a 15-percent drop in the NWT’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
In Monday’s briefing, Sexton said “progress had been made” on the expansion and work had been done to map power transmission routes under Great Slave Lake.
However, Johnson and O’Reilly each doubt the GNWT has the political will or financial ability to finish the project.
“At this point in time, it does not seem likely that this Assembly or even the next is going to complete the Taltson expansion,” Johnson said.
“There doesn’t seem to be a firm commitment of funding or construction plan in order to complete that project.”
The expansion has been projected to cost more than $1 billion. So far, the federal and territorial governments have contributed around 0.1 percent of that sum, though the project is slated to receive $18 million from the federal government over the life of the current four-year action plan.
In May 2020, northern social justice think-tank Alternatives North released a report urging the GNWT to ditch the Taltson project and instead focus on other carbon-cutting methods like carbon offsets, wood pellet heating, and renewable diesel.
Authors Lachlan Maclean and Andrew Robinson – formerly executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance – said the expansion is like “buying a fancy truck to plow snow from your driveway onto the fire, because you really wanted that fancy truck.”
Johnson argues there is no backup plan should the Taltson expansion fall through.
“By my read of things, the 2030 energy strategy is completely banking on a project that we haven’t actually put in the underlying work to complete,” he said.
O’Reilly seconded Johnson’s sentiment.
“The approach of the last government, I think, is proven to be a failure, and we’ve seen that even in this first report – and yet this government just continues along in that stream right now,” he said.
“I know it’s difficult with the pandemic and so on, but we’ve got an opportunity here to make some changes in terms of how we should be approaching climate change and energy in the Northwest Territories.”