The NWT’s latest emissions figures: progress, but enough?

Ministers say enough is being done to reach the NWT’s existing 2030 emissions reduction goals, but the numbers to back that up do not yet appear to exist.

Environment minister Shane Thompson said “we feel comfortable” that the NWT will reduce emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels in the next eight years as the latest annual reports were published on Tuesday.

But Thompson made no suggestion that the territory would adopt the new federal target of a 40 to 45-percent emissions drop by 2030, then net-zero emissions by 2050.


“I’m not saying yes or no to it,” said Thompson, who implied the new federal goal – which he called “a curveball” – is a big ask for a territory that contributes 0.2 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“We need the federal government to provide us with more cash,” the minister said, reiterating a request to Ottawa made repeatedly in recent months.

In its new reports, which document the 2020-21 financial year, the NWT says it spent $55.6 million addressing climate change and created 15 related jobs.

The territorial government says its actions directly reduced emissions by 3.6 kilotonnes in that 12-month period.

The problem is that 3.6 kilotonnes is nowhere close to the reduction the territory must achieve to meet even the 30-percent goal by 2030, never mind the new, more ambitious federal target.


Infrastructure minister Diane Archie stated at a news conference on Tuesday that the NWT needs to drop another 244 kilotonnes by 2030 to hit the 30-percent marker. A drop of more than 200 kilotonnes cannot be achieved in time at the present pace.

The NWT’s strategy to reach its goal instead relies heavily on a major infrastructure project, the Taltson hydro system’s expansion, which would offer cleaner power to the North Slave and the diamond mines.

“We need a transformative project like Taltson to fill that gap and achieve our objectives,” said Andrew Stewart, the territory’s director of energy, when the NWT first published its climate change and energy goals in 2018. The Taltson project is forecast to eventually contribute a 227-kilotonne emissions reduction.

But last week, the territory said Taltson’s expansion remains in the feasibility stages with “a great deal of work left to do.” Whether any emissions benefit will have been felt by 2030 is not at all clear.


2020’s overall emissions aren’t known

The NWT’s battle to reach a 30-percent drop is not helped by the fact the territory does not know precisely how well it is doing.

The last time the territory reported an overall annual figure for greenhouse gas emissions was 2019-20, when the NWT emitted 1,377 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Though the GNWT was able to state its programs have delivered a 3.6-kilotonne reduction in 2020-21, on Tuesday there was no update available for the overall figure – which would reflect not only the GNWT’s programs but the impact of the pandemic, for example, on industrial and transportation emissions.

Without the 2020 headline figure, there is currently no public gauge to suggest emissions are even still going down, though the pandemic’s impact on industry means that is almost certainly the case.

The NWT’s 2005 emissions level was previously reported by the territory to be 1,657 kilotonnes, meaning a 30-percent reduction requires reaching around 1,160 kilotonnes.

“It’s true, we’re currently reporting the 2019 emissions figures, and that has to do with some of the complexities around calculating these numbers,” said Julian Kanigan, the NWT’s director of environmental stewardship and climate change, on Tuesday.

“2019 is currently the year that we have confidence in those numbers. We’re working with the federal government in order to move forward with some of the future numbers.”

As an example of the huge impact industry has on NWT emissions figures, consider the Ekati diamond mine, which suspended work for most of 2020-21 – partly because of the pandemic but mostly because of its then-owner’s financial problems.

Ekati, in care-and-maintenance mode, saw its emissions drop by 83 kilotonnes in 2020-21 according to its new owner’s reporting.

A photo from a territorial government inspection report shows waste bins at the Ekati diamond mine in early 2021
A photo from a territorial government inspection report shows waste bins at the Ekati diamond mine in early 2021.

In other words, suspending work at Ekati produced an emissions reduction equivalent to roughly a third of the 244-kilotonne drop Archie mentioned. The mine’s suspension moved the needle far more significantly than the GNWT’s programs.

“The scale of change that can happen with reductions from emissions of an industrial operation is much greater than some of the actions that you see have been taken by the GNWT,” Kanigan acknowledged.

“That has to do with the nature of our economy … that said, I think we’re putting a lot of effort into getting the reductions that we do have, and we certainly do work with our federal colleagues and others to help them understand the challenges of achieving incremental changes in our greenhouse gas emissions.”

More: Read a plain-language summary of the GNWT’s latest climate reporting

Economically, more suspensions at diamond mines are the last thing the territory needs. The territorial government is trying to open more mines to sustain its economy at least as fervently as it is attempting to reduce emissions.

“Shutdowns aren’t what anybody wants to have to rely on, nor is that good for the overall functioning of the economy,” said finance and industry minister Caroline Wawzonek at Tuesday’s news conference.

Wawzonek said a large emitters’ fund, part of the NWT’s carbon tax, takes money from mine operators to fund programs that help them reduce their emissions. She added that two of the territory’s three active diamond mines had made commitments to pursue carbon-neutral mining.

How they might reach the goal of being carbon-neutral is not clear. If, for example, mines choose to purchase carbon offsets elsewhere to compensate for emissions in the NWT, it’s not obvious how that will be accounted for in the territory’s emissions reporting. Wawzonek has been approached for comment.

NWT environment minister Shane Thompson, left, meets Greenland counterpart Kalistat Lund at COP26 in a photo posted by Thompson to Twitter
NWT environment minister Shane Thompson, left, meets Greenland counterpart Kalistat Lund at the COP26 climate conference in a photo posted by Thompson to Twitter.

Minister to meet with counterparts

Thompson, meanwhile, reiterated his desire to develop a pan-northern approach to climate change and also backed the work of the territory’s climate change council, which was created in March and encompasses a range of Indigenous governments and groups.

That council’s initial progress has been steady, if not electrifying.

Kanigan said the council’s members had taken part in “context-setting meetings so we’re all on the same page” about climate change and actions already being taken, but the council has yet to set priorities to actually pursue among Indigenous governments in the coming years.

“We’re not at the stage yet where we’re setting priorities,” said Kanigan. “We’re setting the table for that.”

Once those priorities are set, the council will create panels to pursue each of them. Examples of similar panels already in existence are those that monitor cumulative impacts on the environment or oversee water stewardship in the NWT. The council is also likely to create panels for youth and Elders.

Thompson maintains the NWT is “on track” to meet the 30-percent reduction goal by 2030, though not the newly revised federal target. He expects to meet with counterparts across Canada next Monday to discuss those new targets in more detail.

“We need to make informed decisions and have these frank conversations with them,” he said of the federal government.

“We need more federal funding. We need the money, whether it’s adaptation or mitigation.”