Can the Yukon really do anything about climate change?

With its Mayo B hydro project, the Energy Solutions Centre and sizable delegations to events like Copenhagen, the Yukon talks a good game when it comes to green initiatives.

With its Mayo B hydro project, the Energy Solutions Centre and sizable delegations to events like Copenhagen, the Yukon talks a good game when it comes to green initiatives.

But there’s little measurable action on the territory’s brownest industry: transportation.

Trucks, cars and all the goods shipped up the Alaska Highway generate 63 per cent of the territory’s greenhouse gas emissions every year.

So far, the government has been slow to put any meaningful green transport policy in place. And there’s a huge amount of research that must be done before any such regulations or economic incentives can be put in place.

How much research needs to be done?

Well, consider for a moment that the Yukon currently doesn’t know what, exactly, is on the highway, said Green Party candidate and climate change specialist John Streicker.

“We need to know how much is going to Alaska, how much comes on airplanes, how much of it is for industrial, or government or commuting,” said Streicker.

And, even if the territory were to draft a proposal for, say, freight trucks, it’s not clear how effective that would be. Governments across North America are deciding whether federal agencies are best equipped to solve the problem, or whether there’s a role for smaller-scale efforts enacted at the state or provincial level.

A recent report published by the Conference Board of Canada, Freight Trucks and Climate Change: Mitigating Carbon Dioxide Emissions, written by Professor Stephen Blank found that while some things are best done by the little guys, it’s federal governments that can really make a difference in reducing transportation’s carbon footprint.

Of course, that isn’t to say all efforts aren’t valuable.

“I’d be crazy not to suggest that bottom-up efforts by companies – to be more green, to use less packaging, to use more intelligent delivery systems – aren’t valuable,” said Blank.

And state- and provincial-level attempts at greening transportation also play a big role, he said. California’s strict rules on emissions are now being imitated by the US federal government. Canada has followed with similar new standards for mileage on new vehicles.

“One of the things that bottom-up efforts are doing most is educating constituencies,” he said.

“The danger is, you get a blowback.”

California is facing a series of ballot initiatives in its upcoming November election that would reverse some of the carbon-tackling policies in the Golden State.

The ubiquity of carbon in our daily lives makes any reduction policy incredibly complicated. Any effort could have unintended consequences that could actually increase carbon use, said Blank.

“Unless we begin to think in these very big-picture ways, we will paint ourselves into a corner,” he said. “With infrastructure, you don’t want to stop building a bridge in the middle.”

It’s also doesn’t make a lot of sense to enforce new regulations – rules to retrofit trucks or replace engines for example – in small regions instead of the entire continent, he said.

After all, we’re talking about changing the entire transportation system.

“Building a highway across state boundaries is very difficult,” said Blank. “The interstate did it to a degree, but, my heavens, I don’t think we could do it today.”

Provincial-level governments can’t rejig the national rail and highway network, and they can’t put a price on carbon.

And, to do those things federally, the national mood has to favour such policies.

The US railroad system was built with a lot of grassroots push plus some federal help in terms of land.

“It was never totally planned, and never very detailed,” he said.

Highway construction in the mid 20th century happened because of alignment of political opposition against the railroad barons.

“The railroads had so incensed congress with their bad behaviour that congress couldn’t wait to give truckers free roads and gasoline stations,” said Blank.

The introduction of the US Interstate system by the Eisenhower administration was done as a security measure during the Cold War, making it a much better-planned infrastructure project than the railroads and the original highways.

Similar to the debate over climate change and refitting the freight system, roads are a state and provincial responsibility. The interstate is a success story and a model for co-operation around these jurisdictionally sensitive issues, said Blank.

Streicker agrees it’s going to take a lead by Ottawa to really change the way transportation is done here.

“The things that will make a difference for us will be the federal legislation, which is coming in to create a more energy efficient fleet of vehicles,” he said, referring to the recent mileage standard changes.

There are a few promising solutions in the near future, like the move to create a local car co-op, he said.

The other thing we should do is develop more of a local economy.

“The more we can become self-sufficient as a territory, the less we have to bring things up to the territory,” said Streicker.

In Blank’s report, he calls that solution “near-shoring,” as opposed to off-shoring.

On the private-sector side, Ontario’s focus on greening its manufacturing sector by convincing companies of the cost-savings is a shining example, said Blank.

Shipping companies, like UPS and FedEx, have taken steps, such as eliminating all left turns to reduce idling, and have purchased hybrid trucks, he said.

But before the Yukon government can prod companies toward greener management of their transportation fleets, it needs to know who trucks what and how, said Eric Schroff, the new director of the Yukon government’s climate change secretariat.

The office is in the early stages of planning an inventory of the transportation sector’s emissions, he said.

When asked about progress so far, he mentioned the Canadian and US federal changes to mileage standards.

“That announcement and that co-ordination in the long-run will be good for the Yukon,” he said.

Contact James Munson at