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Yukonomist: What to do in Year 5 of the City of Whitehorse’s climate emergency

We are now in Year 5 of the City of Whitehorse’s climate emergency, declared by Whitehorse city council in September 2019. The city’s latest move in the battle is hiring consultants to develop its Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan, to be presented to city council next May.

We are now in Year 5 of the City of Whitehorse’s climate emergency, declared by Whitehorse city council in September 2019. The city’s latest move in the battle is hiring consultants to develop its Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan, to be presented to city council next May.

So what is Whitehorse’s carbon footprint? Canada has limited up-to-date city-level reporting, but Whitehorse is 70 per cent of the Yukon’s population. The Yukon’s carbon emissions, excluding mining which generally occurs outside city limits, were 637 kilotonnes in 2020. On that rough basis, Whitehorse’s emissions were probably around 450 kilotonnes. That number will have gone up with the recovery of pre-pandemic driving patterns as well as our surging population.

Keep in mind that this only counts our direct emissions. It does not count the emissions elsewhere associated with our consumption. These emissions, referred to as Scope 3 by carbon accountants, include things like the carbon dioxide emitted by the coal-fired Chinese steel mill that made the steel in your office chair or the diesel truck that drove it up the Alaska Highway.

The federal government committed Canada to net zero emissions by 2050, which the territorial government also identified as a long-term target.

One of the first choices our city government has is whether it wants to be a leader and shoot for net zero before the rest of the nation, or go with the flow. Over 700 cities in 53 countries have committed via the C40 Cities process to cut their emissions in half by 2030 and achieve net zero in 2050. Trondheim, a city in Norway about as far north as Pelly Crossing, has declared an ambition to be climate neutral by 2030.

Once Whitehorse chooses how much of a leader it wants to be, then there is the much more difficult task of actually achieving the carbon targets.

The city can work on this in three buckets: cutting the emissions of its own operations, helping citizens and local businesses cut their emissions and using its regulatory powers to enforce emissions reductions.

First, on its own operations, there are the relatively easy measures cities tend to action first. This includes things like buying electric pickups for the parks department, re-insulating existing buildings and replacing streetlights with LEDs. The city is already doing some of these things, which are useful but very small compared to Whitehorse’s total emissions.

The numbers get bigger when you look at a community’s landfill, compost facility and sewage plant. These all emit methane from decomposing organic matter. This is a problem, since methane is 120 times more potent in the year it is released than carbon dioxide in terms of warming impact.

There are many cities across Canada capturing the methane from such facilities, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere as Whitehorse does. This methane can then be piped into natural gas pipelines to replace fossil natural gas for power and heat.

In Nanaimo, British Columbia, for example, they have covered their landfill to capture the methane and installed 31 mini gas wells to extract it. The gas is burned to produce enough electricity for 1,200 local homes. It also generates some revenue for the municipality.

I bought some carbon credits last year from to offset our family’s emissions and selected to steer my money to this Nanaimo project. According to Carbon Zero, “the project was financed partly by carbon offset sales and would not have had proceeded without this financing.”

I wanted to buy some Yukon offsets, but no such officially audited projects were available on Carbon Zero.

Second, the city could help Whitehorse residents and businesses cut their emissions. An example of this would be to build geothermal district heating into the next subdivision built in Whitehorse. For example, Calgary geothermal company Eavor, which recently raised big bucks from Canadian and international investors, developed a closed-loop technology where you drill deep enough into the earth to find heat, then circulate water to bring heat to the surface. Imagine a neighbourhood where every house had hot water pipes coming in as well as the usual sewer and water lines. This would eliminate oil and propane heat, as well as prevent new electrically-heated houses from burdening our grid (where Yukon Energy continues to lease diesel generators).

Such a system could be a city utility like water and sewer or a business owned by investors such as First Nation development corporations.

Another option would be to launch a major multi-year Firesmarting effort around Whitehorse to reduce our wildfire risk, while ensuring the wood was available to Whitehorse residents to cut their fossil heat and power emissions. This would require careful monitoring of tree cutting and woodsmoke levels, and could involve things like a wood pellet plant or a wood-fired power plant.

The third set of options for the city involves using its regulatory powers. Oslo, Norway has experimented with new civic rules to incent electric-vehicle use, such as free parking and access to bus lanes for commuters. Nanaimo banned natural gas as the primary heat source in new homes starting July 2024.

There is also an opportunity to involve citizens more in the financing of these initiatives. I would love to buy a carbon credit from the Whitehorse dump and I’m sure many Yukoners would like to buy a City of Whitehorse green bond for their retirement fund where the interest is paid by the revenue from a future Copper Ridge South Geothermal Utility (especially if the territorial government declared such green bonds tax free).

We shall now see what our city government decides to do. Next May, the bare minimum will be more bike lanes, building retrofits and electric vehicles for city staff.

Much more impactful would be major initiatives such as landfill methane or district heating.

You’ll know the City of Whitehorse is really serious about its climate emergency if Lewes Boulevard and Mountain View Drive have electric-only vehicle lanes, oil and propane are banned in new housing and the best parking spots on Main Street are reserved for electric vehicles.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.