Climate change targets and the Yukon

The 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference kicked off this week in Copenhagen, assembling an expected 15,000 prime ministers, scientists and celebrity activists to build on the accomplishments of the 14 previous conferences.

The 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference kicked off this week in Copenhagen, assembling an expected 15,000 prime ministers, scientists and celebrity activists to build on the accomplishments of the 14 previous conferences.

It is easy to be cynical at the circus-like nature of these conferences. Undoubtedly the Danish police are steeling themselves for an influx of the pickpockets, high-end drug dealers and other nocturnal entertainers who infest World Bank conferences and United Nations general assemblies. There will be plenty of ironies, as leaders arrive in armoured sport utility vehicles flown in for the occasion to deliver speeches on carbon dioxide reduction.

But Copenhagen is the place to be seen this week. Even Prime Minister Harper has been shamed into attending by President Obama’s announcement that he will jet in too. The Yukon alone is sending three politicians. If the rest of the world shared their legislators with equal generosity, the good people of Denmark would be enjoying the speeches of more than 600,000 politicians.

Despite the hoopla, the conference is attempting to deal with some seriously complex topics, ranging from advanced climate science to how to co-ordinate the activities of 192 different countries and thousands of provinces, Lander, departments and Autonomous Okrugs.

A key issue will be setting targets for carbon dioxide emissions.

The old Kyoto targets that Canada signed up for were to reduce carbon dioxide emissions six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. Despite all the speeches and government programs encouraging everything from new insulation to energy efficient fridges, we blew the target spectacularly.

The David Suzuki Foundation reports that emissions were actually up 22 per cent by 2006, a point now being made loudly by activists in Copenhagen.

Now the Canadian government, carefully not getting ahead of the United States, has announced a target of a 20 per cent reduction. But this is from 2006, not 1990, so it actually works out to just three per cent below 1990 levels.

What does all this mean for the Yukon?

The Yukon government does not have a carbon dioxide target, but is thinking about it. It’s quite difficult for a single, small jurisdiction to set its own target without knowing what Ottawa is going to do. Also, a new mine with diesel generators, or the arrival of just a few thousand cheechakos could burst any target that might be set.

But it’s still interesting to see what the various target scenarios might mean for the Yukon, on the (admittedly big) assumption that the targets were applied directly to the Yukon.

The Yukon emitted about 538 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide in 1990, according to the Yukon government’s climate change action plan. Roughly 300 kilotonnes was from transportation, while 94 kilotonnes came from electricity generation.

By 2006, total emissions had fallen 27 per cent to 394 kilotonnes, more than matching the Kyoto target. Yukon government ministers continue to note that the Yukon has surpassed Kyoto targets, although they fail to mention that this is largely because the Faro mine closed.

Without the Faro mine, diesel electricity generation has fallen a whopping 92 per cent. And there is no fleet of ore trucks burning lakes of diesel either. The 1990 baseline has been very convenient for other nations too, which some Kyoto critics explain is why it was chosen. The entire European Union gets to take credit for the closing of East Germany’s horribly inefficient factories. Eastern Europe and Russia benefit for the same reason.

The Canadian government’s current proposal calls for a 20 per cent cut from 2006 levels by 2020. The 2006 baseline is a big change for the Yukon, since it means we can no longer take credit for Faro’s closure.

If the target were applied to the Yukon specifically, which it might not be, we would have to cut emissions by about 80 kilotonnes.

About two-thirds of our emissions in 2006 came from transportation, so that would have to be the biggest source of reductions. More efficient vehicles will help, but there would have to be significantly less commuting and fewer transport trucks too. Aviation emissions represent almost as much carbon dioxide as residential heating in the Yukon, so fewer flights to Vancouver would also be part of the picture.

Commercial and residential heating is another big category, representing about 70 kilotonnes in 2006. Better insulation will help, but a major shift from home heating fuel to things like heat pumps would probably be required to make a big difference.

Population growth, new diesel-powered mines or developing the Yukon’s natural gas resources would be difficult to accommodate without breaking the target.

A big question will be whether the reductions come from reducing transportation and heating, or switching to renewable power sources such as electric cars and heat pumps. The Yukon got about 20 per cent of its total energy from renewable sources in 2005, according to Whitehorse’s Vector Research. Norway, also full of mountains and rivers, generated over half of its power from hydro and wind.

The Mayo B project will increase the Yukon’s renewable power supply by about 10 per cent, with the Yukon government’s energy strategy targeting an additional 10 per cent by 2020. This is good, but not enough to support a major shift from fossil fuels.

We will need to have more micro-hydro, wind and other generating sources, which is one reason the Yukon government is pushing forward an independent power producer policy. These projects take years to design and build, so we need to start soon.

We won’t know for some time how any international targets agreed to at Copenhagen or afterwards will affect the Yukon. But if carbon dioxide targets hit in a few years and we don’t already have a raft of new renewable energy projects on the go, it will be painful.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. His latest book, Game On Yukon!, was just launched.

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