Adapting to an altered environment is increasingly necessary for a territory affected by climate change, say conservation advocates.
So environmental groups are commending Environment Minister Dennis Fentie for his remarks following a first ministers’ meeting on climate change.
The Yukon should focus more on dealing with the effects of climate change now rather than greenhouse gas emission targets, said Fentie earlier this week.
“I’m proud to hear our premier understands the importance of adaptation, and now it’s time to see results,” said Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon campaign co-ordinator Theresa Gulliver.
Adaptation can mean different things to environment groups or governments, but primarily it’s taken to mean adjusting to the new realities of land, wildlife and economic opportunities after changes by global warming.
Changing logging policies because of spruce-bark beetle infestations, preserving caribou migration routes or modifying infrastructure projects, like sewage lagoons, to conform to foreseeable climate change impacts are examples.
“Adaptation is very important because even if we get greenhouse gas emissions down to zip tomorrow, we’ll still feel the effects for another 50 to 100 years,” said Lewis Rifkind, Yukon Conservation Society energy co-ordinator.
But if climate change continues, society will be in a continuous cycle of adaptation, he added.
“We’re going to be forced to do adaptation, but we have to force ourselves to reduce emissions,” said Rifkind.
Less greenhouse gas is released in the Yukon than the rest of Canada — about 16 tonnes of greenhouse gasses per capita in 2004, seven tonnes less than the Canadian average.
Yet, the Yukon feels more impacts from climate change than other jurisdictions, according the territory’s Environment department.
Since 1948, the average temperature in the Yukon has risen 2 degrees Celsius, compared to the Canadian average of 0.1 Celsius.
Climate change could bring longer growing seasons, leading to more agricultural opportunities for Yukoners.
Or post-wildfire growth could produce different eco-systems in warmer weather, making conditions more suitable for moose than caribou, said Rifkind.
That would mean a change for subsistence hunters.
More land should be set aside for wild animals that are adjusting to new climate change realties, said Gulliver.
“We have an opportunity in the Yukon to be proactive,” she said.
“There’s an advantage here with the amount of land still untouched. Ecosystems can only take so much beating before collapsing.”
A serious commitment to conservation would be similar to the Northwest Territories’ 100,000-square-kilometre tract of land under protection, said Gulliver.
The Yukon government needs to make stronger commitments to conservation, said Gulliver.
“We need to take land-use planning seriously,” she said.
“We have some of the largest herds of woodland caribou and that’s a good place to start.”
The first major land-use plan mandated under the Umbrella Final Agreement was released in draft form recently.
It recommends a one per cent increase in protected lands in northern Yukon around Old Crow and increased protection of the Porcupine caribou herd.
But adaptation has to include mitigation, said Rifkind.
Country-wide, a “cap-and-trade” plan would be a good thing, said Rifkind.
A cap-and-trade system would reward jurisdictions for meeting emission targets, which could then sell big polluters credits to make up for exceeding the targets.
The Yukon has no interest in joining a cap-and-trade system, something Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia are discussing, said Fentie.
Being a relatively small polluter, the territory could sell surplus credits to provinces like Alberta for financial reward, said Rifkind.
“But we have such a small population base, how do you determine the cap-and-trade levels — is it based on economic output or population size?” said Rifkind.
“It’s an interesting idea and I’m surprised the premier came out so quickly against it.”