A report by the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) calls for action to prevent carbon in the territory’s wetlands from being released in the atmosphere.
CPAWS released the report — The Yukon’s Climate Blind Spot — focused on the Indian River Watershed south of Dawson City on Nov. 15. It argues industrial development there over the next century could release 575 kilotons of carbon, an amount CPAWS Yukon says is equivalent to the yearly emissions from 125,000 cars or running the Whitehorse liquefied natural gas plant 24/7 for a decade.
The 26-page report focuses on the impact of development in wetlands containing peat, made up of decayed plants that accumulate over thousands of years, which store carbon. Disturbing peat can result in the stored carbon being released into the atmosphere.
CPAWS Yukon used mapping and existing scientific data in its calculations, which showed mining a hectare of fens (a type of wetland) to recover approximately 113 ounces of refined gold would result in the release of 70 tonnes of carbon.
“In dollar figures, that is $236,000 of gold and $37,000 worth of carbon,” the report states.
“Put another way — about 15 per cent of the value of gold could be cancelled out by the cost of (carbon) lost during extraction.”
The study then goes on to suggest a “polluter pay” system accounting for the full carbon footprint of placer mining could erase the industry’s profits.
“Not requiring placer operators to pay for carbon costs of their practises is what economists refer to as an externality — a cost passed on to society and the planet in the form of carbon pollution.”
While the report looks specifically at the Indian River Watershed, it’s noted that is just a fraction of the territory.
“This report didn’t look at the impacts to peatlands from other industrial developments, like roads that can interrupt the way water flows through landscapes, or hard-rock mining that can depress water tables in the surrounding areas,” the report states.
“To date, nobody has analyzed the emissions from peatland disturbance on a Yukon-wide scale. Not knowing the magnitude of these emissions is a massive blind spot for the Government of Yukon.”
The Indian River Watershed was chosen for the study due largely to the mapping that has already been done, Malkolm Boothroyd, the report’s lead author and CPAWS Yukon’s campaigns coordinator, said in a Nov. 17 interview.
The watershed is an area that has a number of issues that are also seen in other areas of the Yukon.
It was just a couple of years ago that Boothroyd said he had the opportunity to see first-hand the importance of the watershed when he canoed the Indian River with some members of the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin First Nation.
“It’s a bread basket for many First Nations citizens,” Boothroyd said, highlighting the importance the region has to hunting and fishing.
The report was released three days before the COP 27 climate change summit gets underway in Egypt on Nov. 18.
CPAWS Yukon also highlighted the release a year after G20 countries pledged to limit global warming to 1.5C.
The Yukon government has pledged to cut emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, but as CPAWS Yukon pointed out that commitment does not include emissions from peatland development, which aren’t counted.
“Preventing the worst impacts of climate change depends on keeping carbon in the ground, but the Government of Yukon keeps approving new mining developments in wetlands,” Boothroyd said in a statement.
“That only adds more fuel to the fire.”
It was emphasized the risks are not limited to the Indian River Watershed. Developments like open-pit mining and road construction can have an impact on peatlands as well.
Boothroyd said it’s hoped the study draws attention to the importance of wetlands and the impact development can have on them. He said he would like to see further studies done that explore other wetland regions and hopes that this report will be a first among more.
“Wetlands are more than reservoirs of carbon,” Boothroyd said.
“Wetland ecosystems are rich in wildlife, and are places where many people go to hunt, fish and feel connected with the natural world. The Yukon should rise to the urgency of the moment, and take leadership to conserve these peatland ecosystems.”
Included in the report are 18 recommendations aimed at government, land use planners, the Yukon Environmental Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB) and industry.
Among the recommendations, CPAWS Yukon recommends the territory launch an inventory of peatlands, track emissions from disturbances to peatlands and halt new mining development in those areas.
The territory’s upcoming wetland policy should include safeguards for peatlands, the recommendations state.
A heavy focus on climate change and carbon storage should be a focus for land use planning throughout the territory with lands plans conforming to the Yukon’s climate targets.
For the Dawson land use plan specifically, it’s suggested the plan recommend against development within fens areas and that protections for the upper Indian River Wetlands be restored.
Among the recommendations for YESAB, CPAWS Yukon is recommending YESAB assess the carbon emissions associated with disturbing carbon storage over the lifecycle of each project that comes forward, that projects that would have mining in undisturbed wetlands or do not conform to the territory’s carbon reduction targets are recommended not to proceed.
Finally, on the industry side, it’s recommended resource extraction companies not focus developments in areas with significant peat or permafrost.
Mining companies should also report when peat deposits are found in exploration work and extra precautions (roads constructed in a way that does not interrupt water flow through peatlands, for example) should be taken.
It’s also suggested that developers should maintain hydrological connections — both above and below ground.
And if operators have a reclamation technique that can protect carbon stored in peat, it’s suggested the territory could consider a more lenient approach to regulating development in peatlands.
Boothroyd noted the study has been provided to the Yukon government. It’s expected it will be among the topics of discussion at the next meeting between the territorial and CPAWS Yukon officials.
Energy, Mines and Resources Minister John Streicker said he would like to see research that looks at more robust science around the topic, noting he had previously committed to a process that would involve CPAWS Yukon, Ducks Unlimited and the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association (KPMA) to look at carbon storage in the territory. The government would cover the cost of such a study.
“These are not simple questions,” he said of the issue.
Streicker pointed out the miners’ association is open to improving reclamation.
He expects a more robust study will eventually be done, though work right now is focused largely on the territory’s upcoming wetlands strategy, which will address placer mining in wetland areas, and the Dawson Regional Land Use Plan, which will also look at the Indian River Watershed.
The placer miners’ association has also responded to the CPAWS Yukon report with its own eight-page document available at kpma.ca.
The document takes issue with the CPAWS Yukon report, pointing out the report does not consider the “vast” untouched wetlands throughout the territory.
Responding to the recommendations to industry, the KPMA argues placer miners don’t focus on developing on peat or permafrost, but rather look at gold that may be present, the regulatory regime in place and permitting, and the business case to do the work responsibly.
The association also went on to argue reporting peat finds would not solve gaps in data, but rather working with industry and unbiased scientists could; that care is taken by the industry to ensure there is as little soil disturbance as possible when operating in peatlands; and that industry will continue to be transparent and consistent with reclamation techniques throughout the territory.
The KPMA also emphasized environmental organizations have been and will continue to be invited for field tours with industry and to “work with us (not against us) to find ways that benefit the environment as well as our communities. The KPMA believes the two are not mutually exclusive.”
Contact Stephanie Waddell at email@example.com