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Commentary: Creative carbon counting will not reduce emissions

Sebastian Jones
A transport truck drives down the Alaska Highway in November 2016. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

Sebastian Jones

Yukon Conservation Society

In the Yukon legislature, on Nov. 30, the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources offered up the following justification for giving the mining sector an exemption from emissions reduction targets and measures: “If we put in place those targets that the member across is asking for, I could end up in the perverse situation where we would not clean up Faro. So, sorry, no — I think that it is important. “

So, if the mining industry is treated the same way as other business and like regular Yukon residents and pays full freight carbon tax, we would not be able to clean up the mess left by the mining industry in Faro? Really?

What kind of pretzel logic led to this startling conclusion?

Without getting too complicated, the Yukon’s climate plan, “Our Clean Future” has a target to reduce carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. However, the mining industry is excluded from this target; instead of requiring miners to reduce their emissions in the same way as regular businesses and regular Yukon residents, miners are asked to reduce the emissions intensity of their products. So, if it currently takes a ton of carbon to produce an ounce of gold, miners will be asked to try to reduce that ton of emissions to something less, for example to one half of a ton per ounce.

So, if a mine produces a thousand ounces, instead of emitting a thousand tons of carbon, it would emit 500 tons. Sounds good, right? However, if the mine starts producing 3,000 ounces, or if a new mine opens, total emissions will rise, and the Yukon would not meet its emissions target.

Similarly, the carbon emitted trying to clean up the mess that the industry leaves at the mines, it abandons would make it impossible to meet our target.

So, excluding the mining sector (which includes cleaning up after the mining sector) from the Yukon’s emission plan makes life simpler for the minister responsible.

Just one problem: Carbon is still emitted, and the climate could care less how cleverly we bury the emissions in creative carbon accounting. The Yukon’s emissions will continue to climb.

The reasoning provided by the current minister is actually more palatable than the reasoning their predecessor provided: “If mine emissions were counted, and a mine closed, Yukon emissions would drop a lot and then regular Yukoner residents would stop trying to reduce.” The new reasoning is just as wrong, but at least it does not cast Yukoners as cynical carbon cheats.

The current Energy, Mines and Resources Minister is probably better versed in climate science than any other politician in Yukon history; the minister really cares and knows we have to reduce total emissions.

So why does the Yukon’s climate plan exclude the mining industry?

Why does the Yukon emission reduction plan allow for Yukon’s emissions to climb? Well, I suspect we know why—the Yukon was settled for mining and mining is woven into its post-settlement identity, as evidenced by the placer miner depicted on every license plate in the territory. The idea of constraining the industry is anathema to many. It’s almost unpatriotic, almost treasonous.

However, the climate does not care about our emotional connection to mining, and without reducing emissions the climate crisis will worsen and affect miners and non-miners alike.

So, what can we do?

The answer is straightforward, which should not be confused with simple, or easy.

The mining industry, we are regularly told, wants certainty. Even though wining and dining regulators often produces their desired results, lobbying is not a sure thing. A hard target will provide the certainty the industry needs and allow the industry to work out how best to achieve it. Yes, a target for the sector will mean that not all proposed mines will be able to proceed simultaneously; they will have to take turns. Yes, when irresponsible miners leave big messes that we need to clean up, new mines will have to wait until the mess is fixed.

Imagine a system where a miner’s irresponsible behaviour has real effects on other miners?

Imagine a system where, in the face of hard targets, miners start using emission-free mining methods?

Imagine a system where all Yukon emissions are treated equally!

Yes, the industry will lobby hard against such a system; royal boxes at hockey games will doubtless be handed out like candy. But if we really want to reduce emissions and de-escalate the climate crisis, we have to set absolute targets, and end the practice of pretending that mining emissions don’t matter.

Sebastian Jones is a Fish, Wildlife and Habitat Analyst for the Yukon Conservation Society.