YUKONOMIST: Climate emergency, lite edition

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

Back in September 2019, Whitehorse City Council declared a climate emergency, to the applause of a capacity crowd in council chambers.

One councillor remarked at the time that the words “act now” kept coming up as citizen delegates addressed their representatives. A youth delegate named Emma Marnik quoted Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg saying, “I am watching my home burn.”

Planning Institute of British Columbia president Lesley Cabott told council to “Be bold, thoughtful, and lead.”

Now mayor and council are considering the 2021 capital budget, which is their first real chance to put their money (and ours) where their mouth is.

The city’s 2021 capital budget totals $30.9 million, plus another $21.5 million in projects awaiting approval by external funders. These funders are mostly the federal and territorial governments.

The total works out to a substantial $1,764 of investment per Whitehorse resident. Let’s take a tour of the budget’s climate highlights and check out how the city is mobilizing for the climate emergency.

The city is spending $500,000 to demolish the old, poorly insulated Municipal Services Building on Fourth Avenue. The city’s new flagship Operations Building at the top of the Two Mile Hill has solar panels and is built to modern insulation standards, but the city’s October emissions report noted that the new building’s fossil-fuel heat is expected to boost the city’s propane usage.

The new building was designed to be convertible to biomass heat in the future, but the 2021 capital budget does not include funding for this.

The same report shows the city’s carbon emissions from burning oil rose from approximately 4,500 tonnes per year in 2016 to around 5,500 tonnes in 2019. The switchover of the Canada Games Centre from surplus electricity to oil heat is the major culprit here.

The 2021 capital budget includes $325,000, subject to funder approval, for a system to capture waste heat at the Canada Games Centre. This will reduce emissions by 252 tonnes per year, counteracting only about one-quarter of the increase in annual oil emissions since 2016.

There are also plans to spend $700,000 this year and $8 million next year to retrofit the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre, including improving its energy efficiency.

In addition, the city plans to install biomass heating for its building at the Tlingit Street transit building. This will cost $75,000 this year and $600,000 next year.

There is $80,000 for an electric forklift, which would have been largely emissions-free if the Yukon’s reliance on LNG and diesel-generated electricity had not risen in recent years. However, the budget also has about $1.1 million for various fossil-fuel pickups, vans, sweepers and trucks. At least some of these will likely still be in service in 2030, when Canada’s performance against our Paris emissions targets is assessed.

Other plans include more bike lanes and spending $20,000 to move its Energy Tracker software to a new host.

These initiatives add up to a bit less than $2 million in investment in 2021. There are various other climate-related projects embedded in other budget line items, like bike lanes as part of larger paving projects.

But if we really are facing an emergency, even if it were twice as much money, it would still seem like a small share of a $31 million capital budget.

Put it in comparison to the $2.9 million for a new building at Robert Service campground or the $3.5 million in fresh paving. Or compare it to the budget for the city’s next new flagship building, the services building planned for Steele Street. The budget for this is $16.3 million this year and $2.7 million next year.

These buildings will doubtless have modern insulation, but will they use fossil-fuel heat?

If you flip through the list of projects in the capital budget, you’ll see that it’s not obvious which projects should be pushed back into later years to pay for more climate-emergency investments now. Would you recommend axing the $72,000 for hazmat equipment or $200,000 for the Ray Street sewer replacement?

But mayor and council will have to square the circle somehow. Either taxes have to go up, or some other projects will have to be delayed, or they’ll have to admit that they actually declared a “climate emergency lite.”

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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