Yukonomist: Our carbon report card

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

The Yukon government recently released its latest climate report card, entitled Our Clean Future. It is packed with interesting analysis and is worth reading to check in on the Yukon’s progress. It’s been seven years since global leaders signed the Paris climate accord, and six since Premier Silver took office with sustainability a major focus of the first chapter of his winning campaign platform.

The report card highlights some good news. In 2020 the Yukon, not counting mining, emitted 642 kilotonnes of CO2e (planet-warming carbon dioxide or its equivalent). That’s down 12 percent from 2019 and is up only 3 percent since 2010. Emissions per person were 17.5 tonnes of CO2e, down from 20.0 tonnes in 2010. In 2021, 92.4 percent of the electricity on the Yukon’s main grid was from renewables. The number of zero-emission electric vehicles doubled.

Even though a big reason emissions were lower in 2020 was that drivers and air travellers were locked down, this is all good news and positive progress. Yukoners took a century to build fossil fuels into nearly every aspect of our economy, and a century-long addiction will take time to change.

However, the report also has to be read with a grain of clichéd salt. As on the finance side, where the Yukon lacks an independent Legislative Budget Officer to analyze the territory’s finances for citizens, the Yukon government writes and signs off on its own climate report card. The statistics come from national data agencies, but the selection and presentation of the facts have gone through many meetings deep inside the Yukon government’s communications apparat.

You can consider the document part statistical annex, part public-relations exercise.

There are two things to keep in mind when you compare the Yukon’s progress to other jurisdictions: base year and mining.

Canada’s international commitment is to cut emissions by 40-45 percent by 2030, from a base year of 2005. The Yukon has chosen to make a commitment to cut emissions by 45 percent by 2030, but from a base year of 2010, five years later. Since the document does not include datapoints showing how much emissions went up from 2005 to 2010, it’s hard to tell how much easier this makes meeting our target. Our carbon-emitting population grew substantially during that period, so the effect is probably significant.

Unlike the nation overall, the Yukon government excludes mining from its target. The logic is that one large, new mine could skew the Yukon emissions dramatically so it makes sense to have separate targets for mining and everything else. The plan is to set the mining target by the end of 2022, and to make it an “intensity” target.

This means that the mining sector will not have a goal of reducing its absolute emissions, like the rest of the economy. It will have to reduce its emissions per tonne of material produced. This means, in effect, we could have some large new fossil-powered mines as long as they are more energy efficient than traditional mines.

Finalizing an intensity target will be an enormously consequential decision, as green and mining lobbyists in Whitehorse know well. If the target is too loose, the Yukon’s emissions could skyrocket. If too tight, given how hard it is to build new hydro dams here, the only way to open a major new mine will be if it is powered by small nuclear reactors, a multi-billion-dollar connection to the BC grid or another new technology such as hydrogen.

And consider what will happen if a new copper mine is blocked here because its emissions per tonne are higher than a Yukon government guideline. Some other mine in Chile or Russia will step up to supply global copper buyers, perhaps with even higher emissions.

So where do we stand now? We’ve been talking about climate change for a long time, and our MLAs declared a “climate emergency” back in 2019.

From 2010 to 2020 our non-mining emissions went from 625 kilotonnes up to 642 kilotonnes. The Yukon government plan is for them to fall to 343 kilotonnes by 2030.

The good news figures mentioned above also put the scale of the challenge in perspective.

Doubling electric vehicles is good, but this was from 57 to just 129. That’s a small fraction of the 36,651 vehicles registered in 2019. Yukoners will need to buy an additional 4671 electric vehicles in the next 8 years to make the government target.

The electricity situation is also a bit more complicated than the “92.4 percent renewable” figure suggests. This is actually significantly lower than the percentage a decade ago, and as recently as 2015 we were at 97 percent renewable. Rising population and power use has outpaced renewable construction, resulting in higher use of diesel and LNG.

Most places in the advanced world have seen electricity emissions fall dramatically. Canada’s electricity emissions fell 48 percent from 2005 to 2020. The Yukon’s more than doubled according to the federal National Inventory Report.

One big question is whether those 4800 electric vehicles in 2030 will be plugged into renewable power or more LNG. That target date is just eight years away, not very long in the world of Yukon infrastructure projects.

During the next eight years we can expect our transfer payment to rise and our population with it. This means more heating, more cars and more air travel.

We can also expect that the moderately good news on emissions in 2020 will fade along with the pandemic into the rearview mirror. In many parts of the world, emissions are already above 2019 levels despite the pandemic lull.

If we are to achieve our targets, there will need to be bigger change, faster. For example, the report calls for half of Yukon heating to be renewable by 2030. Yes, that means you and your oil or propane furnace.

You may be asking how much this will affect your family’s cost of living, and who will pay. It’s a good question, but not one covered in this year’s Our Clean Future report.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.