Yukonomist: We may not be thinking big enough

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

Put down your coffee, hold onto something to steady yourself, and read this press release from a parallel universe:

WHITEHORSE, Nov. 26, 2021 – Tesla, Green Copper Megacorp and the Yukon Government announced an international recruitment campaign to attract 10,000 new workers for the territory’s recently announced billion-dollar electric car battery gigafactory and major new copper mine, both powered by green hydroelectricity. Both investments were partially funded by the Canadian Green Deal.

The gigafactory will produce batteries for one million cars per year, helping Canadian car factories thousands of kilometres away re-tool for the post-carbon era. The copper will not only displace copper made with fossil power, but will also provide the wiring for thousands of kilometres of wire needed by new solar farms and offshore wind plants.

As part of its plan to attract newcomers, the Yukon government recently finished construction of a new 20-storey cultural centre, one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world showcasing Canadian advanced wood engineering. The territory has also sent holiday cards to everyone who moved away from the Yukon in the last decade, encouraging them to move home. Its Department of Economic Development also hosts hockey and cultural events in Calgary and Toronto to encourage southern Canadians to consider the North.

The City of Whitehorse is offering free curling classes to newcomers, while locals are using the Instagram accounts of their dogs to make friends with new arrivals. The Canadian government is changing the Employment Insurance rules in areas of Canada with high unemployment to encourage workers to move to the Yukon.

Sound bonkers?

Well, it’s actually happening. And not in a parallel universe, just parallel northern territories: Norrbotten and Västerbotten in northern Sweden. Both are well north of Whitehorse, just south of the Arctic Circle.

According to a mindblowing spread in the Guardian entitled “Wanted: 100,000 pioneers for a green jobs Klondike in the Arctic,” the battery factory is called Northvolt and plans to be Europe’s biggest. It will supply batteries to power a million German cars a year. Instead of copper, northern Sweden has lots of iron ore so the mining company is called H2 Green Steel and will be the world’s “first industrial-scale, fossil-free steel plant.” Funding from the European Union Green Deal is a big part of the program.

And yes, they have built a 20-storey wooden cultural centre, send holiday cards to former residents, offer free curling lessons, host events in Stockholm to attract residents, and locals do share northern dog tips on Instagram. Sweden’s employment minister really has talked about changing welfare rules to encourage southern Swedes to move north.

What’s different from the fantasy blurb above is the scale. Those two Swedish territories have over 400,000 people. The Swedish government estimates 20,000 workers will be required for the new plants, plus another 20,000 public sector workers such as nurses and teachers, plus another 10,000 workers in support industries. The number of public sector workers is linked to the overall Swedish plan to attract workers to the north. The official responsible says the key is convincing prospective workers that “this is the best place on earth to live.”

They are also recruiting around the world, from Mexico to Russia. Northvolt is telling everyone they don’t need to speak Swedish to work there, just English.

Northern Sweden has a longer and bigger history of industrial mining than we do, and is closer to global car factories than we are. They also had surplus housing and infrastructure after the population shrank following the downsizing of some older mines and military bases in recent decades.

But still.

What is remarkable is that they aren’t complaining about carbon taxes or how climate change policy is raising the cost of living.

Instead, they’ve come up with a plan to contribute to the world’s climate transition, and grow economic opportunity while they are at it. And they are tackling some tough economic challenges such as cost-effective battery making and low-carbon steel. This makes it even more remarkable than the success their neighbours in Luleå had attracting a billion-euro Facebook datacentre, as I wrote about a few years ago.

The governor of Norrbotten, Lotta Finstorp, is inspired not just by local economic development but also by how the region can help the world with its climate transition. “If we can’t get people to move up here, we won’t be able to succeed with all these very necessary investments for the world,” she told the Guardian.

Meanwhile, never mind the Swedes and their obsession with renewable energy and the future. Back to reality over in our universe, and spending our transfer payment on growing government by 300 people per year.

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.