The government’s new strategy does little to address climate change
Province | by Paul Dechene
Arctic sea ice is disappearing at its fastest rate in 1500 years, and last March set a record for lowest winter sea ice maximum — beating previous records in 2016 and 2015. Those are just two of the alarming findings in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Arctic Report Card released on Dec. 12.
The report is 95 pages of bad news assembled by 84 scientists from around the world. It depicts an Arctic that’s warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.
The week before NOAA’s report card landed the Saskatchewan government unveiled its strategy to deal with climate change. Perfect timing, right? Uh, not so fast. Titled Prairie Resilience: A Made-in-Saskatchewan Climate Change Strategy, it was a whopping 13 pages, and it left Saskatchewan environmentalists underwhelmed.
“It’s trying to take credit for things that have already been done and investments that have already been made,” says Emily Eaton, a University of Regina geography professor and co-author with photographer Valerie Zink of Fault Lines: Life and Landscape in Saskatchewan’s Oil Economy.
“It’s really offering not much else. And I think there’s a fundamental lack of understanding in it about the nature of the climate change problem, and what kind of change needs to happen.”
Mark Bigland Pritchard of Climate Justice Saskatoon calls Prairie Resilience “vague”, and says it tilts more toward adapting to the impacts of global warming rather than reducing the province’s carbon footprint. That might sound prudent, but if we don’t take mitigation measures to reduce carbon, he adds, there will be no real potential for a livable climate.
Ann Coxworth of Saskatchewan Environmental Society sees some useful components in the plan such as reaffirming SaskPower’s commitment to produce 50 per cent of the province’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. “Although, now I notice they’re saying up to 50 percent which is a bit of a bothering change of wording,” she says.
“One of the things that surprised us is how little progress they’ve made on coming up with concrete plans,” says Coxworth. “They’ve had a few years to be working on this and it’s really just a preliminary think piece at this point.”
Other steps included in Saskatchewan’s climate strategy are lowering the threshold of what counts as a “heavy emitter” from 50,000 tonnes of emissions to 25,000 tonnes which will expand the range of industries subject to regulation; developing emission standards for each regulated industry; setting up a technology fund; and purchasing carbon offsets from emitters in other provinces that are achieving real greenhouse gas reductions.
One thing the strategy doesn’t do is suggest a carbon tax. But that doesn’t mean that emitting carbon will be cost-free.
“They are actually imposing a carbon price,” says Pritchard. “But it’s in a very inefficient and ineffective way. Basically, they tell each sector of industry ‘This is how much you can emit per unit of whatever you’re producing. And anything above that you have to pay a penalty.’ But there’s five different ways of paying that penalty.
“It’s about the worst model of carbon pricing they could have come up with,” Pritchard says. “And they didn’t even call it carbon pricing because that’s going to offend their base.”
One measure the strategy isn’t afraid to go all-in on is carbon capture and storage, Brad Wall’s favourite multi-billion dollar boondoggle-in-the-making. But while it’s name-dropped multiple times as a way to sequester some of the greenhouse gas generated by our coal-fired power plants, it seems that in calculating the CO2 it will take out of the system, the government forgets to subtract the carbon it will add.
“The business case was based on selling the carbon to industry, and the industry they found that could take this on was the oil industry,” says Eaton. “There’s a nice little graph they like to circulate that shows how much extra oil has been produced because of carbon flooding, so the carbon that’s captured at Boundary Dam 3 is shipped by pipeline to Cenovus oil fields in Weyburn and they’ve seen increased oil production because of having access to this CO2.”
To truly address climate change, says Eaton, we need to get to a place where we’re producing zero emissions through electricity production. “So even if [carbon capture] worked out to what it’s supposed to, which it’s not — even if it was capturing 90 per cent of emissions, that 10 per cent is too much. If we also factor in the increased oil that’s being produced, we think it just fails on every measure of justifiable climate change strategy.
“Then there’s also continuing to rely on coal into the future,” says Eaton. “Yeah, carbon capture is really meant to hold on to that industry.”
It all feels a little inadequate, especially when you factor in that releasing this “strategy”, such as it is, only represents the first step in the government’s much grander seven-point plan. We still have to proclaim legislation, hold consultations, refine the plan, produce regulations and establish reporting structures before we can even contemplate implementation.
I’m not sure that’s the kind of “action” the federal government was anticipating when it called on the provinces to establish a carbon price of $10 a tonne by… when? Oh, 2018. Makes you wonder why the Wall government even bothered.
“I think it’s a delaying mechanism. I think they’re saying, look, we’re doing something about it,” says Pritchard.
“The carbon price is going to come anyway,” he adds. “We’re going to have the federal backstop imposed on us because whatever constitutional challenge the provincial government tries to make, they’re not going to win. [Ottawa] will impose a tax and the government can then say, ‘Look, those people are imposing a tax on you.’”
Revenue generated by carbon price will stay in Saskatchewan, so the provincial government benefits that way too. “It can look good by either reducing the deficit or restoring some of the services they’ve cut, or just feeding more into their corporate donors pockets — whichever way seems best to them,” says Pritchard. “I think, yeah, it’s a dirty game.”
Why Even Bother?
Prairie Resilience, Saskatchewan’s climate change strategy, justifies its focus on adaptation to climate change over aggressive action to reduce GHG emissions by citing our small contribution to the overall greenhouse gas problem.
One talking point from the report’s website which has been parroted in local media is that, according to Canada’s National Inventory Report 2017, our GHG emissions in 2015 were 75 million tones, a reduction of 0.7 per cent from 2014. This represents approximately 10 per cent of Canada’s emissions, the website adds, which are approximately two per cent of global emissions.
That makes it sound like Saskatchewan is a small-time player, and that we’re headed in the right direction anyway. Too bad that’s a little misleading.
The same Inventory Report also notes that since 2005 Saskatchewan’s GHG emissions have risen by 7.8 per cent. That’s the second worst performance on gross carbon emissions among the provinces. And when you look at per capita emissions, the numbers are even worse.
According to the Conference Board of Canada, Saskatchewan has the highest per capita emissions in the country. And as Canada is one of the worst per capita emitters globally, that means we’re among the world’s worst GHG offenders.
Saskatchewan also has the distinction of being the only province where per capita greenhouse gas emissions are higher now than they were in 1990. Every other province has improved since then.
As part of Emily Eaton’s research into Fault Lines, she travelled to oil-producing areas and spoke with municipal administrators and elected officials and asked if they’d had conversations about mitigating climate impacts. “Most of those people just sort of laughed at the question. They said, ‘You know what? It would be a nonstarter in this part of Saskatchewan. We don’t talk about climate change.’”
Eaton says the Saskatchewan government’s lax attitude toward climate change is largely responsible for that mindset. “I think the reason we’re so far behind is the government has continually downplayed the fact climate change is an actual thing that needs to be addressed. They’ve been saying it very loudly for a long time, and I think municipalities and people in those areas have taken that to heart.
“Now [the government] is saying, ‘Well, it’s time to act.’ But all along they’ve been encouraging everybody to look the other way.”