Transformation in an Era of Climate Change
Across Canada people hear “Saskatchewan” and we are often dismissed as flat and boring. But Saskatchewan is so much more than this. We are home to the beautiful Athabasca Lake, surrounded by the most northerly active sand dune formation on earth and home to several species of plants that are found no where else in the world. Saskatchewan too, is home to the Cumberland Delta, the largest inland freshwater Delta in North America at 10,000 km and nationally significant wildlife area. And Saskatchewan is also home to many rare species, such as the Swift Fox, a species that thrives on our native prairie.
However, Saskatchewan’s historical approach to the environment has threatened all of these things. The abandoned Gunnar uranium mine on the north shore of Lake Athabasca has been leaching toxic chemicals into the lake for the past 50 years. Dams along the Saskatchewan River and other human impacts are causing the Cumberland Delta to dry up and wildlife populations to decline. Land conversion and habitat fragmentation has made native prairie the most endangered ecosystem in the world. Less than 21 per cent of Saskatchewan’s original native prairie remains.
Environmental issues like these don’t exist in isolation, they are closely linked to those of health, of economy, of indigenous-settler relations and of social justice.
In Saskatchewan, our economy has been traditionally dependent on extractive resource industries that are now struggling and taking us from boom to bust. We’re currently experiencing wide-spread concern about loss of government revenue, cuts to public services, about jobs, and we are feeling a sense of fear and despair.
Unfortunately, environmental health is widely viewed as incompatible with economic security. The latter is seen as the priority, leading to an assumption that environmental risks must be accepted. There is a reluctance to regulate, and a failure to take the concept of “sustainable development” seriously.
Our economy is also very emissions-intensive. In many ways, climate change is an issue that dwarfs all others, and certainly exacerbates them. It really is an existential threat that has the power to fundamentally change our way of life. To me, it seems impossible to truly transform our province without considering transformation in the context of climate change, especially considering the next few decades are critical windows of opportunity for climate action. We are the highest greenhouse gas emitter per capita, and per unit of GDP in Canada, and we have no effective plan in place that either will reduce our emissions or prepare our province for an era of climate change.
We’re also very vulnerable to climate change. Although, in the short term Saskatchewan might experience benefits such as a longer growing season, our province is facing increasing risks from severe weather, crop failure, floods and drought, invasive species, forest fires, and threats to human health and to our infrastructure. These changes will affect the most vulnerable among us the most, those who are on the front lines directly depending on the land for a way of life, and the land itself.
We are all a part of this picture; our personal lives are very dependent on fossil fuels. It is hard to do anything in Saskatchewan without relying on them – turning on a light, heating our homes or even driving to the SaskFoward Policy Summit. We also have families who depend on fossil fuels and resource extraction for their livelihoods, and we all rely on resource revenues to fund important public services. These are real concerns we need to address in any sort of transformation.
Overall, Saskatchewan seems to be experiencing a sense of paralysis when it comes to this challenge, and a lack of inspiring and innovative leadership in government, commerce, education. But how can we transform this picture? I don’t have all the answers, but I hope to suggest a few.
A robust climate change strategy is the most important and the most urgent of the many environmental issues facing Saskatchewan – and because of what we need to do to address it, a proper climate strategy will have implications for all of the other issues we are talking about today. First we need to reduce emissions from our largest emitting sectors of Oil and Gas Mining, Electricity, Transportation and Agriculture, which collectively produce 92% of our provincial GHG emissions. From a policy perspective, it is easier to tackle emissions in some of these sectors relative to others.
Until now, carbon capture and storage technology has been the preferred strategy to address climate change in our province. However, our investment into this technology fundamentally reinforces the status quo, and is proving increasingly risky. It cannot be the way forward if we want to truly transform our province.
Instead it would be wise to target the electricity sector as an opportunity for major emission reductions. This would include planning for a complete coal phase-out by 2030 at the latest, and aggressively pursuing low carbon energy production paired with energy efficiency.
Saskatchewan has world-class solar and wind potential that many independent businesses and entrepreneurs are waiting for additional opportunities to develop. SaskPower should plan to significantly increase planned capacity for renewables by 2030 rather than relying on natural gas for additional energy capacity.
Saskatchewan should also look to other sources of energy production, such as co-generation in potash mines, installing micro-turbines at productive wellheads to capture natural gas or importing additional hydro-power from Manitoba. In fact, the federal government has recently indicated federal funding would be available for green energy projects such as inter-provincial transmission lines.
We should not forget demand-side management. Energy efficiency has been shown to be a great job creator – for tradespeople, for technologists, for energy auditors, for suppliers of materials, and for transit system workers. Low-cost programs that provide incentives for energy efficiency could include building code changes, investing into the education or retraining of building tradespeople and architects, and the upfronting of costs of energy retrofits by utilities, costs that would be gradually repaid by building owners on their monthly power bills.
It is within our reach to transform our electricity grid if we choose to do so, and there are a variety of policy mechanisms our government can employ to encourage this transformation. One such policy is a feed-in-tariff under which customers who install renewable power generators receive a price for the electricity they produce that reflects that actual installation costs plus a modest profit. Alternatively, Saskatchewan could also incentivize this electricity transformation through carbon pricing and revenue recycling, or a flexible regulations such as requiring Saskpower to generate 90% of electricity from near-zero or zero-emission sources by 2030.
In our oil and gas sector, a great opportunity for emission-reduction is the adoption of venting and flaring regulations in the oilfield, such as the proposed federal regulations that would target a 45 per cent reduction in methane emissions by 2025. Fugitive methane emissions from the oil and gas sector alone contribute 17 per cent (13 Million tonnes) to Saskatchewan’s annual greenhouse gas emissions – regulations like these could lower our emission by nearly 6 million tonnes annually (5 million tonnes more than the $1.5 billion unit equipped with carbon capture and storage at Boundary Dam).
Transportation and agriculture are two sectors where it is more difficult to design public policies but we could employ a variety of strategies to reduce emissions from Saskatchewan’s transportation sector, including things like encouraging a shift to rail transport, working with municipalities to develop convenient and reliable public transit services, and providing incentives for the purchase and use of highly energy efficient vehicles. Additional efforts need to be directed into working with our rural residents to identify how they can be a part of climate strategy while strengthening our rural and urban communities against climate change impacts. In the event of a carbon price, some revenue could be recycled into these efforts.
At the same time, we must enact policies that will build the resilience of our ecosystems against the challenges posed by climate change. Our loss of biodiversity needs to be addressed at two levels. First, it requires that we increase the number and size of ecologically significant landscapes that have protected status. It also requires that in those areas where development is allowed, we strengthen our environmental assessment and regulatory processes so that damage to nature is minimized. Environmental assessment needs to be undertaken both at a regional, cumulative level that looks at all of the impacts on a geographical region and on a project-specific level that considers the impacts associated with a particular development proposal. While the long term vision is to transition to a post-fossil fuel society, in the short-term Saskatchewan will need stronger regulations around pipeline construction and operation in order to avoid more episodes like the recent pipeline spills in the North Saskatchewan River, or on Ocean Man First Nation lands. Among other things, pipelines should be monitored by the Ministry of Environment and subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment, constructed with heavier walls and with the latest spill-detection technology, and monitored regularly with improved emergency response and transparency in spill reporting.
The health of Saskatchewan’s water resources is also closely tied to climate change. Our water is currently adequate, but vulnerable. Most of the province’s residents rely on the South Saskatchewan River in the semi-arid south to meet their personal and economics needs. Climate change will alter the processes of precipitation accumulation and melt, change the timing of flow and lead to a general decrease in water availability. Saskatchewan has attempted to address some of these challenges with creation of Water Security Agency, but more needs to be done including a development of a drought contingency plan and planning for water allocations during times of drought. Water infrastructure such as dams should also be upgraded to higher safety standards in anticipation of climate variability.
Doing all of these things is not just about reducing emissions or our impact on the environment, it is about preparing our province to succeed in a post-fossil fuel world, where I imagine we might live with less, but live better. If I am lucky enough to live to be 100 years old, it will be 2091, so I would be very much alive to see the consequences of our choices in the next few years. Fortunately, I think we have both the way and the will to make the changes we need to make.
I also firmly believe that if we want different public policies, we have to change the way we create them. Top-down, expert-driven and specialized approaches are characteristic of traditional methods of governance, but are not engaging people in the way they need to be. When we create policy this way, we are making choices that are consistent with only one way of seeing the world and not truly serving our diverse population. Moving beyond traditional ways of making decisions will not mean determining the most likely future for Saskatchewan, but rather involves deciding what kind of future we collectively desire. We need to ask where our province is ultimately heading, who is gaining and losing from our choices, what mechanisms of power are behind our decisions, and is growth desirable. This will involve frank discussion around values and power, but we cannot shy away from having the hard conversations we undoubtedly need to have to transform this province.
I believe this process is a good step in the right direction.
Hayley Carlson, Policy Coordinator and Ann Coxworth, Researcher | Saskatchewan Environmental Society