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NWT getting off diesel should be treated as an emergency, study says

Andrew Robinson
Andrew Robinson, one of the report's co-authors, argues that the pandemic response can inform future how the territory approaches climate change. Photo Courtesy of Andrew Robinson

Treating climate change like an emergency can cut emissions in half, if the territorial government shows the will, according to a recent study from Alternatives North.

Released Wednesday, the report lays out a raft of emissions proposals for the GNWT. These include buying carbon offsets, investing in renewable diesel and expanding district heating. 

Study co-author Andrew Robinson, a renewable energy consultant in Yellowknife, said the Covid-19 pandemic response could provide a model for investing in these efforts to combat climate change, which many people also consider a crisis.

“It might cost a bit more, (but) the government sure found some money for this emergency, so we could find some for another one," he said.

If the government can respond so drastically to Covid-19, it can do likewise to address the climate crisis, says Andrew Robinson, a co-author of a report on alternatives to using diesel,
photo courtesy of Andrew Robinson

To do that, the study urges the NWT government to revise its current energy strategy of cutting a third of emissions to 2005 levels by 2030. The authors think that can be done sooner and more effectively by investing more and knocking emissions down by half.

They argue that spending $15 million yearly on environmental projects to balance out emissions, known as carbon offsetting, could cleave off half of emissions, according to the study.

They also want the territory to embrace biomass district heating and diesel co-generation to cut emissions and potentially earn back a net $80 million over 20 years. Biomass district heating is where a single boiler burns fuel like wood chips to heat multiple buildings.

In conjunction, the authors suggest subsidizing renewable diesel -- which uses material like vegetable oil -- to the tune of roughly $65 million every year.

Despite those high costs, the study argues that the suggestions compare favourably with a key GNWT plan to expand Taltson Dam -- a strategy that's  also drawn the ire of some regular MLAs.

“Despite analyzing two of the best possible business cases, neither Taltson hydro-based pathways could achieve (50 per cent) of emissions reductions and are by far the most expensive ways of reducing emissions,” the authors write.

In an interview, Robinson added the potential response to climate change was less drastic than the response to the pandemic. 

“We, as a society, can all do something together," he said. "When we need it most, we’ve all stepped up and done some really surprising things. When this blows over, we should remember that when it comes to other urgent issues like climate change.”

Dave Lovekin, director of energy think tank Pembina Institute’s work on renewables in remote communities, said the study has some strong ideas. However, he added that more could be done to keep the proposed investments within the NWT's economy.

As the territory faces widespread job loss and concern over the stability of supply chains, he said government investments should shore up NWT communities' economic resiliency.

For one, he said the report’s recommendations for carbon offsets could lead to money leaving NWT, which was a concern the study also acknowledged. As an alternative, Lovekin suggested developing a system internally to keep investments within the local economy.

He said retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency could be a key source of job creation, and said the suggestions pertaining to district heating could be similarly helpful in remote communities.

“Under crises like this pandemic, we have to continue to heat and power our homes and drive to a certain extent,” said Lovekin, adding that it's important to be more resilient and energy-secure. "Creating jobs and businesses and industries from that is going to protect us from that type of crisis where the economy shuts down.”