N.W.T carbon emissions down, but MLA says territory 'can't possibly meet' 2030 target

Greenhouse gas emissions in the N.W.T. are on a "downward trend," but Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly says there's no way it will reach its 2030 target.

New intiatives and funding needed to hit 2030 target, says deputy minister

Exhaust emissions from the tail pipe of a vehicle in Yellowknife. The N.W.T. emitted 1,401 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020, according to new figures. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

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Greenhouse gas emissions in the N.W.T. are on a "downward trend," said the territory's energy director, after a new federal report pinned the N.W.T. 2020 emissions at 1.4 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Environment and Climate Change Canada submitted its 2020 National Inventory Report on emissions to the United Nations last week. It shows the country's emissions declined for a second year in a row in 2020, a dip the report notes could be temporary, because of the pandemic.

The report says the N.W.T. has reduced its emissions by 19 per cent since 2005. 

The goal is to get emissions down by 30 per cent by 2030, an objective that is no longer in line with the federal government's target. Robert Sexton, the territory's director of energy, said that currently means getting emissions down to 1,208 kilotonnes — or 1.2 megatonnes. 

During an update to the territory's energy action plan on Wednesday, Sexton also offered a more specific emissions figure for 2020: 1,401 kilotonnes.

Sexton said the territory only began tracking its actions to reduce emissions when the 2030 Energy Strategy was released in 2018, and that the figure fluctuates from year-to-year because of changes in the economy — like mines going on and offline and construction projects. 

The latest figures mean the territory has to reduce its emissions by 193 kilotonnes in the next eight years, which doesn't account for the 46-kilotonne reduction Sexton said the territory expects to achieve by 2025 under the 2019-2022 action plan.

The territory invested $115 million into the plan, instead of the expected $227 million. The lower investment, said Sexton, stems from infrastructure projects that have not been implemented yet. 

'We can't possibly meet the target'

Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, said the territory still has a "big chunk to go" to hit its 2030 target. 

"We can't possibly make the target and the target is shifting downwards. You're being asked to do more, with less. How are you going to do it?" he asked, probing the infrastructure department during the update. 

The Woolgar District Heating System, behind J&R Mechanical's shop in Yellowknife. It heats four buildings, and helped it's biggest client — the territorial government — cut oil-use by 92 per cent in its central warehouse. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Robert Jenkins, the N.W.T.'s assistant deputy minister of energy and strategy initiatives, said longer-term projects such as the transmission line to Fort Providence will bring the territory closer to its goal in "larger leaps."

But, he said, there is a need for more solutions. 

"We're going to need new initiatives to meet that target, we're going to need renewed and increased federal support to be able to do that," he said. 

Where to put the money

O'Reilly said wood pellet heating systems appear to have the "biggest bang" for the territory's buck.  But Sexton cautioned the economic development and environment committee against investing entirely in rebates for space and water heating. 

"The reality is there's only so many furnaces that people are going to replace in the N.W.T. per year," he explained. "There are limits to what the potential is, in any given product, in any given sectors, in terms of emissions reductions."

A wood stove in a home in Behchokǫ̀, that was installed as part of a program the Arctic Energy Alliance (AEA) does with community governments. Robert Sexton, the territory's director of energy, cautioned a committee on Wednesday against investing entirely in the AEA's energy efficiency rebate program because only so many products can be replaced in a single year. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

Sexton shared two graphs during his presentation that showed rebates for space and water heating cost $50 per tonne of carbon dioxide reduction, while Inuvik Wind, a large energy infrastructure project, costs more than $300 per tonne. 

He said infrastructure numbers are based on each project's full capital cost — of which the territory is only covering 25 per cent. Sexton said that no energy efficiency initiative will reduce emissions by six kilotonnes, like Inuvik Wind is expected to. 

Refined petroleum products are still the N.W.T.'s primary source of energy and Sexton said the territory imported almost 500 million litres of them in 2019 to be used in power generation, buildings, industry and transportation. 

"We don't have all of the answers yet, to address 500 million litres of fuel, going forward," said Sexton. "Emission reductions and solutions are going to be different in each sector. Each path forward is going to have its own problems, and we're going to have to try and find the most viable solutions that are going to work."

According to the latest figures from Environment and Climate Change Canada, the N.W.T.'s emissions in 2019 changed from 1.4 megatonnes to 1.6 megatonnes to account for changes in methodology. Sexton acknowledged the numbers change often — and said that's why the 2030 target has changed over the years.


Liny Lamberink


Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She moved to Yellowknife in March 2021, after working as a reporter and newscaster in Ontario for five years. She can be reached at