First, the good news. The release of the government's first climate resilience report finally gives the Saskatchewan public a series of goals and targets that can allow us to measure and assess the government's progress towards climate adaptation and mitigation. Moreover, the release of the report further demonstrates that the government is concerned to at least appear to be taking concerted action on an issue that is of growing concern to many in the province.
That being said, what the government has put forward is far from "encouraging" as Environment Minister Dustin Duncan has characterized the report. Without context, the report certainly looks impressive, with a litany of adaptive measures underway and at least some efforts at mitigation. As others have noted, most glaringly absent are any emission targets or timetables to achieve them. Mr. Duncan correctly observes that Saskatchewan produces about 75 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, but then dismisses the need to commit to targeted reductions by trotting out the well-worn argument that as long as other countries continue to pollute, any efforts Saskatchewan makes will be futile:
“We wanted to take a broader approach than just simply looking at our emissions,” Duncan said. “We believe that in Saskatchewan we emit about 75 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. If we reduce that to zero, global climate change is going to continue."
Obviously such a position—if universally adopted—guarantees climate catastrophe. It is the sort of "climate nihilism" that the government has used to justify inaction on climate change for over a decade. But we aren't asking the government to reduce emissions to zero. We are asking the government to commit to reductions in keeping with what climate scientists unequivocally state are required to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. For Saskatchewan, that would be at a bare minimum the Paris targets of cutting emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, or 48 megatonnes per year. More ambitious, but increasingly seen as necessary, would be the revised IPCC targets of 45% below 2010 levels by 2030, or 38 megatonnes per year. Yet, the climate resilience report identifies a paltry 12 megatonnes of emissions reductions by 2030. While more reductions may be forthcoming if the government's promise to subject large emitters to performance standards is kept, we are nowhere near where we need to be with the clock fast running out. The government needs to be much more ambitious on the mitigation side of things if it actually wants to enact meaningful climate change policy.
And there are examples of much more ambitious policies virtually right next door to us. In the report, the government commits to a 4.5 megatonne or 40 percent reduction in GHG emissions that result from the flaring and venting of gas produced in association with oil and gas operations. These fugitive emissions from oil and gas production constitute almost 13 megatonnes or about 17 percent of our overall emissions—they don’t power our cars or produce electricity for our homes—they are sent directly into the environment as a byproduct of oil and gas production. North Dakota has much more stringent regulations regarding flaring and venting than we currently do, requiring producers to capture up to 85 percent of gases at the well-site. Despite these regulations, North Dakota has continued to break records in oil production. An equivalent policy in Saskatchewan would be a relatively cost-effective way to rein in emissions that currently provide no ancillary benefit to our economy whatsoever. There is simply no reason for the government to be so timid in its regulations of these emissions given North Dakota's example.
Lastly, as mentioned, the report is heavily weighted towards adaptation over mitigation. This isn't surprising given the penchant of conservative governments to favour adaptation over mitigation measures. However, there is one rather glaring omission in the adaptation measures the government identifies. There is no doubt that the most significant climate impact for Saskatchewan will be water. Weather extremes will give us too much of it at certain times leading to increased flooding, and not enough of it at other times leading to increased drought and wildfires. Measure 23 in the report focuses on improving resilience to drought by reducing municipal water consumption. This is a laudable goal and should be pursued, but it omits any mention of our province's other largest consumers of water—agriculture and industry. While municipalities are responsible for 28 percent of water usage in the province, irrigation consumes 39 percent and the resource industry (oil and gas, potash and other mining) consumes another 18 percent. How will these industries adapt to scarcer water sources in the future, particularly given the government's desire to expand irrigated farmland and its ongoing efforts to encourage new oil and gas and mining development throughout the province? As the province's water sources become more and more finite, who will be given priority and who will be asked to sacrifice?
While the government's first climate resilience report has provided us with some answers, it also leaves us with a lot more questions.
Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Special thanks to Dr. Emily Eaton, Department of Geography & Environmental Studies, University of Regina, for sharing her research on oil and gas operations and water security in the province. Any errors are my own.