Canada - How Sask.'s new budget does and doesn't address climate change

28.03.2024 80 views

The world is facing record heat from human-caused climate change brought on by carbon dioxide and methane emissions, but the words "climate change" don't appear once in Saskatchewan's newly released 75-page 2024-25 budget.

There are some provincial dollars aimed at reducing emissions, but for the most part the province seems to be paying up in other ways — via costs associated with climate-related problems like wildfires and crop failures.

The price tag will continue to go up as human-caused climate change worsens, according to Brett Dolter, an assistant professor in economics at the University of Regina who teaches climate change policy.

"When we look at the budget, we can start to see how climate change is having real costs in Saskatchewan right now," said Dolter. 

For example, the cost of fighting fires is going up. The province made a new $5.5-million investment in wildfire management aircraft in the budget. 

"That's one area we see climate change having a real economic cost, not only just the cost of homes burning and areas being threatened by smoke and having to evacuate, but also just the cost of fighting these fires is going up as climate change gets worse," Dolter said. 

"The other space we see climate impacts apparent is when we're paying out more on crop insurance."

Dolter noted that while there have been previous periods of drought in the province, hotter global temperatures make crops and land more vulnerable to damage.

Consecutive drought years plague producers

Saskatchewan producers in some regions have been hit by multiple years of severe drought conditions, and uncertainty about what's to come looms. Canada had its warmest December, January and February since record keeping began in 1948.

Last week, Finance Minister Donna Harpauer said last year's provincial deficit of $273 million was driven by crop insurance payouts related to drought conditions.

"We have to account for that expenditure for crop insurance, even though it doesn't affect the government's cash flow, so it was a $1.1-billion additional crop insurance payout," Harpauer said, adding that producers and federal government also contribute to the payouts.

She was also asked how this year's budget accounts for potential drought.

"We always basically budget using historical data on what the trend has been, and this is not an exception. And then I pray — a lot," Harpauer said.

Producers want province to act 

The budget includes $431.7 million for risk management programs, "in recognition of the challenging weather and soil conditions faced by some producers."

The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) said seeing more money for producers during tough economic times is positive, but called on the province to do more to prepare for drought.

"We could have a proactive approach on developing policy, which usually ends up being better than shooting from the hip and always having to be reactive,"  said Ian Boxall, APAS president and a fourth-generation farmer in the Tisdale area.

APAS wants the government to bring together officials, producers and other stakeholders for a proactive drought committee. Boxall said this would be beneficial not only to farmers, but to those affected by fires, by ensuring appropriate resources, research and finances are dedicated to the issue in the coming years.

Boxall said some producers are feeling more optimistic about this growing season given heavy snowfall earlier this year, but that precipitation didn't hit all affected areas. Data from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada shows much of Saskatchewan in moderate drought, with pockets of severe and extreme drought, as of the end of February.

"Let's be honest, we're not making a hay crop or a grain crop without some rain," Boxall said.

Risk of fires also a concern

Boxall isn't the only person hoping for a rain. Coming off one of the warmest winters on record, northerners are preparing for fire season.

"All the lakes and the rivers, they're so low level.  We need the water. We need the water for the farmers in the south and also for the north," said Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte of the Prince Albert Grand Council, which has its own wildfire task force.

The task force has been urging the province to adopt earlier mitigation measures, such as preventative burns, forest thinning, pruning and vegetation removal. Last year's fire season was intense, with 1.9 million hectares of land burned as of October — about five times the size of Prince Albert National Park and larger than the area burned in 2015.

Saskatchewan's budget says protection from wildfires is also a priority because of the province's "geography."

The government is providing the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency with $5.5 million for a deposit on four air tankers "to help manage wildfires in the province."

Hardlotte would rather see provincial money invested in training local Indigenous people to become what's known as type three firefighters — trained people hired on an emergency basis.

"The way they try and suppress the wildfires, they use more of an air support, water tankers, which is good, but that doesn't put out wildfires. It just slows them down," Hardlotte said.

"We need to go back to the way fires were suppressed and that's boots on the ground."

Hardlotte said it makes the most sense to have people who are familiar with the land be the ones equipped to protect it. He also wants to see more done when it comes to prevention and education efforts, noting one of the task force's main goals is to prevent evacuations, which can be devastating for community members.

Last week, Saskatchewan's finance minister was asked what the province was doing to address or adapt to the consequences of climate change.

"The government per se doesn't actually, isn't on the ground adapting to climate change," Harpauer said. "But our producers and agriculture have changed practices throughout the years, that I think is phenomenal in soil conservation and adapting to climate as it changes, as too has industry."

Harpauer said the government's role in encouraging adaption for climate change comes down to its policies.

"Those would be still staying on track of the Prairie Resilience plan that we introduced a number of years ago."

Dolter said many of Saskatchewan's sectors aren't guided by provincial policy — but they could and should be.

"We see that climate change has these damaging impacts, and if we're going to avoid those getting even worse, we have to bring those global emissions down to net zero — and Saskatchewan is one part of that puzzle. We can't sit on the sidelines when everyone else lowers their emissions."

He identified positive initiatives in the budget, saying good policies keep consumer rates affordable while tackling emissions. For example, the government's $140-million Clean Electricity Transition Grant for SaskPower, which supports clean electricity operating costs while keeping rates low.

Sask.'s own pollution pricing system brings in revenue

Saskatchewan is also seeing results from its at-home carbon pricing system, known as the OBPS (output-based performance standards), which targets large industrial and resource sector emitters.

The  2024-25 budget pegs revenues for OBPS at $351.3 million.

Money collected from companies in the non-electricity sector is dedicated to supporting regulated facilities in reducing emissions with technology.

Recently, the electricity sector was also added to the OBPS plan. SaskPower's payments "will be dedicated entirely to priorities that help manage an affordable and reliable clean electricity transition," according to the budget.

"For the SaskPower money, half of it is going to be rebated back to SaskPower in order to help us keep our rates as low as possible," Harpauer said. "Then half will go into a designated fund for future green power initiatives to help keep power at an affordable rate in the future."

Harpauer described the program as "the best of two evils," because the provincial government doesn't want to impose any levy for high emitters or SaskPower, but came to an agreement with the federal government so it could administer this program rather than abide by Ottawa's output-based pricing system.

Saskatchewan's government recently decided to no longer remit the federal carbon levy on natural gas. Dolter said the province should consider a Saskatchewan-led carbon pricing plan if it's going to opt-out of the federal program.

"What we should be talking about is how to use the money, not necessarily throwing out the whole policy. So do you want to give rebates? Do you want to make your investments in electricity cheaper or do you want to use it to cut the sales tax? These are all possibilities," he said.

"We see that carbon pricing can work. If you're going to pull it from other areas, what do we replace it with?"

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