Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act Speech
Speech for Senator McCallum on Bill C-12, the “Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act”
from the Waniskātān Alliance of Hydro-Impacted Communities June, 2021
We welcome the opportunity to speak to this bill and to the impacts of hydro dams and climate change in Manitoba, particularly on Indigenous communities. Cree and Anishinabe peoples in Manitoba have been living with the impacts of hydro dams, diverted rivers, and impounded lakes in their homelands for over half a century and are all too familiar with the severe environmental damages they cause. They are also concerned about the escalating climate crisis.
Impacts of hydropower on climate
Hydroelectricity has long enjoyed a reputation as “clean, green,” even “carbon-neutral” energy. Unfortunately, this reputation is not deserved. Newer research has shown that, in addition to the grave and ongoing damages hydropower operations cause to lakes, rivers, forests, fish, birds, and land animals, hydropower also contributes significantly to the climate crisis.
The public conversation about climate change and greenhouse gases focuses heavily on fossil fuel use as the main driver of climate change. While fossil fuels are clearly an important part of the problem, it would be a great mistake to build more hydro dams as a way of reducing our fossil fuel use. For one thing, as the river protection group “American Rivers” notes, it is “imperative that we do not destroy the environment we are trying to save by rushing to develop low-emissions energy sources that will result in serious environmental harm, as well as high economic and societal costs.”1 But beyond these vital considerations, it is also important to understand that hydropower, in fact, is not carbon-neutral, that it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in several significant ways.
The most important way that hydropower creates greenhouse gas emissions is via large reservoirs. One summary of recent scientific research summarized the problem in the following words: “[T]he world’s reservoirs are an underappreciated source of greenhouse gases, producing the equivalent of roughly 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide a year, or 1.3 percent of all greenhouse gases produced by humans. That’s more greenhouse gas production [globally] than all of Canada.”2 Hydro reservoirs actually produce not only carbon dioxide, but also nitrous oxide and methane. The latter two gases contribute much more powerfully to climate change: methane emissions produce 24 times as much global warming potential and nitrous oxide 298 times as much as carbon dioxide over a 100-year timescale. 3 Over shorter terms, methane’s impact is even greater: over a ten- to twenty-year period, it is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in accelerating climate change.4 Methane makes up nearly 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs. 5
Reservoirs produce these greenhouse gas emissions principally through the flooding of shorelines and forests, which kills trees and plants, introducing organic matter into the water that then decomposes, producing carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane.6 Such flooding occurs not only at the time of dam construction, but also on a regular, ongoing basis on lakeshores, islands, and riverbanks whenever a hydro utility artificially raises water levels or releases surges of impounded reservoir water.
These scientific observations are supported by the experiences and knowledges of Indigenous communities whose traditional territories include these reservoirs. Thus Leslie Dysart, a fisher from OPipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation living near South Indian Lake in northern Manitoba,
“I have witnessed many times over the years, along or near eroded, destroyed shoreline, areas of bubbling gas, emitting from below the water continuously.” (Dysart, pers. comm. 2021)
Hydro operations have also led to the destruction of large areas of Canada’s northern boreal forest, the North’s equivalent of the Amazon rainforest in terms of protection against climate change. The northern boreal forest sequesters carbon and produces large amounts of oxygen. But it has been under attack for many years, and hydropower’s role includes: the forest cut down during hydro dam construction for roads, transmission line corridors, generating stations, dams themselves, and construction materials; forest drowned and killed by the flooding of land; and the tens of thousands of trees lost annually due to the constant slumping of shorelines and destruction of islands caused by hydro’s manipulation of water levels. Again, as Leslie Dysart further indicates,
“Hundreds of Islands have disappeared on South Indian Lake over the decades, the trees and vegetation are submerged and decay, emitting GHG’s; there is no monitoring of this impact.” (Dysart, pers. comm. 2021)
Both the construction and the decommissioning of hydro dams are also major emission sources. Building megadams requires moving tonnes of earth and rock and long-distance transport of large amounts of heavy materials such as concrete and cement, which involves burning a lot of fossil fuels. Decommissioning hydro dams actually causes even more emissions – up to three times as much as constructing them.7 Thus, accounting for emissions related to hydropower must consider the emissions generated during decommissioning, in addition to construction and maintenance.
Implications of climate change for Indigenous peoples
Hydro dams and climate change have significant impacts on Indigenous peoples and communities. Indigenous peoples suffer some of the highest burdens of disease and ill health in Canada, combined with some of the poorest access to health care. While multiple factors are at work here, in northern Manitoba, hydro dams are a major factor. The filling of lakes and rivers with silt, dead trees, and debris has made travel dangerous and difficult, led to many fatal accidents, and created a drinking water crisis in a land where, in the past, people could literally dip their cups in the water and drink. Bathing and swimming in once-pristine water is no longer possible in many lakes, with children suffering skin rashes when they make the attempt. Mercury contamination after flooding has forced the closure of numerous fisheries over the years, and the damages to land and water have inhibited or prevented the practice of culture on the land and the harvesting of healthy food and medicines. The people are left with chronic boil-water advisories and reliance on expensive, unhealthy, mostly processed, storebought food. They have to pay for this new, unhealthy type of food with incomes derived mostly from social assistance, since their once-lucrative commercial fisheries have been decimated by hydro operations.
Climate change will make all these problems worse and is already beginning to do so. While hydro dams have created a chronic problem with dangerous “hanging ice,” suspended precariously above the water by the wintertime lowering of water levels, climate change will weaken ice even more and lead to more deaths by falling through the ice. Already prairie winters have become shorter and warmer. This, in turn, means winter roads can only be created for very short periods to bring in heavy and bulky supplies to communities without regular road access, further increasing the cost and difficulty of supplying communities with their basic needs. Thinner ice for shorter periods also increases the difficulty and danger of travel on land and water, further threatening health and promising to lead to more accidents and fatalities. Climate change threatens animal populations that have long been important to Indigenous communities, such as muskrat, caribou, and moose. Hydro dams have already forced many animals to move – moose, caribou, beaver, muskrats, rabbits – as they can no longer live in the forest or by the erratically fluctuating lakes and rivers. The sturgeon and whitefish that traditionally formed the foundation of Cree diets have already been decimated by hydro operations, unable to spawn safely or follow their traditional movements, while fishing nets are tangled or destroyed by the fallen trees. Climate change will only worsen these disasters as well.
All these negative changes in the climate, along with the lands, waters, forests, and animals, are especially harmful to Indigenous peoples, and they have resulted from activities that have brought them little or no benefit. Many hydro-affected Cree and Anishinabe people have difficulty paying for the hydro that heats and lights their homes, even though it is generated at great cost to them – environmental, economic, and human cost. Not only has hydropower largely wiped out their onceabundant hunting, trapping, and fishing economies, but there is also the human loss, psychological damage, and emotional stress created by witnessing the profound harm to their homelands, economies, health, and families. The industrial activities that have created the climate crisis have similarly brought them proportionally few benefits, as the jobs and services that the industrial economy makes available to non-Indigenous Canadians are more difficult or even impossible for them to access. Moreover, the combined effects of hydropower and climate crisis intersect with other issues that confront Indigenous communities, including residential schools, gendered violence, and substance abuse. Indeed, much recent media attention has focused on the violence against Indigenous women and two-spirit people engendered by so-called “man camps”, notably those associated with hydro construction, over the last 50 years.
Recommendations regarding Bill C-12
We welcome this bill to require concrete, measurable action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach net zero emissions. Implementation should include explicitly rejecting large-scale hydro as an acceptable strategy and also include direct, mandated, and properly-funded collaboration between scientists and Indigenous knowledge-keepers, combining scientific expertise and knowhow with each Indigenous nation’s close familiarity and long-term relationship with the lands and waters of their territories. Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge is intensive, detailed local knowledge accumulated through millennia of active use, observation, and stewardship of specific homelands. It offers an invaluable understanding of particular ecosystems as holistic, interdependent, synergistic webs of connection and interaction. This collaboration should also focus on how to better mitigate past, present, and anticipated impacts associated with both hydro and climate change, and both the work and resulting decision-making should engage actively with and be accountable to impacted communities.
We also support the recommendation by two Canadian physicians of creating “an independent scientific expert body that reports to Parliament to ensure it is immune from political retaliation.”8 The bill must include funding for staffing such a body, which will “enable the analytical capacity to determine whether climate targets will be met with proposed policies.” Importantly, this expert body should include Indigenous scientists as well as Elders and knowledge keepers, thus reflecting “twoeyed seeing”9 that can ground its insights and recommendations simultaneously in both knowledge systems.
Thank you for the opportunity to raise our concerns in the Senate chamber.
1 See “American Rivers,” https://www.americanrivers.org/threats-solutions/energy-development/hydropower-climatechange/.
2 Sorensen, Eric. “Reservoirs Are Underappreciated Source of Greenhouse Gases,” WSU Insider: Washington State University, October 4, 2016. https://news.wsu.edu/2016/09/28/reservoirs-play-substantial-role-global-warming/.
3 Deemer, Bridget R., John A. Harrison, Siyute Li, Jake J. Beaulieu, Tonya Delsontro, Nathan Barros, Jose F. Bezerra-Neto, Stephen M. Powers, Marco A. Dos Santos, and J. Arie Vonk. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Reservoir Water Surfaces: A New Global Synthesis.” BioScience 66 no. 11 (2016), 950.
4 Kate Hudson, “Hydropower Is NOT Clean Energy: Dams and Reservoirs Are Major Drivers of Climate Change.” Waterkeeper, November 21, 2017. https://waterkeeper.org/news/hydropower-is-not-clean-energy/.
5 Kate Hudson, “Hydropower Is NOT Clean Energy.”
6 Shibao Lu, Weidong Dai, Yao Tang, and Min Guo, “A Review of the Impact of Hydropower Reservoirs on Global Climate Change,” The Science of the Total Environment 711 (2020), 2-5.
7 Osamah Siddiqui & Ibrahim Dincer, “Comparative assessment of the environmental impacts of nuclear, wind and hydroelectric power plants in Ontario: A life cycle assessment,” Journal of Cleaner Production 164 (2017), 853.
8 Courtney Howard & Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers, “Take the doctors’ advice: Prescription for better health is a strong climate act,” National Observer, June 11, 2021. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2021/06/11/analysis/take-doctors-adviceprescription-better-health-strong-climate-act.
9 Bartlett, C., Marshall, M., & Marshall, A. (2012). Two-eyed seeing and other lessons learned within a co-learning journey of bringing together indigenous and mainstream knowledges and ways of knowing. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 2(4), 331-340.s