Canada talks a mean game but has yet to really act on climate reports

After 30 years of IPCC assessments, will the country’s climate policies finally match the urgency of the findings?
Photo: COP21 Climate change conference - Province of British Columbia
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While many people in Canada suffer from choking smoke and unprecedented heat, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has sent another warning about where the climate crisis is headed. In a newly released report, the IPCC calls for immediate, rapid, and large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Without this, limiting warming to 1.5 C — the goal set out in the Paris Agreement — will be beyond reach.

“The wide-ranging IPCC report has unquestionable international implications. But it also matters here at home,” said Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson in a statement. “Parts of western and northern Canada are warming at three times the global average.”

Despite recognition of the severe climate impacts happening in Canada, the country continues to be one of the highest contributors to greenhouse gases per capita, and historically its policies have failed to reflect the urgency of previous IPCC reports.

“We’ve talked a mean game, but we haven’t delivered,” says Kathryn Harrison, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, pointing out that Canadian governments have announced many reduction targets since the late 1980s but have never done what is needed to meet them.

Thian Yew Gan, a professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alberta, was among the 234 scientists from 65 countries who contributed to the new report. After three years of a “very tedious and long process” to produce the report, he wonders if policymakers will act on the results.

“More can be done in Canada. Especially the northern residents are expected to be most affected by global warming impacts due to massive melting of sea ice and significant changes in the Arctic,” says Gan.

The window narrows

Released on August 9, 2021, the report brings together the latest advances in climate science to offer the most up-to-date understanding of the climate system.

Average surface temperatures are projected to rise 1.5 C or 1.6 C above pre-industrial levels around 2030 — a decade earlier than was forecast by the IPCC three years ago.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” says the IPCC report. Human activities are making extreme climate events, including heat waves, heavy rainfall, and droughts, more frequent and severe.

“Limiting human-induced global warming to a specific level requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions, reaching at least net zero CO2 emissions, along with strong reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions,” the report points out.

For the first time, the IPCC has stressed the importance of reducing methane emissions. The impact of methane on climate change is about 25 times greater than that of CO2. But most global warming is still caused by carbon dioxide and much less by methane and nitrous oxide, simply because of the immense quantity of CO2 emissions.

Right now, the world is nowhere close to taking the action needed to stay within the 1.5 C target at the end of the 21st century.

A melting, evaporating country

Canada is already experiencing climate impacts, which are anticipated to intensify.

“The report projects more heat waves, wildfires — especially in B.C. — loss of Arctic sea ice, substantial glacier mass losses, earlier spring snow melt, increase in landslides and river floods, more droughts, and so on,” says Gan.

The effects of global warming are most significant and apparent in the cryosphere, a term used to refer to all frozen water on Earth. As one of the world’s coldest countries, partly covered in snow and ice, Canada is particularly affected.

According to the IPCC, the substantial declines in glaciers, permafrost, and snow cover will continue in a warming world. Even under low-emissions scenarios, the glacial mass in western Canada and the United States may be depleted by 50 per cent. Nearly all glacial mass would disappear under sustained global warming levels between 3 C and 5 C.

In Arctic Canada, many glaciers are now smaller than they have been in at least 4,000 years.

Gan says the melting of glacial mass and snow cover is not only causing flooding but also resulting in summertime water shortages, critically affecting agriculture and drinking water supplies.

Canada’s iconic winter sports industries, such as skiing and skating, will suffer significant losses as snow and ice depths decrease extensively, with lake and river ice freezing later in the season and breaking up earlier.

Accompanying the decreasing intensity and frequency of cold extremes in Canada is an apparent increase in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes. The IPCC report notes the 90 deaths from heat stroke in Quebec in 2018.

Scientists also link climate change to longer fire weather seasons and an increase in wildfires caused by lightning strikes. Media reported the wildfires burning in B.C. right now are so enormous that they are creating a micro-weather, which then emits thousands of lightning strikes causing more fires in a vicious cycle.

Improvements undone by oil production

Nearly all countries have signed the Paris Agreement, which lays out the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 C. But many of them are not living up to it, and Canada’s performance has been particularly disappointing in the eyes of scientists.

“Our emissions increased more than 20 per cent from 1990 to 2005, and with some ups and downs, they’re still at the 2005 level,” Harrison says. The improvements in more recent years were undone by emissions growth from oil-producing provinces.

Although the current federal plan can credibly achieve a little more than a 30 per cent reduction, according to Harrison, that is still a long way from the target of a 40 to 45 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2030.

How can 40 to 45 per cent of greenhouse emission be cut in less than 10 years, when emissions are still increasing and growth is fastest in the G7 countries?

“We have to have powerful policymakers do some radical implementation of energy policies that hopefully will help turn things around to cut the emission scenarios,” says Gan.

Canada still resisting climate action

Although hydro makes up 60 per cent of Canada’s electricity generation, this has not been a wise renewable energy investment, says Gan. Building a huge hydropower project means impounding a big pool of water behind the dam and submerging a lot of land, with enormous financial costs and environmental consequences.

And Canada is reluctant to change its dependence on fossil fuels. Minister Wilkinson defended the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline by saying that meeting climate targets will require money generated by the project.

Carbon capture, and other technology-based applications, are not the solution either. It is still very costly, and more studies are needed before large-scale industrialization. “It would be very risky for Canada to count on that, particularly when we know there’s so much we can do today,” says Harrison.

Canadians’ per capita emissions are among the highest in the world. On average, one Canadian emits 5.5 metric tons of carbon per person per year, equal to burning over 8,000 litres of gasoline per person per year, says Gan.

Although there is a lot we can do, people are not willing to sacrifice the lifestyle they are so accustomed to, like driving cars and SUVs instead of cycling or taking public transport, he adds.

“I would say there are still quite a lot of people who don’t believe in climate change or don’t think it matters to them,” Gan says — until wildfires burn their homes down and they have to run for their lives. Then it may strike them that something is not right, and they start to realize that human actions are causing all these problems.

The IPCC will produce four reports in this assessment cycle. Following last week’s report on the physical science will be a report on impact and adaptation, another on mitigation, and then a synthesis report, to be finalized in September 2022. The first IPCC assessment report came out in 1990.

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