Climate Roundup: Muskoka residents sue Ontario for flood damage

By Tyler Hamilton - Published on Sep 21, 2016
Muskoka property owners have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Ontario government due to flood damage. (Les Palenik/iStock)

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Every Wednesday, climate journalist Tyler Hamilton gathers up the latest Ontario climate news and cutting-edge research on how climate change is shaping the world.

It’s well accepted that communities in Canada’s North are on the front lines of climate change and will be hit hardest by its effects, but less known is that these same communities are among the biggest per capita contributors of greenhouse gas emissions.

The reason: diesel.

Northern and remote communities rely heavily on diesel generators for their electricity needs, but burning diesel fuel produces significant greenhouse gas emissions — second only to coal — as well as a mixture of polluting chemicals that can affect the health of local citizens. The fuel itself is also expensive because it often has to be flown in, sometimes under dangerous weather conditions.

A new study out of the University of Waterloo has found that renewable energy systems based on solar and wind are now affordable enough for many northern communities to use, as a way of reducing though not necessarily replacing diesel use. The study identified five communities in Nunavut where “hybridized” systems based on wind, solar and diesel would be less expensive than relying on diesel alone. In Alaska, about 70 communities are already using them and benefiting significantly from the transition.

Likewise, there are dozens of remote communities in northern Ontario that could benefit. A report from the MaRS Advanced Energy Centre in December found that producing off-grid electricity using diesel was 10 times more expensive than purchasing power from the provincial grid. “The annual cost of funding diesel generation in Ontario’s remote communities is estimated at $90 million annually, subsidized by the Government of Canada, Ontario ratepayers, residential and business utility customers and the Government of Ontario,” according to the report, which argues that a move to more renewables would be a win-win.

Net metering and efficient homes also head north

The potential is so great that the Nunavut government is launching a new net metering program next spring that will allow surplus solar and wind to be fed into large community grids. It means individual homes, community centres, and other buildings can be part of the effort to reduce reliance on diesel fuel.

Meanwhile, more attention is also being given to home energy conservation in the North. Organizations from Quebec and Nunavik have launched efforts to build more efficient and climate-resilient social housing. The result is a new duplex design that costs about half as much to heat, meaning half the greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada to ratify Paris deal soon…

Senior federal officials have told the Globe and Mail that Canada is preparing to ratify the Paris climate agreement within the next few weeks, and will likely do so before finalizing a pan-Canada framework with the provinces. That means ratification could come as soon as October. The United States and China ratified the deal earlier this month, putting pressure on Canada and other G20 countries to act. Brazil and Mexico are among 31 countries that ratified the agreement on Wednesday, bringing the total to 60 countries representing 48 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions (55 countries representing 55 per cent of emissions are needed).  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says he’s now confident enough countries will ratify before year’s end to give the Paris deal legal force.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall isn’t happy with the Trudeau government’s plan, and Conservative environment critic Ed Fast called it a mistake — better to wait for a made-in-Canada action plan before binding itself to international agreements, he told the Globe.

…but no plan to improve on Harper government’s climate targets

Some environmentalists, meanwhile, are upset that the Trudeau government plans to keep the emissions-reduction target set by the Harper government. The Conservatives pledged a 17 per cent drop in emissions by 2020 compared to 2005 levels, and a 30 per cent drop by 2030; both targets have been criticized by environmentalists and the Trudeau government itself as weak. Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change, has said in the past that those targets are a “floor” and indicated the Liberals might aim higher. Apparently, after closer analysis, that’s no longer the plan.

Which raises the question: Is it better to have an unambitious target you can meet, or an ambitious target you likely won’t?

No doubt, climate policy is tricky and it’s difficult to please everyone. But is a win-win approach politically possible? That’s what professor Mark Jaccard and colleagues at Simon Fraser University asks in a research paper released this week. His conclusion: slap a modest price on carbon and fill the gaps with targeted regulations.

Muskoka residents blame flood damage on climate change, but sue Ontario

A group of property owners in Muskoka have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Ontario government because of flood damage related to unusually high water levels in three lakes this spring. That’s just three years after a similar ”hundred-year” flood event in 2013. Residents claim the Ministry of Natural Resources, which operates most of the dams in the region, didn’t properly control water levels. One district councillor suspects the underlying problem is climate change, but blames the province for relying on a 2006 water management plan based on what he believes is obsolete data. The province, for its part, says there’s only so much it can do when severe weather conditions hit.

Great Lakes are running warm

Unpredictable water levels and flooding aren’t the only observations this year: it seems the Great Lakes are running a fever. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show that all five Great Lakes were much warmer this summer than their previous 23-year averages. Part of it has to do with the mild winter that started out the year, according to Brad Rousseau, a meteorologist with The Weather Network. “As we head into our first day of fall, the Great Lakes temperatures are at or just slightly above their normal summer peak temperatures,” writes Rousseau, pointing out that fall and early winter forecasts are also expected to be above seasonal. “It is likely the Great Lakes temperatures will continue to trend above normal into the early winter. This could lead to an extended shipping season and may delay when the lakes will start to develop ice.”

It also could lead to a particularly snowy winter, as warm ice-free water hits cooler Arctic air. “This contrast will increase the instability over the lakes and allow for more moisture to be picked up in the squalls and then deposited over land as heavy snow,” Rousseau concludes.

The Big Picture: Wind energy costs have much room to fall

Ontario is the largest wind market in Canada, with more than 2,300 turbines that collectively supply about 5 per cent of the province’s electricity. According to the province’s long-term energy plan, wind will continue to play a growing role as renewable energy becomes a larger part of the overall power mix. The good news is that the cost of wind energy has plenty of room to fall. A survey of 163 wind experts conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California reveals that costs could decline by up to 30 per cent by 2030 as turbines become bigger, more efficient and cheaper to operate.

The findings come at a particularly good time for coal-dependent jurisdictions such as Alberta, which last week committed to getting 30 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy — including wind — by 2030. It’s a move expected to attract $10.5 billion worth of investment to the province, and that investment could deliver much more than it did in Ontario because of falling renewable energy costs.

The world continues to get more energy bang for the buck from renewables like wind and solar. The International Energy Agency recently reported that investment in renewable-energy technologies has stalled even as installations have surged. It’s not because renewables are falling out of favour with investors, but because we’re getting more clean energy out of every dollar that’s spent on existing technology.

Research Spotlight: Is California’s drought here to stay?

California is severely parched. Ten of the last 14 years have been drier than average, and the last three years were the hottest and driest on record – a record that goes back to 1885. The question is whether these conditions will end soon or are here to stay.

Geography professor Katrina Moser at the University of Western Ontario took part in an international research project that looked at California’s prehistoric experiences with drought; what she and her colleagues found doesn’t bode well for the Golden State. After examining lake sediments from the Holocene era, researchers concluded that natural climatic forces — sun spots, slight shifts in the earth’s orbit, and volcanoes — triggered centuries-long and even millennia-long periods of aridity.

Their study suggests drought may have to be considered the new normal in California, and will have ramifications that extend beyond that state’s borders: “Owing to the importance of California’s economic and agricultural activities in North America, and the dependence of these activities on water,” Moser said in a statement about the report, “prolonged aridity in California in the future will have far-reaching effects across the United States, into Canada and beyond.” 

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