Climate Roundup: Record-breaking heat as Canada’s emissions keep climbing

By Tyler Hamilton - Published on April 20, 2016
Jobs in Canada's cleantech sector rose in 2014, but revenue growth fell slightly, according to a new report.

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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.

More than 130 world leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are travelling to New York City on Friday (Earth Day) to sign the Paris climate agreement, which likely explains Ottawa’s decision to this week release its long-awaited 2014 greenhouse-gas emissions report.

So how’d we do? It’s hard to sugarcoat it. Emissions have continued their climb since the economic downturn of 2009, albeit the pace of growth has slowed. Recall that Canada’s target is to reduce emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. With four years to go, we’re only 2 per cent below that 2005 mark.

There were some sweet spots. Thanks mostly to the shutdown of all its coal-fired power plants, Ontario led the country with the biggest drop in absolute emissions — down 19 per cent since 2005. Nova Scotia stood out as well, showing a drop of 29 per cent over the same period. But Alberta, no surprise, saw a 17 per cent jump in emissions. As Greenpeace activist Keith Stewart pointed out on Twitter, the oil sands are now a bigger greenhouse gas polluter than the entire province of British Columbia.

Also worth noting is that greenhouse gas emissions have grown much more slowly than Canada’s economy since 1990. Gross domestic product is up 75 per cent since then, while emissions are up 20 per cent. In other words, greenhouse gasses per dollar of GDP — that is, the economic intensity of emissions — has fallen 32 per cent. It doesn’t mean we should be patting ourselves on the back. There’s still a tremendous amount of work to do, even though some oil companies aren’t convinced we’ll get it done. What it does mean is Canada’s emissions footprint could be dramatically worse if it wasn’t for measures taken to date. As for Canada’s commitments under the Paris deal, Trudeau will likely seek formal approval from Parliament by year’s end.

a graph showing greenhouse gas emissions

Canada falling behind in cleantech race

Clean technology, otherwise known as cleantech, can be interpreted broadly. What’s clear is that it’s more than simply solar panels and wind turbines. Any technology that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, pollution or waste, or which helps business and industry use resources more efficiently, could fall under the “cleantech” umbrella – and Canada’s umbrella is stuck, according to a new report. Jobs in the sector rose in 2014, but revenue growth fell slightly while cleantech markets in the rest of the world continued to flourish. Indeed, Canada claimed 2.2 per cent of the global cleantech market in 2008, but since then our share has dropped to 1.3 per cent. It’s a disturbing trend that the Trudeau government appears determined to reverse. As the Globe and Mail’s Shawn McCarthy points out, Ottawa is creating a $2-billion low-carbon economy fund and investing in other areas to give our cleantech sector a much-needed boost.

Ottawa wants cross-country network of EV fast-charging stations

One technology that will get a federal boost is electric vehicles, or more specifically, a national quick-charging infrastructure that would allow someone to drive an EV across the country. Jim Carr, Canada’s natural resources minister, says he’ll seek proposals from the private sector this spring for development of a coast-to-coast EV charging network. Money for such a project could come from the $62.5 million the federal budget allocated to “infrastructure for alternative transportation fuels.” Of course, electricity isn’t a fuel per se, but it does fit within the spirit of the budget.

Phew, it’s getting hot out there…

It used to be that breaking a global temperature record was unusual, but these days what we consider “normal” is actually more unusual. We know 2015 was a record hot year, but now NASA is telling us that the first three months of 2016 was the hottest three-month start to any year on record. As Joe Romm wrote on Climate Progress, “Last month was the hottest February on record by far. It followed the hottest January on record by far, which followed the hottest December by far, which followed the hottest November on record by far, which followed the hottest October on record by far. Some may detect a pattern here.” Oh, and don’t forget about March — also the hottest on record. In fact, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this week, March was the 11th straight month to break a global temperature record. And let’s be clear: previous records aren’t just being beaten; they’re being crushed.

a map showing breaking global temperatures in 2016

… and the signs are hard to miss

All of this record-breaking is — surprise, surprise — having a big impact on ice melt. Nowhere is this more evident than on the island of Greenland. Late May, often early June is when this northern region starts its melt season, but this year it began in mid-April — a full month and a half early, and the first time it’s ever happened in April. The previous record was May 5 in 2010. According to Scientific American, the melt is so “bizarrely early” that scientists who study Greenland’s ice sheet had to double check their data to make sure their analysis wasn’t flawed. But Greenland isn’t alone. As any operator of a ski resort knows, what was once reliable winter weather has become unpredictable and downright wonky. The trend has put the business at risk, and forced resorts to get more creative as a matter of survival. B.C.’s Whistler recently unveiled a $345-million plan that includes creation of a huge indoor water park. Ontario’s Blue Mountain has built a similar type of indoor facility, which came in handy during my own family’s rain-drenched March Break this year in Collingwood. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, it’s less about melting and more a fear of burning. The two provinces are on alert for early-season forest fires, the risk of which has been declared “extreme” by Natural Resources Canada. Fires have already broken out across the west, including B.C., because of unseasonably warm and dry weather.

a map showing global weather events in 2016

In case you still had doubts about climate science

Despite all of the above, some people still don’t believe humans and their burning of fossil fuels are the main cause. Some even claim there isn’t even a scientific consensus. Well, that’s just rubbish, according to a new peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. It found that 90 to 100 per cent of climate scientists agree the Earth’s atmosphere is warming as a direct result of human activity. The thing is, we’ve been down this path before. There have been previous studies pointing to an overwhelming consensus, including a 2013 meta-analysis by Australian researcher John Cook. He found that 97 per cent of climate scientists were in agreement. Unfortunately, those who don’t believe cling to the remaining 3 per cent to justify their position.

The Big Picture: Trouble in Ontario’s far north

Natural Resources Canada has released a 280-page report that takes the most comprehensive look yet at the impacts of climate change along the country’s coasts. Ontario’s portion is covered in a weighty chapter about Canada’s north coast, which includes Hudson Bay and James Bay. It reveals that the extent of sea ice there has shrunk by 10.4 per cent a decade, and that warmer temperature could affect tourism because the biggest attraction — polar bears — are migrating further north. One interesting finding is that Ontario’s north coast needn’t worry about sea level rise. The reason has to do with something called glacial isostatic adjustment, a fancy way of saying that Earth’s crust in that location is still slowly rising now that it doesn’t have a four-kilometre thick sheet of ice weighing it down. Sure, the big melt may have happened 10,000 years ago, but it takes a while for the crust to bounce back — a rate of about one centimetre a year. In this particular area, the rising crust will offset sea-level rise resulting from global climate change.

The report takes a deep dive on the expected impacts along Canada’s Pacific, Atlantic and North coasts. The CBC has written a handy overview of the findings.


Research Spotlight: Follow that shrub!

Moose are migrating north, and there’s a climate connection. A peer-reviewed study published in the open-access Public Library of Science (PLOS) measured changes in shrub cover and shrub height in Alaska and found that increased vegetation was luring moose northward, much in the way snowshoe hares — and polar bears — are migrating north. Warmer temperatures, earlier melts and longer growing seasons mean moose can forage in areas previously off limits, mainly because the conditions are created for shrubs — i.e. moose grub — to flourish. “Indeed, the expanded shrub habitat observed across the Arctic may be contributing to observed increasing numbers of moose in parts of northern Canada and northern Eurasia, as it is in Alaska,” wrote researchers from the University of Alaska and U.S. Geological Survey. “These northward range shifts are a bellwether for other boreal species and their associated predators.”

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