Climate Roundup: This is how fridges are heating up the globe

By Tyler Hamilton - Published on Jul 27, 2016
Grocery stores are one of the biggest users of coolants that are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

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Air conditioners and fridges are ironic appliances. Most use a synthetic chemical — hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs — to cool down people and things. But as a greenhouse gas that’s thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide, the same chemical is also helping to warm the planet’s atmosphere.

Oops.

A little context is in order. HFCs don’t eat the ozone layer. Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, do. So when the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, CFCs were given the boot and HFCs were embraced as a coolant of choice. Nearly 30 years later, we’re kind of regretting that decision. HFCs account for up to two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some believe that number could rise to 10 per cent by 2050.

With that in mind, representatives from more than 150 countries met in Vienna this week to plan how to phase out HFCs as part of an amendment to the Montreal Protocol. A draft of the plan, to be finalized in October, would see rich countries virtually eliminate use of the potent greenhouse gas by the 2030s, with developing countries following a decade or so later. Catherine McKenna, federal minister of environment and climate change, praised Canada for playing a leading role in the talks.

Sobeys gets a head start

It’s no surprise that grocery stores are one of the biggest users of HFCs. After all, supermarkets need big refrigeration systems to keep perishables from going bad. Unfortunately, these systems tend to be leaky — so much so that 25 per cent of a store’s greenhouse gas emissions can often be traced to HFCs that have escaped.

Mississauga-headquartered Sobeys decided in 2009 to do something about it, and strangely enough, the solution was to fight HFCs with a less potent greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide. It is in fact a terrific refrigerant, commonly used a century ago until synthetic versions became the industry standard.

As highlighted in a new report from the United Nations Environment Program, Sobeys decided to start building carbon dioxide-based refrigeration systems in its stores. It is now the North American leader in doing so. To date the company has installed the system in dozens of locations across seven provinces, and all new Sobeys stores must now have them.

National carbon tax hits a prairie Wall

Canada’s premiers and territorial leaders were in Whitehorse last week for their annual meeting, and climate change — or, more precisely, the country’s response to it — was on the agenda. A major talking point was a plan by the federal government to slap a minimum national price on carbon. The Trudeau government has made clear that a federal carbon tax is coming. The idea is to set a pricing floor the provinces must meet. For provinces that already have carbon-pricing programs, such as Alberta, Ontario and B.C., there may be little or no additional burden. For those not currently pricing carbon, the federal proposal is a big deal.

One premier not happy about the idea is Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall. He threatened to launch a court challenge if a federal levy had any impact on the province’s Crown electric utilities, which are under provincial jurisdiction. He also expressed frustration that the federal government appears to have made up its mind. “There’s going to be some sort of national price for carbon that may or may not be, frankly, that reflective or respecting of the need for flexibility in the provinces, and that’s a concern,” he told media.

Also a concern, however, is that Canada appears way off-track on meeting its 2030 emissions-reduction target of 30 per cent below 2005 levels. Based on federal and provincial actions to date, the country still needs to come up with a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 200 megatonnes, leaving a gap of 38 per cent. Much work lies ahead.

The lives of toads

What started out as a university professor’s PhD project 24 years ago has turned into useful climate science. As a doctoral student, David Green began tracking when toads emerge from hibernation, part of his research into the inter-breeding of Fowler’s and American toads along the shores of Lake Erie. When he became a biology professor at McGill University, he decided to continue checking in on these bumpy-skinned creatures and cross-referencing their emergence from the sand with weather records. Nearly a quarter of a century later, he has inadvertently come up with a method to predict how climate change affects certain species.

“What the temperature does and what the toads do should match,” Green says. “We can also apply this information to investigate when other organisms living on, and in, the dunes wake up in spring.” The approach, applied to a range of animals and plants, could provide valuable insights into the future effects of climate change.

Insurers are ignoring the risks of their oil and gas investments

We previously reported how insurance companies in Canada are stepping up to the climate challenge by promoting adaptation and offering new coverage for some of the worsening effects of climate change, especially overland flooding. Unfortunately, insurance companies worldwide aren’t giving the same level of attention to the risks that come with investing in oil and gas assets. A new study by the non-profit Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP) found that a measly one per cent of insurers globally are taking at look at their fossil-fuel investments and asking: Will these assets become “stranded” in a world trying to speed up the transition to a low-carbon economy? The fact that 99 per cent of the 116 insurers surveyed aren’t asking this question is surprising, given that the insurance industry is on the front lines of climate change. Also surprising is that pension funds are doing a better job, with six per cent of 324 surveyed reporting they’re assessing climate risks.

Julian Poulter, CEO of AODP, said the risk management side of insurance companies needs to start talking to the investment side. "It is extraordinary that the left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing,” he said. ManuLife Financial, Great-West Lifeco and Fairfax Financial were among the Canadian insurance companies surveyed.

The Big Picture: Developing a “Spidey sense” for forest fires

Spider-Man has this unique ability in the superhero universe to detect danger before it happens. Wouldn’t it be great if first responders had a Spidey sense when it came to detecting the likelihood of wildfires before they happen? An engineering professor at the University of Calgary may have developed just such a thing. Quazi Hassan, a geomatics expert who teaches at the university’s Schulich School of Engineering, is using satellite data from NASA to predict where forest fires may strike, even in the province’s most remote locations. “My idea is to use remote sensing to forecast where forest fires are likely to occur so we can mobilize resources and get to the areas earlier,” Hassan explains in a university report. Officials currently rely on weather stations, which are limited in number and data points. 

Using NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer satellite, Hassan’s team can capture new data, such as the amount of water vapour in a column of the atmosphere, which can indicate rain potential, as well as surface temperature and moisture in vegetation. The data has allowed him to establish five classes of forest fire risk. So far, his approach has proved quite accurate, with predictions of high risk coinciding with 77 per cent of fires in Alberta between 2009 and 2011. Hassan’s research funding has been extended for another five years. Over that time he hopes to increase the accuracy of his analysis.

Quazi Hassan, a University of Calgary engineering professor

Research Spotlight: The climate-conflict link

A study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shed light on how climate change can fuel violence in countries that are already struggling with ethnic divisions. Researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research analyzed 240 conflict outbreaks between 1980 and 2010 in countries where ethnic tensions are high. It then cross-referenced them with 18,000 climate disasters, including droughts, heat waves, floods and wildfires. Researchers found that 23 per cent of conflicts in the 50 most ethnically fractionalized countries coincided with climate disasters happening in the same month. The study’s lead author, Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, told the climate news site ThinkProgress that countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and parts of South America seem to be at highest risk.

Some experts questioned the design of the study and its focus on countries with ethnic divisions. Cullen Hendrix of the Environment, Food and Conflict Lab at the University of Denver told ThinkProgress that the focus on ethnic tensions ignores the fact that many of the countries studied are also poor, highly dependent on agriculture, and have weak government structures. “There are plenty of reasons to believe that such societies and governments would be more susceptible to climate-related shocks and conflict, but I didn’t see any attempt to address these potential confounds,” Hendrix said. “This is incredibly important from a policy perspective.”

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