Roundup: Climate change is the ‘mother of all risks’

By Tyler Hamilton - Published on Aug 31, 2016
Premier Kathleen Wynne speaking at the 2015 Climate Summit of the Americas in Toronto. (Reynaldo Vasconcelos/Canadian Press)

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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.

Climate change used to be one of those issues only talked about when an international climate conference was happening — that is, it was the raison d’etre of a big news event. These days, climate change is more likely driving the news or influencing the agenda at major political gatherings.

Premier Kathleen Wynne is in Mexico this week promoting trade but also attending the Climate Summit of the Americas, where she and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray will talk about the province’s cap-and-trade plan and the challenge of phasing out coal power. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is visiting China ahead of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. As the first major international event since the Paris summit, it seems that climate change is emerging as a key topic for G20 leaders. Indeed, three of the world’s largest insurance companies called on G20 leaders to establish a detailed timeline for completely phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, which G20 and G7 leaders previously committed to do. Aviva CEO Mark Wilson called climate change “the mother of all risks” and said existing fossil fuel subsidies are magnifying the threat.

A bit closer to home, the premiers from Atlantic Canada wrapped up a conference Monday in Boston with New England governors. Once again, climate change and clean energy were at the top of their agenda. At last year’s gathering, the region’s leaders committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 to 45 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. Discussion of that target continued this year, and the group expects to have a strategy ready for next year’s meeting.

How to price carbon without triggering an industrial exodus

Jordan Brennan, an economist at Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada, wrote an insightful piece for iPolitics last week looking at the expected impact of Ontario’s cap-and-trade plan on industrial activity in the province. Brennan isn’t against the plan — indeed, he appears to support it — but he warns that it could spur an “industrial exodus” if it isn’t carefully designed. Unifor represents roughly a quarter of the 150 industrial operations to fall under the program, so it’s understandably concerned. It wants the province to make “transition credits” available to companies in high-emitting, trade-exposed industries — such as steel and cement producers — to allow for a smoother transition to carbon pricing. It also wants border adjustments applied to certain commodity imports to prevent foreign producers from having a price advantage. Finally, it wants government revenues collected through the program to fund a “just transition” that see workers retrained, low-income households protected, and development of low-carbon technologies supported. As Brennan concludes, “vigilant monitoring and ongoing stakeholder dialogue will be needed to ensure that, as Ontario decarbonizes, its people aren’t left behind.”

U of T professor uses silicon and sun to turn CO2 into fuel

Science is so cool. A team of researchers at the University of Toronto, led by chemistry professor Geoffrey Ozin, has found a way to convert carbon dioxide into fuel using sunlight and silicon, both abundant and inexpensive resources. But to get big results they first had to go small. The team processed bulk silicon into silicon nanocrystals, tiny objects just 3.5 nanometres wide (for comparison, a human hair is at least 80,000 nanometres wide). At that size, silicon has an incredible ability to harvest energy from the sun. But the researchers went a step further. They applied a chemical catalyst on the surface of these crystals that, with assistance from the sun, can break down carbon dioxide and convert it into carbon monoxide, a key ingredient in synthetic fuel production. Because the sun is free and silicon is literally dirt cheap, this could prove an economical way to recycle carbon dioxide into fuel. The research was published in the journal Nature Communications last week. For you chemistry geeks out there, here’s a primer on silicon nanocrystals and why they’re so awesome. And yes, I’m the geek who wrote it.

Alberta oil workers line up for solar training

These have been tough times for Alberta’s oil patch. Tens of thousands of workers have been laid off, from geologists and field supervisors to pipefitters and drivers of heavy machinery. But many of these workers aren’t sitting still. They know an economic transition is underway and that, increasingly, more of the province’s energy will come from renewable sources. As the climate website DeSmog Canada reports, those workers see the solar industry as a bright light. Solar training centres, can’t keep up with demand. “The interest in training is unbelievable,” Russel Benson, owner of Gridworks Energy Group, told DeSmog. Benson’s company, based in Edmonton, designs, supplies and installs solar panels. He said demand has gone up two or three fold just in the last couple of years. “Something is telling them that it's time to diversify their training and skill set.”

Solar in Nunavut demonstrates a sustainable path forward

Northern communities are eager to reduce their reliance on dirty and expensive diesel fuel, so there was cause for celebration last week when the Inuit community of Clyde River completed the installation of solar panels on its community hall. “We are proving that solar energy is a real possibility in the Artic,” said James Qillaq, Clyde River’s mayor. The panels won’t help much in the winter when the sun is lower and dark days are longer, but it will offset the use of diesel during spring, summer and fall months. The community, which has a population of 983, estimates the system will reduce its electricity bill by $4,500 a year and significantly reduce town greenhouse gas emissions. The 27 panels that make up the system were supplied and installed by Greenpeace and the Vancouver Renewable Energy Coop.

The Big Picture: Introducing the Anthropocene

There’s been a lot of talk over the years of the Anthropocene, which is considered the epochal period when humans began to significantly influence the Earth’s climate and environment. Soviet scientists apparently used the term as early as the 1960s. Since then, it has become more popular but has remained an unofficial designation. That may soon change. As recently reported in the journal Science, researchers who form what’s called the Anthropocene Working Group have voted in favour of using the word to identify a span of geologic time, starting with the postwar industrial boom of the late 1940s, early 1950s. A formal recommendation comes next. To be official, the International Commission on Stratigraphy must adopt it. But the wheels are in motion to have Anthropocene recognized as an official epoch, “on par with the Holocene and Pleistocene that preceded it,” according to the journal.

Why choose the late 1940s as the starting point? That’s when society began using plastics and metals such as aluminum on a massive scale, and it’s when plutonium began appearing in soil samples following nuclear testing. “But perhaps the most promising proxy comes from recent work that has shown, across 71 lakebeds worldwide, a 1950s spike in fly ash residue from the high-temperature combustion of coal and oil,” the journal states. That ash, of course, is directly tied to a clear rise in carbon dioxide that is driving climate change.

Research Spotlight: Coffee supply to be cut in half by climate change

This is the kind of bad news that makes mornings even more miserable. A new study from Australia’s Climate Institute looks at the impact climate change is expected to have on the coffee industry. The report, cleverly titled A Brewing Storm, projects that our warming climate and the extreme weather and disease it fuels is likely to cut the global production of coffee beans in half by 2050. The reason: 80 to 90 per cent of the world’s 25 million coffee farmers are small operators located in bean belt countries most exposed to climate disruption. Expect shortages, poorer quality and rising prices over the coming years, said John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute. That’s a major hit to an industry that serves up 2.25 billion cups of coffee daily. It will also be felt by adult Canadians, who are so fond of coffee that it ranks as the most consumed beverage in the country. Even so, Canada is ranked only 12th in the world when it comes to consumption per capita. The crown goes to the Dutch, who drink more than twice as much as Canadians.

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