What climate change has in store for Ontario

Between the extreme heat and the floods, we won’t recognize the Ontario of our grandchildren
By Patrick Metzger - Published on November 14, 2017
two people walking away from their car during a flood in Toronto
The warmer climate will lead to larger, more intense, and more localized rainstorms, which will cause flooding in urban areas. (Frank Gunn/CP)

This week, the nations of the world are meeting in Bonn, Germany, for the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23), where they’ll discuss the progress being made toward cooling down the planet. The news is not good.

In preparation for the summit, the UN released an Emissions Gap Report on October 31. The report details what needs to happen if the world wants to avoid a catastrophic temperature increase greater than 2 C versus pre-industrial levels. 

Slotted between colourful charts and paragraphs of soothing bureaucratese is this uncomfortable conclusion: even if all nations meet their commitments under the 2015 Paris climate treaty (which, according to research group Climate Action Tracker, none are currently on track to do), the report estimates a global average temperature increase of 3 C or more by 2100.

To summarize: we’ve collectively set the bar for climate action so low as to ensure disaster, and we’re missing even that inadequate bar.

And it gets worse. With carbon in the atmosphere already at record highs, emissions spiked in 2017 after plateauing for three years.

With that high carbon scenario in mind, what will life look like in Ontario in the coming decades?

The 2050s

Thirty-odd years from now, the weather will already be much warmer.

Data from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change project an average annual temperature increase of 3.6 C versus the 1990s (when warming was already underway). However, the increase will vary considerably by season and by region.

Overall, temperatures are expected to jump by 2.4 C in summer and 5.3 C in winter; warming in the northern part of the province will likely be more than twice as great as that in the south.

If that doesn’t sound too daunting — or perhaps even seems appealing — consider what it will mean in terms of extremes.

Danny Blair, director of science at the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre, says by email, “When the average temperature rises by a few degrees the frequency of really hot temperatures goes way up...and it is the extremes that are often the most important.  For example, Southern Ontario currently gets about 8 days per summer with +30C or higher temps….Under the high carbon pathway: 8 per year becomes 16 and 41 per year in the near and farther futures, respectively.” 

A key knock-on impact will involve human health. The very young and the elderly are particularly susceptible to extreme heat, meaning more days spent indoors, more hospital visits, and more deaths.

Health issues indirectly related to climate will also be a problem. Lindsay Davidson of the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change says by email, “Increases in temperature will see the northward spread of new vector borne diseases, such as tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and Ehrlichia.”

So we’ll all just stay indoors and artificially cooled, right? In summer, the electrical grid will be tested by all that air conditioning, potentially leading to brownouts or blackouts on the hottest days.

Precipitation patterns will also change. Projections from the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change call for 24 per cent more precipitation in winter and 12 per cent in spring, with summer and fall largely unchanged. This will vary by region, but the general trend will be up across Ontario.

While that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, the warmer climate will lead to larger, more intense, and more localized rainstorms, which will cause flooding in urban areas. (Toronto experienced just that in 2013, as did municipalities across the province in 2017.)

In spite of the greater rainfall, hotter temperatures will still mean more wildfires. Sudden heavy rainfalls tend to drain away or evaporate because the ground can’t absorb all the water, and as they’ll be more localized (rather than drenching a wide area), forests will dry out between storms.

In the north, melting permafrost will have a disastrous effect on infrastructure, forcing entire communities to move as buildings and roads sink into a newly porous landscape. And permafrost containment ponds will leach toxic mining waste into the surrounding earth and water as their walls and foundations disintegrate, potentially contaminating the entire food chain.

By 2050, food prices will be higher, and certain items won’t be available at all. With California (which exports a lot of food to Canada) suffering repeated droughts, imported fruits and vegetables will be scarcer. As weather patterns change, climate-sensitive crops like coffee and cocoa will be harder to grow and more expensive.

Lindsay Davidson says that when it comes to locally grown food, “Increased variability and lengthening of the growing season caused by a changing climate can have severe impacts on the agricultural sector, affecting planning for types of crops, new crop pests, weeds and plant diseases.“

But it’s not all bad news. By the 2050s, gasoline- and diesel-powered automobiles may have been largely replaced by electric cars. Several countries, including China, India, France, Britain, and Norway have already announced plans to ban most vehicles powered only by internal combustion within the next 15 to 25 years, and others are working on similar policies.

Meanwhile, clean energy will play a much larger role in the energy mix. A 2017 report from McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2050, wind and solar power will account for 77 per cent of new electrical generation capacity, and natural gas, another 13 per cent. By 2050, renewables (excluding hydro) will make up 33 per cent of global power generation, versus only 6 per cent today.

Overall, though, fossil fuels will still represent some three-quarters of energy use, which means we’ll still be generating plenty of greenhouse-gas emissions.


The 2080s

Based on our current business-as-usual greenhouse-gas trajectory, the world of our grandkids will be nothing short of apocalyptic. While greenhouse-gas emissions should level off before mid-century and drop after that — principally because of the rise of cleaner energy — a lot of warming is already locked in.

Everything that was happening in 2050 is still happening, only it’s gotten worse. And there are some new twists.

By the numbers: overall, average temperatures in Ontario are expected to rise by 6.4 C versus the 1990s, with summer temperatures increasing by 4.7 C, and winter temperatures by an astonishing 9.1 C. As before, a greater rise is expected in northern parts of the province. We can expect an average of 41 extreme heat days in southern Ontario each year — five times the current number — and the electrical grid will struggle to keep up with demand.

Precipitation is projected to increase 11 per cent from 1990s levels — again, mostly in the winter (42 per cent) and spring (20 per cent) — accelerating the trend toward extreme weather and associated flooding. What were once considered hundred-year storms will happen more frequently and unpredictably.

By this time, regions and municipalities with sufficient resources will have taken some steps to help business and homeowners adapt to new weather patterns. Improved stormwater management, tree planting, and other tools will help, but areas that are particularly vulnerable to flooding will simply have to be abandoned.

The global situation will be even more dire. Parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Australia will be so hot as to be effectively uninhabitable by humans, and hundreds of millions will be forced to flee coastal regions, including megacities like Shanghai and Mumbai, due to rising sea levels.

Food shortages will be rampant due not just to drought and flood, but also to ocean acidification, which threatens to wipe out the marine food chain (not technically climate change, but let’s throw it in as it’s caused by the ocean’s absorption of the CO2 we’re producing). In relatively temperate spots like Ontario, home and public food gardens will replace lawns and parks to feed the population.

If this picture looks grim, it is. And it doesn’t even take into account potential additional warming from positive feedbacks such as permafrost-methane release and decreased ocean absorption of CO2, which could be massive and are generally not incorporated into climate models.

What can we do about it?

There are two things we can do: adapt to the changes we can no longer avoid, and take steps to minimize future warming. In an email, Chris Ballard, Ontario’s minister of the environment and climate change, says, “The climate is changing, with more frequent and extreme events such as severe rain, ice and wind storms, dry land and warming winters. Climate change impacts increase the risk and cost to our homes, businesses, economy and society. This is why Ontario is taking strong action to fight climate change.”

A key component of that action is the Climate Change Action Plan, intended to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through tactics such as retrofitting buildings for greater energy efficiency, promoting greener transportation through incentives and tax rebates, and funding training in low-carbon technologies.

That said, Ontario accounts for less than 1 per cent of global emissions, so while provincial greenhouse-gas reductions are necessary and admirable, they won’t change the big picture.

Adaptation to the changing world will be critical. As Danny Blair of the Prairie Climate Centre says, “All jurisdictions are worried about extreme climate events, and should be. We need to identify those areas that are going to be even more vulnerable to flooding events, forest fires driven by dry/hot weather, increases in the kinds of pests that can thrive, new kinds of crops that can/should be grown, changes to engineering challenges, financial risk of weather related disasters, insurance needs/risks, and so on.”

Ontario is working on an adaptation strategy, which includes changing building codes, engaging public health units against new health risks, and working with municipalities and the federal government as part of the Ontario Regional Adaptation Collaborative.

Are we doing enough? Can we do enough? The last word goes to Danny Blair: “There are good signs out there that our governments and businesses are taking adaptation and mitigation much more seriously. It's about time!  The challenge is huge, but it must be addressed, and it must be addressed with urgency and collective participation.”

Patrick Metzger is a freelance writer who lives in Toronto.