Global Warming Crisis | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Global Warming Crisis

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on February 21, 2000. Partner content is not updated.

Across the Arctic, the ominous signs are everywhere. With average temperatures in some parts of the Canadian North rising at the rate of about 1° C each decade, glaciers are in retreat. Scientists report a dramatic thinning of the Polar ice cap.

Global Warming Crisis

Across the Arctic, the ominous signs are everywhere. With average temperatures in some parts of the Canadian North rising at the rate of about 1° C each decade, glaciers are in retreat. Scientists report a dramatic thinning of the Polar ice cap. Arctic pack ice is melting so rapidly that it may be possible within a few decades for ships to routinely use the legendary Northwest Passage as a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Animals that thrive on the cold, including polar bears and high arctic caribou, are suffering as changing weather patterns disrupt their feeding habits and turn traditional migration routes into water. With the winter freeze-up coming progressively later, ice roads - the North's vital winter links across muskeg, rivers and lakes - are taking longer to form, sometimes forcing isolated communities to bring supplies by helicopter.

Milder weather, of course, is a welcome respite for many northerners. In the Northwest Territories' capital of Yellowknife early this month, children gleefully tobogganed as temperatures soared to 2° C, up dramatically from a more usual -30° a week earlier. "It's hard not to enjoy the warmer weather," says Anne Gunn, a biologist who has spent 25 years studying arctic wildlife. "But it's also worrying, because of what global warming could do to animal species, and cost us in human terms." An update on what is - and is not - being done:

For more than two decades, the spectre of potentially catastrophic climate change has loomed over global population growth and economic expansion. Now, what was once a hotly debated theory - that a vast layer of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other manmade gases in the atmosphere are causing the Earth's envelope to heat up - has hardened into near certainty. If no action is taken, climatologists predict, the global average temperature - which has risen by a remarkable 0.08° C during the past 100 years - could go up by as much as 3.5° C in the coming century, raising ocean levels to swamp islands and coastal communities around the world, drying up rivers and lakes, and turning agricultural land into desert.

At a conference in Kyoto, Japan, in December, 1997, the world's industrialized nations, including Canada, agreed provisionally to start reining in emissions. Now, a debate is heating up over how Canada - a chilly northern nation with a population that ranks among the world's highest per capita consumers of energy - can meet its commitment. "We're energy pigs," says Gerry Scott, climate change spokesman for the David Suzuki Foundation, a Vancouver-based environmental organization. "We seem to think wasting energy is a good thing, while most other nations are trying to reduce consumption."

So far, Ottawa's main response to the Kyoto Protocol has been to launch discussions among more than 450 experts charged with proposing ways of reducing emissions. Begun 19 months ago, the process now is about a year behind schedule. And, assuming Ottawa and the provinces can work out the details, a national plan for meeting the Kyoto target is not expected until some time next year. In the meantime, critics say, Ottawa has failed dismally to provide leadership on the issue. "Unless this government starts explaining what the problem is and what the options are for fixing it," says Thomas d'Aquino, president of the Ottawa-based Business Council on National Issues, "I don't think there's the slightest chance of Canadians supporting the kind of measures that would be needed."

Apart from the slow-moving federal process, there is little evidence of concern across the country. For the most part, provincial governments are just starting to think about reducing emissions. One exception: petroleum-rich Alberta, where the provincial government and some major greenhouse-gas producers have started to address the issue.

And while Canada deliberates, most western European nations have taken steps to wean industry and consumers away from the fossil fuels - oil, natural gas and coal - that are the principal source of CO2. (In Germany's case, emissions plunged dramatically with the collapse of Communist-era industries following reunification in 1990.) Meanwhile, Canada's emissions, instead of declining, have been rising rapidly. In 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available, Canada generated an estimated 682 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases - about one per cent of the 6.5 trillion tonnes of CO2 produced around the world each year, but a 13.5-per-cent increase in Canadian emissions since 1990, the highest growth rate among industrialized nations.

Fearing that sweeping and economically damaging measures will be needed to reverse that growth, some business leaders argue that it may simply be unrealistic for Canada to try to meet its Kyoto commitment. "I'm not saying we shouldn't address the problem," says David MacInnis, a spokesman for the Calgary-based Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "But under the current time frame, the Kyoto target may be unreachable."

Just how certain is it that manmade emissions are affecting the world's climate? Belief in the linkage rests on the fact that rising temperatures have coincided with steadily increasing emissions of what scientists call greenhouse gases - ones that lodge in the atmosphere and, like a pane of glass, prevent the sun's heat from escaping into space. Some experts disagree, however, arguing that the current warming trend is simply part of the Earth's periodic cycles of warming and cooling. The current phase, says Tim Ball, a Victoria climatologist, began more than 300 years ago and is largely the result of alterations in the Earth's orbit. "The idea that humans are causing this," he adds, "is junk science."

But Ball seems to be in a shrinking minority. Most experts are all but convinced humanity is playing a decisive role. The most persuasive evidence has come from studies of CO2 in air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice, which show an unprecedented buildup in the 21st century. "There are no studies," says Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, "that can convincingly show global warming is happening because of natural climate variability. Human activity is almost certainly the cause."

And if the ominous portents of a polar meltdown and an increasing incidence of punishing droughts, floods and hurricanes around the world cannot yet be conclusively tied to global warming, scientists say these are precisely the kinds of events they would expect as the atmosphere heats up. "We are into an unprecedented era," says James Bruce, an Ottawa-based climate change consultant, "in which human activity has become a major player in the climate."

In an effort to begin tackling the problem, Canada and the other industrialized countries agreed in Kyoto to start reducing emissions between 2008 and 2012. In Canada's case, the target is a six-per-cent cutback of 1990's levels. But because Canada's emissions are rising so rapidly, the total reduction needed to reach the Kyoto goal will likely turn out by then to be 25 per cent or more of the country's total emissions. "If Canada doesn't start implementing Kyoto over the next year or so," says John Bennett, climate change campaigner for the Ottawa-based Sierra Club of Canada, "it's going to be too late."

Despite that widely shared concern, it appears unlikely that Finance Minister Paul Martin's budget, expected on Feb. 28, will signal a sense of urgency in Ottawa. According to a cabinet document that became public in December, Environment Minister David Anderson and Natural Resources' Ralph Goodale - who billed the emissions problem as Canada's "most profound economic challenge" since the Second World War - wanted $1.6 billion over five years to kick-start the Kyoto effort. Instead, Martin appears ready to allocate between $500 million and $800 million over the coming year - a significant start but lacking any commitment into the future.

If Canada does try to meet its Kyoto target, the price could be steep. Estimates of the effect it would have in reducing the gross domestic product range from $1.6 billion all the way to $17 billion annually, the latter a 1.8-per-cent decline in terms of Canada's current output.

To make matters worse, Ottawa may now have lost one strategy for easing the economic pain. Because trees and the soil around them soak up carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, Canada had hoped to earn emissions-cutting credits for planting new trees after clear-cutting crews do their job. Instead, a United Nations-appointed panel proposed last month that countries should get points for reforestation only after losing them for cutting down trees. "People in other countries are looking at us and saying Canada is just trying to dodge the issue," says Robert Hornung, an Ottawa-based climate-change expert for Alberta's Pembina Institute.

Whatever plan Ottawa and the provinces develop over the next 12 months is likely to feature at least one major measure that would produce far-reaching economic changes. One possibility: emissions limits, or caps, on industrial sectors, with a trading system that would allow firms that go over the limits to buy credits from those whose emissions are below target levels. Another, less likely, approach could come in the form of taxes boosting prices for petroleum, natural gas and coal throughout the economy - from gasoline and diesel fuel for cars and trucks to home heating oil and electricity from coal- or oil-fired plants. To make such taxes politically acceptable, experts say, there would have to be tax reductions elsewhere in the system.

Action also seemed likely to tighten fuel-efficiency standards for passenger vehicles, including the so-called light-duty trucks - gas-guzzling vans, pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles, which spewed out more than 80 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 1997, 8.5 per cent of Canada's total emissions, according to Statistics Canada. Because of a loophole in the U.S. fuel-efficiency standards, which Canada follows, light-duty trucks are allowed to churn out about six tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, compared with four tonnes for sedans. "As far as SUVs are concerned," says Vancouver's Scott, "it's time to say, 'Enough, already.' "

Other likely steps: more stringent building codes to make highrises and houses more energy-efficient, and continued restructuring of provincial electricity systems to collect power from such sources as wind, solar and geothermal devices that tap heat locked inside the Earth's crust. Can energy from unconventional sources like those make a significant contribution to Canada's electricity needs? James Salmon, a Burlington, Ont., wind-power expert, insists it can. Noting that major wind farms are already operating in Alberta and Quebec's Gaspé region, he estimates that wind could someday produce 20 per cent of Canada's energy.

With Ottawa and the provinces still only at the talking stage, Canadian municipalities have emerged as leaders in taking steps to reduce emissions. In Edmonton, officials embarked on a drive last fall to cut emissions from city-owned buildings and vehicles over the next eight years to 20 per cent below 1990 levels. As well, Edmonton and about a dozen other Canadian cities operate plants that extract methane gas - a powerful greenhouse gas - from a landfill site for use in producing electricity.

Toronto has an array of programs, including a drive to upgrade energy efficiency in 40 per cent of the city's buildings and houses by 2008 and an unusual $40-million plan to reduce electricity use by replacing conventional air conditioners in downtown buildings with a system that gets its chilling effect from frigid water pumped from the depths of Lake Ontario. And an organization called Bikeshare is working on a plan to promote pedal power as an alternative to cars. With funding from the city, the group hopes to follow a growing trend in U.S. cities and offer city residents free use of a fleet of bicycles.

On another energy front, a score of Canadian firms are developing less carbon-intensive energy sources. Iogen Corp. is constructing a $25-million plant in Ottawa to test technology that uses agricultural and forestry leftovers - including straw, corncobs, grasses and wood chips - to produce ethanol, an environmentally clean fuel for cars and trucks. And Ballard Power Systems of Burnaby, B.C., has emerged as a world leader in alternative energy with fuel-cell technology that extracts energy from hydrogen and converts it into electricity, producing water vapour as the sole emission. Over the next five years, Ford and DaimlerChrysler - part owners of Ballard - and Japanese automakers Honda, Nissan and Toyota all plan to roll out some cars powered by Ballard fuel cells.

Still, getting Canada's greenhouse emissions under control is going to require far more comprehensive action. A disturbing reality of Kyoto is bound to haunt the federal-provincial talks on the issue scheduled for next month and in the fall. The gloomy fact is that even if Canada and the other industrialized nations succeed in meeting their targets, that will make only a small dent in global emissions. That is because, so far, the world's developing nations - including population giants like China and India - have not yet agreed to cutbacks. They argue that since Western nations gained affluence by profligate energy use, those countries should clean up their emissions first. As a result, some climate experts calculate that the decrease in emissions under the current Kyoto targets would shave less than 0.2° C off the temperature increase expected over the next 50 years. The supporters of Kyoto counter that, as long as there is a strong likelihood that human activity is causing climate change, it is essential at least to begin confronting the problem - rather than gambling and leaving the consequences to future generations.

The Climate Conundrum

Canada's Kyoto commitment:

In an international convention signed in 1997, Canada agreed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions between 2008 and 2012 to a level six per cent below 1990 emissions.

An Enormous Challenge for Alberta

As one of the country's biggest producers of greenhouse gases, Alberta has a lot at stake under the Kyoto Protocol. In search of reductions, Premier Ralph Klein's Conservative government last year established the grandly named agency Climate Change Central to alert Albertans to the issue and promote action by industry. Some heavyweight Alberta companies have started tackling emission counts. Calgary-based Suncor Energy Inc., which extracts petroleum from northern Alberta's oilsands, last month unveiled a $100-million, five-year investment in alternative power sources that could include wind-generated and solar energy projects. TransAlta, a major source of greenhouse gas as it produces about 60 per cent of Alberta's electricity - mainly from coal - claims to have cut emissions by nearly 10 per cent since 1990, to 23.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in 1998, the latest available count.

But there's a catch. TransAlta calculates the decline by using investments in clean-energy projects to offset CO2-laden emissions. And the latest steps by Suncor and TransAlta were taken in the hope of earning similar credits in the emissions-trading system that may be part of Canada's national plan. But TransAlta vice-president Robert Page worries that, on the domestic front, federal officials appear to favour "a government-controlled regulatory kind of process" - rather than the free-market, incentives-driven system private industry would prefer. Federal-provincial agreement on emissions trading may be "devilishly difficult" to achieve, says Alberta's Environment Minister Gary Mar. "But all parties involved in the process are committed to resolving the differences."

Maclean's February 21, 2000

Canada's Kyoto commitment:

In an international convention signed in 1997, Canada agreed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions between 2008 and 2012 to a level six per cent below 1990 emissions.

Emissions in 1990:

601 million tonnes

Emissions in 1997:

682 million tonnes - a 13.5-per-cent increase

Estimated 2010 emissions:

713 million tonnes

Estimated emissions reduction needed by 2012 to achieve Kyoto commitment:

26 to 27 per cent

Estimates of potential annual cost to the Canadian economy:

From $3 billion to $17 billion