The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that since 1948, global average temperature has increased by about 0.8 degrees Celsius. That is consistent with the findings of the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A study commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada says that in that same period, Canada’s average temperature over land increased 1.7ºC, with higher rates seen in the north, the Prairies and the glaciers of northern BC. The increase in Northern Canada was 2.3ºC. Northern Russia is seeing similar phenomena.
While the warming of Canada will result in more habitable land, it will also bring many problems. For example, the 17,000 British Columbia glaciers that store water and gradually release it over the year to BC’s 90-per-cent hydro-electric system are receding rapidly. We have personally witnessed the dramatic recession of the Columbia Ice Field that continuously feeds the Athabasca and North Saskatchewan Rivers that supply agricultural communities in the prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
While these temperature increases seem small, they have profound effects on almost everything. The explanation is complex but here it is in a nutshell. Global population rose very slowly from the last ice age to 1800 when it went exponential due to advances in health care. By 1900, the demand for energy beyond wood, sails and horses resulted in the use of fossil fuels. By 1960, the world had stabilized after WW2 and the millions who were lifted out of poverty used even more energy per person. So, in the last 60 years of my lifetime, global population has tripled and carbon emissions from fossil fuels increased by a factor of five. These emissions accumulate in the atmosphere and trap the sun’s heat like a greenhouse. Of that trapped heat, 90 per cent is stored in the oceans, resulting in rising sea levels, increased evaporation and precipitation, and increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events.
For 10 years, I have been researching and writing about how to optimize the complex interaction between the energy supply, the economy, and the environment. This is important to the world but especially to Canada with our enviable position of having the world’s third largest proven reserves of oil. It is fair to say that Canada’s biggest threat is climate change, and our biggest economic opportunity is getting that oil to the markets that will need it for several more decades.
The biggest question is, “Can we reconcile our biggest opportunity with our biggest threat?” The answer is yes. But it is critical that we keep an open mind.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I did not vote for the Trudeau Liberals in 2015. I have since concluded that the Liberals now have the most realistic plans for balancing the economy and the environment. The following chart shows the reductions necessary to achieve Canada’s emission targets. Without adding to net cost for consumers, the Liberals’ revenue-neutral carbon tax will engage all sectors of the economy in that effort, whereas the Conservatives’ targeted regulations would result in only partial engagement and partial success.
While it is true that Canada’s emissions are less than two per cent of global emissions and emissions attributable to oil sands extraction are less than 1/1,000th, the only way to influence the biggest emitters (China, USA and India) is to lead by example. We can eliminate emissions from oil sands extraction by using clean nuclear power and heat. Both the US and Canadian governments are supporting the development of Small Modular Reactors by Terrestrial Energy of Oakville Ontario, and oil sands producers are very interested in using them for that purpose. The regulatory regime for that development is more favorable in Canada because Canada has never used enriched (weapons-grade) uranium in our CANDU reactors. The new reactors are better in every way compared to earlier reactors that served us without any serious incident for 50 years.
The Liberals are well on their way to starting construction on the Trans-Mountain Pipeline expansion. The Federal Court deemed that the National Energy Board needed to consider marine shipping risks in their report and that the public consultation process needed to include better response to the concerns of indigenous peoples. Both of those requirements are expected to be met by June 15. It is difficult to see what the other parties could have done differently or better.
The SNC-Lavalin case has been an unfortunate distraction for the past three months. The steady daily flow of scattered and contradictory opinions has only served to confuse the public. To date, some ethical questions have been raised but no illegal activity has been found. That is why the case should be subject to a careful and detailed review by the Ethics Commissioner and not by partisan politicians or the court of public opinion.
It is time to move on to the much more important job of ensuring we follow the best possible path to balancing efforts on environment, energy, and the economy.
Hugh Holland is a retired engineering and manufacturing executive now living in Huntsville, Ontario.
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