And Still the World Just Kept On Warming.

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Finally, 2020 is behind us, and while the improvement has not been immediate, the days are getting longer, and a few people have now been immunized against covid-19.  What’s not to like about 2021?

I know the days are getting longer because a) I can feel it in my bones, and b) CBC just told me that in Inuvik last week they held the annual Inuvik Sunrise Festival to welcome sunrise after a month of darkness.  The week culminated with Saturday’s fireworks show after the sun set again.  Given how I feel during a few days of slaty gray skies when our temperatures hover around 0oC instead of getting a little colder (and sunnier), I cannot imagine what living with a month of darkness must be like.

A good place to begin at the start of a new year is to recap where we are in terms of the global environmental crisis.  News about this crisis has been largely kept from the front burner these past months because of covid-19 and the political shenanigans of an orange-complected, strangely inadequate, self-important creature who has somehow spent the last four years as President of the most powerful nation on the planet.  (I continue to be amazed and saddened by the thrall in which he has enclosed a sizeable fraction of the U.S. population.  I worry about the next couple of weeks, and fervently hope that the U.S. can return to some semblance of normal democratic government and political life once he fades away to some gilded cave somewhere.)

So, to recap, I happened to look at the Globe & Mail a couple of days ago and found a couple of relevant articles.  I had also seen a short article in Scientific American that provides a quick overview of where we stand on climate change and steps we need to take.  Out of these choice titbits, I will now conjure a bit of a stew.

Doug Ford’s Environmentalism

I start close to home with the behavior of Ontario’s provincial government led by Mr. Doug Ford, also known as @Fordnation, and the older brother of that other Ontario politician, now deceased, the decidedly colorful Mr. Rob Ford.  Doug is a better politician than his brother, meaning he is better able to get things done, but I mostly disagree with his policies particularly on climate and environment.  And yet, over the last several months I had become grudgingly approving of Mr. Ford’s actions as he battled covid-19.  Mostly he did the right things, in the right ways, while demonstrating real compassion for people suffering the disease and the economic and sociological consequences of the pandemic.  My approval suffered a jolt of reality when he announced the latest effort to curb the disease, a new shutdown of most of Ontario to last to the end of January.  Leaked news of his plan, the day before his announcement, indicated the lockdown would come into effect on Christmas Eve.  When he announced, the next day, the commencement date had been moved to the early morning hours of the day after Christmas.  Apparently, he could not resist letting people party at Christmas, despite knowing that the partying, and the travelling and gathering that such would bring was precisely the aspect of the Christmas season that had public health officials so concerned.  In my mind his A-level effort on the virus has dropped to a C.

My removal of Mr. Ford from the panoply of great politicians, in my mind, back to the place where he belongs – the growing gaggle of successful right-of-center populists – is bolstered by the editorial that appeared in the Globe & Mail on 10 January.  It decries a recent action by his government to further erode the capacity of government to manage environment in a sustainable way. 

This desire to weaken governmental ability to protect environment seems a deeply held characteristic of his political tribe, the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario.  Ford is descended from a rich ancestry of former PC premiers who, over the years, have cut and slashed, reducing the scope of responsibilities or the capacity to act of those parts of government responsible for environment.  In the present case, by sneaking last minute wording into an omnibus budget bill passed on December 8th, Ford has further stripped away the power of Ontario’s Conservation Authorities to protect those areas of the Province they have been set up to conserve.

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Mr. Ford and Steve Clark, his Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and some angry voters who see the damage Ford’s plans for enthusiastic use of Ministerial Zoning Orders can bring to Ontario.  Photos © Christopher Katsarov, Canadian Press (left) and Graham Paine, Metroland (right).

Specifically, Ford’s government has been quietly racheting up the frequency with which it employs MZOs, Ministerial Zoning Orders, and making small adjustments to other laws and regulations that reduce or eliminate opportunity by other entities to question those MZOs.  The action on December 8th means that Conservation Authorities are now required to green-light any development proposal within their area of jurisdiction if an MZO has been issued.  Thus, Conservation Authorities are now weakened in the same way that Municipalities have been.  If the government wants it, an MZO can be issued at it will happen, regardless of any prior decisions or long-term plans of Municipalities or Conservation Authorities. 

Apart from the inherent ridiculousness of these actions, the increased use of MZOs, and the removal of impediments to their effect, greatly increases the likelihood that powerful development interests will grease the palms of politicians who will then ensure needed MZOs are issued.  What a great way to ensure that long-term planning, and effective environmental management will not stand in the way of short term political and economic gain.  So much for any sense that the Ontario government might actually be interested in environmental sustainability.  If a buck can be made, especially if it can be made by parties supporting the PC party, let’s get any environmental impedimentia out of the way and let it happen.  Ah, yes, democracy at its finest.

The Global Climate

So, with the political climate in this Province sailing along with short-term expediency clearly in the ascendant, what about the real climate?  The covid-19 pandemic has drastically cut economic activity around the globe but has it affected the pace of climate change?  Unfortunately, no.  Total global greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 will show a reduction from 2019, but the reduction is insufficient to reduce the amount of these gases in the atmosphere – we still added more greenhouse gases than were removed from the atmosphere by natural processes such as photosynthesis.  The extent of the reduction in emissions?  The Global Climate Project team put the drop in total emissions at ~7% over the year.

Graph showing change in annual global emissions and change in the carbon intensity of the global economy.  The generally rising black line is global emissions, with a clear dip due to covid-19; the downward trending orange line is the carbon intensity of the economy in terms of grams carbon emitted per dollar of production.  The only good news here is the continuing reduction in carbon content of the economy.  Image © Global Carbon Project.

While the drop in emissions in 2020 is larger than previous declines due to oil crises or financial collapses, the overall trend in emissions is persistently, and disappointingly, upwards.  Only the decoupling of the economy from emissions – its carbon intensity – provides good news.  In fact, as the next figure shows, the measured concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (by instruments atop Mauna Loa) shows a distressingly persistent upward trend (at an increasing rate!).  This belies all the discussion of the progress we are making in battling climate change.  We have scarcely made a dent in the trajectory of this graph.  Yet this is the one that matters!  The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is what determines global temperature.

Graph depicting the longest continuous run of direct measurements of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere shows no sign yet of us having turned the corner on climate change.  Image © Global Climate Project.

All those windmills and solar cells, carbon taxes and electric cars, and we still have not got to the point where we are reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere!  When you consider the extent to which covid-19 shut down the economy, the collapse of aviation, and the collapse in economic activity (which produced that dip in emissions in the previous image), and contrast these with the lack of evidence of an effect on atmospheric CO2, it becomes crystal clear that we have an enormous challenge in front of us.  An article in Scientific American for 6 January summarizes where we are and where we need to go.

William Ripple, an ecologist at Oregon State University, and lead author of the article, is the person who has pushed out periodic statements on the environmental crisis signed by thousands of scientists.  (I’ve signed my name to some of these, and hope they are having some effect.)  In this article, with only four co-authors, Ripple tries to provide an optimistic tone, but the data are against him.  2020 has now been confirmed essentially tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record and rounding out the hottest decade on record.  The EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service has just reported average global temperature for 2020 was 1.25oC above the pre-industrial baseline.  The Paris Agreement, signed by most countries on the planet, commits humanity to keeping the temperature increase to less than 2.0oC and preferably below 1.5oC so we have scarcely any wiggle room left.

Ripple points to the fact that the warming is having bigger effects on both the biosphere and humanity than scientists had expected.  In 2020 within the USA, there were 22 separate disasters such as wildfires or hurricanes which each cost over $1 Billion in damage, and Ripple notes the Atlantic hurricane season alone cost $46 Billion while floods and landslides in Asia led to the displacement of 12 million people.  He identifies six critical steps that need to be taken.  These are to swiftly phase out use of fossil fuels, swiftly phase out emissions of soot, methane and hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants all of which impact climate, restore and protect natural ecosystems such as forests and wetlands with the capacity to sequester carbon, markedly shift the human diet towards plant-based foods, convert to a carbon-free economy perhaps beginning by eliminating subsidies for fossil fuel production and divesting from the fossil fuel industry, and rapidly stabilizing and then reducing the size of the human population (which is currently growing at 200,000 people per day).  I’m amazed at his ability to sound optimistic in the face of this challenge.  I’m disappointed that so few politicians seem to get the message.

And Where is Canada?

After a very long wait, the Trudeau government finally had something to say regarding its plans to reduce carbon emissions.  Remember the first election of the Trudeau Liberals in October 2015, with a sizeable majority.  They moved tentatively forward on climate change drafting a colorful document through much of 2016 and announcing the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change that December.  It included a modest carbon tax, and overall was judged to be very modest in aspirations.  The carbon emissions goal set by that ardent climate change agent, Stephen Harper, was allowed to remain in place, and the policies put in place by the liberals were still insufficient to meet either the 2020 target Canada committed to at Copenhagen back in 2010, or the 2030 target Canada opted for in Paris in December 2015.

But not to worry.  Canada has an unblemished record in not succeeding in keeping its commitments on climate and it would be a pity to break that record at this point.  We missed the target set in Rio de Janeiro for the year 2000 by 21%, our Kyoto target for 2010 by 22%, and Canada is on track to miss its Copenhagen 2020 target by a similar degree.

Still, on December 11th, 2020, Justin Trudeau announced the update to that Pan-Canadian Framework we have been waiting for since the election last October.  The media have been mostly kind to it.  It includes a number of measures including a significant ramping up of the carbon tax but remains a bit limp-wristed when it comes to doing the things that Bill Ripple says we need to do.  In my next post, I’ll look at the latest Canadian plan and what it does for us and for the planet.

Brian Gable sometimes says it so clearly.  Image © Brian Gable, Globe & Mail.