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Canada's failure to fight climate change 'disturbing,' environment watchdog says

Canada’s failure to fight climate change ‘disturbing,’ environment watchdog says

Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand says Canada is not doing enough to combat climate change.

Gelfand delivered her final audits Tuesday before her five-year term expires, looking at fossil-fuel subsidies, invasive aquatic species and mining pollution.

But her final conclusions as the country’s environmental watchdog say it is Canada’s slow action to deal with the warming planet that is most “disturbing” to her.

“For decades, successive federal governments have failed to reach their targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and the government is not ready to adapt to a changing climate,” she said in a statement Tuesday morning. “This must change.”

Gelfand’s rebuke came a day after Environment Canada scientists sounded an alarm that Canada is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world, causing irreversible changes to our climate.

Gelfand said neither Liberal nor Conservative governments have hit their own targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Canada is not on track to hit its 2030 target, despite policies like the national price on carbon that took effect this week.

‘Inefficient’ fossil-fuel subsidies

Gelfand’s audit says the Liberals are not keeping a promise to get rid of “inefficient” fossil-fuel subsidies, which are undermining efforts to combat climate change, encouraging wasteful consumption of fossil fuels and discouraging investments in cleaner energy sources.

Canada has pledged to eliminate inefficient subsidies by 2025 as part of both the G20 and G7 economic groups of nations, and the Liberals also campaigned on a promise to get rid of them.

Gelfand concludes that both Finance Canada and Environment Canada have defined “inefficient” so broadly they can’t decide what subsidies fall into that category.

Finance Canada’s work on the subsidies focused exclusively on fiscal and economic considerations without giving any attention to the social and environmental issues at play. For its part, Environment and Climate Change Canada only looked at 23 out of more than 200 federal organizations when it compiled an inventory of potential subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry, Gelfand found.

Last year Canada began a peer review with Argentina that sees each investigate and report on the other’s fossil-fuel subsidies. Last week Environment Minister Catherine McKenna started a public consultation on the subsidies to aid that peer review.

The draft regulations she released last week say her department has concluded that none of the federal non-tax subsidies for fossil fuels actually is “inefficient.”

The regulations identified just four subsidies at all, including support to help Indigenous communities keep electricity prices down; funding for electric and alternative-fuel vehicle infrastructure, such as charging stations; and funding for research on clean technologies for the oil-and-gas sector.

Philip Gass, a senior energy researcher for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said Tuesday using the World Trade Organization definition of subsidies, his organization found several that could or should be phased out.

The IISD list shows more than $1.2 billion in fossil-fuel subsidies from the federal government, and an even greater amount from provincial governments. Gelfand’s audit looked only at federal subsidies.

Gass said the government’s report on fossil-fuel subsidies is a good step toward transparency but that the reasoning behind the conclusion there are no inefficient subsidies is still confusing.

“We need a more ambitious approach and (to) have a better plan,” he said.

Gelfand’s audit is the second attempt to audit Finance Canada’s fossil-fuel subsidy programs. In 2017, the auditor general made an attempt but was blocked when the department refused to cough up the needed documents. Eventually the department gave in, resulting in the audits released Tuesday.

Gelfand also looked at the current impact of invasive aquatic species, most of which are accidentally introduced to Canadian waters on the hulls of ships coming from international waters and many of which harm native marine life after arrival.

She found that although Canada has made commitments to prevent invasive species from taking hold in Canadian waters, neither Fisheries and Oceans Canada nor the Canada Border Services Agency did what they promised to do. She says a lack of understanding of whether provincial or federal authorities are responsible is interfering with efforts to prevent invasive species from getting established.

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What you need to know about the new climate change report

What you need to know about the new climate change report

On Monday, a report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada called Canada’s Changing Climate Report said that, on average, Canada is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world.

Among some of the other findings were:

  • Northern Canada is warming at more than three times the global average.
  • Precipitation is expected to increase across the country though summer rainfall may decrease.
  • Oceans around the country have warmed, becoming more acidic.
  • The warming climate will make extreme hot temperatures more frequent and more intense.

But readers had some lingering questions.

Why did they only use data from 1948?

It might seem strange that the report only referenced data from 1948, since we know that cities have data that go further back. It’s not some way of manipulating the data, but rather it is the time at which national records were kept on a consistent basis.

“It’s a question of the availability of datasets, and Environment Canada’s datasets are quite poor,” said Dianne Saxe, former environmental commissioner of Ontario. “What they look for is continuous record-keeping in the same place over a long period of time, and we don’t have a lot of that.”

Is Canada changing the Arctic?

The effects seen across the Arctic, including shrinking sea ice and and less snow cover, are having a dire effect on global temperatures. Sea ice and snow cover are used to reflect the sun’s radiation back into space, but with more of the dark waters of the ocean exposed, that radiation is absorbed and causes heating and creates what is called a “positive feedback loop.”

Saxe, whose office was shut down by the Ontario government on Monday, said that there are two things to consider when considering what is causing the rapidly melting ice.

An increase of carbon dioxide may be the biggest problem, she says, but it’s the short-term climate forces that need attention.

“The use of diesel in the North in snowy areas has an extraordinary effect at melting snow because it lets out these little soot particles that absorb heat into the air and darkens the snow.”

Saxe says that some solutions would be including filters on vehicles that use diesel and changing out wood stoves.

“The greenhouse gas is the biggest problem, but the short-term climate forces are faster, and we could actually fix them easily.”

How did the report acquire the data?

The report gathered data from existing peer-reviewed studies. It also used model projections that may have not been peer-reviewed. However, all chapters of the report itself were peer-reviewed.

The report also acknowledged that Indigenous observations and knowledge play an important role in understanding climate change and “the ability of human and natural systems to adapt.”

The Arctic ice is melting. Does that mean Antarctic ice is growing?

The Arctic and Antarctic are two different beasts. While the Arctic exists as mostly sea ice, the Antarctic is a landmass that includes sea ice as well as glaciers. The ocean processes that drive them are different as well, and Antarctica has glaciers, an ice sheet and sea ice in the mix.

The signal is loud and clear in the Arctic: sea ice is not only melting, but it’s thinning, which in turn makes it more susceptible to further melt.

In Antarctica, the signal isn’t so clear. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet — which sits atop the Antarctic landmass — is fairly stable. And while West Antarctica is colder, the warming is much higher in the region, which in turn is causing warmer ocean water to thin the ice.

This data image illustrates warming across Antarctica. Red represents areas where temperatures, measured in degrees Celsius per decade, have increased the most during the last 50 years, while dark blue represents areas with a lesser degree of warming. West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, the craggy finger of land jutting out from the continent on the left, have experienced the most warming. (NASA/GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio)

A new study published in January suggested that Antarctic ice is melting six times faster than it did in the 1980s.

So while the Arctic is seeing the most dramatic effect of climate change, the Antarctic is also seeing its own effects, though at a somewhat slower pace. And that’s good news since if the entire Antarctic ice sheet melted, it would raise sea level by 57 metres.

Is this new?

“No,” said Saxe. “I didn’t see anything new in this report. However, I’m glad this is getting people’s attention.”

Saxe notes that when you look at the climate data available for Toronto, which goes back to 1841, it shows the city has warmed to almost three times the global average. This is data that was already available.

As well, it was already understood that humans are the main drivers of climate change, though there are natural forces at work. However, the natural forces cannot account for the rapid change we are observing.

Normal can’t come back. We’ve locked in a huge amount of change that is still going to come our way.– Dianne Saxe, former environmental commissioner of Ontario

While people may want a return to normal, Saxe said, that’s not going to happen.

“Normal can’t come back,” she said. “We’ve locked in a huge amount of change that is still going to come our way.”

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A voter's guide to climate change and the federal election

A voter’s guide to climate change and the federal election

The latest federal climate change report shows that Canada is warming faster than the global average which could mean more wildfires and more extreme weather.

With a federal election mere months away, what should Canadians demand from politicians to tackle this crisis?

Isabelle Turcotte, director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute environmental think-tank, spoke with On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko to offer her thoughts on what Canadians should look for when deciding who to vote for.

What sort of checklist should voters have when they’re trying to evaluate their political representatives?

Voters should look for strong climate platforms and leaders who will be dedicated to tackling this issue with concrete action and concrete policies that will reduce our emissions and transform every sector of our economy.

How does the average voter know what is a concrete policy?

Let’s get all of our leadership hopefuls on the record saying that they are committed to meeting our Paris Agreement target and that they are also committed to increasing that target because we know that that target is not quite enough

Look for policies that reduce emissions in the transport sector. Concrete things like increasing electric vehicles on the road. Look for policies that put more renewable energy on the grid, for policies that help our industrial sector decarbonize.

Really concrete things that make our economic sectors more efficient and more economically competitive.

Well, you can have concrete evidence for a government that’s in power, but what about parties that are out of government?

A very important element is policy certainty to make sure that those industries that are making investments in the current regulatory environment where we are putting in place our climate plans and guiding investments, that they know they can be confident that this regulatory environment will be sustained and dialed up because we know we need to do more.

So seeing some policy alignment between what’s being proposed is really valuable — between what’s being proposed by leadership hopefuls and what exists is a good indicator.  

Despite climate change being an issue that’s affecting all of us there are very clear partisan divides on it among provinces. Ontario and Saskatchewan are against the carbon tax vehemently. Why is this happening?

To those who oppose this measure, which we know is the lowest-cost measure to reduce our emissions, to those who oppose that approach, put forward your alternatives and let’s debate it. I think that’s what Canadians need to demand of their leaders.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Listen to the complete interview:

The latest federal climate change report shows that Canada is warming faster than the global average which could mean more wildfires and more extreme weather So, with a federal election mere months away, what should Canadians demand from politicians to tackle this crisis? 6:39

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Methane-munching crabs may be adapting to climate change: report

Methane-munching crabs may be adapting to climate change: report

Crabs that have a normal diet of plankton have been seen munching on methane-filled bacteria off British Columbia’s coast in what experts say could be their way of adapting to climate change.

Researchers with Ocean Networks Canada, an initiative of the University of Victoria and Oregon State University, discovered the snow crabs using other food sources because their main meal may be disappearing with a warmer climate.

The crabs were previously thought to exclusively eat phytoplankton and researchers say this is the first evidence that a commercial species is finding some of its nutrition from other food sources.

The study’s co-author, Fabio De Leo, senior scientist at Ocean Networks Canada, says this shows the crabs may be able to adapt if their common food source becomes scarce.

De Leo says that by collecting these specimens, researchers can learn how a variety of sea-dwelling species are adapting to ongoing changes linked to climate change.

“There are other mobile species, not only crabs, but fish species that are commercially harvested. We’re excited to start tracking other food webs to see if we find the same signature,” said De Leo. 

The crabs were previously thought to exclusively eat phytoplankton and researchers say this is the first evidence that a commercial species is finding some of its nutrition from other food sources. (The Canadian Press)

The crabs have also found a creative way to ingest the methane, De Leo said.

“It was quite funny because of the way the crab accumulated the methane bubbles under its body and kind of lifted off from the sediment, took a turn and flipped head first into the sediment,” he said.

The crabs were feeding on methane-processing bacteria in methane seeps, which are found over fissures on the ocean bed. The seeps support a variety of species including clams and mussels that rely directly on the energy provided by such bacteria.

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