We can respond vigorously to global warming, and boost our economy too . . .
When Environment Minister Christine Stewart said recently that Canada will ratify the Kyoto agreement, with or without Alberta's support, she acknowledged that taking action against global warming is in the best interests of all Canadians.
For years, scientists have been saying that human activities, namely the burning of fossil fuels as an energy source, could significantly warm the lower layers of the earth's atmosphere. Studies also indicate that a generally warmer climate will be accompanied by more climate-related disasters, storms, floods and droughts.
Are these trends already occurring? The answer is "Yes". Some of the tragic consequences of a warming Climate are becoming more apparent with every week's news.
The temperatures in 1998 are more than just unusual, they are unprecedented. Last year was, on worldwide average, the hottest ever recorded. Now 1998 has become the new benchmark.
In the first half of the year, large parts of Canada experienced temperatures an astonishing 4 to 7° C above normal. A strong El Nino is partly to blame, but there is growing evidence that greenhouse gas emissions are making El Nino events increasingly more intense.
Ten of the 11 warmest years since the beginning of reliable records have also been in the 1980's and 90's.
Catastrophes such as the Saguenay, Red River and Yangtze floods, the eastern Canadian ice storm and the B.C. forest fires are sometimes cited as evidence of an increasingly dangerous climate. Still, it is not possible to attribute individual severe weather events to climate change. Instead, one must examine a period of AT LEAST 10 years.
For example, in Canada, forest fires, insects and diseases have affected twice as much area of the boreal zone in the 1980's and 1990's as in previous decades. And in Calgary, the average frequency of large hailstorms (hailstones greater than 20 nun) has increased from one every four years in the 1980's to two every year in the 1990's.
Annual global losses from natural disasters have risen from about $1 billion per year in the 1960s to more than $40 billion per year in the1990s. Climate change appears to have played a part, since the frequency of climaterelated disasters (floods, droughts, etc.) has increased three times as rapidly as for other natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.).
While some groups have insisted that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would cost jobs and ruin economies, independent studies have shown that wise policies could be implemented with little cost and even produce net benefits. In fact, countries like Canada could increase employment and make their economies more efficient through aggressive energy efficiency measures and moving to more renewable forms of energy like small hydro, solar and wind. Indeed, Germany, the United Kingdom and others are already moving in these directions and threaten to leave North America behind competitively.
Right now there are excellent opportunities to reaffirm Canada's role as an environmental leader. Ontario, for example, is considering deregulating electricity production. Depending on government guidelines, this could be either good or bad for the environment. If, for instance, power sources are required to pay for their health and environmental costs to society, it would level the playing field. The true costs of inefficient oiland coal-burning plants would become evident, while small scale hydro, solar power and every efficient building would flourish.
Studies in Alberta have shown that switching from coal to natural gas, as older electricity plants are refurbished, would cut carbon dioxide emissions by half at little or no extra cost.. Across Canada, governments should require more fuel-efficient vehicles. These will become increasingly available through hybrids (bat teries and small gasoline motors), through hydrogen fuel cells and through improvements in present vehicles.
However, such vehicles need cleaner, lower-sulphur gasolines than, are presently available in Canada. Action to require low-sulphur gasoline is long overdue. The slightly higher cost of gasoline would soon be paid back in greater mileage per litre.
There is much we can do in Canada at little or no net cost to protect ourselves and others on this small planet from air pollution and climate change.
Let's get on with it.
James Bruce is a former Assistant Deputy Minister in Environment Canada, and from 1992-97 served as co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Working Group III (economic and sociaI aspects).