Climate Change and its Effect on the Great White North

Climate change is a global problem with global consequences. In 2006, warmer-than-average temperatures were recorded across the world for the 30th consecutive year. Increasing average temperatures are melting glaciers and polar ice caps and raising sea levels, putting coastal areas at greater risk of flooding. Mounting evidence indicates that these changes are not the result of the natural variability of climate. The theory of human-induced climate change is supported by numerous respected scientific bodies, including the British Royal Society, the American National Academies and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC, established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), released its fourth assessment report in 2007. It declared that “warming of the climate’s system is unequivocal” and that there is a “very high confidence” that human activity since 1750 has played a significant role in overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide (CO2).

The IPCC is arguably the world’s foremost scientific authority on the subject of climate change, and its role is to “assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.”

One of the greatest concerns associated with climate change is the anticipated increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. The ice storm that struck eastern Canada in 1998 illustrates the magnitude of the potential impact of these events.

In addition to extreme weather events, other changes associated with climate change are more gradual. Lakes and rivers generally freeze later and thaw earlier than they used to, resulting in difficulties building and maintaining the ice roads that are vital for many northern communities. Over the past 10 years, the network of ice roads in Manitoba has gone from 50 to 60 days of usage to as low as 20 days in some years. A series of mild winters in the central interior of the province of British Columbia has supported the spread of the mountain pine beetle, a very serious forest pest, resulting in the death of pine trees across millions of hectares of forests.

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Mountain pine beetle damage, Otway, British Columbia, Dezene Huber, 2007

Canada has about 0.5% of the world’s population, but contributes about 2% of the total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This puts Canadians among the highest per capita emitters, largely as a result of the size of the country, the low density of the population, the high energy demands imposed by the climate, our resource-based economy, and the volume of goods we export. In 2005, slightly more than 23 tonnes of GHGs were emitted for each person in the country: this represents an 8% per capita increase since 1990.

Numerous factors influence how climate change works and how those effects will be felt by people around the world, now and in the future.

Canada is a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol. Although Canada committed itself to a 6% reduction below the 1990 levels for the 2008-2012 as a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, the country did not implement a plan to reduce greenhouse gases emissions.

In 2011, Canada, Japan and Russia stated that they would not take on further Kyoto targets. The Canadian government invoked Canada’s legal right to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on 12 December 2011. Canada was committed to cutting its greenhouse emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by 2012, but in 2009 emissions were 17% higher than in 1990. Then environment minister Peter Kent cited Canada’s liability to “enormous financial penalties” under the treaty unless it withdrew. He also suggested that the recently signed Durban agreement may provide an alternative way forward. Canada’s decision was strongly criticized by representatives of other ratifying countries, including France and China.

Based on the report of “Paying the Price: the Economic Impacts Climate Change for Canada,” unless global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are brought down and Canada invests in adaptation, the economic impacts of climate change on Canada could climb to billions of dollars per year.

Although Canada contributes approximately 1.5% – 2% of global emissions, the report concludes that climate change impacts brought about by increased world-wide emissions have a real and growing economic cost to Canada. It also shows that adaptation – our capacity to manage the impacts to come – while not cost-free, is a cost-effective way to alleviate some of those impacts.

The said report finds that the economic impact on Canada could reach:

  • 2020: $5 billion per year
  • 2050: Between $21 and $43 billion per year

In the 2050s:

  • Timber supply impacts could range from $2 billion to $17 billion per year with high impacts in B.C.
  • Flooding damages to coastal dwellings, resulting from climate change-induced sea-level rise and storm surges, could cost between $1 billion to $8 billion per year with higher than average cost impacts in Atlantic Canada
  • Poorer air quality resulting from higher temperatures will lead to more hospital visits, resulting in millions of dollars in costs to local health care systems for four of Canada’s major cities – Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver and Calgary
  • Canadians can and should use economic information to decide how to best prepare for, and respond to, the impacts of climate change.
  • The Government of Canada invest in growing our country’s expertise in the economics of climate change impacts and adaptation so we have our own Canadian-focused, relevant data and analysis for public and private-sector decision makers.
  • The Government of Canada cost out and model climate impacts to inform internal decisions about adapting policies and operations to climate change and allocating scarce resources to programs that help Canadians adapt.
  • Governments at all levels continue investing in generating and disseminating research to inform adaptation decision making at the sectoral, regional, and community level. This research should, as a matter of routine, incorporate economic analysis of the costs and benefits of options to adapt to climate impacts because the current data is insufficient for decision makers and is not readily or consistently available.
  • The Government of Canada forge a new data- and analysis-sharing partnership with universities, the private sector, governments, and other expert bodies to leverage unique and available nongovernmental resources for climate change adaptation.

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Watch how Climate change affects our country. Let us all do our role as green citizens of “The Great White North.”

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