V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Have we no shame?

Published in Sun Media, February, 2007.

Ouch.

It's a scathing indictment on our performance in the pitched battle against climate change.

The tone is full of dismay and scolds us into embarrassment, like a young child who gets a dressing down by a disappointed parent.

"If there is one nation that should be acutely aware of how damaging climate change could be it is Canada," reads a recent editorial in the magazine New Scientist.

"Its northern wilderness has been romanticized in literature, has inspired great art, and remains a treasured element in the national character.

Yet instead of leading the charge to halt global warming, the Canadian government led by Stephen Harper is retreating."

There's a chorus of international players who have upbraided us for failing to preserve our natural habitat, including the celebrity du jour and Oscar winner Al Gore. In a tersely worded statement, Gore asks Prime Minister Stephen Harper to "do the right thing" and commit to Kyoto.

Recently, the European environment commissioner also warned that Canada's international reputation is at stake should we opt out.

"If Canada steps back from its commitments under Kyoto now ... it would be dealing a damaging blow to international law and to its credibility in future negotiations," wrote Stavros Dimas.

Ratified by the Liberals in 2002 with a promise to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels, the Kyoto Protocol has proven to be an embarrassing green blemish on the country's international reputation.

Instead of declining, Canada's emission levels are now more than 30 per cent above the promised target.

Environment Minister John Baird is set to announce industry regulations by month's end that will steer Canada down the road toward lower emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

A December draft report confirms the government has been examining "intensity-based" emissions guidelines which would limit the emissions produced for each barrel of oil or megawatt of electricity, but not cap total emissions.

"We have had a lot of consultations with experts in environment, with industry, with the public service, with the provinces," he said last week. "We have not sat down and made any decision whatsoever."

Critics point out intensity-based targets are a free pass for industry to keep increasing emissions as oil rigs, coal-fired electricity generators, and car makers churn out products.

"In reality, pollution keeps growing and we're no farther ahead in actually cutting greenhouse gases," according to Clare Demerse, a climate change policy analyst for the Calgary-based Pembina Institute.

Pembina recently released a paper suggesting the oil sands could do its share in reducing greenhouse gases by spending about a dollar per barrel of oil on a mix of cleaner technology and international credits.

Considering the huge fluctuations in oil prices, a buck a barrel could pass through the pumps virtually unnoticed, the Institute argues.

Baird was skeptical when he heard the Institute's numbers and resisted the call of all three Opposition parties to at least try to meet Canada's Kyoto targets. The result is a stalled Tory Clean Air Act that will likely never see the smoggy light of day.

"I don't think they have a plan," said Liberal environment critic David McGuinty.

"They're making it up as they go along."

Opposition parties and environmental groups say Kyoto's targets can still be reached by the 2012 deadline despite the lack of progress so far. How much it would cost to keep the Kyoto promise depends on who you ask.

Baird recently predicted it would spark a Russia-scale economic collapse.

Vancouver-based M.K. Jaccard and Associates has drawn up a costing model that suggests the impacts of trying to reverse course on Canada's overall GHG emissions would come with a bit more of a kick.

Jaccard's office ball-parked the numbers and estimated electricity prices would rise about 32 per cent in Ontario if the industry were required to ramp down emissions below 1990 levels.

But where the government has lagged, Canadians have led, environmentalists agreed.

"Look at the social phenomenon. This is a conversation happening that wouldn't have happened five years ago," said David Lertzman, assistant professor of environmental management and sustainable development at the University of Calgary. "The electorate is taking the lead on this."

According to a slew of recent polls, climate change has eclipsed the war in Afghanistan and health care as Canadians' number one concern.

But the shift has come late to Canadians, having alighted on Europeans much earlier.

While carbon offset schemes have only recently popped up in Canada, they've become so commonplace in the U.K. that the government announced plans to regulate the industry.

Our British cousins are already examining controversial emission reduction programs like a carbon credit card. Britons would swipe the carbon card every time they filled up on gas, which would withdraw units from their annual "pollution allowance."

British retail giants like grocer Tesco announced plans to label all their products with the carbon load or cost.

The British government committed $6 million of taxpayer money to off set official air travel and it announced plans to make all new homes in England carbon neutral by 2016.

A new airline out of the U.K., SilverJet, also launched last month as the world's first carbon neutral airline.

Germany is the world leader in generating wind power -- drawing 6 per cent of its electricity from its 18,400 megawatts of wind power. That compares to 1,200 megawatts of wind power in Canada.

France has pledged to cut their emissions by 75 per cent, and the U.K. aims to reduce theirs by 60 per cent. Though the U.S. refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, the state of California committed to reduce their emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Similarly, nine northeastern states formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative which will establish a regional cap and trade program.

New Brunswick has observer status.

"It's a question of leadership," said Matthew Bramley of the Pembina Institute.

"A number of politicians in Europe aren't afraid to embrace climate change as a critical issue that needs to be addressed -- without looking at opinion polls. Canada has not yet had a prime minister who has clearly identified climate change as a priority issue."

--- --- ---

  • Montreal saw 2006 as its rainiest year ever.
  • November 2006 was the snowiest ever in Yellowknife.
  • Southern Ontario and southern Quebec had the wettest fall on record.
  • In 2006, Edmonton recorded its highest temperatures in 70 years.
  • Fredericton had a record number of thunderstorms in July 2006.
  • November 2006 was the wettest month on record in Victoria.
  • Winnipeg had its driest July on record in 2006.
  • Winnipeg had its warmest January in 2006.
  • A storm on Sept. 23-24 2006, in the Georgian Bay area, left about 90,000 without power for up to four days.
  • On July 17, 2006, powerful storms tore through Manitloulin Island, North Bay and Mattawa, continuing into Deep River and then into Quebec, leaving a swath of damage 400 km long. Many areas declared states of emergency.
  • Nationally, Canada had the second warmest summer on record in 2006.
  • By Oct. 1 last year, Canada had recorded 9,482 wildfires (127 per cent of the norm), consuming more than 2 million hectares (about 4 per cent more than average).
  • Atlantic Canada had its third warmest summer on record in nearly 60 years, following behind the summers of 1967 and 1999.
  • Cottage country in Ontario suffered extensive damage from a major storm on Aug. 2-3 that triggered 14 tornadoes, including two F2 touchdowns.
  • The storm crossed into Quebec, raging from Abitibi to Estrie, leaving more than 450,000 people without hydro for up to four days.
  • Rain pounded the west coast in January 2006, setting a record of 283.6 mm for the month -- well over the 154 mm norm.
  • Lytton, B.C. saw the mercury rise above 42 C on July 21, beating a 1994 record -- 63 temperature records were broken across the province.
  • Vancouver Island and B.C.'s Lower Mainland were hit by one of the most powerful storms in history on Dec. 15 -- the third in five days -- with wind gusts exceeding 100 km/h.
  • Manitoba had a record cold summer in 2004 and a record wet summer in 2005. Southern Manitoba had the driest summer on record in 2006.
  • Central Alberta was hit with tennis ball-sized hail on August 10.
  • Regina was pelted with baseball-sized hail on Aug. 11.
  • A severe storm pummelled Calgary on Juy l6 with hail the size of golf balls.
  • Ontario saw 23 tornadoes last summer, compared to the ususal 14.
  • In Ontario, summer of 2004 was cold and wet, 2005 was the hottest on record and the heat continued in the summer of 2006.
  • B.C. was hit with a strong storm in early November. Every river in the Lower Mainland, the south coast and southern Vancouver was near or at flood levels.
  • Mid-November brought another storm, toppling power lines and causing landslides.
  • The end of November brought a record snowfall over a six day period.

-- With files from Alan Findlay
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