United Nations reports warn of health impacts of climate change, thawing Arctic

geo6 final 2019The Fourth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) convened from March 11 – 15 in Nairobi, Kenya, under the sombre cloud of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines which killed many, including Canadians, on their way to attend the meetings.

The flagship report, produced by 250 global scientists and experts, is the Sixth Global Environmental Outlook, which the UN press release calls “the most comprehensive and rigorous assessment on the state of the environment completed by the UN in the last five years .. warning that damage to the planet is so dire that people’s health will be increasingly threatened unless urgent action is taken.”  It warns that, without such urgent action,  cities and regions in Asia, the Middle East and Africa could see millions of premature deaths by 2050, with pollutants in freshwater systems leading to deaths through increased  anti-microbial resistance, as well as impacts on  male and female fertility and impaired neurodevelopment of children, from endocrine disruptors.  A 28-page  Summary for Policymakers   is available in multiple languages besides English, including French .  GEO6-NA_cover_large

The official documents from the UNEA meetings are compiled here , including the closing press release summary, “World pledges to protect polluted, degraded planet as it adopts blueprint for more sustainable future” .

Other reports relevant to Canada:

1.The Assessment and Data Report for North America is one of the regional reports, all of which are compiled here .

2.  Global Resources Outlook 2019: Natural Resources for the Future We Want    examines the economic benefits and environmental costs of resource use, and finds that all resource sectors combined (including agriculture, mining, forestry ) account for 53% of the world’s carbon emissions. Extraction and primary processing of metals and other minerals  is responsible for 20% of health impacts from air pollution and 26% of global carbon emissions. The report warns that without change,  resource demand would more than double to 190bn tonnes a year, greenhouse gases would rise by 40% and demand for land would increase by 20%.   A summary of the report appeared in The Guardian.

3.   With a forecast even more dire than the 2018  IPCC report, Global linkages: A graphic look at the changing Arctic  warns that even if global emissions were to halt overnight, winter temperatures in the Arctic would still increase 4 to 5°C by 2100 because  of  greenhouse gases already emitted and ocean heat storage. The UNEA report warns of the dangers of thawing permafrost, predicting that by  2050, four million people, and around 70% of today’s Arctic infrastructure, will be threatened.  However, a critique by  the Carbon Brief    disputes this particular conclusion within the UNEA report, and states that  if humanity can mobilize to hit a -2 degrees C target, “future Arctic winter warming will be around 0.5 to 5.0°C by the 2080s compared to 1986-2005 levels, much lower than the 5.0 to 9.0°C values stated in the report.” … “This means that much of the future warming in the Arctic will depend on our emissions over the 21st century, rather than being ‘locked in’, as the report claims.” The Carbon Brief analysis is summarized in The  Energy Mix .

 

Supreme Court rules in Redwater: bankruptcy is no escape from “polluter pays”

Supreme court of canada buildingOn January 31, the Supreme Court of Canada released a long-awaited, precedent-setting decision which holds fossil fuel companies responsible for the clean-up costs of their abandoned operations, and gives environmental clean-up costs precedence over other creditors’ claims.  The case arose from the 2015 bankruptcy  of Redwater Energy, a small, Calgary-based oil and gas company; the agent managing the  bankruptcy was proposing to  sell the company’s  profitable wells to pay off debts, and leave the clean-up costs of the other non-producing wells to the Orphan Well Association (OWA), a provincial, industry-funded agency.  The Supreme Court provides its own “Case in Brief” summary of the the case,  Orphan Well Association v. Grant Thornton Ltd.  here , with links to all the official documents.  The full decision is here ; French-language versions of the Case in Brief , and the full decision are also provided. The response by the Orphan Well Association is here  .

For a brief reaction:  “Redwater decision reassuring, but we aren’t out of the woods” by the Pembina Institute (Jan. 31) or from the  National Observer special series Legacy of Liabilities ,  a summary of the decision  and the more detailed, “Alberta lauds court ruling but has no oil well cleanup plan”

Deeper background and analysis appears in  “Alberta’s Mega Oil and Gas Liability Crisis, Explained” in The Tyee , in which Andrew Nikoforuk asks, “Just how will an increasingly indebted industry, hobbled by low energy prices and rising costs, find the up to $260 billion needed to clean up its inactive pipelines, wells, plants and oilsands mines as it enters its sunset years?”  He concludes with words from Regan Boychuk, a founder of Reclaim Alberta, an advocacy group which began in 2016 to propose an Alberta Reclamation Trust , which would clean-up inactive wells and provide funding for job creation in the energy sector.   Boychuk’s own insider’s view appeared in the National Observer as “Putting the Supreme Court’s Redwater decision in context”  (Feb. 1) .  (Boychuk also provided a briefer Opinion piece as a guest blogger in David Climenhaga’s Albertapolitics.ca ).

Other detailed articles:  An Explainer from The Narwhal: “What the Redwater ruling means for Alberta’s thousands of inactive oil and gas wells”  or from a legal point of view, from Osler law firm, “Supreme Court of Canada decision in Redwater: Early Implications “. 

It is clear that the implications of this decision are huge and expensive, not only for Alberta, but for all extractive industries across Canada.  As the Pembina Institute points out:  “obligations have steadily grown, and now include over 80,000 inactive oil and gas wells, facilities, and pipelines as well as 1.4 trillion litres in fluid oilsands tailings. The Government of Alberta officially estimates it will cost CAD$57 billion to cleanup these sites, though there are ongoing concerns about the accuracy of this figure. Conversely, only $1.2 billion is currently held in securities to protect the public. ”  (A joint investigation by the National Observer, Global News, the Toronto Star, and StarMetro Calgary  in November 2018 estimated that the actual clean-up costs are approximately $260 billion in Alberta alone).

A “new social contract” launches to fight climate change in Quebec

Montreal Climate-March_Mike-HudemaTwitter-660x400@2xAn article in the Montreal Gazette on November 12  describes the rapid rise of a new grassroots group in the province: in English, called “The Planet goes to Parliament”.  Their demonstrations have been covered by the CBC– including a march of 50,000 people in Montreal on November 10, calling for the newly-elected provincial government to make climate change action an urgent priority .  A report of an earlier  march in October is here   .

In addition to marches and demonstrations, over 175,000 Quebecers have signed the group’s Pact for Transition (English version here ), French version here ), which calls for “radical, co-ordinated and societal transformation” .  The Pact first calls for a solemn personal pledge to change behaviours “to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.” It also calls for the government to: enact a plan by 2020 for reaching Quebec’s climate targets; commit to reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2030; develop an energy efficiency and electrification strategy; rule out any exploitation of fossil fuels in Quebec; and make climate change the first consideration of every policy.  Dominic Champagne, a theatre producer and anti-fracking campaigner, is being credited with launching the mass movement, and states: “This time it’s not just left-wing ecologists and artists. It’s way larger … This is really fulfilling an empty space on the political landscape.”

The Quebec government is now led by the right-wing Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) party, which had the weakest  environmental platform in the election campaign; Québec Solidaire, a new left-leaning party, had the most well-developed and ambitious climate platform , and went from 0 to 10 seats in the new legislature. (See a WCR explainer here).   Since taking power in October,  the CAQ government announced the cancellation of the Apuiat wind farm , which was to be built in partnership with Innu communities.  As reported by the  Energy Mix ,the Chair and Vice-Chair of  Hydro-Québec resigned due to the cancellation.  Details about the Apuiat project are provided by CBC here (Oct. 20).

The Planet Goes to Parliament  has announced plans for at least two more climate protests, in Quebec City and in Montreal,  during  the COP24 meetings in Katowice Poland in December.  The group is thinking big, with a goal of 1 million signatories to their Pact – out of a population of 8 million in the province.

Preview of the recommendations by Canada’s Just Transition Task Force

Hassan Yussuff head shotIn a November 5 article, “ Federal panel privately urges Trudeau government to do more for coal workers”  ,  National Observer reporter Carl Meyer reveals that the Just Transition Task Force Interim Report is already in the hands of the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, though not yet publicly available. Canada’s Just Transition Task Force was launched in April 2018 – an  11-member advisory group co-chaired by Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff,  to “ provide advice on how to make the transition away from coal a fair one for workers and communities.”  The Task Force Terms of Reference   allowed for 9 months for the report; Environment and Climate Change Minister McKenna said on  November 2 : “We’re still reviewing the report, but as we talk about the need to power past coal and our commitment in Canada to phase out coal by 2030, we know there has to be a priority to supporting workers and communities.” A formal response is expected in November, and given the Minister’s leadership role in the international  Powering Past Coal Alliance and the public spotlight of the upcoming COP24 meetings in Katowice Poland in early December, that deadline is likely to be met.

The National Observer article of November 5, along with an April 2018 article about the Task Force launch, provide good background to the Task Force.  The new article emphasizes the different needs of different provinces – notably Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.  Most of the article is based on interviews with a few Task Force members.

But what are the Report’s Recommendations?  One member states that  “A lot of the recommendations are directly connected to what we heard from municipalities, from workers, from unions and from communities.”  The comments about the actual  recommendations are far from earth-shattering, but include:  1. Just Transition policies should be enshrined in legislation so that they are not as vulnerable to changing governments; 2. The  government should commit to infrastructure funding for municipalities in order to attract other businesses and offset job losses; 3. Support to workers should be extended, to help people quickly and efficiently access benefits like employment insurance, retraining, and relocation assistance.  These fall along the same lines as the 2017 Recommendations from the Alberta Advisory Panel  on Coal Communities , which are more detailed and which also accounted for First Nations issues.

A list of Task Force members is here. In addition to co-Chair Hassan Yussuff, there are members from the CLC, the Alberta Federation of Labour,  United Steelworkers, Unifor, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

 

Political will and urgent action required to save our planet, IPCC Report warns

IPCC 2018reportThe world’s climate science experts have spoken in the landmark report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on October 8.  The full title is: Global Warming of 1.5 °C: an IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty . That dry title doesn’t reflect the importance and impact of this report –  the first time that the UN body has modeled the difference between the impacts of the Paris agreement goals of 2°C and 1.5 °C, and an urgent, unanimous challenge by 91 scientists to the policy makers and politicians of the world to act on the solutions outlined in their models .  An IPCC official  quoted in a CBC report strikes the hopeful tone the report tries to achieve: “We have a monumental task in front of us, but it is not impossible… This is our chance to decide what the world is going to look like.”

The official report, commonly called  Global Warming 1.5  runs over 700 pages. The official press release  states:  “The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air….Limiting warming to 1.5ºC is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes”.  A 34-page Summary for Policymakers and a 3-page Headline Statements provide official summaries. Climate Home News offers  “37 Things you need to know about 1.5 global warming”  and  The Guardian offers summary and context in  “We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero or face more floods”  by Nicholas Stern and “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN”  (also republished in The National Observer) .

CAN CANADIANS EXPECT URGENT ACTION? :  A thorough CBC summary of the report appears in “UN Report on global warming carries life- or- death warning” , and the Globe and Mail published “UN Report on Climate Change calls for urgent action to avert catastrophic climate change”    (Oct 8) – yet no official reaction has been released by the federal government of Canada. “Trudeau’s Big Oil-friendly decisions mean climate chaos”  from Rabble.ca contrasts the IPCC report with a brief summary of Canada’s recent policy failures. “No change to Canada’s climate plans as UN report warns of losing battle” appeared in the National Observer (Oct. 8).  The National Observer also posted “We challenge every Federal and provincial leader to read the IPCC report and tell us what you plan to do” on October 9, characterizing Canada’s current divisions over a national carbon tax as representative of the world’s dilemma – the failure of political will to act on known scientific facts.  350.org Canada also addresses the issue of political will with  an online petition   calling for an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Canada’s plan to limit climate change, in light of the IPCC report.

Opinion Pieces are still being written, including:  “To avoid catastrophic climate change, we need carbon pricing” by Dale Beugin and Chris Ragan of the Ecofiscal Commission in the Globe and Mail  (Oct. 9) which argues that  “The best that economics has to offer is telling us we have a key solution right under our noses. Carbon pricing is now a Nobel Prize-winning idea. ”

On Climate, Our Choice Is Now Catastrophe or Mere Disaster ” by Crawford Kilian in The Tyee  . ….” modern governments and most of their voters are sleepwalking into catastrophe. If anyone or anything can wake them up, we might have a chance. And if we don’t work hard to turn that catastrophe into a mere disaster, we won’t be able to say nobody warned us. ”

“Canada’s carbon-tax plan is collapsing just as the planet runs out of time” in the Washington Post (Oct. 9)…. ” Today, Canadians should take a minute to write to their elected officials provincially and federally and demand that we get the carbon tax done. Every elected official should take a moment to decide how they would like to be remembered. That is, assuming there will be anyone around to remember.”

WELL-INFORMED GLOBAL SUMMARIES :IPCC: Radical Energy Transformation Needed to Avoid 1.5 Degrees Global Warming”   and “Not Just CO2: These Climate Pollutants Also Must Be Cut to Keep Global Warming to 1.5 Degrees”appeared  in Inside Climate News. The World Resources Institute published “8 Things You Need to Know About the IPCC 1.5˚C Report” , accompanied by a  blog and infographic which  explains the consequential difference between 1.5 and 2.0 global warming levels. Climate Action International monitored the discussions leading up to the release of the report: here is their summary and a compilation of global reactions . A compilation of reactions from the academics at Imperial College and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (LSE) is here.

A brief Comment was already issued by the policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, which calls the report a “conservative assessment” because it omits discussion of some of the largest risks and their impacts – notably  population displacements, migration and possibly conflict, as well as  potential climate  ‘tipping points’, such as disruption to the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic and shifts in the monsoon in Africa and Asia.

Another key issue: the controversial role of geoengineering, such as carbon capture and storage or “carbon dioxide removal technologies”(CDR) .  “Negative Emissions technologies in the new report on limiting global warming” was posted at Legal Planet (Oct. 8) , pointing out how important geoengineering is in the report’s models. The author argues that ”  …. The text of the relevant chapter is honest about large-scale negative emissions, when it states:  “Most CDR  technologies remain largely unproven to date and raise substantial concerns about adverse side-effects on environmental and social sustainability. ” But the author argues that the message was deliberately watered down  in the executive summaries and in the Summary for Policymakers.

On October 4, just before the release of Global Warming 1.5, 110 organizations and social movements, led by Friends of the Earth International, released their Hands Off Mother Earth! Manifesto, which opposes any geoengineering solutions, including carbon capture and storage.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this report, and it will draw more and more discussion as the UNFCCC meetings in Katowice, Poland approach in December 2018.