Every Wednesday, climate journalist Tyler Hamilton gathers up the latest Ontario climate news and cutting-edge research on how climate change is shaping the world.
Like many jurisdictions around the world, Ontario can expect flood risks to rise as a result of extreme weather fuelled by climate change. We reported in last week’s roundup that the insurance industry is responding, with several companies now offering overland flood coverage to Ontario homeowners for the first time.
Municipalities are also stepping up to the challenge, but some say they need more help than others, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Waterloo. The first-of-its-kind research, conducted by Partners for Action at the university’s faculty of environment, found that small and mid-sized communities, First Nations included, don’t feel they’re getting enough support and guidance from Queen’s Park or Ottawa. It’s urging both the province and federal government to fill that leadership gap.
“We can have the best information and tools to help our communities prepare and recover from flood, but what they really need is explicit direction and regulatory guidance from government, so adaptation becomes part of business planning,” said study co-author Shawna Peddle.
The study points to the reality that flood-related water damage has replaced fire as the number one cause of household insurance claims in Ontario and is the largest cost for taxpayers of any natural hazard. With a sense of urgency, it recommends that Public Safety Canada boost funding under the National Disaster Mitigation Program, and come up with enforceable standards and regulations for flood risk management.
Then again, some rain would be nice about now
It might seem strange to talk about flood risk when Ontario is experiencing one of its driest seasons on record, but it’s all part of the increasingly wonky nature of weather systems in a warming world where long dry spells can be suddenly interrupted by flash flooding.
Ontario is having one of those dry spells. Sudbury residents are being asked to reduce water consumption. St. Catharines has banned outdoor fires. Farmers around Windsor are bracing for crop failures. Ontario wildfires have consumed nearly four times more area this year than the 10-year average.
Toronto, meanwhile, got less than half its average rainfall in May and about a third in June. Canada’s largest city, according to Environment Canada, is the driest it has been in 25 years and has already recorded more than a dozen days above 30 C, compared to an average of four by this time of year. Things aren’t much different across many parts of Canada. When the rain does come, the question is how hard and fast will it fall?
Ontario government walks the talk on energy-efficiency retrofits
The province’s new climate change action plan makes clear there are big changes coming in the way we build, operate and maintain buildings in Ontario, and this applies to the private and public sectors equally. In fact, the plan calls for all provincial government operations to become carbon-neutral. One of the first big steps to getting there was revealed this week with the announcement that the 45-year-old Macdonald Block complex and 90-year-old Whitney Block building near Queen’s Park will be reconstructed and retrofitted.
Macdonald Block boasts the largest concentration of Ontario civil servants in the province, while Whitney Block is where the premier keeps her office. The eight-year renovation project will require all government staff to vacate Macdonald Block while all electrical, water, cooling and heating systems are replaced. There will be less disruption at Whitney Block, where windows will be replaced, the heating system upgraded, and the building façade repaired. Taken together, “This results in an estimated return of all costs invested in the renovation and an average annual net savings to the province of more than $20 million for the next 50 years,” according to a government release.
Obama high-fives Canada, Alberta for climate actions
Barack Obama addressed Parliament last Wednesday, the first time a sitting U.S. president has done so in 21 years. He gave Canada a pat on the back for its efforts to address climate change and specifically praised Alberta for the actions it is taking despite claims such efforts will hurt economic performance. “Alberta, the oil country of Canada, is working hard to reduce emissions while still promoting growth,” Obama said. “So if Canada can do it, and the United States can do it, the whole world can unleash economic growth and protect our planet. We can do this.”
The premiers and federal leaders in the room at times looked like fawning teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert, giving standing ovation after standing ovation and at the end chanting “Four more years! Four more years!” But not everyone applauded Obama’s Alberta shout-out. Several of the province’s opposition MPs refused to stand, apparently still stinging from Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project. Indeed, just days earlier Calgary-based TransCanada filed a $15-billion NAFTA claim against the Obama administration for its “arbitrary and unjustified” decision to deny the Keystone project.
Canadian Volt sales get spring jolt
Perhaps it’s because sweetened Ontario purchase incentives have kicked in, but Canadian sales of General Motors electric Chevy Volt have taken off in 2016. Consider that before this year, the highest number of Volts sold within a single month was 222. The past four months have far exceeded that threshold, with sales consistently climbing from 246 in March to 320 in June. At this rate, Volt sales will exceed last year’s total by the end of July. More significantly, 2016 is shaping up to be the first year that Canadian Volt purchases beat U.S. sales on a per-capita basis. We’ll be watching to see if the trend holds up and is representative of all electric vehicle models sold in Ontario.
Canadians understand yellow snow, but pink snow?
Peeing in the snow – Canadians get that. Yellow snow is part of our heritage. But pink snow? What’s with that? Well, German and British scientists took samples of pink snow from a number of Arctic locations and found that the cause was a type of algae called Chlamydomonas nivalis, which through chemical reaction with sunlight changes from green to pink. It gives new meaning to the warning, “Don’t eat the snow!” From a climate perspective, however, the findings are important. The pink algae blooms that are resulting from warmer Arctic temperatures darken the snow, allowing it to absorb more sunlight and reflect less (known as snow albedo). This can create warming feedback loops: the more sunlight absorbed, the more snowmelt occurs and the more algae thrive. Scientists say climate models need to be adjusted to account for this phenomenon.
Meanwhile, Lake Erie continues to experience one of its worst-ever algae blooms, and this is making it difficult for local fishers to make a living. It could be worse. Florida, for instance, has called a state of emergency because of a stinky “guacamole-thick” toxic algae bloom that has invaded its southern shorelines.
The Big Picture: The climate-food nexus
Climate change and both local and global food production are intimately linked, not just because the agricultural sector is a major contributor of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, but also because the food crops we rely on to feed a growing world population are threatened by rising temperatures, drought and other forms of extreme weather.
A new report from Oxfam shines a light on this link, and looks at the responsibilities that fall on food and beverage stakeholders as a result. “The food and beverage industry – which has so much at stake in a warming world – should see (the Paris climate agreement) as a springboard for further action to protect not only their own short-term financial bottom lines, but critically the interests of millions of small-scale farmers and agricultural workers in their supply chains,” according to the report, which makes a number of recommendations on how the industry should double down on efforts to reduce emissions and help farmers adapt.
The report also breaks down some myths – for example, the idea that deforestation related to palm oil plantations is the biggest risk. No doubt, palm oil is a big problem, but “rice, soy, maize and wheat are all higher emitters (in absolute terms) than palm oil.” In addition to deforestation concerns, “it is equally urgent to tackle direct emissions of nitrous oxide and methane from agricultural soils,” the report added.
It also offers up this interest fact: the combined impact of rice, soy, maize, wheat and palm oil farming is equivalent to the carbon emissions of 1,170 coal-fired power plants. “If they were a country, those five food commodities alone would be the third highest emitter in the world, behind China and the U.S.”
Research Spotlight: Pipelines and salmon don’t mix
What happens when salmon are exposed to small amounts of diluted bitumen – also known as dilbit – over a few weeks? A University of Guelph-led study, published in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, carried out such a test, and found that dilbit exposure impairs swimming and can even change the heart structure of young salmon.
Exposure conditions used in the study are in line with a scenario in which a pipeline failure results in dilbit being released into the environment, including streams and rivers that salmon swim. And that’s exactly the kind of scenario environmentalists are worried about in the wake of a decision by the National Energy Board to approve the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, which will carry dilbit from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C. A final decision from the federal government is expected later this year.
“The Trans Mountain pipeline already carries diluted bitumen through the Fraser River watershed and this is prime salmon habitat," said Sarah Alderman, lead author of the study. “What our study really says is before you build any more pipelines through salmon habitat, you need to make sure that you’re building pipelines to the highest possible standard, that you can quickly detect any leaks in the system, and that you have rapid and thorough spill response procedures.”
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