Opinion: Turning our attention from one crisis to another

As pandemic restrictions ease and COVID-19 cases in Canada drop, our attention must turn to an even greater threat: climate change.

Montreal Gazette 4 minute read August 2, 2021

So far this summer, Western Canada has shattered temperature records as the region sweltered under a heat dome; the town of

Lytton, B.C., got so hot it ignited in an inferno; raging wildfires have shrouded cities like Montreal in smog; a series of tornadoes touched down in Ontario; and nearly 200 people have died in flooding in Europe.

Connecting the dots between these disparate and distant events doesn’t take an advanced degree. This is climate change playing havoc with weather patterns and causing extreme conditions, just as we were warned it would.

We — governments, citizens — have been distracted from this existential threat by the global health emergency of COVID-19 for more than a year now. Weary though we may be after 18 months of sacrifice and collective effort, the pandemic was merely the dress rehearsal for the fight of our lives.

In fact, a Concordia University climate expert believes the international response to the pandemic provides a useful template for the kind of rapid and drastic action required to avoid catastrophic planetary warming above 1.5 C over pre-industrial levels, the benchmark set out by the Paris Agreement.

“The COVID experience has a lot to say about meeting this challenge,” said Damon Matthews, the Concordia Research Chair in Climate Science and Sustainability and a professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment. “When there is public support and political will, a lot can be done to bring in unprecedented measures. We saw unprecedented measures brought in around the world in a period of weeks.”

But can the worst be averted? Matthews led a team of researchers who calculated how much more carbon dioxide humans can emit and still stay below that threshold. Their findings, published recently in Nature’s Communications Earth and Environment journal, are cause for both hope and fear.

The scientists estimate between 230 and 440 billion more tonnes of carbon dioxide can be released from 2020 onward — the equivalent of between five to 10 years at current levels.

At 440 billion tonnes, which is a median estimate, they give us a 50/50 chance of hitting the target. At 230 billion tonnes, the likelihood increases to 67 per cent. At 670 billion tonnes, odds shrink to one in three.
So it’s certainly possible, Matthews said.

While this is still a wide range, this is a new formula that aims to reduce some of the inherent uncertainty in previous carbon budgets. These question marks come from difficult-to-gauge variables like how much Earth has already warmed, how much other greenhouse gases are contributing to the problem and how much more the atmosphere will still heat up because of carbon dioxide already emitted, among other questions. The numbers were crunched based exclusively on geophysical data, however, leaving out human, social and economic decision-making as X factors.

But Matthews said the choices we make do matter greatly.

“It’s humanity’s problem to solve — or not,” he said.

Change is occurring. But is it happening fast enough?

The European Union this month unveiled a sweeping and detailed roadmap for reducing carbon emissions to 55 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030, on the way to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. The plan aims to nudge trade partners by attaching a price to carbon and taxing everything from jet fuel to aluminum based on its climate impact.

After four years of eroding environmental protections, the United States is now reclaiming climate leadership under President Joe Biden. His administration last spring pledged to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half

by the end of the decade, a significant feat for the world’s second-largest emitter.

In Canada — the world’s largest emitter per capita — the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau adopted the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act. This commits Canada — which is often accused of talking the talk, but not walking the walk — to a process for achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The new law, which squeaked through the Senate just in time for the summer break — and before a possible federal election call — enshrines emission reduction targets in law and requires the government to produce a viable plan to attain them every five years.

Canada, an oil-producing nation, also announced it will ban the sale of new gasoline-combustion-engine vehicles by 2035.

And the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the constitutionality of the federal carbon tax after a challenge by several provinces.

Quebec also decided not to allow a liquefied natural gas project in Saguenay.

“The momentum is shifting in the right direction, but it is still not happening fast enough,” Matthews said.