Science·What on Earth?

Indigenous leaders weigh the benefits of attending COP26

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at why some Indigenous leaders are ambivalent about the COP26 climate talks and how the health-care industry can reduce its emissions.

Also: A closer look at historical carbon emissions

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Indigenous leaders weigh the benefits of attending COP26
  • When it comes to historical emissions, Canada has a dubious distinction
  • How patients can help curb health-care emissions

Indigenous leaders weigh the benefits of attending COP26

(Submitted by Dana Tizya-Tramm)
Negotiations continue at COP26 and Indigenous leaders are in Glasgow for the talks, even though they don't have seats at the bargaining table. Hear why some believe it’s a waste of time to try to be heard, while others argue it’s essential.

From closed borders and COVID-19 vaccination challenges to lack of access to key negotiations, there's been a lot of concern about which voices are being heard — or excluded — at the COP26 climate summit happening in Scotland.

For Indigenous peoples — whose culture, knowledge and human rights have been largely ignored in climate policy for decades — concerns about inclusion are especially poignant. But some Indigenous leaders in Canada say their energy is better spent at home.

"I find the powerful discussions that should be happening at the COP tables right in my community," said Dana Tizya-Tramm, chief of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon, in an interview with What On Earth host Laura Lynch, who's reporting from COP26. 

Instead of having to educate others on the world stage, Tizya-Tramm said he'd rather be learning and leading in his home community, about 120 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

That stance comes from experience. Tizya-Tramm (photo above) was one of the Indigenous chiefs on Canada's delegation at COP25 in Madrid in 2019. What he found there was a tiny Indigenous pavilion far from the action — he called it "the reservation" — and rules against drumming and singing that didn't apply to bagpipes.   

"It was just a lot of the same colonial, paternalistic spaces and regulations and barriers that we pressed up against that others seemed to permeate seamlessly," Tizya-Tramm said. He left COP25 early and, in protest, decided not to return to this year's Conference of the Parties in Glasgow.

Other Indigenous leaders, however, opted to make the trip to Scotland to lend their voices and try to influence negotiations in whatever way they can.

"I feel it's imperative to do what we must do at every opportunity that's available," said Paul Prosper, the Paqtnkek Mi'kmaw regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who's at COP26 on behalf of Indigenous peoples in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

Canada is one of few countries to offer official COP delegation badges to people outside the federal government, including Indigenous peoples, according to sources interviewed by What On Earth. This year, Prosper has one of those badges, which he says permits him to enter and intervene in negotiations, although he admits "it would be great to be right at the table."

"I appreciate the opportunities that we're participating in to move issues [forward], to gather amongst ourselves as Indigenous people, to set an agenda," Prosper said. "Indigenous people and First Nations within Canada are not passive victims when it comes to climate change. We're climate leaders."

He pointed to the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, a working group at COP26 designed to connect people from seven regions of the world to share climate solutions, best practices and Indigenous knowledge from some of the oldest living cultures on the planet.

"It's a matter of bringing our agenda forward and enforcing that upon the parties here at COP," Prosper said. "But also going back home with what we have learned ... to move it on the ground within our respective communities." 

That's what Tizya-Tramm is doing in Old Crow. His community recently unveiled a 2,160-panel solar-power array that's allowed locals to shut off diesel generators for the first time in 50 years. The Vuntut Gwitchin government estimates that solar could cover about a quarter of the community's energy needs and save more than $400,000 a year, which will be put toward other climate projects.

"I believe the real solution to climate change is community," Tizya-Tramm said. "Communities need to take their power back and really decide amongst themselves, opposed to leaving it up to international negotiators at COP, or the next election, or even CEOs."

Said Tizya-Tramm, "The energy we put behind Glasgow — the political energy, the industrial energy — pales in comparison to the energy of people across the world."

Serena Renner

Reader feedback

Eugene Vandal writes:

"I realize everyone is concerned about fossil fuel consumption and microplastics, but has anyone ever thought of where the rubber particulate goes from the tires on our vehicles ... especially in large cities like Toronto. How many thousands of vehicles are on the freeways every day? Does this particulate fall to the ground, stay suspended in the air (causing respiratory problems) or even add to the microplastics in our Great Lakes? Something to think about, even going to electric vehicles."

Indeed, this issue has been less-discussed than other aspects of transportation, but this fine 2020 story by Hakai magazine took a closer look at where all those rubber particles end up.

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show and podcast! Talks are underway in Glasgow to build a new global pact to fight climate change. Indigenous leaders in Canada aren't lead negotiators. What On Earth host Laura Lynch hears why some believe it's a waste of time to try to be heard there, while others argue it's essential. What On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Cumulative emissions per population

One environmental theme that emerged long before the COP26 climate summit taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, was an examination of historical carbon emissions. Sure, China leads the world in annual emissions, but if you look at which countries have spewed the most carbon since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the picture changes. (Most notably, the U.S. comes out on top.) This is not merely semantics, because it is precisely the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere that drives climate change. But another way to assess the problem is to take the accumulated country emissions from 1850 to 2021 and divide that by the number of people living there now, which Carbon Brief has done. This analysis of cumulative emissions per population suggests that some countries should bear even more responsibility to fix the problem — and by this reckoning, Canada (pop. 37 million) comes out on top. As Carbon Brief points out in its analysis, Canada's showing — along with that of the U.S., Australia and Russia — is largely down to a combination of significant deforestation in the 19th and 20th centuries and "high per-capita fossil fuel use in more recent decades." (Smaller countries like Estonia and Trinidad and Tobago are on this list largely because of their oil and gas industries.) Not in the top 20 in this list: China, India, Brazil or Indonesia. While they have contributed significant emissions, they also have very large populations. The issue of historical emissions can be looked at in many ways, but the takeaway is usually the same: relatively few people can have an outsize impact on a global problem.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Swap your inhaler, skip the laughing gas: How patients can help curb health-care emissions

(Lauren Pelley/CBC)

If you're struggling to breathe or heading into surgery, concerns about climate change are likely not top of mind.

But the health-care sector does contribute to climate change by giving off a sizable chunk of greenhouse gases — and medical experts say both health-care providers and patients can do more to curb those emissions 

Health-care emissions make up about five per cent of Canada's GHGs, according to family physician Dr. Samantha Green, a board member with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. 

"We can do a lot within health care to lower those emissions and hopefully, therefore, decrease climate-related injury, climate-related illness and climate-related death," Green said.

For example, while global leaders gathered at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow on Monday, the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiologists released a consensus statement calling on anesthesia providers to boost sustainability in their practices — by choosing gases that have less environmental impact, among other options. 

Growing concern about health-care emissions has also prompted some Canadian medical professionals to launch awareness campaigns for both their colleagues and patients, offering avenues to switch or limit use of emission-producers.

Dr. Kimberly Wintemute (photo above) is among the Canadian physicians crusading against one small device that poses a surprisingly big problem: inhalers.

Older styles of metered-dose inhalers contain high levels of hydrofluorocarbons, which act as GHGs when released into the atmosphere, according to the Centre for Sustainable Health Systems (CSHS), which is running a sustainable inhaler initiative led by Wintemute.

With millions of Canadians requiring inhalers for conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), she said the emissions add up. Research shows that 100 puffs of a metered-dose inhaler equals close to a typical 300-kilometre car journey in terms of emissions. 

"We'd like to see a shift toward the dry-powder inhaler, and away from the metered-dose inhaler, for as many patients as we can," said Wintemute.

The sustainable inhaler initiative is hosting seminars for health-care professionals to break down inhaler options that don't spew out hydrofluorocarbons, in hopes more physicians will make the switch when prescribing.

While certain young or older patients may require the ease of a pressurized metered-dose inhaler, many others can request a dry-powder option, she added.

Anesthetic gases used during surgery, such as sevoflurane and desflurane, also contribute to climate change. Just one hour of sevoflurane use, for instance, equals roughly a 50-kilometre car journey, according to the CSHS, while an hour of desflurane use equals a 370-kilometre trip.

Dr. Ali Abbass, an anesthesiologist at St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto, said specialists should aim to use the lowest amounts required and, in some cases, choose other options entirely, such as a regional anesthetic.

"If you're having arm surgery, [physicians can] weaken your arm with some local freezing anesthetic and get your surgery done without any anesthetic gas," he said. "There's also general anesthesia one can do — instead of inhaled gases, with intravenous anesthetics."

Anesthetic gases are also often a routine part of dental surgery. In particular, nitrous oxide — or laughing gas — is no laughing matter when it comes to climate change. As an anesthetic, it was responsible for roughly 80,000 tonnes of emissions in Ontario alone in 2015.

Dr. Michelle Wong, director of the graduate specialty program in dental anesthesia at the University of Toronto, said there's a growing trend to reduce use of anesthetic gases when possible, in part for environmental reasons, but also to improve patient care.

"The recovery from intravenous agent use is much nicer," she said. "Its ease of use, the profile of the recovery, how the patient feels afterwards — they're less groggy or lethargic without the anesthetic gases."

For many patients, encountering emission-producing aspects of the health-care system remains inevitable, but advocates in the medical community are hopeful greener options will increasingly become the norm.

"It's not all or nothing," said Green, from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

"Every little bit of reduction that we can make from within the health-care sector — and outside the health-care sector — actually will translate into people who will not get sick from asthma, people who will not have to evacuate a community because of a flood. And I think that's hopeful."

Lauren Pelley

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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