Science·What on Earth?

Youth-led climate change lawsuit dismissed by Federal Court

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the latest development in the youth-led climate change lawsuit against the federal government and new analysis that suggests we may have hit peak emissions in 2019.

Also: Did we already reach peak 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:

  • Youth-led climate change lawsuit dismissed by Federal Court
  • Have we hit peak carbon emissions?
  • Cree hunters get new phone app to report harvest

Youth-led climate change lawsuit dismissed by Federal Court

(Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A Federal Court judge ruled Tuesday that the Canadian government won't be going on trial for contributions to climate change, striking down a lawsuit brought by 15 young Canadians who argued the government was violating their charter rights.

Federal Court Justice Michael Manson rejected a lawsuit initiated by the youths aged 10 to 19, which called on the court to compel Ottawa to develop a science-based climate recovery plan. Manson ruled the claims don't have a reasonable cause of action or prospect of success, so the case cannot proceed to trial.

The lawsuit, which was filed in 2019, says Canada's failure to protect against climate change is a violation of the youths' charter rights. The statement of claim was filed the day teen climate activist Greta Thunberg visited Vancouver and led a climate strike rally attended by thousands. 

The lawsuit says that "despite knowing for decades" that carbon emissions "cause climate change and disproportionately harm children," the government continued to allow emissions to increase at a level "incompatible with a stable climate capable of sustaining human life and liberties."

On Tuesday, Manson ruled the network of government actions that contribute to climate change is too broad for the court to grapple with, and that the court has no role in reviewing the country's overall approach to climate change.

Plaintiff Haana Edenshaw, 17, of the Haida Nation, said despite her disappointment, she refuses to become discouraged and plans to keep pushing to have the case heard, after seeing the effects of climate change in her village of Masset on Haida Gwaii off B.C.'s North Coast.

She said poverty rates and the location of their communities leave Indigenous people at higher risk to the negative effects of climate change. "Indigenous youth in Canada are often the first hit and the hardest hit," she said.

Another plaintiff, named Sophia, said that climate change is a "wake-up call for all Canadian and Indigenous youth. Canada has tried to silence our voice in court and block our calls for climate justice. We won't be dissuaded."

Government lawyers argued in September that the lawsuit should be thrown out, as it was far too broad to be heard in court. In the government's defence submission, federal lawyer Joseph Cheng said the drivers of climate change are a global problem, and that Canada can't act alone to solve the issue.

Joe Arvay, the lead lawyer representing the youth, says the decision is a disappointment but he plans to push forward and appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Brendan Glauser of the Suzuki Foundation said the outcome is "disappointing" but insisted "the journey is far from over." Glauser said one of the positive takeaways was that the ruling acknowledged the negative impact of climate change. He also pointed out that Manson said the "public trust" doctrine is a legal question the court can resolve — something the group can build on, Glauser said, in continuing to make their case.

"We are proud of our plaintiffs," said Glauser. "These brave young plaintiffs know we only have a decade to turn things around, and so far, we are not on track."

Yvette Brend

Reader feedback

Last week we asked for some tips on how to make this pandemic-tinged Halloween greener. Here's what you said.

Jennifer Porritt wrote, "Every year we carve our pumpkin on the day of Halloween and use an electric candle to light it so there are no fumes inside. When trick-or-treating is done, I wrap it in tin foil and pop it in the oven for an hour or so. Once baked, it can sit in a cooler outside until you have time to blend up the flesh; just peel the cooked skin off. I strain the pulp through cheesecloth and freeze in portions for soup, bread and pie throughout the year." 

Trudy Vanderburg: "Instead of giving out candy I give a flower bulb. Great way to teach kids the joy of gardening. Wonderful way to spend time together for the parents and the kid planting it. You can buy paperwhite daffodil bulbs for indoors if the kid does not have a garden."

Pam Munroe wrote, "The article about Halloween pushed a lot of buttons for me. I have refused to participate in this useless exercise for the last 40 years. It usually turns out to be a consumer spending spree on the costumes, the goodies, the decorations and becomes a time of excess leading up to the consumer madness called Christmas. And with COVID this year, it does not make any sense to me to take the chance on exposure through crowding on streets, who-knows-what in the treats and bringing it all home to infect everyone. And it celebrates nothing. At least in some other countries they celebrate the 'Day of the Dead,' which makes more sense than what happens in the West. And it is also a time for an increase in carbon emissions: driving to the store to get the goodies, the production of the goodies, the production of the costumes, driving the kids all over the town and the energy used for all the blow-up ghouls. Enough already. Boycott Halloween."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show! Tune in to What On Earth this week for a look at an idea that's been framed as a simple solution to a warming climate – planting more trees. Politicians have promised to plant billions, even trillions of trees — but how feasible is it and what impact would it really have? What on Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland, and is available any time on podcast or CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Have we reached peak emissions?

Reducing carbon emissions is key to fighting climate change, and in recent years, countries have been taking steps to lessen their greenhouse gases (with varying degrees of sincerity and success). The COVID-19 pandemic, however, appears to have hastened the trend. By forcing the world into a collective quarantine (more or less), some have estimated the pandemic could cut this year's projected global emissions by seven per cent, including a whopping 40 per cent in ground transportation (largely the result of work-from-home requirements). As a result of a significant drop in fossil fuel demand, particularly coal, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reckons that we may have reached peak emissions in 2019. If this proves to be true, it doesn't mean that the planet won't continue to warm in the coming years. But it gives environmentalists and people in the green energy sector hope that the transition to a low-carbon economy is well underway.

(Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • A giant coral reef was discovered earlier this month in Australia's Great Barrier Reef — not only that, but at a height of 500 metres, it's taller than the Empire State Building. Located off North Queensland, the detached reef was mapped using an underwater robot named SuBastian and is the first to be discovered in more than 120 years.

  • The first murder hornet nest discovered in the U.S. was destroyed this week. The invasive species of giant Asian hornets is a big threat to pollinating honeybees. The nest was in Washington state, close to the B.C. border, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture used foam filler, shrink wrap, carbon dioxide and a vacuum to get rid of the nest. The goal is to eliminate the hornets before they establish themselves on the continent.
  • When the power goes out, it's good to have a backup plan — maybe even two. Instead of relying on a typical gas-powered generator, an American named David Schneider bought solar panels (which feed into a battery) as a reserve energy source. He created a second backup system by making some modifications to his stationary bike, so that he could produce energy simply by pedalling (again, stored in a battery). He figured he could generate enough power with the bike to charge his phone and keep his laptop humming for a few hours. Schneider also writes, "pedalling my own power seemed like a healthy, stress-reducing activity to pass the time during a power outage."

Cree hunters get new phone app to report harvest

(Cree Trapper Association Regional/Facebook)

The association representing hunters and trappers in northern Quebec Cree communities is turning to technology to help land users better report what they harvest and what they see out on the land. 

The Cree Trappers Association (CTA) launched the CTA Wildlife mobile app earlier this month for both iPhone and Android. 

The information gathered through the new tool will help better protect the populations of game, fish and waterfowl that Cree people like to harvest, according to Thomas Stevens, co-ordinator of special projects for the CTA. 

"We've been seeing a decline in people reporting what they are harvesting, from big game and small game," said Stevens. That means more hunting tags are made available to non-Indigenous hunters, putting a strain on animal populations. 

"We see a lot of moose on Facebook that have been harvested, but it has not been reported." 

Under the current reporting system, hunters and trappers must come into a CTA office and report to the secretary what they harvested, something that usually happens monthly or quarterly. 

With the app, they will be able to report on their harvest in real time at their camp and press send when they return to the community. "We wanted to make it more friendly [and] have it available on your phone," said Stevens. 

In addition, the app enables users to keep track of important safety information such as ice conditions. It also allows them to note changes on the land or in the kinds of wildlife they are seeing as a result of changes in the climate, said Stevens. 

"Once we have that information, we will be able to make that data [available]," said Stevens, adding it will help improve safety and help improve the science around climate change. "These kinds of observations can help the hunter and the trapper."

The CTA will make technical help available to anyone having trouble downloading the app to their phone or having trouble using it. 

The old reporting methods are also still available to anyone not wishing to use the app.

Susan Bell

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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