Climate change report: The good and bad news for Canada

By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sends out another warning of the dramatic changes taking place in the global environment, but there are parts of Canada that stand to gain from a warmer world.
This report (which will be officially released on Sunday evening) was prepared by climate scientists from 100 countries, who are gathered in Japan this week. It outlines the consequences of the unprecedented rate of change in the Earth's climate and the implications for society. 

For Canada, it's a mixed blessing. The Arctic region has been warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, bringing about dramatic environmental change, but that same change opens up the North to commerce. 

Ice covering the Arctic Ocean has been disappearing during the summertime at record rates since the 1970s, for example. By the middle of this century, the top of the world is expected to be ice-free for 125 days a year, considerably above the current 50 days. That open water provides a very convenient shortcut between Europe and Asia for shipping, access to vast resources of oil and gas, opens the door to ecotourism, and, of course, that all translates into jobs. 

So, from an economic point of view, climate change is, in many ways, good for Canada. Then again, the economy has always come ahead of the environment.

The irony is that while much can be gained from an open Arctic passage, almost all of the commercial activities in the North accelerate the warming climate:
  • Smoke from increased shipping can settle on snow, making it darker, so it absorbs sunlight and melts faster. 
  • Oil and gas extraction means more greenhouse gas emissions will be blown back into the atmosphere from technology that burns it. 
  • The loss of ice is changing the colour of the Earth, from white sea water and land to dark, which absorb sunlight rather than reflect it, adding to the warming. 
  • Melting permafrost releases methane, another greenhouse gas, which adds to the mix of warming agents heating the planet.
All of these effects add to the vicious cycle of ever-increasing rates of warming, which affects everything that lives in the Arctic - from polar bears to migrating birds and animals, to fish stocks and the people who live in the North. That cycle will be very hard to break, as long as the economic gains continue to increase.

Perhaps that is why Canada has become one of the worst performers when it comes to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. 

According to the Washington-based Center for Global Development, Canada has fallen to dead last compared to 27 other OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) when it comes to climate change remediation. This is due to our withdrawal from the Kyoto Accord, our high per-capita fossil fuel consumption, our cold climate and large land area, as well as continually rising carbon emissions - largely due to oil sands development. 

On the international scene Canada is part of the problem, not a solution.

So, while the scientists of the IPCC send out yet another warning of global changes, such as rising sea levels and ocean acidification, from an economic point of view Canada has little incentive to change because the dollar value of the Arctic will continue to rise, along with the temperature. 

It will be interesting to see how long the short-term economic gains can stay ahead of the long-term environmental costs.