The Star, January 3, 2013
By: Raveena Aulakh
In his highly anticipated speech on climate change in June in Washington, President Barack Obama set hearts aflutter.
As he laid out big plans to combat climate change, he said the decision on whether to approve the last crucial leg of the Alberta-Texas Keystone XL pipeline was still in the hands of the U.S. State Department, but it would move forward only if it “doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
The climate factor, said Obama, cannot be ignored.
Activists believed he had indicated where the decision was headed; oil corporations said no, not at all.
We still don’t know how that will go but the Keystone XL decision will definitely be one of the big environment stories in 2014.
But it won’t be the only one.
The Keystone decision
Some time this year, the U.S. State Department will likely take a decision on Keystone XL, Canada’s most ambitious export project.
It has been under review for over six years. It has divided Americans, it has become the battle of a lifetime for some activists.
The pipeline proposed by TransCanada that will allow crude oil extracted from Alberta oilsands to be refined on the Gulf of Mexico coast. It will cut through at least six U.S. states and facilitate the extraction and release of 240 billion tonnes of carbon. Climate scientists argue this carbon must stay in the ground.
Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign co-ordinator with Greenpeace, says Keystone will continue to be a major issue in 2014, too.
“It crystallizes what are usually fairly abstract issues into a clear decision between a clean or dirty energy future,” says Stewart.
Whichever way the decision goes — he would like it to be turned down — the important thing, he says, is that what was supposedly a “done deal or no-brainer decision in favour of the oil industry turned into a real fight.”
The CO2 conundrum
On May 10 2013, readings at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii showed that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — the key driver of recent climate change — had passed 400 parts per million.
CO2 concentrations have not been this high in millions of years and the rate of increase has been particularly high in the past five decades.
Pieter Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Hawaii, told the Star that it’s not clear what level of CO2 is sustainable.
“I don’t know what the tipping point is,” he said. “But it’s important to start reducing emissions now.”
Tackling CO2 and other greenhouse gases will be a big issue in 2014, says John Smol, a researcher on environmental change at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “We need to dramatically change how we do things — we can’t keep treating the airways as an open public sewer and not expect consequences.”
The insurance files
The economic cost of extreme weather events has multiplied many times over in the past few years.
For instance, last year’s flooding in southern Alberta has been labelled the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history — up to $6 billion, by some estimates. Flooding in Toronto, after a torrential July downpour, also caused havoc.
Ultimately, the insured loss is borne by the premiums that policy holders pay and, in case of higher losses than premium income, by the insurance companies’ investors.
The more money that is used to pay insurance claims after an extreme event, the less can be used to increase the wealth of a society, says Peter Höppe, head of Geo Risks Research at Munich Re., a reinsurance company in Munich, Germany.
On the future, Höppe says that while there has been a long-term increase in the cost of weather-related disasters in North America because of increasingly severe weather and increased property values “but this does not mean that every year will show an increase.”
The Algae blooms
Swathes of blue-green algae in Lake Erie made big news in 2013.
Algae blooms have caused beaches to close, making a dent into the tourism industry. Its density has also slowed down boats.
Will the blooms be back in 2014?
The weather plays a critical role in algae bloom formation, says Raj Bejankiwar, lead scientist of the International Joint Commission’s Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP).
If it is a wet, stormy spring, then yes.
Algae blooms are caused largely by phosphorus runoffs. Phosphorus is used as fertilizer, it’s also in manure and other waste products from agri-business operations such as pig farms and greenhouses.
When it rains a lot, there are more phosphorus runoffs.
Bejankiwar says the International Joint Commission is working on a report that will have recommendations for U.S. and Canada to mitigate the blooms.
Among other things, governments are being asked to ban application of fertilizers in winter. “When snow melts, phosphorus is washed away. It is of no use.”
The litigation question
Greenpeace’s Keith Stewart believes this could be the year of court battles, especially with regard to Alberta’s oilsands.
Among others, First Nations communities in British Columbia are set to fight over the giant Northern Gateway pipeline, which was recently given the go-ahead by the National Energy Board, a federally convened review panel.
“All litigation, all the time, is what I see on the horizon,” Larry Innes, lawyer for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, told The Canadian Press earlier this week.
In the past year or so, Ottawa and Edmonton have rewritten the book on resource development. Everything, from how First Nations communities will be consulted to land use planning to oilsands monitoring, has been changed.