Pandemic lessons could have slowed changes in Earth’s atmospheric systems; global emissions on the rise
As pollution levels continue to steadily rise, Earth’s atmospheric alteration is once again following the trajectory of global carbon emissions. The scare that was the COVID-19 pandemic handed us a lost opportunity; instead, our planetary climate systems continue to make life on Earth considerably different than a few decades ago.
The term “heat storm” refers to temperatures of 37.8 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) experienced for at least three days over a wide land mass. This past summer, people across large sections of Europe were forced to change their usual daily routines when, for example, temperatures led to emergency declarations in 23 Italian cities at the same time. Global air and sea surface temperature records were broken. A three-week period that finally came to an end near the last days of July is now considered the hottest 21 days in more than 100,000 years by many scientists.
Severe hot temperatures across much of the northern hemisphere made some places almost uninhabitable: 45.5 degrees in Serdiana, Italy; 52.2 degrees Celsius in Sanbao, China; 53.9 degrees in Saratoga Spring, California.
Across much of Germany temperatures were more than 14 degrees above the norms in July.
“These are the hottest temperatures in human history,” Samantha Burgess, deputy director at Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, said.
On November 20, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its annual Emissions Gap Report detailing trends in greenhouse gas emissions and recommending the most up-to-date solutions to mitigate global warming. The report (the 14th of its kind) showed that at the time of its writing, Earth had already experienced 86 days this year that surpassed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels. September topped the charts as the hottest ever recorded reaching 1.8 degrees above pre industrial levels, 0.5 degrees hotter than the previous record for that month, a statistically uncommon increase when looking at weather and temperature data, illustrating just how severe the current changes to our weather and climate systems are.
While these records do not signify that the world has surpassed the 1.5-degree threshold—something experts have warned for years will spell disaster should the planet reach it—they show that we are getting terrifyingly close. This has been evident in the influx of extreme weather which has bombarded every part of the globe this year.
2023 - A Year of Global Disasters
Wildfires in Hawaii
(U.S. Coast Guard)
Flooding in Libya
Dangerous air quality across the GTA caused by wildfire smoke plumes.
(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)
Extreme heat warnings across much of the globe during long summer months.
“The dog days of summer are not just barking, they are biting,” UN Secretary General Antoinio Guterres said in a statement in September. “Our planet has just endured a season of simmering — the hottest summer on record. Climate breakdown has begun.”
The statement was made following a series of intense temperatures that swept across Europe, North America, the Middle East and Australia in June through September. At least 80 heat-related deaths were recorded in France between July 7 and 13, with temperatures reaching 42.4 degrees by August 23. In Romania, records were shattered on July 12 when temperatures reached 39 degrees, just to be broken five days later when they surpassed 40 degrees. Farther north in Norway, temperatures hit 31.8 degrees, the hottest in over 80 years.
Across the pond the trend was relatively similar. By mid-June, almost one third of all Americans were under extreme heat warnings. In Phoenix, Arizona, the entire month of July saw temperatures above 43 degrees. Mexico saw over 100 heat-related casualties. Even the remote northern community of Arivat, Nunavut saw highs of 21.2 degrees in May, about seven degrees higher than its previous May record.
A hot and dry climate has led to extreme wildfire seasons across much of North America and Australia.
(National Interagency Fire Centre/Wikimedia Commons)
Along with extreme temperatures came voracious wildfires turning unprecedented amounts of trees, bush and grassland into ash. Wildfires began burning in Canada’s west in March, but by mid July more than half of the expansive country was covered in a thick haze from burning earth. In total, over 18.5 million hectares went up in flames. As Australia moves into its summer months, its own wildfire season is just beginning. To date, over 69 million hectares have burned, more than the total landmass of Spain. The country can expect to continue to see disastrous scorching until March. While not on fire, high temperatures have sucked all of the water out of countries situated in the horn of Africa as they continue to experience, for the third year in a row, some of the worst droughts in decades — the region is facing its fifth consecutive failed rainy season. By 2022, drought had claimed the lives of over 43,000 Somalians, half of which were under the age of five.
While the horn of Africa and some places in South America were starved of water, the atmosphere overcompensated in others, dumping immense amounts of precipitation across the Mediterranean and into India. On September 10, the deadliest Mediterranean cyclone, Storm Daniel, swept across Libya, dumping 400 millimetres of rain in one day in a region that, on average, sees 540 millimetres of rain annually. The influx of precipitation caused an important dam to collapse, gushing out an additional 30 million cubic metres of water. Massive flooding killed over 4,300 people, while according to UNICEF, as of November 8, more than 8,500 are still missing.
The series of extreme temperatures that categorized the summer is evidence that the world is down on its knees, begging for reprieve, yet humanity keeps swinging. Global greenhouse gas emissions increased 1.2 percent in 2022, reaching a new record high of 57.4 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, making a full rebound from the dip of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anne Olhoff, chief scientific editor of the Emissions Gap Report, said the world saw a 4.7 percent reduction of emissions in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but stated that considering entire economies were shut down, the reduction was not that great. But what is more damaging is the rapid rebound in every emissions sector — the only sector that has yet to reach pre pandemic emission levels on the global scale is the transportation sector.
“[It] really points to the carbon dependency of our current systems. So unless we do this transformation of our systems, we're going to be stuck in the same carbon dependency, and we won't get very far,” she said.
She stressed that an important lesson learned from the pandemic is to not let the same mistake happen again.
“It was a missed opportunity in terms of redirecting the future towards a green transition.”
Including all conditional and unconditional NDCs, the globe is still 19 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from achieving the 1.5 degree temperature threshold in 2030.
The report determines that if current policies are continued, global warming will be limited to three degrees above pre industrial levels — double the target set out in the Paris Agreement in 2015. Delivering on all conditional and non-conditional pledges by 2030 reduces this increase to 2.5 degrees. Finally, if all net zero pledges are achieved, humanity can keep global temperature increase to two degrees.
But the report notes that while an increasing number of governments are signing on to net zero pledges, confidence in their implementation remains low. As of September 2023, 97 parties had adopted a net zero pledge whether that be enshrined in law, in a policy document, or in an announcement from a government official — up from 88 parties last year. These commitments cover approximately 81 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and all G20 nations, except Mexico, accounting for the largest sum of emissions, have made a pledge.
“Overall, however, limited progress has been made on key indicators of confidence in net-zero implementation among G20 members, including legal status, the existence and quality of implementation plans, and alignment of near-term emissions trajectories with net-zero targets,” the Emissions Gap Report states. “Most concerningly, none of the G20 members are currently reducing emissions at a pace consistent with meeting their net-zero targets.”
Earlier this month, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Jerry DeMarco, released five scathing audits emphasizing the nation is on track to, once again, miss its climate targets. Canada currently has a goal of reaching a 40 percent reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030, equating to 443 megatonnes of emissions. But Environment and Climate Change Canada estimated the actions set out in the Liberal’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan would reduce Canada’s carbon dioxide equivalent emissions to 470 megatonnes in 2030. In 2022, the estimates were updated, predicting Canada would only succeed in reducing its emissions to 491 megatonnes by 2030.
Since 1990, Canada has implemented 10 climate mitigation plans, failing to meet every target impacting not only the country’s own success, but contributing to increasing emissions on a global scale. According to the Government of Canada, while Canada is ranked 11th on the list for highest greenhouse gas emitters, it has the second highest per capita emission rate of the top 11 emitting countries. The Emissions Gap report also found that Canada has the highest gap between rhetoric and action, emphasizing a 27 percent gap between policies and international commitments. The next highest gap was 19 percent in the United States.
“Governments can't keep pledging to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement and then green lighting huge fossil fuel projects. This is throwing the global energy transition and humanity's future into question,” Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said. “The world needs to lift the needle out of the groove of insufficient action, and begin setting new records on cutting emissions.”
While the costs of renewable energy technologies are rapidly falling below that of fossil fuels, the world is still heavily reliant on coal, oil and natural gas.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Given the severity of the climate crisis and the rapidly closing window to avoid some of the most catastrophic impacts, all countries must rapidly accelerate low carbon transformations. Previous emissions reductions have heavily been targeted at the G20 nations and the world’s highest emitters, but failure on these nations to provide support for low and middle income nations to further prevent emissions growth has ended with these nations accounting for over two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Renewable energy sources are increasingly becoming the cheapest form of energy across the globe, but a reliance on fossil fuel economies is staggering progres.
“The coal, oil and gas extracted over the lifetime of producing and planned mines and fields would wipe out almost the whole remaining carbon budget for the two degree scenarios and obliterate the 1.5 degree scenario budget many times over,” Andersen said.
The report stresses the need for increased international financing to allow low and middle income countries to embark on a clean energy transition while pulling themselves out of poverty and fighting other injustices. The report indicates that international financial assistance will need to be scaled up and better distributed to low and middle income countries in the form of debt financing, increasing long-term concessional finance, guarantees and catalytic finance to kick-start transitions away from fossil fuels.
While nations continue to fail to significantly reduce emissions, the report notes an increasing likelihood of the need to rely on various carbon capture technologies to meet global reductions targets. Carbon capture technologies were originally intended for use to balance out residual emissions that cannot fully be eliminated, but with the window to reach the Paris Agreement targets rapidly closing, a greater number of nations are increasingly turning to these technologies as a way to offset emissions while continuing to partake in carbon intensive activities.
In September, the Government of Canada released its Carbon Management Strategy which details the impacts of various methods of carbon capture. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), operational carbon capture projects in North America in 2022 contributed to a 24.7 megatonnes of emissions reductions. Planned projects operational by 2030 would increase that number to 161.8 megatonnes per year.
“We know that there are many risks with these new methods of carbon dioxide removal, one of the main ones right quite frankly, being that the technology just isn't in place yet,” Andersen said.
Carbon capture technologies are heavily backed by fossil fuel companies, especially in nations like Canada who have the ability to rapidly transition to a low carbon economy, in order to amp up their efforts to continue extracting. Extractive industry lobbyists have a major impact on the federal government which continues to back oil and gas projects.
One of the main reasons carbon capture technologies have been so slow to develop is due to their high costs. While governments toy with the idea of investing in these technologies in order to allow continuous extraction, renewable energy sources are increasingly becoming the cheaper and more sustainable alternative.
Andersen expressed that while these technologies are becoming increasingly necessary, they should still be used sparingly.
“Essentially, the longer we wait, the harder it's going to be,” she said.
Emissions are skyrocketing across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, according to a new report from The Atmospheric Fund.
While the world grapples with another plea from the international community to ramp up efforts to reduce emissions, the sentiment is the same at the local level. On Tuesday, The Atmospheric Fund (TAF), a non-profit organization investing in urban solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), released its annual Carbon Emissions Inventory which found that emissions across the region shot up by a stark eight percent between 2021 and 2022, the highest rise the organization has seen since it began reporting on emissions in 2015.
“Every year that we don't get emissions moving downwards means that in order to reach our climate targets, we need even more ambitious action in the years ahead,” Bryan Purcell, vice president of policy and programs at TAF, told The Pointer.
The GTHA is home to 7.4 million of Ontario’s 15.5 million residents and in 2022 produced 54 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. Since the emissions reductions led by the pandemic in 2022, the province has quickly rebounded and overshot pre pandemic emission levels.
Purcell said that while TAF expected emissions to increase following the pandemic, it did not expect them to bounce back with such velocity and to such a level. But while it can be disheartening to see such a rapid jump in emissions as Canadians revel in their slowly returning freedom to leave their homes, travel and meet with friends and family, he said there are lessons from the pandemic that can help inform future emissions reduction trajectories.
One of those lessons is the value of remote work. The hybrid or fully remote office model eliminated the need to transport to the office daily which in turn had a significant impact on transportation emission in 2020.
“I think that's an important piece of the future that's going to stick around and it's going to support emissions reductions,” Purcell said. “But we also learned that it's not enough in and of itself, even as higher than historical levels of work from home were in existence, transportation emissions have been rebounding as the region continues to grow, and so we also have to tackle all the other issues including accelerating electric transportation and increasing the use of public transit.”
In the major regions across the GTHA, use of public transit has rebounded to pre pandemic levels, with, in places like Brampton, transit ridership increasing to unprecedented levels. But those successes are undermined by the Ford government’s incessant push to build major 400-series highways, increasing the reliance on single-occupancy vehicles leading to an undoubted increase in greenhouse gas emissions. A report from the environmental advocacy organization Environmental Defence found that under current circumstances, over 17 million tonnes of emissions will be released from vehicles travelling on the proposed Highway 413 by 2050. Even under optimistic scenarios factoring in the adoption of electric vehicles, this number still stands at 13 million tonnes.
An increasing number of Ontario municipalities, including Thorold and Brampton, are saying no to the expansion of gas plants.
The GTHA also saw a daunting increase in emissions in the electricity sector — increasing 26 percent between 2021 and 2022 — the largest increase of all sectors. This is piggy-backed on another over 20 percent increase in the sector observed between 2020 and 2021. The massive increase, largely attributable to the provincial government’s ramping up of natural gas production, is something Purcell referred to as a “significant risk” for its continual burning of fossil fuels and its ability to offset reductions made in other sectors.
In 2017, oil and natural gas made up just four percent of Ontario’s predominantly clean energy grid. By 2022, that number reached 10.4 percent. As the province continues to ramp up natural gas production, emissions from these sources are expected to increase 400 percent, compared to 2017 levels, by 2030 and almost 800 percent by 2040, according to the Independent Electricity Systems Operator.
Across the region, buildings make up the largest source of emissions, a large portion of which comes from home heating and electricity. Many major municipalities are currently in the process of developing, or have recently developed, green development standards (GDS) which focus on making infrastructure more sustainable which includes emissions reductions. One of the key initiatives Purcell said residential homeowners can take is installing a heat pump to wean off of natural gas heating.
“Anytime technologies are really attractive, both from an economic perspective over the long term, but also because they can provide highly efficient cooling, which is increasingly of interest in a warmer climate,” he said.
But recently the Ford government shot down a bill proposed by the Ontario NDP that would completely subsidize the costs of heat pumps for Ontario residents and provide other energy-saving retrofits.
The situation is becoming ever more dire, not only in the GTHA but across the globe. The eight percent increase in emissions observed last year across the GTHA is a jump in the wrong direction — in order to stay in line with the Paris Agreement the region needs a nine percent decrease per year — and governments like the current Ontario PCs seem to do everything in their power to work backwards on the sustainability front, but Purcell said while the work is challenging, it is important to stay positive in order to fight for change.
“We look into the data and the trends to find signals of hope, because it's important to stay motivated,” he said, adding one of the major positives coming out of the 2022 report is a 75 percent year over year growth in the adoption of electric vehicles.
He also said there appears to be increasing awareness amongst the general public for the need to act in a swift manner in order to evade some of the most devastating climate impacts, some of which have already been experienced. The Emissions Inventory is geared at all levels of society from governments, to businesses, to the general public, emphasizing that everyone has a role to play.
“We increasingly see an appreciation for the severity of the problem, and increasing interest in the technologies and approaches that can help reduce emissions,” Purcell said. “So it's really just a matter of dialing up our ambition and the pace of action and moving quicker while we have the chance to.”
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