Canada's return to science

There is an urgent need for Canada’s new government to rebuild its science policy regime. Is COP21 signalling a revitalization of the relationship between science and policy? From our partners at Arctic Deeply.

By: /
December 9, 2015
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau uses a robotic machine at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ont., during a campaign stop during the 2015 federal election. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Canada has enjoyed a series of enlightened governments that supported human and environmental science. From the late 1970s to 2006, one regime after the next pursued appropriate policy and regulatory actions based upon emerging knowledge. In the Arctic, the issues of ozone depletion, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and mercury were identified, studied and discussed at international meetings until protocols were set in place to improve the health and well-being of the people living in the Arctic. But the connections between science and policy have not been as robust for the past decade.

The Kyoto Protocol was expected to set internationally binding targets to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Canada’s withdrawal from the Protocol in 2011 was symptomatic of the disintegration of the science policy relationship that characterized the federal government from January 2006 to October 2015. At the time, the government expected policy to drive science. Science was tolerated only if it supported industrial development.

There is an urgent need for Canada’s new government to rebuild our science policy regime. The Canadian Arctic is warming at more than twice the global rate. The ground is thawing beneath our northern infrastructure and summer sea ice will probably be history by 2050. The lives and cultures of Canadian indigenous peoples are being permanently disrupted. The warming Arctic is already raising global sea levels and has been linked to extreme weather in the mid-latitudes. Because we are saturating the capacity of the oceans to remove CO2 from the atmosphere we are already committed to significant further warming whatever we do. 

Canada has had an enviable record of the synergy between science and policy leading to international actions – and this must be revitalized. In 1974, a seminal study described how chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) accumulated in the stratosphere and catalyzed the erosion of the ozone layer. Politicians listened. By 1979, domestic regulations on CFCs were introduced in the United States, and later in Canada, Norway and Sweden. In 1985, scientists detected the massive spring Antarctic ozone hole and discovered that ozone erosion also occurred during the Arctic spring. Those living in northern temperate zones and in the Arctic faced increased exposure to harmful U.V. radiation. The international political response soon ushered in the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the 1987 Montreal Protocol. Binding controls on ozone-depleting substances were enacted within two years of the Protocol entering into force. Canadian scientists and diplomats played a significant role in the origin – and the subsequent strengthening – of the Montreal Protocol.

In the late 1980s, scientists from Canada and northern Europe discovered that POPs and mercury travel in the atmosphere from industrial and agricultural sources at mid-latitudes to the Arctic where they condense and accumulate in Arctic biota. The resulting biomagnification can result in body burdens 25 million times higher in Inuit and polar bears than in Arctic marine waters. These substances are chronically toxic, and Inuit and others who rely on Arctic marine and freshwater resources faced uncertainty about their food safety.

Once again, politicians listened. Presentations on POPs and on mercury made to the Convention of Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution in 1991 led to binding regional protocols in 1998 and to the Stockholm Convention on POPs in 2001. The Minamata Convention on Mercury was signed in 2013, at a time when Canada’s political sensitivity to environmental and human health degradation had plunged into moribund paralysis. Canada has not ratified the convention.

Global CO2 levels today stand at about 400 ppm, an increase of about 110 ppm since Svante Arrhenius calculated in 1896 that such increases would lead to global warming. In 1979, the U.S. National Research Council projected that Earth was heading toward a future with global mean surface temperatures of between 2C and 3.5C (3.6F–6.3F) higher than historical levels and with greater warming in Polar regions. What have our policymakers achieved in this time?

The belated political response to growing CO2 emissions began with the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under which the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was expected to set internationally binding emission reduction targets. However, the United States never ratified the protocol, Canada and Japan withdrew in 2011 and 2012, and countries with emerging economies adopted no targets.

When this commentary is published, countries will be meeting in Paris to build a new agreement based upon their individual emissions targets, which are the cumulative emission targets for their main national CO2 sources. For example, the United States plans to cut its emissions by 26–28 percent by 2025 compared with 2005 levels, while the European Union has said it will cut its emissions by 40 percent compared with 1990 levels. Countries believe that this approach much improves their ability to set targets that reflect their individual economic and political circumstances.

Here are some thoughts on what Canada might consider during the negotiations:

1. The science is clear: global warming will decrease only if the total level of atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases decreases to historical levels. This fact must drive climate mitigation. 

2. If Canada’s new government tables the previous government’s emissions targets, it must quickly follow up with more ambitious targets.

3. Climate change mitigation is a true business opportunity that Canada should not ignore.

4. Canada can surely be tolerant of different timetables of emission reduction from large developing economies – providing that their plans are clearly focused on an effective timeframe. Consumer pressures on trade and the impacts of warming in their countries are already showing signs of influence on the policies of large developing economies.

5. Canada must be ambitious and pragmatic, and look for creative ways to reach an agreement that includes the United States and reduces emissions effectively.

6. Canada must restore the former scope of our fisheries and environmental assessment legislation, and rebuild our supportive capacities in environmental and health sciences. Without this, we cannot achieve true sustainable development.

7. Under the Arctic Council, Canada and the territorial governments should investigate the feasibility of expanding non-hydrocarbon power generation in Arctic communities.

Canada’s government has a formidable task ahead. Climate mitigation requires a retooling of the way modern societies provide the energy to drive commerce. However, we presently enjoy a priceless advantage – an almost coast-to-coast eagerness from our provinces, territories and municipalities to get on with the job. It is an opportunity the federal government should not squander. 

This piece is also published on Arctic Deeply