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Why Kyoto's a no-go
| Canada can't and won't live up to the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol, and a whole new set of goals should replace them. That was the conclusion of three McGill speakers at the C2GCR 10th Annual Faculty Symposium on a panel on climate change, held late last month.
C2GCR stands for the Centre for Climate and Global Change Research, a multidisciplinary group of 17 scholars formed 10 years ago to study the multi-faceted question of climate change. Lawrence Mysak, the centre's first director and its co-founder along with his colleague from Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Charles Lin, said in the symposium's opening address: "The goal of the centre was to promote the study of the interactive processes involving physics, chemistry, biology, and socio-economic issues related to our global environment and the climate crisis. The idea was to bring together different groups of experts, mainly in meteorology, with many other departments."
Today, the geographers, economists, geophysicists and ecologists, among others, are well placed to comment on the Kyoto Protocol, hammered out among developed nations in 1997, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Nigel Roulet, for instance, current director of the centre and professor of geography, said that Canada has basically ignored its commitment to reduce carbon emissions.
"What we call the 'Kyoto gap' is the difference between carbon emissions, if we lived up to the agreement, and the projected emissions per year that Canada is expected to produce in 2010. The difference is about 200 million megatons."
Is there anything -- aside from reducing our use of fossil fuels, used mainly in industry, transportation and heating -- that we can do to absorb this excess carbon dioxide? (Naturally occurring greenhouse gases, including water vapour, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, allow the sun's rays to penetrate the atmosphere, heating the earth to 15 degrees Celsius. Without the gases, earth would remain at its natural temperature, 15 degrees below zero. However, when there is an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere -- and carbon dioxide is the number one culprit -- some of the infrared radiation emanating from the earth gets deflected back, causing the earth's temperature to rise.)
Could enough trees, which are big consumers of carbon dioxide, do the job?
"We would need to plant approximately 80 billion trees and give them 80 years to mature; the amount of carbon they would sequester would be the equivalent of the amount of carbon we would produce over that time, assuming today's rates. "This would require 950,000 square kilometres or 16 percent of the provincial land mass. The idea is unrealistic because Canada's emissions are increasing at one to two percent per year and that amount of land isn't available."
Our best efforts in this avenue have so far done little to reduce greenhouse gases. "The Tree Canada Foundation, a very efficient tree-planting organization, has planted 78 million trees since 1990, which should only consume about .01percent of Canada's emissions. With massive planting, we could consume two to three percent of emissions."
Peter Brown, director of the McGill School of Environment, suggested that a new philosophy of interaction with nature might be more effective than protocols and emission targets. "Our pollution problems have sometimes been blamed on a passage in Genesis, which refers to man's dominion over nature. But some Christians today are trying to shift our philosophy toward stewardship of nature, rather than dominion."
Brown said that economic policy could be steered to safeguard the environment. "The objective of economic growth is incoherent and actually opposed to human well-being...It has become obvious that the scale of the economy is outgrowing the ecological systems on which it depends.
"One lesson we can draw from the past century is that the economy can be used to achieve any other goal we have set for ourselves. If it can be used to finance war, it can also be used to protect the biosphere. For example, we could choose to tax polluting industries instead of subsidizing deforestation. Another way would be to switch from employment taxes to consumption taxes."
Economics professor Chris Green said that the Kyoto targets cannot be met because they demand a two percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions every year from 2000 to 2010. In practice, this would require a four percent drop in emissions per capita every year to counterbalance population growth and consumption growth.
"Climate change policy is an energy problem, because energy is required for human well-being. Despite improvements in efficiency every year, demand for energy will continue to rise."
Green pointed out that fossil fuels remain the most abundant source of energy worldwide and that alternatives are of limited practicality. The radioactive waste products of nuclear energy, for instance, present serious storage problems.
"Debating emission targets really obscures the real issue," he continued. "The only way to actually control global warming is to make massive investments in research and development to develop alternative energy sources.
"It would take an 85 percent reduction in emissions world-wide to actually stop global warming. Those kinds of sacrifices would be overturned politically. What we really need are alternatives to fossil fuels."