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Climate Change—An Overview
1. Since 1990, the Government of Canada has made domestic and international commitments to address climate change. To fulfil these commitments, it has developed many plans and programs and has allocated billions of dollars. This 2006 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development deals with selected aspects of the Government's response. Climate change is a complex issue. We felt it was important to offer some background information to provide context for the readers of this report. To avoid repetition in each of the separate chapters, this overview serves as an introduction and a companion to each chapter. It provides some general information about climate change, its projected effects, and international and Canadian responses.
2. There are many uncertainties associated with climate change including incomplete knowledge of the global climate system, and future rates of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions and how they will affect climate. There are also scientists who disagree that human activities are responsible for climate change. In its Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) writes that deciding what to do about climate change means dealing with uncertainty. The impacts of climate change could be more or less serious than scientists project. Governments must balance the risks of either insufficient or excessive action, while considering the economic and environmental consequences, their likelihood, and society's attitude towards risk.
3. In the absence of certainty, governments may apply what is commonly known as the precautionary principle to issues related to the environment and development. Canada and 178 other nations endorsed the precautionary principle at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The Government of Canada has applied the precautionary principle to climate change, stating that the risks of climate change are real and significant and that such risks "make it prudent that we begin precautionary action now."
Explaining Climate Change
The greenhouse effect
4. A natural system, known as the "greenhouse effect" because it resembles the role of glass in a greenhouse, regulates the temperature on Earth (Exhibit 1). Greenhouse gases, which make up less than one percent of the atmosphere, absorb and transmit solar energy, thereby warming the Earth's surface. These gases include water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Without naturally occurring greenhouse gases, the temperature on Earth would drop from the current average of plus 14 degrees to minus 18 degrees Celsius—too cold to sustain many forms of life on earth.
5. The world's climate varies considerably over long periods of time, responding to natural changes in solar radiation, and to the Earth's orbit and volcanic activity. But many scientists generally agree that a new kind of climate change is now under way. Since the Industrial Revolution, certain human activities have released more of the naturally occurring greenhouse gases and added new ones, such as some chemicals from industrial activities. These emissions increase concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Current concerns about climate change revolve around the role of human activities in increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Many scientists agree that rising concentrations of greenhouse gases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, raising temperatures, disturbing the balance of natural systems, and damaging ecosystems.
6. The main greenhouse gases released by human activities are carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide (Exhibit 2). Carbon dioxide is the predominant greenhouse gas released by developed countries. According to the United Nations, the production and consumption of fossil fuels accounts for approximately 80 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from human activities. Deforestation, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when trees are burned or decompose, is the second largest source of carbon dioxide. Methane is released by landfills, waste water treatment, some agricultural practices, and livestock. Sources of nitrous oxide include chemical fertilizers and burning fossil fuels. "Other" greenhouse gases are the three synthetic chemicals measured by the United Nations. These are sulphur hexafluoride, perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
The science of climate change
7. As part of its mandate to assess climate change and its effects, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its third and most recent assessment in 2001. IPCC reports are based on published, peer-reviewed scientific literature and research from scientists around the world. Several thousand experts, including many Canadians, write and review the reports. Their findings have been endorsed by many nations, including Canada, as a sound base upon which to develop both national and international responses.
8. Making informed decisions about how, or if, to respond to climate change requires a good understanding of the climate system and its response to increasing greenhouse gas levels. Climate science plays a crucial role in helping to understand the potential scope and implications of climate change through
9. According to the IPCC 2001 assessment, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide increased by about 31 percent between the years 1750 and 2000. Concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide had increased by approximately 150 percent and 15 percent, respectively. The IPCC notes that present concentrations of carbon dioxide appear to be higher than at any time during the past 420,000 years and that the current rate of increase may have been unprecedented in the past 20,000 years.
10. The IPCC has assessed several possible scenarios using a variety of factors that can influence greenhouse gas emissions, such as global population, and economic, technological, and social trends. By 2100, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are projected to range from 75 to 350 percent above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC asserts that the risks of climate change damage would be reduced by stabilizing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that stabilizing these concentrations would require substantial reductions in emissions below current levels.
Impact of climate change
11. Climate change is more than a warming trend. Increasing temperatures are projected to change many aspects of the weather, including wind patterns, the amount and type of precipitation that a region will experience, and the frequency of severe weather events. The impacts are expected to vary regionally, with land areas warming up more than oceans do, and with greater warming occurring in the Northern Hemisphere. The IPCC concludes that biological, physical, and human systems are already affected by climate change.
Observed climate changes
12. According to the IPCC's Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report, some examples of observed climate change are that
Projected climate changes
13. Climate change models are used to assess the likelihood of potential changes and their possible impact. According to the IPCC, even the minimum predicted shifts in climate for the 21st century are likely to be significant and disruptive. While climate change will probably affect natural and socio-economic systems both beneficially and adversely, adverse effects are projected to predominate if the changes become more drastic or occur more swiftly. Our capacity to adapt may not be able to keep pace with the rate and magnitude of the climate change. Changes projected by the IPCC include the following:
Effects on Canada
14. Many nations, including Canada, have developed their own scientific programs to better understand the potential impacts of climate change at national and regional levels. According to the Government of Canada, climate change is expected to affect every region and virtually every sector of the Canadian economy. Agriculture, forestry, and fisheries will be particularly affected. While many of the effects of climate change are expected to be negative, there may be positive effects in some parts of Canada, such as milder winters and longer growing seasons. In the Prairies, increased temperatures may provide opportunities for growing higher-value crops, but more frequent droughts and insufficient rainfall could negate those opportunities. For Canada, some of the potential negative effects of climate change include
Addressing Climate Change
15. The two basic responses to climate change are
Mitigation is considered essential for minimizing future impacts, and adaptation is essential for coping with effects that we cannot avoid in the near- to medium-term.
16. Mitigation involves human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the storage of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), no single option will reduce emissions enough to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations, and a portfolio of options is needed.
Energy production and consumption
17. Since the production and consumption of fossil fuels is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, taking effective action to address climate change involves transforming the way we produce and use energy. Strategies to reduce emissions from the energy sector include
Other mitigation options
18. Other mitigation options include reducing non-carbon dioxide emissions, for example, by recovering methane emissions from waste management and enhancing carbon storage in sinks. Carbon sinks are natural or man-made processes that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Carbon storage options include
The role of technology
19. According to the United Nations, the development and widespread use of new technologies plays a major role in climate change mitigation. Just as old technologies, such as coal-fired power stations and internal combustion engines, have contributed to an increase in emissions, so new and more efficient technologies can reduce emissions. Available technologies, such as wind turbines, hybrid engines, and carbon dioxide storage, offer some opportunities to reduce the emissions accumulating in the atmosphere.
Adaptation—coping with climate change
20. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), past emissions have already committed the Earth to some climate change, making adapting to climate change a necessary strategy that should go hand in hand with measures to mitigate against climate change. Climate change adaptation refers to adjustments made by natural or human systems in response to climate effects. Adaptation in human systems can be either reactive (responding to the immediate effects of climate change) or proactive, taking steps to prevent the effects of climate change. Governments react to immediate crises such as extreme weather events, but can also take a proactive approach by assessing potential future impacts and their risks, and by developing strategies to reduce these risks. Strategies can include changing design and construction standards to ensure that new construction is resilient to future weather extremes, and protecting coastal communities with seawalls. Rapid and significant climate change will make it more difficult to adapt than would lesser and slower change.
21. The United Nations document United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: The First Ten Years (2004) notes that the policies and measures selected by various countries to address climate change have many common elements. These include an emphasis on transforming energy production and consumption practices, and addressing emissions in key sectors such as transportation, industry, agriculture, forestry, and waste. The report also outlines some options that governments can use to address climate change, including developing policies or programs to promote
Canada's International and Domestic Commitments
The international context
22. The atmosphere has no boundaries, making climate change a global problem requiring international solutions. Developed countries account for the largest part of historical and current greenhouse gas emissions. Canada has among the highest per capita emissions in the world and contributes approximately two percent of global emissions. According to the United Nations, while per capita emissions in developed countries are expected to stabilize (at well above the world average), emissions from developing countries continue to rise steadily and are expected to equal those of developed countries in the early parts of this century. In China, even though per capita emissions are low compared to Canada's, the country's absolute emissions are substantial—about three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2000—approximately four times higher than Canada's.
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
23. In 1992, Canada, along with more than 150 other countries, committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (also referred to as the Earth Summit). In December 1992, Canada became one of the first countries to ratify its signature to the Convention.
24. The Convention's ultimate objective is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at "a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-induced] interference with the climate system." The Convention states that we need to stabilize emissions at a pace that allows ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable sustainable economic development to proceed. The Convention also recognizes that developed and developing countries have common but differentiated responsibilities and differing capacities to address climate change. Since they are richer and more industrialized, developed countries accepted the initial responsibility for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Canada's responsibilities under the Convention
25. As an Annex I and II Party to the Convention, Canada promised to undertake a number of actions, including
In addition, Annex II Parties must help developing countries to adapt, promote, and finance their access to environmentally sound technologies. For information on Canada's domestic response to its climate change commitments, see Exhibit 4.
The Kyoto Protocol
26. In 1997, more than 160 countries, including Canada, negotiated the Kyoto Protocol aimed at strengthening the Convention. The Protocol has emissions targets for Annex B Parties, which include 38 developed countries and the European Union. Canada and more than 150 other countries have ratified or accepted the Protocol, while some signatories to the agreement, including the United States and Australia, have not. The Protocol became legally binding for its ratifying members on 16 February 2005.
27. The Kyoto Protocol created several new mechanisms to allow Parties to reduce emissions in other countries and credit the results towards their own targets. The Kyoto mechanisms are intended to supplement domestic action and include
Industrialized countries can receive credit for financing Clean Development Mechanism projects.
Canada's obligations under the Kyoto Protocol
28. Canada's Kyoto target. Canada's target is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases covered under the Protocol to six percent below 1990 levels, over the period 2008 to 2012. Kyoto Protocol emission reduction targets cover six greenhouse gases.
29. Annex B Parties are subject to binding emission targets under the Kyoto Protocol. They have other responsibilities, which are listed in paragraph 25 above. They were required to make demonstrable progress towards achieving their commitments, and to report on the progress made, by 1 January 2006. The Protocol also requires them to include supplementary information in their reports, demonstrating compliance with their commitments under the Convention.
30. Penalties for not meeting the Kyoto target. A Party that fails to meet its emission reduction target must make up the difference, plus an extra 30 percent, in the second Kyoto commitment period. It must also develop a compliance action plan. Its eligibility to participate in emissions trading may be suspended.
31. Parties to international agreements meet regularly to assess progress and discuss emerging issues. The Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) is the supreme body of the Convention, comprising all states that have ratified the Convention. Eleven COP meetings have taken place since the agreement entered into force in 1994. In addition, there will be regular Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (MOP) sessions.
32. After the first commitment period. The initial commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2012, is considered a first step towards addressing climate change. The eleventh conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (usually called COP11) and the first Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (usually called MOP1) were held in Montreal in December 2005. At that time, the Parties agreed to begin discussions on post-2012 options and launched negotiations on the second Kyoto commitment period. At a follow-up meeting in Bonn, Germany, in May 2006, the Parties agreed to the agenda for negotiations on new emission reductions targets. To inform Canada's next steps, in 2005 the Government of Canada requested that the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy provide advice regarding a long-term energy and climate change policy for Canada, and also requested that it consider options for post-2012 emission reduction targets.
33. Other international activities. Apart from formal international agreements negotiated through the United Nations, other groups and nations have made commitments to address climate change. For example, the Government of the United Kingdom made climate change one of its top two priorities during its 2005 presidency of the G8 and the European Union. In July 2005, at the G8 Gleneagles Summit in Scotland, G8 leaders, whose nations collectively account for over 65 percent of global gross domestic product and 47 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, issued a political statement on the importance of climate change and agreed to make "substantial cuts" in emissions. Also in July 2005, the United States, Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea formed the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development, to accelerate the development and deployment of clean energy technologies. The Partnership anticipates that each country will improve energy security, reduce pollution, and address climate change.
The Canadian Context
Canada's greenhouse gas emissions
34. As a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Canada is required to submit a greenhouse gas inventory annually, based on an internationally agreed-upon reporting format. The inventory measures emissions and removals (storage in "sinks") of major greenhouse gases. For ease of comparison, non-carbon dioxide emissions are expressed in terms of their carbon dioxide equivalent.
35. Exhibit 5 illustrates Canada's 2004 greenhouse gas emission inventory and shows the relative impact of the production and consumption of energy on Canada's emissions profile. Canada's energy-related emissions include those that are released when fossil fuels are produced, processed, transported, stored, and delivered.
The following also produce emissions through combustion of fossil fuels:
36. In Canada, developing cost-effective responses to environmental issues that cross jurisdictional boundaries can involve action by all levels of government, and the efforts of industry, non-governmental organizations, and individual Canadians. Jurisdiction over energy is also divided among the federal, provincial, and territorial governments.
37. Federal jurisdiction. The federal government has jurisdiction over environmental issues that cross international and provincial boundaries. It addresses national concerns about the environment and negotiates, signs, and ratifies international treaties on behalf of Canada. With respect to energy, the federal government's responsibilities include policies and legislation in the national interest, nuclear power, and transboundary environmental impacts.
38. Provincial jurisdiction. The provinces and territories have jurisdiction over natural resources within their boundaries, including energy resources such as oil, natural gas, and coal. They control power generation, provincial building codes, and provincial transportation, including inspection and maintenance of vehicles on the road. Finally, they have jurisdiction over municipal governments, which also have an influence on greenhouse gas emissions through their management of local services, such as infrastructure, urban planning, and development.
Canada's response to climate change
39. Since 1990, the Government of Canada has established a variety of plans and strategies and other mechanisms to address climate change (Exhibit 4). The most recent plan, Project Green, was released in April 2005. A new plan is in development.
What Canada is doing with respect to its Kyoto target
40. The challenge in meeting Canada's Kyoto target is often expressed in terms of an "emissions gap." This is the difference between projected annual business-as-usual emissions (the emissions that would occur in the absence of any specific requirements to reduce emissions) in 2008–12, and Canada's Kyoto target.
41. According to the Government of Canada's National Inventory Report—Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada (1990–2004), in 2004, Canadians emitted 758 million tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, 34.6 percent higher than Canada's Kyoto Protocol target. Much of this growth is attributed to increased emissions from energy industries and from transportation, whose emissions increased 41 percent and 30 percent respectively between 1990 and 2004. Within the energy industry, the increase is largely fuelled by increased demand for electricity and growing oil and gas production for export. Transport-related emissions account for over one-quarter of Canada's emissions, and within this sector the largest increase is from light trucks (including mini vans and sport utility vehicles)—an increase of more than 100 percent from 1990 to 2004.
Comparing Canada to other countries
42. Exhibit 6 shows how Canada's greenhouse gas emissions stack up with those of other countries. Canada and other highly industrialized countries increased their emissions. Countries with economies in transition experienced economic downturn, with reduced emissions. According to the United Nations, the reduced emissions of these countries more than offset the increased emissions by industrialized countries. As a group, Annex I countries had reduced emissions by 5.9 percent compared to 1990 levels. Every year, each Annex I Party submits a greenhouse gas emission inventory to the Secretariat for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The changes shown in Exhibit 6 are based on the total emissions that each country has reported.
43. This overview has given background information on the issue of climate change to provide readers with context for the audit chapters that follow. The complex and multi-faceted nature of this topic means that we could not be comprehensive in our coverage. We leave it to readers to seek additional information and form their own conclusions. In keeping with our mandate, our performance audits look at whether activities designed to respond to federal environment and sustainable development policies are being implemented effectively and are delivering results. The audit chapters that follow provide our findings from auditing several aspects of the federal response to climate change.
The World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 to undertake periodic, comprehensive assessments of climate change, its projected effects, and options for mitigating and adapting to the risks it poses. (Return)
The precautionary principle
—In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was established as an advisory body reporting to governments and the Canadian public. Its members are appointed by the Prime Minister and include leaders in business and labour, universities, environmental organizations, Aboriginal communities, and municipalities. (Return)
Carbon dioxide equivalent is used to standardize measurement of greenhouse gas emissions. Each greenhouse gas has its own global warming potential. For example, methane is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. One tonne of methane is equivalent to 21 tonnes of carbon dioxide. (Return)
|Last Updated: 2006-09-28|