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Climate change in Canada – impacts and responses

We explore how climate change affects Canadians, what the Canadian government is doing to address the climate crisis, and what the future may hold.

More than three decades ago, climate change took over news outlets as scientists revealed just how fragile our planetary ecosystem is, and the damage that had already been done due to global industrialisation. Today, these climate predictions are coming to the fore as nations around the world experience extreme weather and disastrous climate events. 

Canada witnessed its highest-ever temperature this past summer, which has already resulted in devastating fires and sudden deaths of hundreds. Now more than ever, combating climate change is crucial to the wellbeing and survival of Canadians and people around the world.

What is the impact, both current and forthcoming, of climate change, and what is Canada doing to address environmental disaster? In this article, we’ll explore how climate change has affected Canadians, the myriad ways the Canadian government is focusing on amending the impact of climate change, and what can be expected of our collective planetary future.

Canada’s climate 

What is climate? 

Many people mistake weather for climate, but there is a crucial difference between the two. Whereas weather refers to the short-term conditions of the atmosphere of a region, climate takes into account the weather conditions over a longer period of time, including the season and long-term averages. For example, in Toronto, there may be thunderstorms for a few days in a row. This is the weather. The climate that Toronto experiences, however, is a humid continental climate that is determined through decades of mapping the weather in the local and surrounding areas, which sets the conditions for thunderstorms during certain times of the year.

The significance of Canada’s climate

The importance of climate and maintaining its consistency lies in the preservation of life, including human life. If the climate changes too quickly, countless species won’t be able to adapt and will therefore fall victim to the shifting environment. Humans, too, will find it increasingly difficult to adapt to their place of residence, where rising waters, extreme weather and other factors may displace millions of lives.

As Canada is the second-largest country in the world in terms of landmass, stretching over 9,984,670 km2, Canada’s climates range from temperate to extreme cold. Canada has distinct climate regions that vary greatly in terms of temperature and humidity, all of which contain delicate ecosystems in which countless organisms live. They are distinguished by the set characteristics that differentiate them from bordering zones, such as the type of soil, temperature and precipitation, all of which culminate in different types of wildlife. 

Canada’s many ecozones

The following is a summary of Canada’s terrestrial climate regions and ecozones:

  • Montane Cordillera Ecozone: this is Canada’s most diverse ecozones, which the region owes to being situated between the Coast Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. The summers are dry and winters are wet, but both are mild, with the amount of precipitation varying greatly throughout. This region also has one of the most diverse offerings of flora and fauna.
  • Arctic Ecozones: There are three arctic climate regions in Canada, including the Arctic Cordillera, the Northern Arctic and the Southern Arctic climate regions. These regions range from inhospitably cold and dry to fostering small, stunted trees and other wildlife. The majority of the people living in this region are Inuit. The capital of Nunavut, Iqaluit, is situated in this region.
  • Hudson Plains Ecozone: Along with moderate precipitation, there is poor drainage in the area, leading to wetlands and bogs. There are only about 10,000 people who live in this area, most of whom live off of tourism or subsistence activities. 
  • Prairies Ecozone: This region sees less precipitation and high winds. Although once covered with a diverse amount of flora and fauna, 95% of it has now been converted into farmland, which has led to a disproportionate amount of endangered species. There are over 4 million people living in this area, most of whom live in cities including Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg. 
  • Mixedwood Plains Ecozone: The smallest of Canada’s ecozones while also being the most populous, this region contains Toronto and Montreal, the two most populated cities in Canada. The seasons here change drastically, with warm summers and frosty winters. The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River contributed to the history of colonial settlements in this area. Because of the high level of human activity, density and industrialisation of this area, what was once a land inhabited by native species has now faced extreme ecological degradation

Other ecozones in Canada include the Atlantic Maritime Ecozone, Boreal Plains and Shield Ecozone, Taiga Ecozone, Pacific Maritime Ecozone and Boreal Cordillera Ecozone, all of which have their own weather patterns, soil types and wildlife.

The impacts of climate change in Canada

What is climate change and global warming?

Climate change is the changing of climate at a rate that affects the livelihoods of wildlife and humans alike. One component part of climate change is global warming, which is caused by the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activity, such as industrialisation. The increase in these gases creates a greenhouse effect with the Earth’s atmosphere, whereby the heat from the sun gets trapped inside of the atmosphere so that the entirety of the planet becomes warmer, resulting in extremes in weather that organisms and societies are not equipped to deal with. Learn more about the science behind climate change with our open step from the University of Wollongong, Australia.

How does climate change affect those living in Canada specifically? Will Canada’s varied ecozones face their own localised consequences? Due to Canada’s landmass and its expanse which covers so many ecozones and climate regions, it has been reported that Canada’s annual average temperature is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Because of this, Canadian residents may feel the effects of climate change more drastically and sooner than those living elsewhere.

Climate change has already seen extreme weather that resulted from the heat dome in summer 2021 created by climate disturbances. Nearly 500 people died from the heat in Canada, not to mention the estimated 1 billion marine animals that also lost their lives in the heatwave. If climate change is not addressed, the effects will be much more than just searing temperatures. 

Extreme temperatures

The causes and effects of climate change do not happen in isolation. Situated between the causes and effects of different climate events is the extreme temperatures that will continue to prevail in Canada. As we have already seen, extreme weather has been occurring throughout the Prairies and along the West Coast. 

“Extreme” means far out of the ordinary for the given region. For example, in somewhere like Florida, the average temperature may hover around the high 20ºCs to low 30ºCs in the summer months. Vancouver, by contrast, may average out around 22ºC in the summer. The infrastructures of communities are often built around the climate of a region, and locals may not be prepared for weather far out of the ordinary. In 2021, when there were several days in the 30ºCs across British Columbia, what may not be extreme for Florida is considered extreme in Vancouver, where air conditioning and heatproof buildings are not the norm.

But even extreme by Floridian standards, the highest temperature to ever hit Canada was recorded in Lytton, British Columbia this year at 49.6ºC. The immediate consequences of this saw more than 719 sudden and unexpected deaths within the week. 

Increase in forest fires

Another consequence of extreme heat is the increase in forest fires. Canada has 9% of all the world’s forests and 38% of its landmass is covered in forests. Because of this, Canada is especially prone to destructive forest fires. Experts have concluded that climate change will contribute to increases in forest fires in Canada due to the worsening of three major factors: creating the dry, hot conditions that are prerequisite to starting forest fires, frequency of lightning strikes, and high winds that fan and spread fires.

Although forest fires have their place in nature to help renew soil and balance ecosystems, the unprecedented amount and degree of forest fires due to climate change is an issue for several reasons. First, in addition to the wildlife that meets their end with these fires, towns that are within proximity of forests are torn apart in the wake of these fires. The lives and homes that were once situated there are often completely destroyed when faced with forest fires.

Second, the Canadian government has spent over $1.4 billion annually on the cost of wildland fire protection and management, a huge sum that is set to increase as forest fires rise in frequency.

Third, forest fires become a vicious circle whereby the fires increase the amount of greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere, which further contributes to climate change and thus increasing the circumstances under which forest fires may arise.

Loss of ice and snow

Canada’s polar regions contain about 20% of the world’s glaciers, with approximately 200,000 km2 of land ice across the Canadian arctic and west in 2005. But this number has been decreasing every year since it was first observed. In 2020, the last fully intact ice shelf in Canada collapsed, leading to the loss of over 40% of its area in just two days, the size of which is the size of an entire city at 80 km2.

This has several devastating consequences. Loss of ice means rising sea levels, eroding coastlines both in the Arctic and around the globe and shrinking land areas. It also means the permafrost which contains a huge amount of methane may melt and release the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, further exacerbating the climate crisis.

As the glaciers act as a cooling system for the earth, their destruction means the temperature will continue to rise, becoming a vicious circle of cause and effect.

In addition to these global consequences, as their habitat disappears, the wildlife that lives in these areas will wander further south. This raises the risk of potentially disastrous mixing between dangerous carnivores such as polar bears and human communities.

Flooding

Another consequence of extreme weather due to climate change is flooding. Flooding is caused by an increase in the amount of precipitation and severe storms, along with other factors such as rapid melting of snow, ice jams in rivers and rising sea levels. There have already been floods that have claimed the lives of hundreds throughout Europe in 2021. Similar events may occur in Canada as most regions start to experience more rainfall and worse drainage.

Insects and disease

One of the effects of more floods is the spread of disease and the increase of insects. As extreme precipitation continues, urban drainage systems can be overwhelmed so that water treatment centres and sewage systems can’t ensure drinking water is safe. Floodwater also leads to agricultural waste and chemicals contaminating drinking water, or else carrying diseases.

Flooding also leads to more still-water habitats that become a breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes as well as other types of insects.

Flooding often goes hand in hand with power outages, which results in many issues from the loss of ventilation systems to quick spoiling of food without refrigeration.

Ocean acidification

The Earth’s surface is 71% ocean, which are large bodies of saltwater. The oceans are not only home to countless marine organisms, but they help maintain life everywhere on earth. They act as a climate moderator by circulating heat to keep the planet relatively moderate in temperature. They also absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Due to the rampant increase of CO2 in the atmosphere as a result of human and industrial activities, the absorption of CO2 by the ocean has caused it to acidify. 

The results of this are affecting marine life at every stage. The lower PH levels of the ocean affect all organisms with hard shells and skeletons, from calcareous plankton to coral and clams. This means entire food chains are off-kilter. Human communities and wildlife that rely on a supply of ocean life will face consequences.

How is Canada addressing climate change?

Although some aspects of climate change have been said to be irreversible, such as the melting of the ice caps, it is possible to reverse some of the damages done and ensure a long, healthy planetary survival for all organisms on earth. While we can each do our part in maintaining a sustainable lifestyle, such as having a healthy and environmentally conscious diet, the scale of the issue requires governmental intervention.

The Canadian government has put policies in place that are meant to target some of the country’s worst climate offenders. Canada has taken up pledges to help the planet reach its environmental goals so that the worst effects of climate change can be addressed and reversed in the next few decades. Here is an overview of what Canada is doing so far to move towards solutions to the climate crisis.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding treaty on climate. As of today, 196 parties have signed the treaty. Canada signed the treaty at the end of 2015, and it came into effect in November of 2016. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Under the Trudeau Government, Canada is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions below their 2005 levels, with a deadline of 2030. That means reducing emissions to 511 Mt CO2 equivalent. To reach this goal, Canada’s action plan that was submitted in 2016 is The Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change and Clean Growth, and the revised version in 2020 is called the Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy.

The hope is to use these plans to exceed the goals in the Paris Agreement and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 while supporting a healthy bioeconomy.

This new agreement brings hope back to Canadians after Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 when emissions increased dramatically during the target period instead of decreasing.

The Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change and Clean Growth (PCF)

The Pan-Canadian Framework on Climate Change and Clean Growth, or PCF for short, has four pillars. These include measures for carbon pricing across the country, complementary measures to further reduce emissions, building resilience to climate change and accelerating innovation to support clean energy.

The carbon pricing policy, otherwise known as a carbon tax, ensures that the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere will be taxed appropriately. This applies to both industry and individuals, and it uses market logic in order to curb the use of burning fuel for power. Some provinces already have their own carbon pricing in effect, so carbon taxes only apply to a few provinces. To ensure that the most vulnerable communities are not hit the hardest by this pricing, the Climate Action Incentive pays households and rural communities portions of the money received from the taxes.

The complementary measures for reducing emissions include tightening energy efficiency standards for vehicles and buildings, both of which often use fuel to run or heat. This will aid in the transition towards renewable energy, away from the burning of fuels that contribute towards global warming.

The measures to adapt and build resilience against the impacts of climate change involve making sure infrastructure will be prepared for extreme weather events, both in urban settings and in vulnerable regions such as coastal towns and Indigenous communities. You can become an expert at disaster management and resilience, a lucrative field in Canada and beyond, with this MSc from Coventry University.

In an effort to ensure the economy continues to thrive, investments are being made in clean technology and innovation, creating more jobs and positioning Canada as a leader in renewable energy and green technology.

The PCF contains over 50 policies and regulations that are made to reduce emissions whilst keeping the economy growing towards clean energy. The amount of environmental jobs is set to increase as these policies continue to regulate the economy and reduce carbon emissions and Canada’s collective carbon footprint.

Healthy Environment Healthy Economy plan (HEHE)

Introduced in December of 2020 was the Healthy Environment Healthy Economy plan, or the cheerful HEHE for short. This plan outlines over 60 policies and regulatory actions and is focused on ensuring the economy moves towards low-carbon alternatives so that Canadian residents can enjoy long, stable careers that maintain a healthy environment. 

Its five pillars are: cutting energy waste to make homes more affordable, making clean and affordable transportation and power available in every community, ensuring that pollution continues to cost a price, placing Canada as the go-to for clean energy technologies and planting two billion trees along with better managing, conserving and restoring of natural spaces.

This plan aims to position Canada at a competitive advantage when it comes to green energy and innovation so that Canadians continue to have prospects of long, fulfilling careers within the global economy. It also outlines new measures that support Indigenous climate leadership.

Along with the PCF, HEHE will help Canada exceed the goals for the Paris Agreement and set the precedence for other nations to do better when it comes to environmental justice.

What is Canada missing in its fight against climate change?

Although Canada’s government has implemented policies aimed at achieving ambitious goals, they have been criticised for their lack of action in certain areas, most notably with the oil and gas industries. 

Oil and gas

The biggest culprit that contributes to global emissions, oil and gas, continues to expand their operations and profits in Canada. Despite the many policies and regulatory actions put into place, the oil and gas industries have not faced many consequences. In November 2020, right before the introduction of HEHE, natural gas distribution company Enbridge received approval to build a new segment of the Line 3 pipeline through Minnesota in order to ship oil sands from Alberta to the United States.

Although the approval of this pipeline was from Minnesota, the Canadian government has done little to regulate the extraction of resources that will contribute to further climate devastation for products that are for export. Like with the XL Keystone Pipeline, even though the extraction came from Alberta, it was up to US President Joe Biden to revoke the permit in order to halt its construction. In either case, the Canadian government did not take action.

Line 3 has historically been responsible for the largest-ever oil spill on U.S. soil, with 1.7 million gallons of oil ruptured in Minnesota in 1991. Although their rate of safe transportation has increased to 99.999% in recent years, the company officially acknowledges that some accidental release of oil sands into the environment is inevitable and that more serious spills are possible. Regardless of whether or not spills occur, the oil sands sent to the U.S. is destined to contribute to the amount of carbon emission in the atmosphere. Without regulating this type of activity, Canada’s climate action has been criticised as taking one step forwards and two steps backwards.

Agriculture

The turning of land into farms has been a major source of destruction of habitat and deforestation. It is now widely known that agriculture, including industrial animal husbandry, contributes greatly to the decline of the environment. Yet agriculture is not at the centre of any official conversation in the fight for climate justice.

Although more people than ever are choosing on their own accord to follow a plant-based lifestyle, the government has yet to touch policy to regulate these industries. This may be partly because of the intense lobbying which the dairy and meat producers have taken part in historically and presently.

No systemic change

Canada’s climate action plans are all under the assumption that the current system of economics can be reformed and regulated for the sake of controlling climate change. Some aspects of it rely on the logic of the current system as a crucial component of tackling climate change.

For example, with carbon taxation, the assumption is that the market will favour greener energy sources if there is an amount that must be paid for every metric tonne of emissions. Following this logic, there should be more innovations in sustainable technologies as well as reduced demand for fossil fuels.

However, some critics believe it is the system itself that is at fault. Under capitalistic consumption, the system relies on unconstrained growth, which is the biggest factor in the climate crisis. Extracting and using finite resources as if they are infinite is a direct cause of the overexploitation of natural resources, and critics have declared that simply modifying the system is not enough.

What does the future hold? 

It’s easy to become a climate doomer, someone who has already given up on the idea that climate change can be arrested or reversed. But climate is not a binary, zero-sum game, and assuming there is nothing left to do is to misunderstand climate and its complexities.

Under the Liberal Party of Canada, the steps towards a greener economy that supports measures to reduce emissions have been taken. It is many steps up compared to previous governments that put the profit of corporations above that of environmental issues. But political cycles in Canada last four years, so there is the possibility of these policies being overturned should a more conservative government take its place.

On the flip side, members of the Green Party of Canada as well as Canada’s New Democrats have voiced concerns that the current government isn’t doing enough to curb climate change. While it remains to be seen whether more will be done by the Trudeau government, its many pillars of action as informed by experts in science and policy is a promising step in the right direction.

Renewable energy is set to become one of the fastest-growing industries in Canada, and with the policy changes that favour environmentalism, it’s set to overtake many of Canada’s traditional industries. 

Final thoughts on climate change in Canada

The effects of climate change are already evident in Canada, but its residents and government are both working towards arresting and reversing the damage that has been done. Canada’s ambitious plans are admirable, and while there is always the potential to do more, the current strategies provide actionable steps towards a more sustainable future

The PCF and HEHE are working together in order to not only achieve the goals set out by the Paris Agreement but to exceed this and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. If we remain strict on our goals and hold governments as well as corporations accountable, the next century may prove to be the greenest and most sustainable in our lifetime.

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