COLUMN: Greenhouse gases – what’s all the fuss?

Columnist Greg Utzig explains where the Kootenays’ carbon emissions come from

This is the third in a series of columns addressing various issues surrounding climate disruption in the West Kootenay. Greg Utzig is a local Conservation Ecologist who has been working on climate change issues for two decades.

It’s a wonderful experience to walk into a greenhouse, especially in the winter. The moist warm air and the fragrant plant life it supports, like getting off a plane in Hawaii. So why are we so worried about greenhouse gases?

Greenhouse gases, or GHGs, are substances that allow solar radiation to penetrate our atmosphere, while simultaneously restricting the flow of other radiation back out. The result is a net gain of heat within the atmosphere. Winds and ocean currents distribute this heat across the surface of the earth and deep into oceans. The most significant GHG is carbon dioxide (CO2), but a few other gases act in a similar manner.

If you took high school chemistry, you may recall the biological carbon cycle in which plants take CO2 out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis, animals breath in oxygen and exhale CO2, and decomposition eventually releases more CO2 back to the atmosphere.

As well, carbon from plants is washed into the oceans, buried and eventually turns into coal, oil or natural gas (fossil fuels), while sea shells are turned into carbonaceous rocks. Through this geologic carbon cycle, carbon is removed from the active carbon that circulates in the atmosphere and the biological cycle.

Humans have been disrupting these cycles over the past 10,000 years. At first it was through the development of agriculture, clearing land and draining wetlands.

This created minor tweaks to the biological cycle. With the advent of the industrial age, we began to also impact the geologic cycle. By burning fossil fuels we began to take carbon that had been stored in geologic strata for millions of years and release it back to the atmosphere as CO2 emissions.

We also create concrete from carbonaceous rocks and release more CO2. Land clearing has greatly expanded, and places where forests used to uptake and store carbon are now occupied by cattle that emit methane, another GHG. Cow burps!

How can anyone know how much CO2 was in the atmosphere before we started messing with the cycles? Based on analysis of bubbles in ice sheets in Antarctica, over the past 800,000 years levels of CO2 in the atmosphere varied between about 200 and 300 parts per million (ppm). Our GHG emissions have already raised that number to over 400 ppm, and it continues to rise every year. So far this has already increased average global temperature by more than one degree Celsius.

So who’s responsible for all these emissions? Canada contributes less than two percent of global emissions, the US about 15 percent, and China about 30 percent.

However when you look at emissions per person, the numbers are quite different. Each Canadian is responsible for about 21 tonnes each year, Americans about 20 and the Chinese about 8.5.

Within the Canadian Columbia Basin, about three-quarters of our emissions come from industrial activities. Mining and smelting by Teck Resources accounts for the vast majority. Over half of community emissions result from burning gasoline and diesel for transport, while heating our homes and buildings with propane and natural gas makes up most of the rest. Our decomposing landfills also contribute substantial amounts.

One aspect that’s often ignored is the contribution of exports to global GHG emissions. When purchasers in other countries burn East Kootenay coal, on an annual basis it contributes about 50 times the total emissions produced in the Columbia Basin.

The inevitable conclusion is that if we want to meaningfully reduce Columbia Basin GHG emissions, locally and globally, we must start moving toward a new economic future. Digging up and exporting fossil fuels has no future in a world that wants to avoid catastrophic climate disruption. We need to reassess our transportation infrastructure and our household uses to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Our abundance of hydroelectric power and sources of bio-energy certainly give us viable alternatives. Solar is also beginning to make a significant contribution.

The recent Paris Accord is often touted as evidence that we are making significant progress in solving the climate crisis. Although the commitments under the accord are politically impressive, they are not nearly enough to keep global temperature increases below two degrees Celsius. The general scientific consensus is that we need to be at zero emissions by 2050 if we are to have hope of avoiding a major catastrophe.

The argument is often made that since Canada is less than two percent of global emissions we are not that important, or that we shouldn’t act too soon as it might hurt our competitive advantage. An analogy that comes to mind is a group of people in a lifeboat. The lifeboat has a serious leak, and everyone has something for bailing, a bucket or a tea cup. No single bailer can stop the boat from sinking. What happens if everyone waits for someone else to start bailing?

We all need to act now.

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