Current Projects

Canada in the Anthropocene

An environmental imperative for our unnatural world. 

 

Are we stumbling towards some dystopian climate-crisis future? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But change is coming, and the status quo is insufficient. Photo via Patrick Hendry on Unsplash.As Canadians, we tend to pride ourselves on living in a vast country that is packed full of pristine nature and wilderness. In reality, there probably isn’t one part of Canada, no matter how remote, cold, or unpopulated, that remains unaffected by human activity. Our footprint is everywhere — in the black carbon soot that is deposited on Arctic ice, in the plastic that washes up on our expansive coastlines, and in the mercury and other toxic compounds that accumulate in wild animals.                                                                                                            

Of course, human-caused environmental change is nothing new; for as long as people have been on this land that we currently call Canada, we have influenced its environment. This holds true around the world. What is unique to our contemporary world, however, is the type and extent of environmental degradation. Since the onset of the industrial revolution, and especially since the 1950s, the world has undergone a “Great Acceleration” of socio-economic change, resource use and extraction, energy production and human population growth. As a result, it is commonly argued in both academic and popular circles that the Earth has entered a new geological period called the Anthropocene, or “the human ag.” As the name implies, the core feature of the Anthropocene is our ability to overwhelm natural systems at a global scale; in other words, to create an unnatural world.

Just how significant is the environmental change of the Anthropocene? In short — extremely. Researchers associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University have developed a Planetary Boundaries framework that seeks to identify a “safe operating space” for humanity. This framework is premised on two key observations. First, humans have thrived over the last 11,700 years, during the warm and climactically stable geological epoch known as the Holocene. Second, we should avoid levels of human interference that push the Earth’s systems beyond Holocene-like conditions, which will be much less hospitable for humans. Their work identifies boundaries for nine key systems: atmospheric ozone levels; atmospheric aerosol levels; ocean acidity levels; rate and extent of deforestation and land-system change; rate of freshwater use; rate of introduction of new chemicals and genetically modified substances; extent of nutrient cycle disruption; rate of biodiversity loss; and climate change. According to the most recent update, human activity has already breached the safe planetary boundary threshold for four of these boundaries, including climate change.

                   The core feature of the Anthropocene is our ability to overwhelm natural systems                                                                             at a global scale; in other words, to create an unnatural world.

Canadian environmental law is tethered to Canada’s historical legal traditions and is heavily influenced by 20th century neoliberalism — both of which have implications for our ability to address major environmental problems, like climate change. For example, consider that none of our constitutional documents expressly mention “the environment.” Perhaps this isn’t too surprising given that our contemporary understanding of “the environment” didn’t emerge until the 1960s, and is dramatically different than what was understood by constitutional drafters some 150 years ago. This isn’t to say that natural resource management issues were not contentious back then or that people didn’t worry about the quality of their surroundings; rather, it speaks to the fact that colonial Canada was founded largely upon Euro-centric goals of exploitation and extraction. Additionally, the environmental problems of the day were more localized and immediate than modern problems, especially when compared to something like global climate change. Despite this, we have a “made in Canada approach” to environmental conservation or management where, as a result of significant litigation, it is clear that environmental matters are an area of shared jurisdiction — the federal government has a role; the provincial government has a role; and even municipalities have carved out a niche. This doesn’t mean we are achieving great success, however. In 2016, a report by the Conference Board of Canada concluded that compared to peer-group countries, Canada ranked 14th out of 16 countries for its environmental protection track-record and deserved a grade of “D.” We can, and must, do better.                                                                                             

The Planetary Boundaries framework suggests that we should limit atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations to 350 parts per million (ppm), with the 350–450 ppm range representing a “zone of uncertainty.” In 2016, atmospheric CO2 concentrations hovered around 400 ppm and earlier this year we hit 410 ppm for the first time in recorded history. What is the international community doing to curb emissions? The Paris Agreement, formally negotiated at the end of 2015, is the international community’s most recent effort to try to mitigate (i.e., manage) and adapt (i.e., respond) to anthropogenic climate change. Climate change has been on the global official agenda for some 25 years and the Paris Agreement follows from other significant international efforts, including the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Canada has participated in international efforts since 1992, but has generally been regarded as a climate laggard; a title well-earned after we became the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol in 2013. Prime Minister Trudeau took an important step towards improving Canada’s reputation by signing the Paris Agreement in April 2016 and then formally ratifying it six months later.

Just as Canada re-emerges as an international climate participant, the U.S. is turning inward as a climate isolationist. Canada’s moves to phase out coal-fired electrical generations and to set a national minimum price on carbon pollution are a stark contrast to President Trump’s repudiation of the of the Paris Agreement, his executive orders that undo President Obama’s climate and energy initiatives and his continuing work to deregulate and de-fund federal environmental agencies and programs in accordance with his personal ideology. This incongruence with our neighbour, ally, and strong trading partner will have ramifications moving forward; however, it is clear that Trump’s approach is not favoured by the majority of countries and that Canada is best served by pursuing a strong climate agenda.                                       

I don’t know the exact type of action that will help keep us within Earth’s planetary boundaries. I do, however, have some sense of the shift that is required in order to tackle the climate change dilemma. Compared to most environmental issues, climate change is characterized by how integrated greenhouse gas pollution is in our day-to-day lives. Our electricity generation, our vehicles, our agriculture and animal husbandry, and our major industry and manufacturing sectors are all greenhouse gas intensive. Thus, this problem demands an equally integrated solution. As society moves towards developing and implementing such a solution, we need to reject the comfortable argument that greenhouse gas emission reduction and economic prosperity are mutually exclusive, especially if we can figure out how to properly value all of the goods and services that we derive from healthy and resilient ecosystems. We also have to ask ourselves what exactly do we want to sustain? Surely we don’t aspire to further pollute or degrade the environment that we have left. Individually, and collectively, we should work towards something better than that.

Are we stumbling towards some dystopian climate-crisis future? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. By and large I take hope from the fact that Canadians value the environment; however, now is the time to act on that value and to make sure we don’t take the Earth’s natural attributes for granted. Climate change, as well as the other major environmental challenges that are stressing Earth’s planetary boundaries, will require considerable cooperation and compromise at various levels of governance. Yes, Canada’s legal response is tethered to its constitutional documents and limited by its prevailing socio-economic structures. But change is coming, and the status quo is insufficient. We have a history of resilience, adaptability and innovation, and it is time to put those attributes to work — in law, in science, in technology — to redefine what a “made in Canada” approach to environmental issues looks like.                                                                      

My hope for the future is to see the maintenance (or recovery) of a healthy and productive environment emerge as a non-partisan issue with enhanced recognition that environmental conservation and protection doesn’t have to exist at odds with economic security. Canada, at 150, has a lot to be proud of but let’s not forget to keep looking forward towards the Canada we want to have many generations from now.

Assistant professor Cameron Jefferies teaches and researches primarily in the areas of international and domestic environmental law and the law of the sea. He has published several articles and book chapters and is the author of Marine Mammal Conservation and the Law of the Sea.

 

A Review of flood risk management in Alberta

Seth Bryant and Dr. Evan Davies PI), Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Alberta.

Since the 1970s, the number of significant floods in Canada per year has averaged 5 to 6 (Buttle et al., 2016), and the Minister of Public Safety recently called “the rising cost of natural disasters and financial burden on Ottawa the country’s biggest public safety risk” (cf. Simonovic 2014). Canadian government spending on disaster relief, of which flood victims are the largest recipient, has quadrupled in the past 40 years and continues to rise (Thistlethwaite 2016).  Yet, despite these efforts, the economic damage caused by flooding has continued to rise in the same period (Buttle et al. 2016). This demonstrates that Canada, like much of the developed world, is in need of more intelligent flood management.

Alberta is currently in the process of recovering from the costliest disaster in Canadian history, the flood of 2013 (Pomeroy et al. 2016).  The Government and affected communities are likely to follow a traditional approach to flood management in their recovery efforts, since recent remediation plans include construction of floodwalls and subsidization rebuilding in the floodplains of High River and Fort McMurray (Town of High River 2016; Snowdon 2016).  However, this type of approach may increase risk in the long run (Filatova 2014).

Fortunately, there are alternative approaches to flood management.  Indeed, the 2013 floods provide an opportunity for change through funding of new approaches for flood risk management and citizen engagement that emphasize education, to improve engagement with top-down flood management, and individual action, to reduce future losses (Simonovic 2014).  The primary goal of this research is to review both the current approach to flood risk management in Alberta and alternative approaches that may reduce future flood losses.  To meet these objectives, we will review literature concerning,

1. The methods and tools currently used to assess flood risk in Alberta,

2. Flood risk mitigation measures employed in Canada and their reported effectiveness, and

3. Future changes in flood risk from land use, river management and climate change. 

Our review focuses particularly on methods and tools for flood loss assessments, available mitigation measures suitable for Alberta, and changes in flooding with climate change.  It will provide background information useful in addressing funding calls related to flooding and flood management.  

 In particular, we note that efforts to determine indirect and intangible losses from flooding, as well assessing communication tools, conducting public surveys, and producing economic evaluations may be of interest to Network members.

Contact details: 780) 492-5134; email edavies1@ualberta.ca

 

Predicting Alberta’s Water Future (PAWF)

As part of the ‘Predicting Alberta’s Water Future (PAWF)’ project at the University of Alberta, Dr. Faramarzi as the lead investigator and Dr. Goss as the Principal Investigator in collaboration with other experts from Canada and around the world, have developed a dynamic water model of Alberta. The model simulates water resource components including blue water (surface water and deep aquifer recharge), green water (i.e., actual evapotransiration and soil moisture), and other hydrological components in 2255 subbasins at monthly time step in Alberta under the past and future climate scenarios. The three year (2014-2017) project funded by Alberta Innovates Energy and Environment Solutions (AIEES) provides a strong basis for assesings water related risks and opportunities to various water use sectors in Alberta and to the economy of the province. The results of the water model will be used to accomplish at least the following three inter-related large projects funded by other institutes in Alberta:

1.  Predicting water related risks and opportunities for Alberta’s beef industry (3 years, 2016-2018, funded by Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency)

2.  Predicting risks and opportunities for ecosystem water demand under future climate change and variabilities (3 years, 2016-2018, funded by

Alberta Biodiversity and Monitoring Institute)

3.  Adaptation to Changing Water in Alberta (ACWA) (3 years, 2017-2019, funded by Alberta Innovates Energy and Environment Solutions )

The project seeks to convey to stakeholders the risks and opportunities to their future growth scenarios as a result of changes in future local water availabilities.  Long-term integrated water management requires all sectors of the economy: agriculture, ecosystem services, municipal, industrial and energy (both oil and gas and hydroelectric) to collaborate to ensure there is enough water, when we need it, to ensure a strong economy.

Contact details: Tel: 780 492 5196; Email: faramarz@ualberta.ca

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Email: intsus@ualberta.ca

University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB,
CANADA

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