How countries can ensure they’ll actually meet their net-zero emissions pledges

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This week:

  • How countries can ensure they’ll actually meet their net-zero emissions pledges
  • The environmental cost of flying
  • New passive house residence at U of T will use heat from students’ laptops, fridges

How countries can ensure they’ll actually meet their net-zero emissions pledges

(Patrik Stollarz/Getty Images)

The federal government has unveiled its long-awaited legislation to set targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, with measures to keep itself accountable. The goal is to commit Canada — by law — to net-zero emissions by 2050, with five-year targets starting in 2030.

“As a nation, as Canadians, we cannot afford inaction in tackling climate change,” said Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who tabled the legislation Thursday.

“We have the tools to make this happen.”

Observers consider accountability and enforcement key parts of any climate legislation. Canada has set multiple emissions reduction targets in past decades and has never met a single one. It’s also on track to miss its current target for 2030.

Environmental groups, including West Coast Environmental Law and Ecojustice, had been asking for a framework at least as robust as the United Kingdom’s Climate Change Act, which has been in place since 2008.

The U.K. has managed to meet its 2020 emissions target — cutting more than 40 per cent since 1990, according to national statistics

While some of that reduction predates legislation, it has “continued and accelerated” since the law took effect, according to Sam Fankhauser, director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics.

Fankhauser points to a series of measures that have helped make the system effective: 

  • Clear, mandatory targets for the short and long term.
  • An annual report and debate in parliament.
  • Statutory responsibilities to deal with adapting to climate change.
  • A powerful independent advisory body called the Committee on Climate Change.

“They are technical experts and they are respected for that,” said Fankhauser, describing the committee as akin to a central bank, although it can’t set climate change policy, like a bank rate.  

While the bill introduced in Canada does include an advisory body that Wilkinson has said will be independent, early indications are that it will have a different makeup than the U.K. committee. In an interview Thursday, Wilkinson said he wants people from industry and labour among the advisors, as well as climate experts and Indigenous representatives.

What On Earth28:39New climate accountability for Canada – will it work?

Canada hasn’t met a climate target yet. Trudeau’s Liberals just introduced new accountability legislation — but how strong is it? We get reaction, look at lessons from the U.K.’s ‘gold standard’ climate law, and hear what we still need to reach net-zero. 28:39

The advisory body also lacks many of the provisions enshrined in the U.K. law. For example, the Canadian legislation says the minister will set their terms of reference, and the advisory body will report to him — not Parliament. The minister will have to publicly respond to that advice.

“This makes the advisory body much less independent and probably less powerful — more an advisor than a watchdog, which seems like a missed opportunity,” said Fankhauser, who called the legislation “pretty good” overall.

In contrast, the U.K. law sets terms for the Committee on Climate Change, and the committee must publish their advice.

“The committee advises in quite clear terms and the government has to explain to Parliament if the advice isn’t followed, why the advice has not been followed,” Fankhauser told CBC Radio’s What On Earth.

“So the odds are stacked in favour of the Committee on Climate Change.”

Fankhauser, who was an inaugural member of that committee, said the U.K. started with a political consensus around the need to cut emissions — and the legislation has helped strengthen that commitment, even if there are some climate skeptics in government.

But he acknowledges the situation in Canada is different, making it less clear whether Ottawa and the provinces will follow the U.K.’s lead in climate accountability.

Laura Lynch and Lisa Johnson

Reader feedback

A few readers wrote in with something to say about Menaka Raman-Wilms’s piece on why tampon applicators keep washing up on beaches.

Stephanie Van Slyke said, “Regarding tampon applicators on the beach, using paper-based applicators, e.g. Tampax cardboard applicator, or no applicator at all, e.g. OB tampons, eliminates the problem altogether. I have NEVER used tampons with a plastic applicator for this very reason. It is a product looking for a use — utterly unnecessary.”

Marianne Dawson: “I read your article on tampon applicators ending up in the ocean and I appreciated the commentary on making periods socially acceptable so people with uteruses don’t feel like we need to hide the evidence. The best way people can reduce waste created by periods is by using a cup or disc. For those already using tampons, it is a fairly straightforward switch and it only takes a few cycles to learn how to insert the cup like an expert. After four years of using the same one, I can attest that it’s the best zero-waste solution to periods!”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show! Canada has new climate accountability legislation — but how strong is it? Join What on Earth host Laura Lynch this week as she gets reaction and looks at what needs to be done to hit net-zero emissions. Listen on CBC Radio One on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland, or any time on podcast or CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: The carbon emissions of air travel

The airline industry has been especially bruised by the COVID-19 pandemic — it’s estimated global air travel is down nearly 75 per cent since this time last year. Promising developments on a vaccine in recent weeks, however, have awakened the possibility of a return to frequent flying (and have boosted the stock of the airlines themselves). It is fair to assume that air travel, which has grown exponentially since the 1990s, will be booming once effective vaccination is widely available, but that won’t change the fact that flying remains one of the most carbon-intensive activities on Earth. Grassroots movements like Flygskam (Swedish for “flight shame”) emphasize that planes make up about 12 per cent of global emissions, but unlike driving, it’s not an activity we all engage in equally. A couple of years ago, the CEO of Boeing said more than 80 per cent of people in the world have never flown, and a new study suggests the world’s richest one per cent are responsible for half of flying emissions.

(Clemens Bilan/Pool/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Students in the Netherlands have built an electric car entirely out of waste. The vehicle, named Luca, is made of plastic and household garbage and can go up to 90 km/h. The frame is made from flax and recycled PET bottles, while electric motors in the rear wheels help power the lightweight car. It took 22 students at the Technical University of Eindhoven about 18 months to build it. The team said they did it to “show that sustainable technology can be sexy, by implementing waste as a valuable material into a sporty-looking car.”

  • The United Nations is considering a global treaty on plastic pollution, but two of the world’s biggest contributors aren’t on board. Last week at a virtual conference, two-thirds of UN member states said they’re open to a sort of Paris Accord of plastic, but the U.S. and the U.K. remain on the sidelines. The U.S. position may change when president-elect Joe Biden takes office next year.
  • The world’s only known white giraffe has been fitted with a GPS tracking device to help protect it from poachers. The young male lives in the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy in Kenya and has a genetic condition called leucism, which causes a partial loss of skin pigmentation. Its rare colour makes it a target for poachers — earlier this year, a mother and calf with the same colouring were killed by poachers in the conservancy. The GPS tracker has been attached to the giraffe’s horns, and will send out a signal every hour so rangers know its location.

New passive house residence at U of T will use heat from students’ laptops, fridges

(Shimahara Visual)

Construction began this month on a new student residence building at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus — but this is no ordinary residence. The building happens to be one of the largest passive house projects in North America. 

Passive house is a building model that’s incredibly environmentally friendly because the structure is well-insulated and harnesses the heat generated within the building. As a result, maintaining indoor air temperature requires very little energy. 

Although the up-front costs for such a structure can be about 10 per cent higher than a conventional building, annual fuel use for heating and cooling can be 80 to 90 per cent lower, according to the non-profit Passive House Canada. 

“We know that one of the fastest ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to make sure that buildings are done to a very high [energy] standard,” said Chris Ballard, CEO of Passive House Canada. He said the model also prioritizes comfort and healthy air. 

“There are no buildings that are more comfortable — to live in, to work in, to go to school in,” he said. “The passive house comfort standard beats everything else hands down.”

The passive house design model is well-known in Europe and is gaining traction in North America for single homes and larger buildings. 

U of T’s new passive house residence in Scarborough, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2023, will accommodate 750 students. The design takes into account the heat generated by all those student bodies, as well as energy from their laptops, lights, TVs and refrigerators. 

“All of that electrical equipment actually gives off heat,” said Lois Arena, a passive house consultant who worked on the UTSC residence. The well-insulated building — a design that includes triple-pane windows — holds all that heat inside. 

In fact, the design is so efficient, said Arena, that one of the biggest challenges with such a large project is cooling the building — even in colder months.

“You’ll need [cooling] further into October and probably in March,” she said. However, less energy will be needed to cool the building because the inside air temperature doesn’t fluctuate as much. 

The additional insulation doesn’t mean there’s no airflow. On the contrary — the passive house model ensures a constant supply of fresh, filtered air for each individual unit. 

“You’re not pulling in any stale air from your neighbour’s apartment,” Arena said, because every unit has its own ventilation system. This system also transfers heat and moisture from the old air that’s being swapped for fresh air, which again reduces energy and maintains a consistent humidity.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, where the virus has spread through aerosol transmission, this compartmentalized design could be even more important.

“Passive house is really set up to deal with the situation that we’re in,” Arena said. 

Menaka Raman-Wilms

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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