Canada’s tar-sands policy fans flames of climate change as wildfires rage. Photo: wildfire in British Columbia9th June: Aerial photo provided by BC Wildfire Service shows wildfires burning in Northeast region of British Columbia, Canada. [Photo: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo]

Canada’s Clean Air Day celebrations did not quite go as planned this year. Though the theme was ‘Clean Air Everywhere’, it was more like ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ as the country grappled with what ABC, in its report that day, called ‘an epic and especially early start to the wildfire season’: more than 400 fires consuming 1,400% of the area normally burned by June.

It is a glimpse into Canada’s future – and it’s scary. With 43,000 sq km (10.6m acres) ablaze, compared with 25,000 sq km over an average season, the smoke drifted southwards to New York, creating the worst air quality for any city worldwide.

It was a ‘really clear sign of climate change’, said Mohammadreza Alizadeh, of Montreal’s McGill University. Daniel Swain, at the University of California, Los Angeles, agreed: ‘There’s a clear climate connection there.’ By 2090, climate change will increase global wildfires’ intensity by up to 57%, according to last year’s UN Environment Programme report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires. It concluded that changes in climate and land use were worsening wildfires and anticipated a global increase of extreme fires – even in areas hitherto unaffected.

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Carbon footprint

Yet even as firefighters flew in from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to help battle the conflagrations, Canada is still developing its tar sands in Alberta. The midwestern province would be the fifth-largest oil-producing nation if it were a country and emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector are expected to reach 100m tonnes a year by 2030 – a trajectory which will mean it misses the Paris climate accord targets by a mile. Greenpeace says tar-sands production rose 456% between 1990 and 2018, creating a carbon footprint for the industry greater than New Zealand and Kenya combined. The wildfires have burned roughly 15 times the past decade’s yearly average of land. But tar sands development has also cleared or degraded nearly 800,000 hectares of boreal forest since 2000.

At the same time, the country is warming at twice the global average rate – and by more than that in northern Canada, according to a government report in 2019. ‘Extreme hot temperatures will become more frequent and more intense,’ Canada’s Changing Climate declared. ‘This will increase the severity of heatwaves, and contribute to increased drought and wildfire risks.’ It is a staggering disconnect, yet it is one also seen in several of Canada’s Commonwealth peers.

‘Clean energy investment is extending its lead over fossil fuels,’ the International Energy Agency reported last month. But, it added, ‘Global coal demand reached an all-time high in 2022, and coal investment this year is on course to reach nearly six times the levels envisaged in 2030 in the Net Zero Scenario.’ The major oil corporations are fast rowing back on green energy pledges.

In a Moneycontrol article last month, India’s coal secretary, Amrit Lal Meena, boasted that the ministry had exceeded its coal production target and planned to begin exports within a few years. Since 2020, 87 mines have been licensed to start production, with a further 106 in the pipeline, the IEA reported. Meanwhile, the Forest Survey of India reported 337 ‘large active forest fires’ by mid-March, with 223,333 fires reported between November 2021 and June 2022.

El Niño

In Australia, meteorologists issued an ‘El Niño alert’, warning of a 70% chance of the climate system developing this year. This would reduce rainfall and raise temperatures, increasing the risk of bushfires and heatwaves. While bushfires are a natural phenomenon in Australia, climate change has made them far more destructive. Over 2019-20, more than 240,000 sq km were burnt; killing 33 people and at least 1bn animals, and destroying 3,000 homes, the Royal Commission reported.

Yet despite this, the government approved the new Isaac River coalmine in Queensland last month. Last year the state’s mothballed New Acland coalmine was permitted to raise output by 3m tonnes a year, and the proposed Vulcan South project would join the existing Vulcan mine in producing 1.95m tonnes a year each.

As the Economist put it, ‘the most effective way to kill coal is to curb demand for it.’ Make greener energy cheaper, and price carbon properly. Instead, governments spent a record $1tn subsidising fossil fuels last year.

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In March the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that while the world could still limit global temperature rises to 1.5C (2.7F) above pre-industrial levels, the threshold beyond which damage to the climate will become irreversible is perilously close. This week the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said countries must start phasing out oil, coal and gas – not just emissions – and called on fossil fuel companies to stop trying to ‘knee-cap’ climate progress. ‘The problem is not simply fossil fuel emissions. It’s fossil fuels – period,’ he told reporters. ‘The world must phase out fossil fuels in a just and equitable way – moving to leave oil, coal and gas in the ground.’

At the 2022 Commonwealth heads of government meeting, leaders reiterated their call for urgent action to mitigate climate change. Yet only weeks after the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, ‘underlined Canada’s commitment to further support efforts to tackle climate change’ at Chogm, the country’s environment minister said oil and gas companies could be allowed extra time to meet 2030 emissions reduction targets. For Canada to hit its target of net-zero emissions by 2050 will require a 42% cut in oil and gas emissions. It cannot afford to water down these targets.

As one of the Commonwealth’s wealthiest and most progressive-minded member states, Canada must step up and take the lead, whatever the short-term cost to its economy. The alternative is accepting that this year’s devastating wildfires will become the norm.

Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table editorial board.