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October 31, 2007

Canada's forest industry to turn over a new leaf

October 30th 2007.

Canada's forest industry says it will be carbon neutral by 2015.

In what is likely the first such pledge by any major industry sector in the world, the forest companies say their logging, paper and pulp operations, and the products they produce, will, in effect, no longer be a source of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

And they'll do it, they say, without resorting to offsets – the controversial practice in which polluters continue to spew emissions, but contribute to projects elsewhere that claim to reduce them.

The effort must extend beyond forests and mills to wood and paper consumers, such as construction sites, homes and offices, Avrim Lazar, president of the Forest Products Association of Canada, said.

The aim is to protect both the environment and the industry's bottom line, said Lazar, who was to announce the pledge this morning at a conference in Ottawa.

Global demand for wood products is soaring, he said. "If people continue to do it the old way ... it won't be very good for the planet."

The devastating spread of pine beetles in British Columbia – partly because winters are no longer cold enough to kill the insects – is a wake-up call, he said.

"We got a lesson in the impact of climate change before most of the rest of Canada."

As well, global buyers increasingly demand products from "sustainable" operations. That can be an edge for Canadian firms, which face fierce competition from China, Brazil and other places where trees grow faster, costs are lower, and environment rules can be lax.

The Canadian industry has reduced its greenhouse emissions 44 per cent since 1990, when its output increased by 20 per cent.

That puts it far ahead of Canada's Kyoto Protocol target – a 6 per cent cut.

Most of the industry's reductions have been at pulp and paper mills, which have become more efficient and, in many cases, converted from oil and gas to renewable fuels. But much of the effort will involve keeping wood and paper out of landfills where, as it decomposes, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

About half the paper used in Canada is recycled, Lazar said. To improve that figure, the industry will use publicity to target consumers in offices and apartment buildings, where recycling rates are low.

Another focus will be recycling wood waste at construction sites. The aim is to have it recycled into plywood, particleboard or paper; or sent to high-tech plants that burn wood for heat and electricity.

"We hope other industries will rise to the challenge" of doing the same, or better, said Lorne Johnson of World Wildlife Fund Canada, which is working with the association. Other green groups are on an advisory panel.

Johnson added the odds are good the industry will meet the target. "They're already doing a good job."

Shifting into neutral

How the Canadian forestry industry plans to meet its 2015 target:

Become energy self-sufficient – switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Adopt energy-efficient technologies.

Increase diversion of used forest products from landfills.

Cap more landfills to prevent methane leaks.

Increase cogeneration – using waste heat to generate electricity.

Increase potential of forests and wood products to store carbon.

Maximize recycling of paper and wood products.

October 18, 2007

Scientists 'stunned' by Arctic ice behaviour

The giant Ayles Ice Island south of the North Pole has broken in two, one of several "remarkable" occurrences in a year that has seen a record-shattering retreat of the Arctic ice.

"We have people here in the ice service with over 40 years experience and they're all stunned," says Doug Bancroft, director of the Canadian Ice Service, of the extraordinary behaviour of Arctic ice this summer.

"They've never seen anything like this."

The break-up of the ice island last month was just one of several highlights of a summer season that also saw the Northwest Passage open up for the second year in a row.

There has been the occasional summer in the past where the passage was almost ice-free in late summer, making it possible to navigate the fabled passage in a small vessel, says Bancroft.

But to see it happen two years in a row is unprecedented in four decades of record-keeping, he says.

Just two per cent of the 2,300-kilometre-long passage had sea ice at the peak of the ice retreat in mid-September this year, compared to the normal 14 per cent, Bancroft says.

"Normally you'd encounter ice for 400 kilometres of that, this year there was only 20 kilometres," he said.

The Ayles Ice Island, a Manhattan-sized chunk of ice that cracked off an ancient ice shelf at the north end of Ellesmere Island in 2005, also had an incredible summer. After spending more than a year struck in the pack ice at the north end of Ellesmere, the giant slab started moving and sailed into a channel that is normally blocked by ice year-round. The island, which hit a top speed of 10 nautical miles a day, cracked in half in early September and the two pieces are now on opposite sides of a small island in the Arctic archipelago. They are now about 360 nautical miles from where they originated, says Bancroft.

The ice service uses satellites and a beacon to follow the islands, which have now headed into a "graveyard" of multi-year ice far from shipping lanes and oil, gas and mining operations. Bancroft is, however, reluctant to say they won't break loose and become a potential menace in future.

"2007 was such an usual summer in so many respects that people aren't making forecasts about the fate and evolution of very large chunks of ice such as this," says Bancroft, noting how the Arctic ice is changing - and melting - much faster than climate models predicted.

"If you look at what happened in the last three years, it closely resembles the absolutely worst-case scenario, but about 20, 25 years ahead of schedule," he says, referring to models created by international teams of scientists to predict the impact of global warming on the north. They had forecast the Arctic could be free of summer ice as early as 2050.

On Monday the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center issued a seasonal wrap-up that said the Arctic sea ice hit the lowest level in 2007 since satellite measurements began in 1979. The average sea ice extent for the month of September was 4.28 million square kilometres, the lowest September on record, shattering the previous record for the month, set in 2005, by 23 per cent. At the end of the melt season, September 2007 sea ice was 39 per cent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000.

"The sea ice cover is in a downward spiral and may have passed the point of no return," Mark Serreze, a senior scientist at the U.S. centre said in the statement that warned the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by 2030.

Bancroft agrees that the ice "may" have passed the point of no return, stressing that no one really knows for sure.

But he says there is no question the ice has supported the Arctic ecosystem for millennia is "rapidly" changing.

"There is a sense of urgency here," says Bancroft, noting that research teams from around the world are focused on the Arctic as part of the International Polar Year and working to get a better read on the ice and its ecosystem.

Experts fear greenhouse gas cuts may be too little, too late

Greenhouse gas reduction targets, set by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other world leaders are not nearly tough enough to prevent a planetary meltdown, a leading Canadian climate research team reports.

It says global emissions need to be slashed by 90 per by 2050 to avoid a two-degree Celsius rise in the global temperature - a threshold that scientists fear could trigger melting of the Greenland ice sheet and a seven-metre rise in sea level.

Even with such a huge cut in emissions, future generations will still have to extract carbon monoxide out of the air because the gas persists in the atmosphere for so long, the team reports in the Geophysical Research Letters this week.

"Our results suggest that if a 2.0-degree C warming is to be avoided, direct CO2 capture from the air, together with subsequent sequestration would eventually have to be introduced in addition to sustained 90 per cent global carbon emissions reductions by 2050," the University of Victoria team concludes.

The group's experiments indicate many emission reduction targets - which vary widely depending on the government proposing them - are "inconsistent" with the stated aims of the politicians, says lead author Andrew Weaver.

"They're saying: 'We don't want to have two-degree warming, so let's aim for a 40 to 50 per cent cut in emissions'," says Weaver. "What's we're saying is: 'If you want to avoid two-degree warming, then you need to get to 90 per cent cuts by 2050.' "

California and Germany aim to slash their emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050; leaders of several G8 countries have proposed cutting global emissions to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050; and the Harper government wants to cut Canada's current emissions by 60 to 70 per cent by 2050.

"In Canada, we have a history of just making numbers up," says Weaver, who sees little scientific rationale for the targets set by either the former Liberal government or the current Conservative one.

"Maybe they have a Ouija board or something, and they all sit around in a seance," Weaver said in an interview. "There is no rhyme or reason to it. "

The current target set by the Conservatives is "nowhere near enough," says Weaver, stressing the need for the Canada and other countries to wean themselves off fossil fuels to curb carbon emissions from cars, factories and power plants that continue to soar globally.

While two-degree warming globally does not sound like much, many experts believe it will be enough to trigger mass species extinctions and accelerated melting of polar ice sheets. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN climate panel, said recently that some scientists are now questioning if the two-degree benchmark is safe enough.

"People are actually questioning if the two-degrees centigrade benchmark that has been set is safe enough," Pachauri, head of the

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told a Reuters environment summit in London.

There are also indications the climate is changing faster than expected. The remarkable loss of sea ice in the Arctic this summer, which scientists and government officials have described as "stunning," has prompted leading ice researchers to say the Arctic may have already passed the tipping point and the summer ice could be gone by 2030.

Weaver's team is one of the few in the world that has computer models with the power and sophistication to assess the long-term impact of different emission reductions.

In a series of nine experiments, Weaver's team found less than 60 per cent global emissions reduction by 2050 breaks the two-degree threshold warming this century. And even when total global emissions are stabilized at 90 per cent below present levels by 2050, the two-degree threshold is broken in centuries ahead because of the way carbon lingers in the atmosphere. While two degrees could trigger melting of the massive Greenland ice sheet, scientists say it would actually take centuries to melt all the ice and raise sea levels seven metres.

In a related study, which was presented an a conference earlier this year and is published this week, Weaver and his colleagues found burning all known reserves of fossil fuels, from Alberta's oil sands to China's vast stores of coal, would have grave long-term consequences.

It says that the carbon released, if it continued to waft into the atmosphere as it does today, would drive up global temperatures between six and eight degrees and persist in the atmosphere for more than 1,800 years.

Climate models are not perfect and are less reliable the farther into the future they extend, but scientists say they are the only available means of exploring different scenarios.

Pollution in Canada getting worse, statistics show

OTTAWA - Canada's air and water quality is getting worse, Statistics Canada reported Monday.

Reviewing key indicators from 1990 to 2005, the statistical agency found a 12 per cent increase in ground-level ozone, a major component of smog, over the 15-year period. The increases were particularly noteworthy in southern Ontario and southern Quebec.

Smog is created from ozone and fine particulate matter that come from transportation, electricity generation, wood burning and the use of some chemical products.

The Statistics Canada report also found that water quality was "poor" or "marginal" in 23 per cent of sites tested.

Overall, it concluded that Canada was falling short of accepted quality standards required for protecting fish, plants and other aquatic life. The main source of pollution appeared to be phosphorus from sewage, agriculture runoff and industrial waste, according to the report.

Meantime, the study confirmed other recent studies about Canada's greenhouse gas emissions that revealed that levels of heat-trapping gases were stable between 2004 and 2005, but more than 30 per cent above Canada's legally binding targets under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

October 9, 2007

Greenhouse gas emissions hit point of no return

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The global economic boom has accelerated greenhouse gas emissions to a dangerous threshold not expected for a decade and could potentially cause irreversible climate change, said one of Australia's leading scientists.

Tim Flannery, a world recognized climate change scientist and Australian of the Year in 2007, said a U.N. international climate change report due in November will show that greenhouse gases have already reached a dangerous level.

Flannery said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report will show that greenhouse gas in the atmosphere in mid-2005 had reached about 455 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent -- a level not expected for another 10 years.

"We thought we'd be at that threshold within about a decade," Flannery told Australian television late on Monday.

"We thought we had that much time. But the new data indicates that in about mid-2005 we crossed that threshold," he said.

"What the report establishes is that the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is already above the threshold that could potentially cause dangerous climate change."

Flannery, from Macquarie University and author of the climate change book "The Weather Makers," said he had seen the raw data which will be in the IPCC Synthesis Report.

He said the measurement of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere included not just carbon dioxide, but also nitrous oxide, methane and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). All these gases were measured and then equated into potentially one gas to reach a general level.

"They're all having an impact. Probably 75 percent is carbon dioxide but the rest is that mixed bag of other gases," he said.


Flannery said global economic expansion, particularly in China and India, was a major factor behind the unexpected acceleration in greenhouse gas levels.

"We're still basing that economic activity on fossil fuels. You know, the metabolism of that economy is now on a collision course, clearly, with the metabolism of our planet," he said.

The report adds an urgency to international climate change talks on the Indonesian island of Bali in December, as reducing greenhouse gas emissions may no longer be enough to prevent dangerous climate change, he said.

U.N. environment ministers meet in December in Bali to start talks on a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol on curbing climate change that expires in 2012.

"We can reduce emissions as strongly as we like -- unless we can draw some of the standing stock of pollutant out of the air and into the tropical forests, we'll still face unacceptable levels of risk in 40 years time," he said.

Flannery suggested the developed world could buy "climate security" by paying villages in countries like Papua New Guinea not to log forests and to regrow forests.

"That 200 gigatonnes of carbon pollutant, the standing stock that's in the atmosphere, is there courtesy of the industrial revolution, and we're the beneficiaries of that and most of the world missed out," he said.

"So I see that as a historic debt that we owe the world. And I can't imagine a better way of paying it back than trying to help the poorest people on the planet."

Homeowners riding the green wave

For Andrea Kantelberg, "green" isn't just another one of those warm, fuzzy buy words exploited by slick marketers eager to cash in on the latest craze. The same might be said for Mitch Abrahams, Martin Blake and others like them in Greater Toronto's development industry – people for whom green is a way of work and a way of life.

And increasingly, they have allies among homebuyers who – despite being skeptical about products being labelled green – are making it known they want residences that are safe, cheap to operate and enviro-friendly.

So while the trees may be changing colour, the great push of 2007 toward greening our homes and lifestyles will only gain momentum through fall and winter, Kantelberg, Abrahams, Blake and other industry leaders say.

"(Green priorities) will absolutely soon be the norm because we can't carry on as a world without making some serious changes," says Kantelberg, who has won awards for her numerous eco-friendly projects, including a Smart Environments award from the International Interior Design Association. "That's not preachy, that's reality."

Kantelberg, who lived in Holland between the ages of 8 and 14, says she grew up recycling and eating healthy, organic foods. "So designing green interiors was just a natural segue."

Owner of Kantelberg Design, a five-person boutique shop, she has worked on projects for Tridel, including the 1,900-square-foot Eco-Suite in Tridel's Element project.

That showcase unit features eco-friendly wallpaper and water-based, low VOC (volatile organic compound) paint. Her projects use recycled steel and drywall and local materials such as quartz or porcelain countertops instead of granite.

But building on the green trend and doing right by the environment all requires attention to economics.

Blake, vice-president of project implementation for Daniels Corp., fully agrees that the greening of the condo and new home construction industry is a good thing. "But the challenge is to make sure it is affordable as well," he says.

One way Daniels has been able to make costs work for clients is by building its subdivisions before the homes are sold, he says. Most GTA builders do it the other way round.

The strategy allows the builder to purchase materials in bulk and pass on savings to buyers, he says, adding that Daniels also scraps many costly cosmetic upgrades in favour of energy-saving materials and appliances.

The extra initial costs of quality windows or beefed-up insulation can easily be recouped within a few years of lower operating costs, Blake says. "But it's not just the energy and cost savings that count, it's also a tangible benefit to the environment."

And as these messages gradually permeate the public consciousness, the green trend only solidifies itself.

Alas, there's still a long way to go. A recent Ipsos Reid survey of Canadian homeowners indicates many are still not convinced that going green will save them money, and almost two-thirds think that when a company calls a product green it is usually just a marketing ploy.

"There is a lot of skepticism about green products out there and men are even more skeptical than women," says home improvement expert Jon Eakes, a spokesperson for insulation manufacturer Icynene, which commissioned the poll.

So how can homebuyers cut through all the noise to ensure a product billed as environmentally friendly is just that and not simply more greenwash?

Abrahams, president of the Benvenuto Group, a residential condo developer, admits it isn't always easy. "Sometimes there is more marketing than substance," he says.

Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, says consumers must look carefully at products and homes being peddled as eco-friendly, saying many don't live up to their billing.

"Some of their green stuff reminds me of the developers who name their subdivisions after the very natural features they have just obliterated – you know, Wildflower Lane," Smith says. "We're living in an era where every manufacturer claims to be green and buyers are vulnerable to unsubstantiated builders' claims."

It doesn't help that the construction industry itself is still grappling to define what it really means to build green, he adds. "We're at the very beginnings of this debate," he says. "I think buyers have to proceed with caution and carefully examine these claims."

That means homebuyers should look for recognized eco-brands such as LEED, Energy-Star and Green Globe when it comes to assessing whether a home – or any other product – can live up to an eco-friendly billing, Smith says.

Buyers should also look for homes with built-in features such as smart thermostats, solar water heaters, extra insulation, energy-efficient windows and smart fabric blinds (fabric is more energy efficient for windows).

Most of the ratings systems such as LEED and Energy-Star focus on energy efficiency, but Smith predicts that over the next few years, a system to create eco-standards for building materials will also evolve.

This will rate materials according to their levels of toxicity or whether they are organically produced. Currently, there is a rating system for lumber called FSC – the Forest Stewardship Council – the "gold standard" for enviro-wood, Smith says.

Then there are the consumers who say they would purchase environmentally safe products, but only if there is no price difference and they can still get the upscale products they want.

"It's great to say in a focus group that you care about the environment," Blake says. "But are you willing to give up your granite countertops (which have often been transported from Europe)?"

Blake agrees with Kantelberg about the importance of buying and building local. "No more imported Kentucky limestone; why don't we just go with what the local environment has," he says. "There has to be a recognition of the cost and the impact," he adds.

So is using granite for your countertops eco-friendly? "Forget about it," Kantelberg says. "People may perceive it as a natural product, but it is not a renewable product."

The granite is often mined in Italy, and the weight and the long-distance shipping mean huge costs for the environment in carbon emissions, she says.

"For all those reasons, it is a poor choice," Kantelberg says. "There are so many products, such as recycled bottles, that are good alternatives."

Smith agrees, calling stone countertops "an environmental disaster. The energy alone used to power the water-cooled saws needed to cut marble is gigantic," Smith says.

Abrahams of Benvenuto Group says buildings also have to be constructed with an eye to how they will "perform" down the road.

What kind of eco-friendly homes will hit the market in 15 years? And how will communities build to save energy?

Smith, Abrahams and Blake all foresee more localized solar and wind power for our homes and more use of geothermal systems for heating and cooling.

And most new homes will be net-zero homes, meaning they consume less power than they generate through renewable sources.

Abrahams also says that making more efficient use of land and cutting the need for carbon-based transportation is crucial, using Benvenuto Group as an example for taking an "eyesore" sunken parking lot near Eglinton Ave. E. and Yonge St. and turning it into energy-efficient condos.

"I think intensifying is key to the whole green movement," he says.

See Also:

Window Blinds and Your Health

October 8, 2007

Harper's budget cuts exasperate, infuriate environmental scientists

EDMONTON -- Environment Canada scientists are virtually at war with the federal department over funding shortfalls for conservation and climate change initiatives.

The situation has become so intense that Environment Canada has put out a contract worth up to $100,000 to get an outside agency to help ease tensions and get employees used to the idea of coming changes.

Battle lines began to be drawn this summer when the Conservative government froze the budget of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), the 60-year-old institution that is responsible for migratory birds, national bird and wildlife sanctuaries, endangered species and the famous Hinterland's Who's Who television commercials and web sites.

Budgets were also slashed for the Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Network, the Migratory Bird Program and the National Wildlife Areas before Environment Minister John Baird rescinded those cuts last week.

Baird declined to be interviewed about the troubles at Environment Canada.

But in a statement, Garry Keller, his director of communications, blamed the former Liberal government for the freeze and the cuts. Keller said a $17.1-million budget cut agreed to by Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, when Dion was environment minister, is responsible.

He said the Tory government has increased Environment Canada's main budget by $38 million. Keller said there will be no layoffs, which was never an issue, but did not say if a budget freeze were still part of the plan.

He added that Baird has instructed his department to be "financially flexible" so that critical programs are maintained.

More than a dozen scientists and managers interviewed by The Edmonton Journal over the past week aren't optimistic anything is going to get better.

The scientists said CWS has been so cash-starved for so long that there are virtually no recovery programs in place for the majority of plant and wildlife species that are considered to be at risk.

The problems, they said, have been made known to the government through various channels and audits. Last year, for example, an audit done for the government showed that the former Liberal government diverted funds away from the endangered species program.

The audit by Stratos, a management consulting firm, noted that Environment Canada lagged far behind Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans in taking action on the endangered species for which they are responsible.

Seven weeks ago, the Environment Law Centre of Alberta sent Baird a letter saying that, to date, critical habitat for the recovery of species at risk has been identified for only three of the 235 plants and animals that should have recovery plans in place.

The freeze, however, isn't the only thing that has the scientists at CWS hopping mad. The budget issues have also escalated into what one senior research scientist described as a "bizarre round of spending initiatives" that is being used to justify the so-called re-organization of CWS and changing its name to the Conservation and Biodiversity Protection Directorate.

Earlier this year, Ipsos-Reid was hired to give the government insight into what the scientists said was a senseless re-organization of the service under a new name.

Regional Environment Canada managers interviewed by Ipsos-Reid saw no need for it, scientists and other employees saw it as an excuse for cutting jobs and conservation programs and creating another layer in what they called an already top-loaded bureaucracy.

The report, however, has apparently not changed the minds of the senior officials within the department who have put out another contract, one that calls for "organizational intervention" for the CWS's entire work force.

The focus this time is on "team building, change management, employee engagement, and values and ethics policies and legislation."

The value of the contract is estimated to be between $50,000 and $100,000.

Keller defended the contract, saying it was for "ethics training, something that Canadians said was very important after years of Liberal mismanagement." Scientists and a number of managers see it as a waste of money that could be used for more meaningful conservation programs.

CWS is not the only unhappy organization within Environment Canada.

At the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC), many of the roughly 300 researchers, scientists and forecasters also say they are angry, depressed and frustrated by budget constraints that stop them from providing the services Canadians are paying for. MSC operates on an annual budget of about $200 million, which most scientists think is not nearly enough to address the climate change and air quality challenges that Canada faces.

MSC has never recovered from the years 1994 through to 1998, when government cutbacks shrank funding by 30 per cent. A little over two years ago, many of MSC's top scientists joined university colleagues in making a detailed public statement warning the government that the research essential to climate change and smog-reducing initiatives was near a state of collapse.

October 7, 2007

Arctic torn to pieces as heat triggers landslides

Queen's University researchers watched in awe and dismay this summer as landslides blamed on climate change mangled wide swaths of a remote Arctic valley in mere hours.

"When a week was up the landscape had been torn to pieces in dozens of places. We were surprised by both the speed and the scale of the changes," said geography professor Scott Lamoureux.

He warned that such large-scale environmental upheaval could throw fragile Arctic ecosystems off-kilter by interfering with the flow of vital organic material and nutrients carried by water during the brief summer months.

"We expected this would happen in the future to some extent but to see it taking place already is a bit of a shock," Lamoureux said.

Lamoureux leads a Queen's University research team probing the impact of climate change on water quality in a 20-square-kilometre region at the southern end of Melville Island in the western Arctic.

The study began in 2003 and this spring expanded to include scientists from the University of Toronto.

The findings sound a warning for other areas of the Arctic, some warmer than the Melville Island locale.

Federal government surveys have concluded permafrost lies beneath about half the land mass of Canada, extending as much as 700 metres deep in the Arctic archipelago.

Lamoureux said the landslides were triggered in the last week of July after unprecedented high summer temperatures caused the permafrost on Melville to melt down as far as a metre, 20 times deeper than normal.

This excess water acted like a layer of ball bearings, letting the soil on top slide down the valley slopes.

"It was like a rug coming down and then piling up in the river channel in folds.

"Along one 200-metre stretch, it shifted the entire river bed to the other side," Lamoureux said.

Records going back to the 1950s show daytime highs averaging about 5C in July, but this past summer, temperatures regularly reached 15C and sometimes 20C, Lamoureux said.

"There were dozens of these slow-motion landslides. You couldn't see them move over a period of minutes, but they covered 50 or 60 metres in a day.

"One flowed down a good two kilometres from a ridge to the valley floor," he said.

The ecological upheaval most probably continued after the Queen's researchers left on Aug. 1, Lamoureux said, but he has been unsuccessful in obtaining satellite images to check on the final extent of the damage.

The geography professor said having before and after measurements of water flow and quality from the site is "scientific serendipity."

"From an experimental standpoint, we couldn't ask for a better situation," he said.

Also excited by the development is U of T professor Myrna Simpson, a specialist in environmental chemistry who joined the Melville Island project this year when the federal government provided nearly $700,000 as part of International Polar Year funding.

In her lab on the university's Scarborough campus, Simpson analyzes how carbon-based organic material ages differently in the Arctic compared to temperate zones.

"We're learning a lot of really new things," she said.

October 1, 2007

Mulroney urges more action on climate change

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney said Sunday night the world's countries should mark the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol with a new agreement that will slash greenhouse gases.

Mulroney was in Montreal to deliver the keynote speech of this week's United Nations conference marking marking the 20th anniversary of the protocol, in which 191 countries agreed to ban ozone-depleting substances.

"It doesn't really matter whether the process is called Kyoto or something else, as long as we are addressing the urgency of global warming," Mulroney said.

The Montreal Protocol, signed 20 years ago Sunday, aims to cut down on emissions of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer, which shields Earth from ultraviolet solar radiation that can cause skin cancer and other ailments.

To mark the anniversary, the countries that signed it will be taking part in a conference that starts today and runs until Friday. It's hoped that the conference will result in a commitment to further reduce ozone-depleting substances.

Mulroney pointed out the Montreal Protocol has been called the most successful international agreement by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Anan.

The treaty is considered a raging success because it mapped a way to cut production of ozone-depleting substances. So far, 191 countries have signed this pact, and have phased out more than 95 per cent of ozone-depleting substances. One of the gases banned as a result of the agreement was chlorofluorocarbons, which were present in aerosol sprays.

Mulroney said as a result of the protocol, a large hole in the ozone over Antarctica is now on the mend.

"It was the first concerted action on climate change," said Mulroney, who last year was named by leading environmentalists as Canada's greenest prime minister. "At the end of the last century, it foretold the great global issue of this century."

There is much optimism among the participants that this year's conference will result in an agreement to ban gases called hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are detrimental to the ozone and contribute to climate change. Those gases are present in refrigerators and air conditioners.

The United States is pushing for all signatories of the Montreal Protocol to ratify an agreement to phase out HCFCs over a period of 10 years.

It's believed such an agreement would have a greater impact on global warming than the Kyoto Protocol on climate change because the U.S. has not signed on to that pact. Developing countries such as China and India are also exempt from Kyoto's pact to cut on greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada's Emission Remain at Record High

OTTAWA -- Canada's greenhouse gas emissions have stayed at a record high for another year, according to federal statistics showing that even a warm winter and more nuclear power can't stop our up-and-up emissions trend.

The newest national summary shows our greenhouse gas production in 2005 stayed at the peak first reached in 2004, slightly above 2003, and significantly higher than all previous years.

Our emissions are now 32.7 per cent above the target in Canada's Kyoto Protocol commitment - which takes binding effect in three months.

While we at least managed not to increase our emissions in 2005, Environment Canada says that's partly because we got lucky with a warm winter. We also reduced emissions in some areas by bringing nuclear plants back online in Ontario, which allowed the province's power plants to burn less coal.

Environment Canada adds: "Long term growth, nevertheless, remains large. Between 1990 and 2005 significant increases in oil and gas production, much of which have been provided to the United States, have resulted in a significant increase in the emissions associated with the production and transportation of fuel for export."

The Kyoto Protocol obliges Canada to keep greenhouse gas emissions six percentage points below 1990 levels, on average, from the beginning of 2008 through 2012.

Yet the latest figures illustrate the gap between the public's stated goals - telling pollsters we demand cuts in emissions - and the nation's real demand for cars, heated homes and manufactured products.

The upward emissions trend doesn't surprise Jim Bruce, a former senior official of Environment Canada now in private practice.

That's "because we haven't made any really big, determined efforts," he said. "We've taken a number of baby steps but not really big concerted effort to reduce emissions."

We can't cut fuel unless we re-engineer existing buildings to conserve more heat, and make smaller cars and trucks, he said.

"The Europeans are doing this, especially Britain and Norway and Germany." Some of these countries also have substantial wind power, and this week Britain announced it will dam the Severn River estuary to run rising and falling tidewaters through turbines that produce electricity.

"California is doing things. There are a number of developed countries and regions that have taken the bit in the teeth and are moving to reductions.

"What the Swedes did is a really a key thing. They rejigged their whole tax structure to reduce significantly income takes and other taxes and increase energy taxes."

Canadian figures comparing 2005 to previous years show that:

- People still aren't conserving electricity. Demand actually increased from 2003 to 2005, but greenhouse emissions fell when Ontario refurbished nuclear plants that had been idle, and shut down coal-burning plans. There was also some increase nationally in hydroelectric power, which doesn't produce carbon dioxide.

- Since 1990, Canadians have increased their emissions from transportation by 33 per cent. (The Kyoto deal measures everything since 1990.)

But within that category, emissions from light trucks and SUVs are up by 109 per cent, reflecting how sales of these popular brands have risen sharply despite our national commitment to use less fuel.

Most of the rest of the increase from transportation came from heavy diesel trucks.

- The growth of factory farms for pigs, chickens and beef cattle boosted emissions in the agriculture sector. As well, the conversion of forest and natural grasslands to cropland is a continuing source of gas emissions.

- Alberta is the biggest greenhouse gas producer (more than 230 million tonnes in 2005, or about 30 per cent of Canada's total.) Ontario comes second (200 million tonnes), followed by Quebec (about 90 million), Saskatchewan (about 70 million, much of it from fertilizer), British Columbia (about 65 million) and the rest all less than 25 million.

- Leaks from natural gas pipelines continue to be a major source of greenhouse gases. Leakage grew by 54 per cent between 1990 and 2005.

- Exploitation of tarsands is expected to increase greenhouse gases from energy production.

2005 (also 2004) 747 million tonnes

2000 - 721 million tonnes

1995 - 646 million tonnes

1990 - 596 million tonnes

Turning sun's rays into gold

DAVID MILLS - He's determined to get countries such as the United States and China off their nasty habit of burning coal. He's got the financial backing of two of the world's highest-profile venture capitalists, and the attention of former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

If David Mills gets his way, America's sun-bathed states and the deserts of Asia and Africa will become hubs of clean-power generation for their respective continents.

It's an ambitious mission for a mild-mannered Canadian – a former CBC camera technician from south Etobicoke and physics graduate from McMaster University.

But Mills, who left Canada in the early 1970s and spent the next 30 years of his career in Australia, moved back to North America in March to turn his lifelong dream – generating gigawatts of affordable, emission-free electricity from the heat of the sun – into a commercial reality.

"This is the most exciting time in my career," Mills, who turns 61 in November, told the Star during a telephone interview from his new office in Silicon Valley. "Better late than never."

Mills is founder, chairman and chief scientific officer of Ausra Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif.-based developer of solar-thermal power plants that, in his view, are poised in certain geographies to challenge the supremacy of fossil-fuel electricity generation.

Solar thermal power systems capture heat from the sun and create steam for generating electricity. The approach has existed for decades and, while cheaper than using solar panels to produce electricity directly, widespread deployment has been held back by high costs compared to conventional electricity sources and a number of technical hurdles.

Mills, inspired in the late 1970s by a scientific study out of the University of Chicago, has spent 30 years trying to refine the technology to the point where it can be scaled up to the size of a major power plant and compete on price with coal-fired generation.

This meant inventing a novel alternative to expensive parabolic mirrors and designing a simple system that uses commodity materials and has a way to store heat and supply electricity 24 hours a day. It's been a long haul, but Ausra says it has overcome the technical and economic problems and is ready to make history.

"We're considering many projects in many states at the moment, and all of them are feasible," explains Mills, estimating that California and Texas alone have the potential to supply 96 per cent of all electricity in the United States. "The amount of area we require to generate all of the United States' electricity is 145 kilometres by 145 kilometres."

It sounds large, but put into perspective, it's less area than the amount of U.S. land that's mined for coal. "It's also very small compared to the area of desert that's available," he says.

On a worldwide basis, the potential is huge. Greenpeace and the European Solar Thermal Industry Association concluded in a 2005 report that "there are no technical, economic or resource barriers to supplying 5 per cent of the world's electricity needs from solar thermal power by 2040" – equivalent to about 600 nuclear reactors or 1,200 medium-sized coal plants.

The numbers are probably higher today, given the advancements made over the past two years.

At the moment it's big talk, but some major players in the U.S. electricity sector are taking serious notice. Florida Power & Light, a subsidiary of FPL Group Inc., plans to use Ausra's technology to construct a 300-megawatt solar thermal power plant – starting with a smaller 10-megawatt project and expanding from there.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton announced FPL's commitment last Wednesday at the 2007 Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. Ausra has other projects in the works, including a 175-megawatt plant in California that could end up feeding power to utility Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

A job notice on Ausra's website says the company wants to scale up its solar thermal deployment to 2,000 megawatts over the next three years, a fraction of the time it would take to get a similarly sized nuclear plant built.

"The whole picture is changing very, very rapidly," says Mills, adding that his technology is fast-approaching the cost thresholds for coal and natural gas, which in the United States are a cent or two below 10 cents per kilowatt-hour – and that excludes the strong possibility of future carbon taxes or caps.

"You'll be seeing 10 cents per kilowatt-hour bandied around Ausra, but that will drop very rapidly over the next few years."

The company is confident it can eventually push costs below 7 cents per kilowatt-hour at a time when fossil-fuel generation is getting more expensive, politically risky, and is encountering resistance in Kyoto-friendly communities.

"In the last six months interest has started to explode, and this coincides exactly with the cancellation of coal plants in the United States," adds Mills.

The competition will be intense, and there are many regulatory battles to win. Utilities are also a notoriously conservative, risk-averse bunch, and the strong lobby of the coal and nuclear industry is a force that can't be ignored. There's also the question of whether the transmission exists, or can be affordably built, to carry electricity from remote desert-like locations to major power-consuming centres.

Still, a supportive political climate, public anxiety over climate change, and the expectation that carbon emissions will eventually face some kind of cap or tax all work in Ausra's favour.

It was at the University of New South Wales in Sydney that he conceived of the "compact linear fresnel reflector," or CLFR. It's a design for a solar thermal plant that uses nearly flat rotating mirrors that focus the sun's light on a fixed overhead pipe filled with water. The sun boils the water, producing steam that spins a turbine to generate power.

Mills formed a company called Solar Heat and Power Pty. Ltd. to commercialize the technology, and while he did manage to build a small demonstration facility in a parking lot in Sydney, the business never gained traction Down Under and last summer the transplanted Canadian – at this point more Aussie than Canuck – began losing steam.

"I was very serious about retiring," recalls Mills.

Then came that call, that opportunity, which usually signals a turning point in Hollywood movies. Venture capitalists Vinod Khosla and Ray Lane, both partners with venture capital titan Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (the firm that made early and successful bets on Google, and AOL), were alerted to what Mills was doing and wanted to learn more. They asked him to visit California for a meeting.

"In October we went over," says Mills. "We clicked really well."

Shortly after Khosla, through his own company Khosla Ventures, and Lane, representing Kleiner Perkins, agreed to invest $40 million (U.S.) for a 50-per-cent stake in Mills' company, which changed its name to Ausra. Both men also became directors on Ausra's board.

The money started to flow in February, Ausra relocated its headquarters to California in March, and since then Mills has expanded his workforce from six to 70.

"It's odd. You walk in each day and there's somebody new. But it's exciting, too. The quality of people is such that it's a great pleasure to solve problems."

Alan Mills is proud of what his brother has accomplished, not just as an entrepreneur, but also as an individual who has developed a practical approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing down climate change. "He spent his career bringing the idea to fruition and now the technology is ready at a time when it is needed more obviously than ever," he says.

David's other younger brother, Brian, keeps an eye out for news on Ausra from the sidelines in Etobicoke. The whole Mills family is eagerly watching the Ausra story unfold, knowing full well that how America generates power over the coming decades will have a direct impact on the air quality and lives of Canadians.

"This could be a great Canadian success story," says Brian Mills. "A Canadian-born entrepreneur, scientist and innovator with a major solution for climate change."

He describes his ex-pat sibling as an "interesting" character. "Even," he adds, "if he is my older brother."

CEOs call for climate action

OTTAWA–Canada's top business leaders have endorsed a plan to combat global climate change that calls for government intervention and says businesses, as well as the public, will have to pay a stiff price.

In a report released today, a task force of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, which represents a wide cross-section of business interests, including oil producers, called for a national strategy that produces real reductions in greenhouse gases.

The document will likely face criticism from environmentalists for not going far enough because it does not embrace a carbon tax – although it does not reject one – and calls for intensity-based targets rather than absolute reductions.

The proposals most resemble the Conservative government's green plan, which was roundly criticized by opposition parties and environmental groups.

Council president Tom d'Aquino, a task force co-chair, said such criticism would miss the point that business leaders from every sector of the economy have accepted the responsibility of making greenhouse-gas reductions.

And he noted that while the report calls for the controversial intensity targets – which would allow industries to increase emissions if they produce more products – the chief executives also say that the intensity targets must result in absolute, economy-wide reductions.

"There isn't another country in the world that has brought together such a coalition of CEOs and business interests to pursue an environmental agenda," d'Aquino said.

"What we're saying is, if we harness the opportunities that the climate change offers us, ultimately Canada will emerge not only an energy superpower but also an environmental superpower."

The task force, formed in March, includes CEOs from Alcan, Suncor, Imperial Oil, Royal Bank, Manulife Financial and Power Corp.

The most encompassing recommendation is that the federal government, provinces, industry and consumer groups join forces on an agreed-upon national action plan on climate change.

The report is most critical about the failure of provinces and Ottawa to agree on a common strategy.

It also calls on governments to establish "price signals" – which could include a carbon tax – but leans more to an emissions trading system to influence behaviour. It urges governments to establish long-term technology funds to drive innovation.

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