Flying over British Columbia's Coast Mountains last August, Brian Menounos was shocked by the lack of snow on many of the highest elevations. The glaciologist from the University of Northern B.C. has measured retreating glaciers across Western Canada, but last summer's hot and dry conditions exposed the scale of the loss, which, he is certain, will be irretrievable in his lifetime.
Prof. Menounos spent much of 2015 flying over mountains to map glaciers as part of a joint research project. The work produced models that chart a discouraging future due to climate change.
Last year was also the year that Premier Christy Clark promised to modernize the province's 2008 climate action plan. She appointed a climate leadership team and set out a schedule for a draft plan by December, with a final strategy ready to go to the legislature by March of this year.
The deadlines have slipped, however, and Environment Minister Mary Polak now promises a plan will be tabled in June – which means legislation will have to wait until fall at the earliest. "There hasn't been any slowing down in work," she said in an interview. But she said B.C.'s progress has been complicated by the new federal commitment to a national climate action plan, which is still in the early planning stages.
While the B.C. government studies and consults, the results of the 2008 climate plan have eroded. British Columbia's greenhouse gas emissions initially dipped after the introduction of a carbon tax. The tax has been frozen since 2012 under Ms. Clark, and now the province's GHGs are rising, both over all and on a per-capita basis, according to a new federal report.
Prof. Menounos says the rapid erosion of B.C.'s glaciers is tangible evidence of the need for action. And the models he has worked on show matters are only going to get worse: By the end of the century, the heavily glaciated Coast Mountains will have lost half of their ice; in the Rockies, 80 to 90 per cent of the glaciers will be gone.
"We see in the projection work that things really start to fall apart by 2050," he said in an interview. How countries respond to the challenge of reducing GHGs will make a difference, but in some cases, the damage cannot be rolled back. "Depending on the emissions scenario, we can greatly reduce the mass loss in the Coast Mountains. But unfortunately for many of the small glaciers in the Rockies, we have already set their fate."
Since 1977, the climate in the Northern Hemisphere has warmed and the snowpacks that protected glaciers are rising in elevation. B.C. did start to turn the tide on emissions in 2008, but they're climbing again. The latest figures from the federal government estimate that the province's emissions will rise by 32 per cent over the next 14 years.
The climate leadership team reported last November: It concluded that B.C. will miss its legislated targets to reduce carbon emissions by 2020, and called for a higher price on pollution to try to get back on track for the 2050 targets.
Matt Horne of the Pembina Institute was on the Premier's climate leadership team. "Ultimately, the province continues to sit on the fence," he said. "We haven't had any new actions in B.C. since 2012, since the carbon tax last increased. If you want to regain climate leadership, you can't have emissions going up and you need to have new policy actions."
Ms. Polak said the growth in B.C.'s GHG emissions is "a big challenge," but added that the 2008 plan alone was never going to get the province to meet its 2020 target, which was to reduce emissions by at least 33 per cent below 2007 levels.
However, Ms. Clark has promised to keep the carbon tax frozen until at least 2018, and now Ms. Polak candidly says the 2020 target is not going to be met. With each passing month and year, getting back on track is not getting any easier.
Prof. Menounos said for the glaciers – which are a critical part of British Columbia's ecology – time is running out. "Collectively, humans have to get their act together," he said. "We have to move on to coming up with solutions, and part of that solution is effective mitigation of greenhouse gases."