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New York, Sept. 23: Youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, right, speaks during the UN Climate Action Summit.

LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

The latest

  • “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” Swedish activist Greta Thunberg told world leaders Monday at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where member states pressed each other to limit greenhouse-gas emissions before it’s too late to stop a climate catastrophe.
  • Those attending the New York summit include the leaders of small island states most at risk from rising sea levels and companies who made fresh pledges to cut emissions. U.S. President Donald Trump dropped by the morning’s proceedings, listened to speeches by Germany’s Chancellor and India’s Prime Minister and left after 15 minutes without saying anything. In his three-day UN visit, Mr. Trump – who intends to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris accord, has rolled back Obama-era rules on emission cuts and wants to maximize U.S. energy output – will be mainly focused on courting allies to confront Tehran over attacks on Saudi oil fields.
  • In Washington, demonstrators blocked major streets on Monday to draw attention to the climate crisis. Activists targeted four locations, including Farragut Square in downtown Washington, Columbus Circle, near the Union Station train terminal, and Folger Park on Capitol Hill. The protests come days after a “global climate strike” drew hundreds of thousands of people to protests around the world, with more protests planned on Sept. 27.
Watch: Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg tells world leaders at the opening of the UN conference that they had stolen her childhood with "empty words." Reuters


What is this summit for?

In recent years, scientists and United Nations agencies have issued increasingly dire warnings about a climate crisis threatening millions around the world as sea levels rise, extreme-weather events become more devastating and shortages of food and water fuel global conflict. UN Secretary-General António Guterres is calling on all leaders to come with “concrete” and “realistic plans” to meet their obligations under the 2015 Paris climate-change accord, which 195 nations have signed, and to eventually reach net zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. The main goal is to limit global temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. We’ve already nearly reached the one-degree mark, and the more we go beyond that point, scientists warn, the more devastating the effects will be on global societies and the ecosystems that sustain them.

The buildup to the main summit on Sept. 23 included a Youth Climate Summit on Sept. 21, as well as a Social Good Summit for global citizens to share their ideas on change. This is why youth activist Greta Thunberg – who eschews air travel for its heavy carbon footprint, and urges supporters around the world to do the same – made the trip from Europe to North America by boat. At the summit’s opening on Monday, she angrily rebuked world leaders for their inaction: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you."

In order to make sure that tangible changes come out of the summit, there are “action portfolios” that will be focused on including: finance, energy transition, industry transition, nature-based solutions, cities and local action, resilience and adaptation.

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The dangers of climate change explained

Some of the most urgent warnings yet have come from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its main report last October said the world was largely failing to stop temperature rises that would lead to deadly weather events, accelerated ecological collapse, a climate refugee crisis and trillions of dollars in infrastructure damage. It said there was still a chance to limit the average increase to the Paris targets, but only with a massive economic transformation that phases out coal, oil and natural gas as fuel sources. Even half a degree of difference could save lives and spare poorer countries from the worst effects.

The IPCC followed up with a report this past August focusing on food and land use, specifically how rising temperatures have already reduced crop yields and changed the precipitation patterns farmers depend on. It also warned that wasteful, emissions-intensive land use is warming the planet further, putting poorer countries and Indigenous peoples at further risk. It recommended a widespread shift away from meat to plant-based diets, less polluting practices in fertilizing and growing crops, and a supply chain that wastes less of the food we do produce.

potential impact of agriculture

on food security

A report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of the impacts of agriculture on climate change – and the effect growing greenhouse gas emissions might have on future food security.

change in temperature relative

to 1850-1900

In degrees Celsius

Change in surface air temp. over land

Change in global mean surface temp.

(land-ocean)

2.0˚

1.5

1.0

0.5

0.0

-0.5

1880

1920

1960

2000

1850

1900

1940

1980

2018

change in ghg emissions

In gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent/year

Nitrus oxide from agriculture

Methane from agriculture

Net CO2 emissions from FOLU*

4

3

2

1

0

1961

1980

2000

2016

*From land use activities

risks to humans and ecosystems

because of climate change

According to the report, a 2°C increase in temperatures would increase the risks of effects like dryland water scarcity and and food supply instability from “moderate” to “very high.”

Chart key: level of impact/risk

Impacts

Risks

1

2

3

4

Undectable: Impact/risks are undetectable

1

Moderate: Impacts/risks are detectable

and attributable to climate change

with at least medium confidence

2

High: Significant and widespread

impacts/risks

3

Very high: Very high probability of severe impacts/risks and presence of significant reversibility/persistence of climate-related hazards, combined with limited ability to adapt

4

Global mean surface temperature (GMST)

change relative to levels in preindustrial time,

in degrees Celsius

0.0

1.0

3.0

4.0

5.0˚

2.0

Dryland water

scarcity

2006-2015

Soil

erosion

Vegetation

loss

Wildfire

damage

Permafrost

degradation

Tropical crop

yield declline

Food supply

instability

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source:

united nations’ intergovernmental panel on

climate change

potential impact of agriculture

on food security

A report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of the impacts of agriculture on climate change – and the effect growing greenhouse gas emissions might have on

future food security.

change in temperature relative to 1850-1900

In degrees Celsius

Change in surface air temp. over land

Change in global mean surface temp. (land-ocean)

2.0˚

1.5

1.0

0.5

0.0

-0.5

1880

1920

1960

2000

1850

1900

1940

1980

2018

change in ghg emissions

In gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent/year

Nitrus oxide from agriculture

Methane from agriculture

Net CO2 emissions from FOLU*

4

3

2

EMBARGOED

1

0

1961

1980

2000

2016

*From land use activities

risks to humans and ecosystems

because of climate change

According to the report, a 2°C increase in temperatures would increase the risks of effects like dryland water scarcity and and food supply instability from “moderate” to “very high.”

Chart key: level of impact/risk

Impacts

Risks

1

2

3

4

Undectable: Impact/risks are undetectable

1

Moderate: Impacts/risks are detectable and

attributable to climate change with at least

medium confidence

2

High: Significant and widespread impacts/risks

3

Very high: Very high probability of severe impacts/risks and presence of significant reversibility/persistence of climate-related hazards, combined with limited ability to adapt

4

Global mean surface temperature (GMST) change relative

to levels in preindustrial time, in degrees Celsius

0.0

1.0

3.0

4.0

5.0˚

2.0

Dryland water

scarcity

2006-2015

Soil

erosion

Vegetation

loss

Wildfire

damage

Permafrost

degradation

Tropical crop

yield declline

Food supply

instability

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source:

united nations’ intergovernmental panel on

climate change

potential impact of agriculture on food security

A report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of the impacts of agriculture on climate change – and the effect growing greenhouse gas emissions might have on

future food security.

change in temperature relative to 1850-1900

In degrees Celsius

Change in surface air temp. over land

Change in global mean surface temp. (land-ocean)

2.0˚

1.5

1.0

0.5

0.0

-0.5

1850

1880

1900

1920

1940

1960

1980

2000

2018

change in ghg emissions

In gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent/year

Nitrus oxide from agriculture

Methane from agriculture

Net CO2 emissions from FOLU*

4

3

2

1

0

1961

1980

2000

2016

*From land use activities

risks to humans and ecosystems because of climate change

According to the report, a 2°C increase in temperatures would increase the risks of effects like dryland water scarcity and and food supply instability from “moderate” to “very high.”

Chart key: level of impact/risk

Very high: Very high probability of severe impacts/risks and presence of

significant reversibility/persistence of climate-related hazards, combined

with limited ability to adapt

High: Significant and widespread impacts/risks

Risks

Moderate: Impacts/risks are detectable and attributable to climate change

with at least medium confidence

Impacts

Undectable: Impact/risks are undetectable

Global mean surface temperature (GMST) change relative to levels in preindustrial time,

in degrees Celsius

5.0˚

4.0

3.0

2.0

1.0

2006-2015

0.0

Dryland water

scarcity

Soil

erosion

Vegetation

loss

Wildfire

damage

Permafrost

degradation

Tropical crop

yield declline

Food supply

instability

john sopinski/the globe and mail, source: united nations’

intergovernmental panel on climate change

Climate’s cruel summer: Four views from space

The UN conference comes after an alarming few months of extreme weather around the world:

Chennai drought: The south Indian region faced a drought so bad its depleted water supply could be seen from space. While trucks brought water to the city, the sixth most populous in India, others paid huge sums of money to private companies to have water for their homes.

Satellite images from Maxar Technologies compare Chennai's Puzhal reservoir before and after this year's drought: on June 15, 2018, left, and April 6, 2019, right.

©2019 Maxar Technologies via AP

Fires in the Amazon: The rainforests of Brazil and neighbouring countries are one of the world’s richest ecosystems, but they’re also a giant carbon sink, keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and producing a huge quantity of the world’s fresh oxygen. This summer, fires in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 83 per cent compared with the same period last year, according to Brazil’s space research agency, INPE. Many of the blazes were set deliberately by an agricultural industry that, under Brazil’s climate-skeptical President Jair Bolsonaro, has been freed of regulatory protections designed to keep deforestation in check.

Satellite images from the European Space Agency show levels of carbon monoxide pollution caused by the forest fires in the Amazon, between the second half of July, 2019, left, and the first half of August, right.

European Space Agency via AP

Fires in the North: The Amazon wasn’t the only hot zone this summer: From Siberia to Alaska to the Yukon, communities at high latitudes saw some monster fires. They came not long after a Canadian federal government report predicting that Canada’s northern temperatures were rising three times as fast as the global average, and twice as fast in Canada overall. The Arctic fires raised fears of a worsening cycle of heat: Fires in areas made of peat and permafrost release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which raises the temperature and makes future fires worse.

A satellite image provided by Roscosmos Space Agency taken on July 21, 2019, shows forest fires in Krasnoyarsk region, Eastern Siberia.

Roscosmos Space Agency via AP

Greenland melting: The world’s largest island shed approximately 280 gigatons of ice per year between 2002 and 2016, according to NASA. This summer, the aftereffects of a European heat wave broke new records for melting the Greenland ice sheet, which scientists warn will make rising sea levels even worse.

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A natural-colour image made with the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite on July 30, 2019, shows meltwater on the surface of northwestern Greenland's ice sheet, near the sheet's edge.

NASA via AP

The Canadian context

While scientists and activists meet at the UN, Canada will be in the midst of a federal election campaign in which climate change is a defining issue.

Carbon taxes: Where the Liberals stand

This spring, the Liberal government introduced a $20-a-tonne carbon tax, about 4.4 cents per litre of gasoline, which will rise in 2020 to $50, or 11 cents per litre. Originally, Ottawa planned to freeze it at $50 after 2022, but the environment minister changed tack last month, saying it would be up for review with the provinces. To comply with the pricing framework, provinces need their own plans for carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems to bring emissions down, or else Ottawa imposes the federal price on them. Not every province has such a plan, and even with reductions, plus the phaseout of coal-generated power and other energy-efficiency measures, a federal estimate said that Canada would still fall short of its total promised emission cuts for 2030.

What is carbon pricing anyway? Watch our video explainer to find out more.

Carbon taxes: Where the opposition stands

The Conservative Party opposes a direct carbon tax on the products consumers pay for. Leader Andrew Scheer says a 40-kiloton-a-year limit on industrial emissions and investment in emissions-reduction technology will bring pollution down. But Mr. Scheer hasn't committed to meet the Paris goals, and environmental experts have disputed whether his plan would reach it.

The New Democrats want to keep the current carbon tax, with some adjustments to shift the tax burden from individuals to large corporations. The Greens want to eliminate separate systems for companies and individuals, and using the base from the Liberal carbon tax system, the party would schedule yearly increases until the whole country shifts to a zero-carbon economy by 2050.

Trans Mountain

Looming behind the carbon-tax issue is the Trans Mountain oil-pipeline expansion, which both the Liberals and Conservatives want to push ahead and which the NDP and Greens want to stop. The project has pitted Alberta, B.C. and First Nations against each other over the economic benefits to the oil patch and the environmental risk for communities on the West Coast who will have to live with higher oil-tanker traffic.

What happens next

In December, world leaders will meet again in Santiago for COP25, or the 25th Conference of the Parties, a meeting of nations under the United Nations framework on climate change. Other meetings leading into 2020 have yet to be planned.

More reading

Federal election 2019

Explainer: Where the four main parties stand on climate policy

Federal election guide: What you need to know before Oct. 21

Climate change’s impact in Canada

‘Climate change makes it worse’: Arctic fires threaten more dark days in the North

Tuktoyaktuk teetering: Hamlet’s shoreline erosion a warning to rest of Canada’s North

In the Arctic, scientists and First Nations scramble to save artifacts freed from ice and threatened by climate change

Climate change activism

'Kids do care’: Teenage Canadian climate activists aim for change

In a climate crisis, artists have a duty to speak up – but what should they say?

Comment and analysis

Elizabeth Renzetti: What debt do rich countries owe the ones that’ll get shafted by the climate crisis?


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