Returning to Montreal by car recently from a weekend out of town, I was disappointed to hear that our city was cloaked in an official smog warning. Many of us may be inclined to associate smog with summer heat and visible thick, orange haze. However, Montreal actually experiences more smog alerts during late fall and winter than we do during the summer. This is because of a combination of heavy cold air and light winds that trap pollution close to the ground.
The City of Montreal posts a daily Air Quality Index or AQI. It specifically measures levels of carbon and sulphur dioxide, ozone and fine particulate in the air. In recent years, air quality in Montreal has actually improved significantly, especially compared to emissions levels in the mid-1990’s. The two most recent factors leading to improvements occurred in 2014: the closure of a large oil refinery in the east end of Montreal and the shutdown of several coal-powered plants in Ontario and the US Midwest. Experts estimate that air quality in Ontario and the US states that border Canada are actually responsible for 60% of the pollutants in our air. So we should care about policies and practices outside of Quebec.
Currently, the biggest contributor to smog in Montreal is wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. I was surprised to learn that they represent approximately 40% of the problem when compared to vehicles, which represent just over 20% of local emissions. To address this, new laws have been passed and traditional fireplaces need to be registered and upgraded by October 1, 2018, with most people moving to units that cleanly burn propane or natural gas.
So, how about the international scene and global warming? The 2015 UN Climate Conference “COP21” received a lot of attention a couple of years ago with the signing of the Paris Accord. It was deemed a significant international achievement because of its objective to significantly reduce emissions globally. The USA, with its massive economy, signed that accord. Yet, the Trump administration supports the coal industry and does not acknowledge global warming as a real threat. Consequently, it has declared it will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which has alarmed many.
On the positive front, over the past several years the world has actually diminished CO2 emissions levels that contribute to global warming. But 2017 has been a year where it appears that that trend has stalled and the world has actually slightly increased emissions.
The culprit has largely been China. It is a signatory of the Paris Agreement and is also the world’s leader in the development of renewable technologies. However, a drought there last summer diminished levels of rivers and the capacity of renewable hydro facilities to produce enough clean power to satisfy demand. So, the country was forced to turn to coal to meet power needs. India is another large country that has managed to limit the growth of emissions. Yet, forecasters wonder if that can be maintained long-term, given the growing middle class and greater demand for electricity. Given some unforeseen circumstances that have contributed to higher emissions in 2017, will this be a blip or a long-term trend? Nobody is certain about this.
Last week, environment ministers from around the world wrapped up another major UN Environment meeting in Bonn, Germany called COP23, which ended on a positive note. Canada’s Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, explained that she is part of an alliance of nations determined to completely eliminate coal-powered electricity. Canada has set the year 2030 as the year we aim to achieve this, and we hope to bring several other countries on board.
Eliminating coal-powered electricity will partly be possible due to innovation and falling costs of renewable power. Also, despite US President Trump’s support of coal and denial of climate change science, a lot of important players in the US are actually openly stepping up to combat the President’s position. Mayors of many major cities, state governors and a host of businesses are committed to reducing emissions and the impact of climate change, regardless of what the federal government does.
So, we should all pay attention to the news on climate change. Read about COP23 — there are significant developments afoot with many people and nations striving to find ways to improve the situation. Let’s remember, it’s our collective future we’re talking about here; avoidance and inaction will not solve the problem. – Christopher Shannon (Pre-U ’76), Headmaster