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ReconAfrica, a Canadian petroleum exploration company, announced in August 2020 that it is planning to embark on oil and gas drilling projects in a protected area in Africa that supplies the Okavango Delta region in Botswana with water, threatening endangered wildlife and communities living in the area. 

ReconAfrica has acquired the rights for oil drilling in more than 35 000 sq km of north-east Namibia and north-west Botswana, along the banks of the Okavango River in the Delta region in the newly-proclaimed Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. The area is larger than Belgium and ReconAfrica says that it could hold up to 31 billion barrels of crude oil- more than the US’ consumption in four years if consumption remained the same as in 2019. Fracking also seems to be a part of the company’s plans. 

While the US is the largest oil and gas producer in the world, it has created massive problems for the environment; hydraulic fracturing has caused poor air and water quality, community health and safety concerns, long-term economic issues and environmental crises like habitat loss. 

Along with the conservation area, the license covers 11 separate community nature concessions areas, one World Heritage site and part of the five-country Kaza Park- the largest protected area in southern Africa. It also includes the last refuge of the San people with a future drill site near the World Heritage site of Tsodilo Hills in Botswana.

Chris Brown, CEO of the Namibian Chamber of the Environment, says that he is not aware of the project and that any project such as this should have gone through environmental review and permitting processes. He says, “There needs to be public consultation. We monitor all the adverts that come out in the newspaper, and we monitor all the adverts that come out around EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments) and we haven’t picked this up at all.” 

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According to the National Geographic, experts who have reviewed the Namibian EIAs for the test wells have pointed to “serious problems” with the way they were carried out. They pointed to a lack of physical assessments of fauna and flora and to the possible effects on local communities and other people, on archaeological sites, and on groundwater and surface water. They said that the assessment, consisting only of desktop studies without any fieldwork, is not sufficient to justify the proposed drilling. 

Environmental Concern

The area is home to Africa’s largest migrating elephant herd as well as endangered African painted dogs, sable antelope and rare flora. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), ReconAfrica’s license covers the territories of seven endangered animal species, including the grey crowned crane and the African wild dog, and four critically endangered animals, including the black rhinoceros and white-backed vulture. It’s also home to 20 other species listed as “vulnerable,” including Temminck’s pangolin and the martial eagle. It is also an economic powerhouse, bringing in around USD$32 million a year in sustainable tourism revenue. 

Temminck’s Pangolin (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

More importantly, the Okavango River, in the north of the potential fracking and oil drilling zone, is the sole provider of water to the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s most visited tourist destination. The area supports more than a million people with food, employment and fresh water.

Infrastructure for oil and gas drilling involves the construction of roads, pipelines and buildings that “could all negatively affect important animal habitat, migratory pathways and biodiversity,” according to the WWF. Fracking is of particular concern because it requires large amounts of water and can cause earthquakes, pollute water, release greenhouse gases and lead to cancer and other birth defects. For wildlife, fracking can poison the food chain, destroy habitat and cause mass die-offs of fish and other aquatic species. 

However, Namibia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy is emphasising the potential positive effects, saying that the “the socioeconomic impacts of exploratory drilling will result in the employment of locals” and many other benefits, such as new water wells for communities near the proposed drill sites. The Namibian government holds a 10% stake in ReconAfrica’s oil and gas development.

There are mixed messages being communicated within this project, proving that either the Namibian government is being lied to by ReconAfrica or it doesn’t know the full scope of the project. The government says that it has not given the company permission to frack, however ReconAfrica says that it’s entitled to a 25-year production license

Implications for Communities and Wildlife

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it takes about 1.5 million gallons of water to frack a single oil and gas well; ReconAfrica says that it ultimately hopes to drill hundreds of wells in the Kavango Basin. 

This has serious implications for the food security of the country. According to the UN, Namibia cannot feed itself; its farms support about 70% of its people, and the lands under ReconAfrica’s drilling license have more than 600 working farms, some irrigated with water from the Okavango River. Drilling here could further impact this fragile food supply. 

The company plans to begin “test” drilling as soon as this or next month.

Featured image by: Flickr

Canada will ban single-use plastics, including checkout bags, straws and cutlery, nationwide by the end of 2021, as part of larger plans to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030.

In a news conference, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, says, “Plastic pollution threatens our natural environment. It fills our rivers or lakes, and most particularly our oceans, choking the wildlife that live there. Canadians see the impact that pollution has from coast to coast to coast.”

The government set three criteria for products to fall under the ban- there is evidence that they are harmful to the environment, they are difficult or costly to recycle and there are ready available alternatives. The six items that the government plans to ban are plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and food ware made from plastics that are difficult to recycle.

Wilkinson clarified that the single-use plastic ban “would not affect access to PPE or any other plastics used in the medical environment” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he added that the government is looking at ways to properly dispose of PPE “so that it does not end up in our natural environment,” as well as investigating solutions to recycle PPE wherever possible and add options to make some of the PPE biodegradable. 

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This is certainly a welcome move as Canada produces an estimated 3.3 million tonnes of plastic waste per year and the government says that only 9% of this is recycled. Additionally, the country uses almost 15 billion plastic bags every year and close to 57 millions straws each day. More than a third of the plastics in Canada are created for single-use products or packaging. The plan was first announced last year, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describing it as a “problem we simply can’t afford to ignore.”

The government is releasing a discussion paper outlining the proposed plastics ban and soliciting public feedback, which will be available until December 9. 

Featured image by: Flickr

The last fully intact ice shelf in Canada in the Arctic has collapsed, having lost about 80 sq km, or 40%, of its area over a two-day period in late July, according to the Canadian Ice Service. The collapse of the 4 000 year-old Milne Ice Shelf was exacerbated by record-setting temperatures in the region, which measured 5 degrees Celsius above the 30-year average this past summer, as well as wildfires.

A research camp was lost in the collapse, as well as the northern hemisphere’s last known epishelf lake, which is a freshwater lake damned by ice that floats on top of salty ocean water. Additionally, two of Canada’s ice caps, located on the Hazen Plateau in St. Patrick Bay, disappeared this summer, two years earlier than predicted. 

Unlike glaciers, ice shelves are part of the ocean. The ice shelf on Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Nunavut territory fell into the Arctic Sea and started to drift before breaking into two large chunks. Images captured by the Copernicus Sentinel satellite captured the event, showing that when the fallen pieces split into two, the large piece formed an iceberg roughly the size of Manhattan

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canada ice shelf
The Milne Ice Shelf in Canada lost nearly 40% of its ice over a two-day period in late July (Source: Sentinel Playground, Sinergise Ltd.). 

Adrienne White, ice analyst at the Canadian Ice Service, says, “This is a huge, huge block of ice. If one of these is moving toward an oil rig, there’s nothing you can really do aside from move your oil rig.”

The service explained that above normal air temperatures, offshore winds and open water in front of the ice shelf contribute to ice shelf break up. 

Now that a large part of the ice shelf is in the ocean, there is potential for additional cracking and movement, the Water and Ice Research Laboratory (WIRL) said in a press release. It warns that the ice shelf is still unstable and further ice breaks are possible in the coming days and weeks.

Ice shelves can help limit rising sea levels because they act like a dam. As average Arctic temperatures warm, more sea ice has been melting during the summer than in previous decades. With more melting, the Arctic Ocean absorbs more of the sun’s rays and gets warmer, delaying ice from growing back again until later in the fall. However, with less sea ice present in the autumn to reflect sunlight, the entire region warms up even more, perpetuating this feedback loop.

Studies estimate that global sea level rise could be between 0.91 meters and 1.5 meters, which will have detrimental effects on coastal cities. 

The Arctic has warmed at twice the global average rate in recent decades, but scientists say that this summer was even more extreme. In July, Arctic sea ice hit its lowest recorded extent, while the Russian Arctic has experienced record heat and wildfires, with temperatures exceeding 37 degrees Celsius in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk in late June.  

Featured image by: U.S. Geological Survey

On June 18 2019, the Canadian government declared a national climate emergency. The following day, the same government approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, capable of transporting close to 600 000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the port of Burnaby in British Columbia. This is an example of how Canada is a climate hypocrite, where the government claims to prioritise the environment but its actions have the opposite effect, choosing to instead prop up fossil fuels.

Canada, which is in close proximity to Antarctica and is partly located within the Arctic Circle, is extremely vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Declaring a state of climate emergency was a necessary response from the Canadian government in tackling the climate crisis. 

This year, a prolonged heatwave in the Arctic that caused temperatures to soar to 38℃ in parts of Siberia, also caused wildfires to rage through parts of Siberia, as well as Canada, Alaska and Greenland. In June, fires in the region emitted 16.3 million tons of carbon- or about 60 million tons of carbon dioxide, the highest levels since 2003 and almost nine times more than the same month in 2018. Since the polar regions are warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world, this puts Canada further at risk.

However, the approval of projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline completely contradict the nation’s goal of reaching zero-net carbon emissions by 2050. A statement issued by the Canadian government outlined that the profits generated from the Trans Mountain pipeline will aid renewable energy projects and support cleantech research within the country, prompting critics to accuse the government of hypocrisy as the pipeline would be emitting large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming. 

Controversy: Canada’s Prime Minister 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won his second election by forging solidarity with environmentalists and climate activists, saying that he shares the same view in needing to act in favour of the climate and strive for a greener society. Interestingly, in 2017, Trudeau spoke to Texan oilmen, saying that “no country would find 173 million barrels of oil in the ground and leave it there.” This would mean that Canada, home to 0.5% of the planet’s population, would plan to use nearly a third of the planet’s remaining carbon budget through intensive use of fossil fuels. While it is very possible to change stances on the issue of the climate crisis when confronted with indisputable evidence, in February this year, it emerged that the government was likely to approve the Teck mine, 181 sq km of petroleum mining, located just 25km from a national park. Canadian authorities were aware of the potential environmental harm it would cause, but ruled that it was nonetheless in the ‘public interest’. Thankfully, the mining giant withdrew its plans later that month, but it sealed Canada’s fate as a climate hypocrite. 

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Expected Projects 

Despite many delays, three major pipeline projects are expected to enter service by the end of 2023- namely, TC Energy Corporation’s Keystone XL, Enbridge’s expansion of its Line 3 and the Canadian government’s expansion of the Trans Mountain line.

The three pipelines have already encountered challenges; the Line 3 project continuously faces opposition in Minnesota, where it hopes to expand to, while the Keystone XL project is tackling legal challenges and the Trans Mountain remains disputed by indigenous and aboriginal communities in British Columbia.

Environmental risks of such projects range from water contamination to wildlife habitat disturbances. Provinces and cities have voiced opposition to such projects. Vancouver filed an empirical report on how the Trans Mountain project is ‘not worth the risk’ because ‘tanker traffic spills would be devastating to the coastline’ and in British Columbia, the controversial Bill C-48 issues a suspension on oil tankers carrying large quantities of crude oil along the northern coast to protect the ecosystem. 

New pipelines breach demand levels required under the Paris Agreement. Canada has struggled to establish their natural resources development plans in shifting towards a greener society and divesting from fossil fuels. The Canadian government’s support for proposed pipelines and pipeline extension projects risk the country’s reputation of being one of the few who have shown strong leadership in addressing the climate crisis. 

Carbon Tracker, an independent financial think tank that assesses climate risk, conducted an analysis on the impact of Canada’s pipelines, and found that new oil sands are unnecessary in a low carbon world. The analysis showed that additional pipeline capacity significantly exceeds supply levels across two low carbon demand scenarios, meaning that large portions will end up wasted or underutilised, resulting in stranded assets. Even in the case where new pipelines have lower crude transportation costs and reduce pricing, for example, the entirety of Canada’s unsanctioned oil sands projects would still not comply with a Paris-aligned world of weaker oil demand. 

All proposed new pipelines from Western Canada, primarily Keystone XL and Trans Mountain expansion, do not comply with a Paris-compliant world, the report stated. Under the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), for instance, all future oil supplies from Western Canada can be accommodated by alterations and replacements made to already existing pipelines- demonstrating there is no need to build new pipelines. Even if greater pipeline capacity is reduced due to quality and transport challenges, and comply with the requirements of a greener society, new projects will remain uneconomic under the SDS, and therefore the appropriateness of such pipeline projects should be reconsidered. 

The analysts highlighted that the scenarios used in the report still fall short of the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to 1.5˚C. The analysis showed that the first scenario, the SDS limits warming to 1.7-1.8˚C and the second scenario, Beyond 2 Degrees Scenario (B2D2), to 1.6˚C. 

Economic Viability of Oil Projects

The report stated that ‘investors in oil sands face depressed cash flows in a low carbon world of falling oil demand and weak pricing, but will be forced to produce or pay the price due to inflexible “take-or-pay” transport fees for excess new pipeline capacity’. 

Furthermore, the Canadian government’s stakes in Keystone XL and Trans Mountain could rely on public tax money, which would be far better spent on environmentally friendly and sustainable projects. 

Canada’s leadership position on the climate crisis may be subverted by its support for projects reliant on the failure of the Paris Agreement, indicating that the country’s aspiration of complying with the Paris-aligned world is doubtful. 

Evidently, there remains a divide between environmental motivation and monetary incentives- such that people tend to perceive the two as mutually exclusive. However, if a global, widespread effort is made towards shifting to a greener economy, then the two will inevitably go hand-in-hand. Without this shift, a limbo between wanting to mitigate the climate crisis and wanting to ensure financial stability will continue to prevail. Because of how vulnerable it is to global warming, it is certainly in Canada ’s best interest to divest from use of fossil fuels and instead invest in projects that will green the economy while ensuring profitability. 

Featured image by: kris krüg

North America has lost 29% of its bird populations- 2.9 billion birds- in the last 48 years. It’s not just the endangered species, even the common birds like sparrows, warblers, and finches have also vanished from the sky, a new study published in the journal Science reveals. Scientists fear that the decline signals a major crisis since birds play critical roles in distributing seeds, disposing of rotting carcasses, and even pollinating plants. 

Bird Population Decline in North America

A team of researchers from the US and Canada analysed almost five decades of population data of 529 bird species collected from multiple long-term bird-monitoring data sets. They found that over 90% of the total decline recorded was among 12 bird families, including sparrows, warblers, blackbirds, and finches. Grassland birds suffered the most with a 53% reduction recorded in their population since 1970. With over 700 million fewer individuals existing today, nearly 75% of all examined grassland bird species are steadily declining. Shorebirds living in sensitive coastal habitats have lost more than one-third of their population. 

Scientists fear that many bird species could soon suffer the fate of the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes Migratorius) —  a bird that once numbered in billions, but silently went extinct in the early 1900s.

“Multiple, independent lines of evidence show a massive reduction in the abundance of birds in North America,” says Ken Rosenberg, the study’s lead author and a senior scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Bird Conservancy. “We expected to see continuing declines of threatened species. But for the first time, the results also showed pervasive losses among common birds across all habitats, including backyard birds.”

Analysing the data recorded by a network of 143 weather radars across North America, scientists also tracked the changes in nighttime spring migration of birds from 2007 and 2017. The radars, which can detect avian migration even in areas where birds are otherwise poorly monitored on the ground, revealed a 14% decline in migratory birds since 2007.

Where did the birds go?

“It’s a wake-up call that we’ve lost more than a quarter of our birds in the US and Canada,” says co-author Adam Smith from Environment and Climate Change Canada. “But the crisis reaches far beyond our individual borders. Many of the birds that breed in Canadian backyards migrate through or spend the winter in the US and places farther south — from Mexico and the Caribbean to Central and South America. What our birds need now is a historic, hemispheric effort that unites people and organisations with one common goal: bringing our birds back.”

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The passenger pigeon

While the researchers did not closely examine what caused the decline, they say the phenomenon in North America is similar to those observed elsewhere in the world, and the causes are likely to be similar.

For example, widespread conversion of grasslands to farmlands and urban areas, and the extensive use of toxic pesticides had earlier caused the decline of grassland bird population across Europe. North American grassland birds today face great threat from such human activities as their breeding and wintering grounds have been turned into agricultural lands and urban centers.  

Previous studies have discovered increasing bird mortality in the US due to hunting by predators including feral cats; collisions with glass, buildings, and other structures; pervasive use of pesticides, and widespread declines in insects — an essential food source for birds. Climate change is compounding these challenges by altering habitats and reducing the number of plant species that birds depend on for their survival. 

Though the study portrays a grim picture, all hopes are not lost. “The story is not over,” says co-author of the paper Michael Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy. “There are so many ways to help save birds. Some require policy decisions such as strengthening the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. We can also work to ban harmful pesticides and properly fund effective bird conservation programs. Each of us can make a difference with everyday actions that together can save the lives of millions of birds — actions like making windows safer for birds, keeping cats indoors, and protecting habitat.”

The study lists out a few promising examples of bird population rebounds. Waterfowl- ducks, geese, and swans- have made a remarkable recovery over the past 50 years in the US after the government allocated funds for wetland protection and restoration. Raptors such as the Bald Eagle have also made a remarkable recovery since the 1970s following a countrywide ban on the pesticide DDT and the introduction of endangered species legislation in the US and Canada. 

Greenland is the world’s largest island with a vast body of ice sheet covering 1,710,000 sq km, roughly 80% of the surface. The climate here has been exceptionally stable in the past 10,000 years. But the Greenland ice sheet is now changing drastically.

Greenland ice sheet is a relic from the ice age, when gigantic glaciers covered vast stretches of the Northern Hemisphere. The ice in most places–Canada, the northeastern regions of the US, and Scandinavia–had melted away about 10,000 years ago. Although the Greenland ice sheet has persisted so far, it may not, anymore.

Authors of a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that the Greenland ice sheet is now sloughing off an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year. Two decades ago, the annual average was just 50 billion. An analysis of satellite data reveals that the mass loss has increased sixfold since the 1980s.

Another study published last year reconstructed the changes in Greenland’s ice sheet over the past 350 years using ice cores and satellite data, and cataloged the history of variations in the ice sheet.

The research team found that melting in Greenland ice sheet started to pick up shortly after the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, when humans started burning coal, oil, and natural gas in huge quantities, sending tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

However, it’s only over the last 20 years that the melt rate has definitively increased beyond natural variability. One section of the ice sheet saw its melt intensity surge 575 percent over the last 20 years compared to pre-industrial times.

Sled dogs pull researchers from the Danish Meteorological Institute through meltwater in Greenland. Source: Steffen M Olsen/Twitter

Greenland gains some ice in the winter and loses some in the summer, but as the planet has warmed, the latter has outpaced the former. The ice sheet itself is also changing. The firn layer in the ice sheet, the boundary between snow and ice, is heating up and becoming denser. So water that would ordinarily trickle down through the snow and refreeze runs off the ice sheet instead.

The ice is also getting darker, as soot carried through the air and microorganisms like algae settle on the ice. Dark ice absorbs more solar energy and melts faster.

Besides global warming, a negative phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)— a natural, irregular change in atmospheric pressure over the North Atlantic Ocean– also causes the rapid ice melt.   

What does it mean to you?

Although Greenland is located faraway at the northern end of the Atlantic Ocean, the sheer volume of ice melting into the ocean will have global repercussions affecting all of our lives.

Nasa reveals that if the Greenland ice sheet were to completely melt into the ocean, sea levels would rise by about 7 meters (23 feet) globally. The Earth’s rotation would slowdown lengthening the days. 

Greenland’s ice caps are currently the biggest single source of meltwater adding to the volume of the world’s oceans. They contribute about 20% of global sea-level rise, which is running at 4mm per year. All the melted ice has already contributed to more than 1.5 cm of global sea-level rise since 1972. Half of that increase came about in the last eight years alone. This pace is primed to double by the end of the century, according to the recent models used by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Rising water has already swallowed up at least eight low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean. It also has increased coastal erosion. In Bangladesh and Thailand, coastal mangrove forests–important buffers against storms and tidal waves–are giving way to ocean water. Low-lying island nations, especially in equatorial regions, have been hardest hit. 

Vietnam is among the most vulnerable nations to global sea-level rise

A World Bank study found that if sea level were to rise by 1 metre, an area of 74,000 sq km in twelve countries–Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, North and South Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam–would be submerged permanently. Coastal communities in these countries will continue to face billion-dollar disaster recovery bills as flooding becomes more frequent and storms become more intense.  

Besides rising sea level, the relentless stream of meltwater threatens to disrupt oceanic currents stemming from the Gulf of Mexico that warm Europe’s coasts, contributing in no small measure to upkeeping the temperate climate north of the Mediterranean. Altering these currents, collectively known as the Atlantic Conveyor could lead to considerable changes in climate and rainfall patterns throughout the Northern Hemisphere. 

Ice sheets act as a protective cover over the land and ocean. They reflect the majority of the solar radiation back into space, keeping the planet cooler. Once they melt away, the excess heat would remain in the atmosphere causing a so-called feedback loop, which will warm the planet further. This temperature increase in air and ocean will create more frequent and intense coastal storms like hurricanes and typhoons in the Northern Hemisphere.  

Letting global temperatures get any higher could lead to irreversible mass loss of ice in Greenland. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions as aggressively as possible to limit the warming is the only solution. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out, limiting the temperature to 1.5C by 2050 would require an unprecedented global coordinated effort. 

 

 

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