The Bank of Canada announced another oversized interest rate hike on Wednesday and said that it is “prepared to act more forcefully” if needed to bring inflation back under control.
The central bank’s governing council voted to raise the policy rate by half a percentage point – its third interest rate hike this year. That brings the benchmark rate to 1.5 per cent, just a quarter point below the prepandemic level.
The bank said that more interest rate hikes will be needed to cool Canada’s overheating economy and to slow the pace of consumer price growth, which hit a three-decade high of 6.8 per cent in April.
Economics Reporter Mark Rendell reports here and also offers a Reporter’s Comment on Wednesday’s development: “The Bank of Canada’s 50-basis-point move today was widely expected by analysts and investors. What was striking was the central bank’s hawkish tone. It warned that inflation will likely keep rising in the coming months, led by a jump in oil and food prices, and said that it was “prepared to act more forcefully if needed” to get consumer price growth under control. That’s code for a 75 basis point rate hike, something the bank has not done since the 1970s.
“Whether or not the bank goes for an even larger rate hike at its next meeting in July, it’s clearly signalling that borrowing costs need to keep rising quickly. Higher interest rates won’t do much to deal with international sources of inflation, which include persistent supply-chain bottlenecks, COVID-19 lockdowns in China, and surging commodity prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But they will dampen demand in Canada’s overheated economy. Keep your eyes on the housing market, which tends to be the most rate-sensitive sector of the economy.”
This is the daily Politics Briefing newsletter, written by Ian Bailey. It is available exclusively to our digital subscribers. If you’re reading this on the web, subscribers can sign up for the Politics newsletter and more than 20 others on our newsletter sign-up page. Have any feedback? Let us know what you think.
BREAKING – Stéphane Dion has been appointed Canada’s ambassador to France. The former foreign affairs minister for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been Canada’s ambassador to Germany and a special envoy to the European Union and Europe since 2017. He will continue his envoy duties. Mr. Dion, who was formerly a leader of the federal Liberal Party, replaces Isabelle Hudon, who was the ambassador to France from 2017 to 2021. The announcement is here.
RESIST HALF MEASURES: ARBOUR – The federal government should resist half-measures and act immediately to implement the latest set of advice to ensure the safety of women in the Canadian Armed Forces, says former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour. Story here. Meanwhile, The future of Canada’s military colleges is under scrutiny after Ms. Arbour asked, in her review, whether they should remain degree-granting institutions and recommended a review of their operations. Story here.
TIM’S TRACKED CUSTOMERS THROUGH APP – Canada’s largest fast-food chain violated privacy laws by tracking people who used its app, gathering their location data hundreds of times a day – even when the app was not in use. Story here.
HARD DRUGS DECRIMINALIZED IN B.C.; KENNEY CONCERNED – British Columbia will become the first province in Canada to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs such as illicit fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine after receiving an exemption from Ottawa to federal drug laws. Story here. Meanwhile, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says here that he has concerns about the federal government’s decision to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs in British Columbia.
MENDICINO NOT RULING OUT HANDGUN BANS – Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino is not ruling out the use of handgun bans to deal with firearms violence, a tool endorsed by several big-city mayors in Canada. Story here.
MPS APPROVE MINOR CHANGE TO LUXURY TAX – Members of Parliament on the House of Commons finance committee approved a minor change to the budget bill’s luxury tax Tuesday related to its implementation date, but voted down more substantial proposals that had been recommended by Canadian businesses in the auto, aviation and boating sectors. Story here.
LEGAULT’S IMMIGRATION POLICY DRAWS IRE – Quebec’s Premier is being accused of stoking fears about newcomers after he gave a recent speech warning Quebec risks turning into Louisiana if the province doesn’t have more control over immigration. Story here. Meanwhile, Bill 96 overhauling the Charter of the French Language, is now the law of the province. Story here from The Montreal Gazette.
TRUDEAU GOVERNMENT HAS USED SECRET ORDERS-IN-COUNCIL – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has adopted 72 secret orders-in-council – hidden from Parliament and Canadians – since coming to office. Story here from the CBC.
SAUDI ARABIA GETS CANADIAN-MADE MILITARY GOODS DESPITE RUPTURE WITH CANADA – Massive amounts of Canadian-made military goods continue to flow to Saudi Arabia, a new government report shows, despite an unresolved diplomatic rupture between Ottawa and Riyadh as well as criticism of the kingdom’s role in the deadly war in Yemen. Story here.
ALBERTA FINANCE MINISTER ENTERS UCP LEADERSHIP RACE -Travis Toews has resigned as Alberta’s finance minister and launched his campaign in the race to replace Jason Kenney as United Conservative Party leader and premier. Story here.
FIRST FEMALE JUSTICE MINSTER IN SASKATCHEWAN – Saskatchewan has its first female justice minister and attorney-general after Premier Scott Moe shuffled his cabinet this week. Story here.
DONNER PRIZE WINNER NAMED – Munk School professor Dan Breznitz has won this year’s Donner Prize for the best public policy book. Story here.
ONTARIO ELECTION – Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath wouldn’t say if she’ll stay on in her post if she fails to become premier, telling reporters on Tuesday she will wait for voters to make their decision in this week’s election before she makes hers on her political future. Story here. Meanwhile, ONTARIO ELECTION TODAY: The party leaders are making a final push ahead of Thursday’s election. And Vote of Confidence, The Globe’s Ontario election newsletter is here.
CONSERVATIVE LEADERSHIP RACE
CAMPAIGN TRAIL – Scott Aitchison is campaigning across Ontario. Roman Baber holds a rally in Toronto. Jean Charest is in Montreal. Leslyn Lewis is campaigning in the Newfoundland and Labrador communities of Clarenville and St. John’s. Pierre Poilievre was in Saskatchewan on Wednesday, with stops in Moose JawWyburn and Regina. No word on the campaign whereabouts of Patrick Brown.
MEMBERSHIP DEADLINE – It’s worth noting that Friday is the deadline for membership sales in the continuing leadership race. To date, the campaigns have been recruiting new members they presumably hope will support them leading to the Sept. 10 announcement of the new party leader.
BROWN ON CHINA AND CHAREST ON FIREARMS – Conservative leadership candidate Patrick Brown says he believes Canada can advance its trade relationship with China while at the same time take a stand against its human rights abuses. Story here. Meanwhile, rival Jean Charest promised Tuesday to subject a national ban on so-called assault-style firearms to a classification review by a panel of experts. Story here.
THIS AND THAT
TODAY IN THE COMMONS – Projected Order of Business at the House of Commons, June. 1, accessible here.
CHRETIEN LEFT IN THE DARK – Not even ex-prime ministers are immune from the lack of household power that has been a reality in the Ottawa region since a devastating storm on May 21 that hammered Ontario and Quebec. Tens of thousands were left in the dark as a result of the storm. Ottawa Bureau Chief Robert Fife ran into Jean Chrétien in downtown Ottawa on Wednesday. Canada’s prime minister from 1993 to 2003, said that he hasn’t had power at his Ottawa home since the storm so is staying in a downtown hotel. Hydro Ottawa has described the impact of the storm as being worse than both the ice storm of 1998 and tornadoes of 2018. As of Wednesday, Hydro Ottawa says 1,100 customers are still without power. One of them is Canada’s 20th prime minister.
PAGES PERFORMANCE – For the first time since 2019, the House of Commons Pages had an opportunity on Wednesday to sing O’Canada in the House of Commons chamber. They sang from the Speaker’s Gallery reserved for guests of the speaker. It’s a tradition for the Pages to sing the national anthem on the first Wednesday in June, but they have been unable to do so since 2019 because of the pandemic. Pages are first-year students attending one of three postsecondary institutions in the Ottawa region that work in the Commons chamber and Parliament Hill providing support services to MPs such as delivering notes among MPs, or from the Speaker to MPs, delivering documents and providing water. Each year, 40 students are selected as Pages from across Canada.
JOLY MEETS BALTIC COUNTERPARTS – Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly is meeting with her Baltic Region counterparts in Quebec City on Thursday. Ms. Joly will be holding talks with Estonia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Eva-Maria Liimets, Lithuania’s Foreign Affairs Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis and Zanda Kalniņa-Lukaševica, Latvia’s Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The agenda includes discussions on co-ordinated efforts in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a joint news conference, and the ministers, joined by Defence Minister Anita Anand, touring Canadian Forces Base Valcartier.
ROTA RETURNS TO SPEAKERS CHAIR – Anthony Rota, the Speaker of the House of Commons, returned to his regular chair Tuesday after being away for more than two months because of heart surgery. “It’s great to see you all again and it is great to be back. Please don’t let me regret saying that,” the Nipissing MP told the House. “While I was away, I just want to thank you all for the texts. the calls, the e-mails, the fruit baskets, the flowers, the plants. It really made the time go faster knowing that someone was thinking of me and that is something I really do appreciate from each and every one of you.”
NO INTEREST – “We’re just not interested in her opinion.” – Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, commenting on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, on claims by Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia that Canada’s new gun control could allow for a Russian invasion.
NEW CP ECONOMICS REPORTER – Nojoud Al Mallees, who has been a reporter and producer at CBC’s business unit based in Toronto, is joining the Ottawa Bureau of The Canadian Press as an economics reporter, starting on July. 4.
MP WITH COVID-19 – Stéphane Bergeron, the Bloc Québécois MP for the South Shore riding Montarville, has tested positive for COVID-19 with a rapid test, and placed himself in isolation.
On Wednesday’s edition of The Globe and Mail podcast, following the announcement that the Liberal government plans to retable the Canada Disability Benefit before the end of June, Michelle Hewitt, the co-chair of Disability with Poverty, explains what supports are currently available to disabled Canadians, why this benefit is needed now, and the importance of including disabled voices in its creation. The Decibel is here
PRIME MINISTER’S DAY
The Prime Minister attended private meetings, and was scheduled to attend the Liberal caucus meeting, Question Period, and a flag-raising ceremony on Parliament Hill for Pride Month.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh attended the NDP caucus meeting, was scheduled to hold a news conference with B.C. MP Gord Johns on a health-based approach to substance use and participate in Question Period.
ONTARIANS SUPPORT HANDGUN BAN: POLL – A large majority of Ontarians support a ban on handguns, according to a new election poll released Tuesday, just a day after the federal government tabled new gun-control legislation. Story here.
The Globe and Mail Editorial Board on why it’s time for a ban on the sale of handguns: “Canadians own 1.1 million legal handguns. That’s three times as many as just a decade and a half ago. New sales in recent years have been running at an average of 55,000 annually. As this page has repeatedly pointed out, none of the above makes any sense. Hunting is a legal activity practised by millions of Canadians, but handguns aren’t legal as hunting tools, in part because they’re highly ineffective hunting tools. They’re too inaccurate to be useful for much besides shooting other human beings at close range. Their main value is as concealed weapons, and carrying a concealed weapon is, of course, illegal in Canada. So while many Canadians have good reasons for owning a hunting rifle, almost nobody has a good reason for owning a handgun.”
Andrew Coyne (The Globe and Mail) on how we can no more force a prisoner to serve 150 years than we can execute him six times: “The ruling affects a tiny sliver of the prison population – perhaps a dozen cases, total. It remains open to the government to rewrite the law, within the limits set out by the court. Even if you disagree with the ruling, then, it clearly implies no emergency or crisis. The public is not one whit less safe after the ruling than it was before. And yet several candidates for Conservative leader – Pierre Poilievre, Patrick Brown, and Jean Charest – reacted with a vow to invoke the notwithstanding clause: the first time any federal government would have done so, were anyone to hold them to it. Has it come to this?”
Elaine Craig (Contributed to The Globe and Mail) on why are Canadian police chiefs refusing to accept military sexual assaults cases: “Imagine that police forces across Canada got to pick and choose which criminal offences they would be willing to investigate. This would seem unconscionable. And yet, when it comes to alleged sexual assaults by members of the Canadian military, some police chiefs in Canada apparently believe they do have that choice.”
Tom Mulcair (CTV) on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sleepwalking us all toward making Quebec a de facto separate state: “[Quebec Premier Francois] Legault is getting a free pass. His desire for full jurisdiction over language, culture and immigration is being met with a whimper by Justin Trudeau and his hapless Attorney-General, David Lametti. They both know that this is a battle that Legault wants with Ottawa. Unfortunately for all of us, Trudeau is so terrified of Legault, that Ottawa is left play acting. Don’t expect to see the same thing we saw after previous attacks on minority language rights: a strong federal government doing its job. Trudeau and Lametti are hiding under their desks.”
Paul Wells (TVO) on how the Ontario election could have used more political polarization: “The biggest surprise of 2022 has been how many voters don’t mind having Doug Ford as premier. I think I’m reading the mood of this crucial Don’t Mind Doug voting bloc correctly: they don’t go to bed at night thanking the stars that Ford watches over them. But neither are they prepared to do anything untoward, to break a sweat or chip a nail to be done with him. This will be hard for some people I know to comprehend.”
Politics Podcast: Does DeSantis’s Strength Spell Trouble For Trump? – FiveThirtyEight
In last week’s Jan. 6 congressional hearing, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson outlined the days leading up to the attack on the U.S. Capitol and testified that then-President Donald Trump and some people in his administration were aware of the threat of violence. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, the crew discusses how this hearing could affect Americans’ views of Trump and the Republican nominees running in the midterm who support Trump’s “Big Lie.”
The crew also analyzes a new poll from the University of New Hampshire that garnered quite a bit of media attention for complicating the 2024 Republican presidential primaries. And Kaleigh Rogers and Nate Silver compete in an Independence Day-inspired statistics game where they guess how many Americans know the country’s national anthem and how many prefer burgers over hot dogs.
You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.
The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.
St. John's MP 'grateful' for political panic buttons amid rising safety concerns – CBC.ca
A federal MP from Newfoundland and Labrador says she’s grateful she carries a government-issued panic button as threats and harassment directed at politicians rises in Canada.
St. John’s East MP Joanne Thompson is one of several members who have used the buttons, also called mobile duress alarms, in recent months. The buttons alert the Parliamentary Protective Service or local police of a safety concern when pressed.
While Thompson said she hasn’t had to use the button while working in St. John’s, she often carries it while in Ottawa.
“Early in the fall, not long after the election, I did have a worrying encounter with a constituent in the riding. And it was at that point I did see the panic button and I was quite grateful for that,” Thompson told CBC News Thursday.
“I was in Ottawa was when I used it the most often. You know, walking to work in the dark, returning in the dark. It was an extra precaution, so I’m grateful for that.”
Thompson said most of her concerns come from emails and social media, saying the rhetoric of others has intensified in recent months. Other MPs have shared stories of harassment, death threats and dangerous messages that caused them to use a panic button.
When asked about how safe she feels in her job, Thompson said she doesn’t allow herself to think that way.
“I don’t engage in back and forth on social media … and I don’t want to really travel the road where I begin to question my safety,” she said. “The people who are sending those messages, I think that’s what they want.”
Scott Matthews, an associate professor of Political Science at Memorial University, says increased use of the panic buttons is likely a response to how people are feeling about the current state of Canadian politics as tension rises between parties.
“People who like one party or feel close to one of the parties tend to feel very far away from and very negatively toward the other parties. This is especially the case between Liberals and Conservatives or between New Democrats and Conservatives. They really dislike each other in a way that isn’t the case in the past,” Matthews told CBC News.
Matthews says he’s seen that trend go through waves in recent decades, but adds the politics of COVID-19 have amplified discord in the short-term.
He believes it could continue when it comes to future elections, especially in areas where races are more contentious.
Even if we disagree on policy, there’s a lot that we have in common. A lot that we share.– Scott Matthews
Asked about what could be done to tackle the overarching issue of rising threats, Thompson said she believes it begins in the classroom.
“We have to create a shift in how we access news, how we question sources…and also how we speak to each other,” she said. “Respect matters, and personal and public safety matters. How we conduct ourselves has a significant role to play in achieving that.”
Matthews says things can be done by the politicians at the centre of the issue, especially regarding the use of hateful rhetoric.
It’s one thing to disagree, he said, but it’s another to suggest that disagreement creates enemies in politics.
“Panic buttons, and more generally kind of securing our political system against conflict, is not any kind of solution. That’s the sign of a problem, in fact,” he said.
“What we kind of need to be doing is finding ways to reduce the heated rhetoric and to depolarize our political system.… Even if we disagree on policy, there’s a lot that we have in common. A lot that we share.”
The Nightmare Politics and Sticky Science of Hacking the Climate – Canada's National Observer
One way to fight climate change may be to … do more climate change. “Geoengineering” is a broad term encompassing distinct techniques for hacking the climate, split into two main groups: There’s carbon dioxide removal (CDR), which could mean sucking carbon out of the atmosphere with machines, or simply encouraging more vegetation to grow. And there’s solar radiation management (SRM), which might include brightening clouds or spraying aerosols in the atmosphere to bounce the sun’s energy back into space.
These two methods are sort of like different approaches to battling a seasonal flu.
Carbon removal is like taking an antiviral, which helps your immune system banish the virus from your body; deleting carbon from the atmosphere similarly targets the root cause of the climate change problem. On the other hand, solar radiation management is more like taking an aspirin to reduce the fever the flu is causing. It doesn’t obliterate the problem-causing agent, and only treats symptoms.
Each technique comes with huge risks—be they political or planetary, obvious or hidden—that scientists are just beginning to explore. But they’re worth thinking about now, because some scientists are taking geoengineering seriously and urging more studies to consider it as a way to bring down global temperatures while governments tackle decarbonizing the world economy.
Risks All the Way Down
Let’s take solar radiation management first, specifically stratospheric aerosol injection, or SAI. The idea is to introduce sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, which would generate aerosols that would cool the planet by wrapping around it like an energy-reflecting blanket. (Volcanic plumes do the same thing naturally.) At least theoretically, SAI would immediately bring down temperatures, exposing fewer people, animals, and plants (including crops) to heat stress.
You might think you’d need vast squadrons of planes to spray every inch of the sky, but the atmosphere actually does this dispersal itself. The neat thing about the stratosphere is that you can inject it with something—let’s say pink glitter—and it’ll spread all over the world, turning the skies shiny and rosy. If that’s the kind of thing you’re into.
The nightmare politics and sticky science of hacking the climate. #ClimateChange #Geoengineering
But who would be desperate enough to take this chance? It probably depends on where people live. How badly a region is suffering from climate change—and is projected to suffer in the future—will define its politics regarding geoengineering. As world governments drag their feet on reducing emissions, some nations might grow desperate to try SAI as a stop-gap measure.
“It’s in general called ‘the thermostat problem,’ the problem that countries actually have different preferences over where the hypothetical global thermostat would be set,” says Duke University political scientist Tyler Felgenhauer, who studies the risks of SAI.
Climate risks like supercharged hurricanes, flooding, and sea-level rise have disproportionately affected coastal nations. “There are indications that people, for example, in small island states, which are more threatened by climate change, might be more willing to accept risks from SAI,” says Christine Merk, deputy director of the Research Center Global Commons and Climate Policy at the Kiel Institute, who researches public perceptions of geoengineering. And that might mean they are willing to take risks with consequences that may be borne elsewhere. “What do you weigh higher: the lives of people threatened by climate change, or the lives threatened by SAI?” she asks. “That’s in the end a moral judgment.”
How governments make that judgment will likely have to do with whether citizens and their legislators are convinced there is a climate emergency. “If you’re afraid of the breakdown of the climate system, you might accept this fix,” says Merck.
And, says Janos Pasztor, executive director of the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative, leaders will have to be convinced that taking drastic but risky action is better than doing nothing. “You cannot look at the risks of [solar radiation management] in isolation—you have to look at the risk of doing versus not doing, and then compare which world is going to be better or worse,” he says.
Altering the climate will affect every nation on Earth. We all share one atmosphere. So who gets to make such a momentous decision? “One has to include the key different stakeholders that will be impacted in different ways. It is very easy to say this—it’s extremely difficult to do it,” Pasztor says. “But that’s what we need to do. And so the international community needs to start serious conversations about how one actually does that.”
Yet it’s hard to imagine (ideally) getting buy-in from all the nations of the world, much less the competing political and cultural factions within those nations. The United Nations tried in 2019 with a resolution calling for more research of geoengineering, but the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil blocked it. Even within a single country, this idea can be contentious. For example, last year Sweden rejected a small-scale test of stratospheric aerosols. It is, perhaps alarmingly, easier to imagine a rogue state from going it alone, or an eccentric billionaire taking it upon themselves.
And if getting political consensus before deployment might be difficult, imagine what would happen afterward if things go wrong. Consider a scenario in which the world somehow agrees on an SAI program, and cooperates on rolling it out. All seems to be going smoothly, until a hurricane or drought strikes a particular country, whose political leadership blames it on geoengineering. “The problem is that as you ramp up a program, there might be some climate catastrophe somewhere in the world that people may blame on solar geoengineering, when in fact it’s actually just climate change,” says Felgenhauer. “Those first few years, it might be hard to distinguish between: Well, was that event climate change, or was that due to the solar geoengineering gone poorly?”
While solar geoengineering research is still preliminary, already there are hints that it might lead to some particularly strange and unexpected side effects. A paper published in April in the journal Nature Communications concluded that the global cooling caused by SAI might actually expose more people to malaria. (Hotter conditions make it harder for mosquitoes to survive and transmit the malaria parasite to humans.)
“Most of the focus has been on: Would it work? Do we have the technology to do it? Do we think we could actually bring down temperatures worldwide?” says Georgetown University global change biologist Colin Carlson, lead author of the study. “There’s been a lot less focus on the kind of questions that we’re asking in this study, which is: OK, well, how would this affect people?”
Malaria transmission won’t go up or down uniformly across the planet as temperatures rise, according to the researchers’ modeling. They found that cooling caused by geoengineering would put millions of additional people in West Africa at risk of contracting malaria, but in East Africa, it would actually shorten the transmission season, putting fewer people at risk. “All of these kinds of generalizations and rules of thumb that we use, all that sort of mental math that’s like, ‘OK, geoengineering will probably save lives’—that may not work at a global scale, and it definitely doesn’t work for a lot of countries,” says Carlson. “What people want to do with the health impacts of this is to say, ‘Well, it probably won’t be that bad.’ I’m not sure the data is going to come out saying that.”
In a separate study, Carlson posited a different X-factor: The possibility that geoengineering might reduce monsoon rainfall in South Asia. That would make less water available for crops and people. Monsoons also dilute the concentration of the bacteria that causes cholera, which is found in drinking water—if the storms are weaker, more people might get sick.
Let’s imagine that something goes wrong enough that world leaders pull the plug on their geoengineering program, or there’s a global recession or a world war, and it becomes impossible to fly the planes. The spraying suddenly stops. What happens next?
Any climate problems that had been suppressed would resurge, because, like an aspirin, SRM only brings down the fever—it doesn’t eliminate the underlying malady. One 2018 modeling study found that the aerosols would persist in the atmosphere for a year or two after abruptly stopping their distribution. After that, surface temperatures would rise almost a degree Celsius each decade. (For reference, the Paris Climate agreement is designed to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming since the dawn of the Industrial Age.)
Plant and animal species have adapted to less severe temperature swings throughout Earth’s history, but nothing like this. The rapid heat rise would kill people and crops, and damage oceans. Particularly sensitive species, like amphibians, wouldn’t stand a chance. “Obviously, if you had a strong SRM program ongoing and then it suddenly stopped,” says Felgenhauer, “that would be catastrophic environmentally.”
Surely carbon removal would be a less controversial method of geoengineering, right? It seems inherently less risky to filter carbon out of the atmosphere with machines or, even better, restore forests to sequester carbon the natural way. But as it turns out, there are plenty of ways this, too, can go wrong.
The right way to use trees to capture carbon is to encourage the regrowth of whole ecosystems, which simultaneously addresses the biodiversity crisis. The wrong way is to grow a monoculture of trees of a single species, which is the approach often used by carbon credit programs. These programs have some allure: They raise money from corporations, which can then boast to the public how much carbon they’re capturing. But tree farms are nowhere near as efficient at capturing carbon as an intact forest, and they don’t save other species in the process. “A lot of the time, it’s assumed that these kinds of biology-based carbon-removal techniques will automatically create co-benefits, and that’s not true at all,” says Cardiff University social psychologist Emily Cox, who studies public attitudes toward carbon removal. “They have the potential for co-benefits, but the co-benefits need to be very, very carefully managed.”
And exactly how much carbon they remove can vary quite a bit based on variables like the health of the vegetation. “One of the major risks of some of these biology-based proposals is that an assumption gets made that you can easily equate X number of trees to X million tons of carbon without actually looking at what kinds of trees they are, and where they’re being planted,” says Cox. The amount of captured carbon might end up being negligible. “You have a lot of trees, which is brilliant. You haven’t necessarily got the climate benefits.”
Another technique known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS, also relies on a monocrop, usually fast-growing grasses. In this case, the vegetation is burned to produce energy, and the resulting emissions are sequestered underground. But it also comes with its own set of dubious side effects—it would require vast tracts of crops, and huge amounts of water, to make a dent in atmospheric carbon concentrations: A paper that published last month found that in the US alone, scaling up BECCS would expose 130 million Americans to water stress by 2100.
But in a global climate gone bonkers, there are even risks to restoring forests to their former glory, because that glory is increasingly perilous. Supercharged wildfires are now obliterating forests, instead of gently resetting ecosystems to make way for new growth. If you spend a lot of time and money restoring one of these forests to sequester carbon, and then it burns, all of that carbon goes right back into the atmosphere. Or if a given country’s political regime changes, and goes from supporting reforestation to deforestation, you’d have the same problem. Just look at what’s happening in the Amazon.
“I would argue that many proposals for land-based removals could be risky,” says Cox. “Because you’ve got a very, very high risk that either the carbon removal doesn’t happen in the first place, or that it happens, but then in 10 years’ time is reversed.”
The Dreaded “Moral Hazard”
Researchers have developed a way to mimic natural carbon sequestration with a technique called direct air capture, or DAC. These machines suck in air, pass it over membranes to remove the carbon dioxide, and pump it underground, locking it away forever. The tide may be shifting towards DAC in the US. Last month, the Biden administration threw in $3.5 billion to back direct air capture. (That comes five years after a California congressman introduced a bill that would fund the research of geoengineering, but it never went anywhere.)
But this, too, faces two big issues. The first is that DAC exists at nowhere near the scale needed to make a dent in excess atmospheric carbon. One plant that came online in Iceland last year is only capturing the equivalent emissions of 870 cars. A 2021 study calculated that it would take an investment of 1 to 2 percent of global gross domestic product to capture 2.3 gigatons of CO2 a year by 2050—and that’s only a fraction of current annual emissions, which are around 40 gigatons. “There is the risk that we cannot scale and deploy fast enough,” says Benjamin Sovacool, who studies the risks of geoengineering at Aarhus University in Denmark. “It’s looking like the rate at which we’d have to deploy these is unlike any previous energy transition we’ve had, because the scale is so immense.”
The second issue is one of “moral hazard,” or the temptation to lean on DAC as a crutch, instead of doing what’s necessary: dramatically slashing greenhouse gas emissions. If a nation’s leaders anticipate being able to remove emissions via DAC, they don’t need to worry about cutting those emissions in the first place. It’s like waiting for a miracle antiviral—except the requisite dose doesn’t yet exist.
There’s a chance that the extreme and desperate nature of geoengineering might do the opposite—instead of encouraging complacency or a reliance on last-minute technology fixes, it may alarm the public enough that they’ll start to treat climate change like an emergency. But, says Sovacool, “politicians might be even more susceptible to the moral hazard, because they’re only thinking in the present terms. They’ll gladly push as much to future generations as they can.”
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