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Warming oceans are threatening the Inuit way of life

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This week:

  • Warming oceans are threatening the Inuit way of life
  • Young people in Europe think climate action needs to happen faster
  • What exactly is ‘renewable natural gas’?

Warming oceans are threatening the Inuit way of life

warming oceans are threatening the inuit way of life
(Nick Murray/CBC News)

In January, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released their annual report on the state of the world’s climate. While 2021 didn’t top the list of the planet’s hottest years on record (it was the fourth-hottest), it was in fact the warmest year for our oceans.

As with most aspects of climate change, the people who are seeing that warming the most are in the Arctic.

“Over the last 25 years, the species that typically thrive here, the numbers are going down,” said Hilu Tagoona, a Nunavut resident and a senior Arctic adviser for Oceans North, a charitable organization that supports marine conservation together with Indigenous and coastal communities.

According to a report by the Canadian government entitled Canada’s Oceans Now, 2020, all of Canada’s oceans are warming by about 1 C per century. However, some parts of the Arctic Ocean have warmed as much as 1 C per decade over the past 20 years.

“When we talk about people who rely on the oceans, it’s not just for food,” said Peter Chandler, a physical oceanographer with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “There are a lot of cultures that rely on it for other things than food. It’s their culture, it’s their way of life.”

Tagoona said the traditional Inuit way of life is already being threatened.

“This is culturally significant to us, the food that we have survived on for thousands of years, and the traditions that are associated with that, the ways of knowing and being that we have,” she said.

For example, she said that young children go out with their parents when they set out the nets in the ice for char. That first catch is celebrated and then shared with the community, something that is culturally important to the Inuit. 

But studies have shown that, with the warming oceans, char populations are at risk of declining. There’s also a fear that other species, like Arctic cod, could decline, which could then extend to the species who survive off them, such as beluga whales and ringed seals.

“If we want to get protein from the ocean … we have to make sure we’re not putting any of that in an imbalance,” Chandler said. “So if we take one species out of the food web too much, then we’re causing an imbalance.”

The potential loss of the food and ecosystems that the Inuit have relied on for thousands of years “would be detrimental to us existentially,” Tagoona said. “Their sustainability is critical to who we are as people.”

It’s not just changes to the marine environment that Tagoona is concerned about. She’s also worried about the effect a potentially ice-free Arctic — or at least an Arctic with much less ice than has been normal — will have, with more commercial fishing and the presence of more ships that will disrupt the natural oceanscape. 

All of this, she said, emphasizes the importance of Inuit input in managing the Arctic.

“I think one of the big solutions … would be expanding Arctic Ocean governance to include Inuit and to have them a part of every discussion, conversation, policy created,” Tagoona said. 

“I feel [Inuit] will continue to be stewards of the Arctic oceans, and the Arctic lands for all time, because we’re not going anywhere. This is where we live, this is where we thrive.”

Nicole Mortillaro

Reader feedback

Last week, we wrote about Vancouver professor Seth Klein’s experiences installing (and financing) a heat pump. 

Bill Rose: “Hello — nice work reporting on the slow conversion to non-gas home heating via heat pumps. There are two points that are not always as clear as they could be: one, electricity as generated on the Prairies is NOT renewably sourced (as yet), and air-sourced heat pumps are limited as to their effectiveness below about –10 C.”

While that’s true for traditional air-source heat pumps, the B.C. government’s CleanBC website says cold climate heat pumps using newer technology are designed to work down to -25 C, and some can maintain an efficiency of 200 per cent below –18 C (meaning you get two units of heat for every unit of electricity you put in).

Some readers asked if Klein had a backup source of heat and if not, why.  

Gordon Rowand:  “I don’t understand why [Seth Klein and his wife] would get rid of their high-efficiency gas furnace and replace it. The heat pump should be installed as the primary source of heat and the furnace kept as secondary to make a dual-source heating system. When it’s too cold for the heat pump, the gas kicks in, and this way, in extreme cold you have backup and less load on the electrical grid.”

Seth Klein responded: “No, we have no other heat source other than our heat pump (although we could use electric space heaters if needed). We wanted to cut our ties with FortisBC entirely. This works because we live in the Lower Mainland of B.C., where our winters are fairly mild. But even a couple months ago, when the temperature got unusually cold for Vancouver — close to –20 C — our heat pump worked just fine. In colder climes, having some sort of backup like electric baseboards or a wood-fired stove/fireplace would be good. Alternatively, the answer in some locales may be going with neighbourhood geothermal.” 

Some readers were interested in more details, such as monthly costs. In this article in The National Observer, Klein describes the whole process, and says his family, which also added some solar panels, is now spending about $25 less in monthly utility costs, even with the addition of summer air conditioning.

Finally, Trevor Blogg wrote: “I do not understand why heat pump installations are so costly in Canada. I lived in New Zealand for 23 years and had four different heat pumps installed in three properties, including in one apartment which I rented for nine years, and which saved me substantially, including the capital cost, as well as making the dwelling more comfortable.

“In each case, the payback period was in the range of just four to six years. No government incentives were needed. If I were to pay a local installer here in B.C. for a heat pump, the initial cost would be at least twice that for an equivalent installation in New Zealand. If I do move to a heat pump, I will do a self-installation. The cost disparities need investigating!”

Also, a small correction: Our piece mentioned that Klein was writing a book about politics and climate change. In fact, his book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, was published in 2020.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show and podcast! The Winter Olympics in Beijing have showcased bare mountains with small areas covered in snow that had to be made from massive amounts of water brought to the site. This week, What On Earth host Laura Lynch asks: what’s the future of winter? What On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: European attitudes to climate action

The Fridays for Future climate protests, which began with Greta Thunberg’s solitary vigil outside her school in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2018 and grew into a worldwide phenomenon, were a signal that youth wanted governments to take more urgent action on global warming. While there’s a stereotype that younger people talk a good game but are unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices, recent research out of Europe provides more detail of what this demographic is willing to give up.

For example, nearly two-thirds of young Europeans aged 16 to 29 said they would accept the restriction of dietary choices to vegetarian and vegan food in public eating facilities. Studies of the Fridays For Future movement demonstrate that in the process of ramping up climate action, its activists are prepared for “slower economic growth and some loss of jobs.”

But perhaps the most striking finding is that 53 per cent of young Europeans agree or somewhat agree with the notion that authoritarian states are better able to address the climate crisis (see chart below). This doesn’t mean this generation is opposed to democracy, but according to one report, “it points to a strong sense of urgency and young Europeans wanting a multi-actor response to climate change, which includes increasing political pressure on either themselves, fellow citizens or perhaps businesses.”

Agree or disagree? ‘Authoritarian states are better equipped than democracies to tackle the climate crisis.’

warming oceans are threatening the inuit way of life 1

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Renewable natural gas: An explainer

warming oceans are threatening the inuit way of life 2
(Nigel Roddis/Reuters)

Your local gas company may have offered you “renewable natural gas.” We take a closer look at what that means.

What is renewable natural gas?

Natural gas is a fossil fuel that’s about 90 per cent methane — a chemical compound that’s a powerful greenhouse gas, dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Renewable natural gas is biomethane, or methane that comes from biological sources, which could include landfills, sewage and food, agricultural or forestry waste.

Because natural gas and renewable natural gas (RNG) are practically chemically identical, they can be mixed, processed, stored, transported and used the same way. 

According to Environment Canada, under Canada’s Clean Fuels Regulation, RNG must:

How can it benefit climate-change efforts?

In two main ways:

By displacing natural gas and other fossil fuels. Because renewable natural gas ultimately comes from plants that captured carbon during their lifetime, it’s theoretically carbon neutral when it’s burned. This allows it to decarbonize gas-fuelled trucks and industrial processes using existing infrastructure.

Doug Slater, vice-president of external and Indigenous relations at the gas company FortisBC, says that can even apply to furnaces in buildings. “The great thing about renewable gas is that our customers don’t need to make any changes to their homes and businesses in order to use it.” 

By capturing methane from organic waste (such as landfills, manure and food waste) that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

Vincent Morales, manager of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, noted that methane from waste can represent more than five per cent of a country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Because of that, RNG has the potential to be not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative because of those “avoided emissions.”

How is RNG made?

By upgrading biogas

This is how 90 per cent of biomethane is produced worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Biogas is a mixture of methane (which makes up 45 to 75 per cent of the content by volume) and other gases (mainly carbon dioxide) produced when plant or animal matter decomposes without oxygen. It’s processed into RNG by removing most of the non-methane gases.

However, biogas can be burned to generate electricity and power, so only a small percentage of the world’s biogas — less than 10 per cent — was upgraded in 2018, the most recent year cited in an IEA report.

Or, by thermal gasification of biomass.

Biomass, such as wood waste, is heated under high heat, pressure and low oxygen, breaking it down into syngas, a mixture of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane. The methane can then be separated out.

The first commercial-scale plant in North America, built by FortisBC and REN Energy International, is expected to start producing RNG in Fruitvale, B.C., this fall. 

Is it really carbon neutral?

While RNG is carbon neutral in theory, there are two reasons why it might not be in practice:

Its carbon intensity depends on how it was produced. If it really eliminates emissions from waste and the process to produce it requires little energy and land, then it has a lower carbon intensity. However, some ways of producing RNG don’t fit either of those criteria.

It’s methane, a greenhouse gas. “If it leaks into the atmosphere, it’s the same as fossil [methane],” said Chris Bataille, a B.C.-based associate researcher with the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), who researches decarbonization of the economy. And he noted that gas infrastructure is generally leaky.  

Meanwhile, biogas production itself is estimated to leak up to 15 per cent of its methane, according to a 2020 study by Emily Grubert, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

“Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change,” she wrote in an article in The Conversation. She noted that’s unlike zero-carbon solutions such as wind and solar energy, that are competing for investment. 

Is it more expensive than regular natural gas?

Yes, it can be double to 10 times the cost, according to data in a 2020 report produced by Pollution Probe for the Canadian Gas Association.

Gas companies such as FortisBC generally have regulated rates. As of Jan. 1, 2022, FortisBC is charging $13.808 per gigajoule for biomethane, or roughly double the rate for regular natural gas. That means a homeowner using 90 gigajoules per year would pay about $103.56 a month instead of $51.06.

The IEA said it expects the average global cost of biomethane production to fall 25 per cent by 2040, while the cost of natural gas is expected to rise, bringing the prices closer together.

Emily Chung

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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