Forest Fires & Climate Change: Burning Scientific Truths (Khan)


Anyone who has been paying attention to the news recently will have undoubtedly heard about the forest fire in Fort McMurry, Alberta. According to the CBC, the fire is estimated to have burned over 500,000 hectares and is still burning in some areas. The fire has also prompted the evacuation of close to 80,000 people in the area. There has been a major outpouring of support from around the country, and many people have been amazed by the sheer size of the blaze.

fire-mapPerimeter of the Fort McMurry fire as of May 24th 2016 (Source: Cbc)

This incident might make you wonder: what causes forest fires, and are they becoming more frequent?

Forest fires are like any other fire, in that they are dependent on three components to survive: a fuel source, a heat source or spark, and oxygen. According to Natural Resources Canada, there are thousands of fires across Canada each year, but only 3% of these grow to over 200 hectares in size. In the case of larger fires like the one in Alberta, conditions such as high temperatures and lack of precipitation have a huge impact on the spread of the fire. According to the Global and Mail, it is a combination of these factors that have allowed the Alberta fire to survive. Another important factor in the growth of fires is the direction and speed of the wind. Winds can often hamper efforts to stop a forest fire.

Once a fire has started, it is important to limit its growth and minimize the damage. One way to fight a forest fire is to douse the fire with ammonium polyphosphate. This complicated sounding chemical functions by creating a layer over flammable material and insulating it from the high temperatures of a fire. This lowers the temperature that the fire burns at, and reduces the fuel available for the fire to burn. In addition to this method, firefighters in Alberta are creating firebreaks to stop the forest fire. A firebreak is a clearing in combustible materials in the path of a fire.


A plane dousing a California Wildfire with ammonium polyphosphate (Elaine Thompson/AP)

A fact to keep in mind is that Canada has almost 10% of the world’s forest areas so forest fires are a common issue. Forest fires are often thought of as natural calamities when they impact humans, but that does not mean that they are necessarily bad for the environment. Fires clear out old trees and bushes and allow for new trees to grow out. In fact, Natural Resources Canada often sets a number of prescribed fires each year to allow healthy growth of forest ecosystems.

So are forest fires becoming more frequent? And is it a result of climate change?

Not exactly, fires today are not more frequent, but frequently more destructive. According to Natural Resource Canada, in 2014 the number of fires across Canada were down, but the area burned by fires across Canada had increased. Kerry Anderson, a fire research assistant with Natural Resource Canada says that more data needs to be collected and analyzed before a definitive link can be made between climate change and forest fires. What is known however is that climate change contributes to forest fires in two important ways:

  • Climate change has caused an increase in global temperatures and has disrupted the usual precipitation patterns. This has lead to increasingly hot and dry conditions which are more conducive to forest fires.

The government and local communities need to do more to protect citizens from the danger of forest fires. A FireSmart plan developed in response to the Slave Lake fire in 2011 has not been fully implemented by communities across Alberta; this plan needs to be reviewed to plan for future incidents. We are today in an era where climate change is finally being recognized as an important issue, but we need to work on adapting to a changing world in addition to trying to reduce emissions and limit climate change.


Blogs worth Blogging About

I asked my student bloggers to come up with a list of their 5 favourite blogs about the environment. If you are looking for something to read this weekend, here is the list:

Top 5: Environmental Policy (according to Koundourakis)

Canadian Environmental Law Association

Pembina Institute

Policy Options


David Suzuki

Top 5: Environmental Science (according to Khan)

Dot Earth– This blog is written by Andrew Rivkin in the New York Times and focuses on US issues, but it does contain information regarding global Climate Change.

Canadian ERA Perspectives– This is a blog dealing with developments in environmental, regulatory, and aboriginal law in Canada.

Mississauga Green Living Blog- This is a blog managed by the Environmental Management Section of the City of Mississauga.

Royal Society of Biology Blog– This is a science based blog run by the Royal Society of Biology in the UK.

Science Borealis Blog– This is a Canadian Blog that deals with a wide variety of topics within science.

Students Taking Over the Blog

This summer two outstanding University of Toronto Mississauga students will be writing blog posts on environmental science and policy in Canada. Let me introduce you to:

M.Umar Khan – Environmental Science blogger


Khan is pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science degree at UTM. He is completing a specialist degree in Comparative Physiology with a minor in Political Science. He has a self-purported keen interest in biology and science policy in Canada. In his free time, he likes to read and keep up to date with the current events happening in Canada and around the world.




Anthony Koundourakis – Environmental Policy blogger




Koundourakis is pursuing an economics and political science degree at UTM.  He is also an intern for a full service financial brokerage house in Mississauga, and to pay the bills he is a bartender.  In his free time, he keeps up with current events in Canadian and American news. He is known for making random conversations
with complete strangers because he “believe that each person has interesting stories and adventures to tell.”



Both Khan and Koundourakis took my ENV/POL250Y course in the 2015-2016 academic year. The course, based around the book The Canadian Environment in Political Context, provided them with an introduction to some basic concepts and themes in Canadian environmental science and politics. Among the highest achievers in the course, these students were selected to write weekly or semi-weekly posts on pressing environmental issues in Canada. So stay tuned for their blog posts! In order to keep it all straight, the author’s name (Olive, Khan, or Koundourakis) will now appear in the title of each post.


Endangered Species Legislation Across the Provinces

In the book, there is a list of provincial endangered species policies on page 108 (table 5.1). It has come to me attention over the past two weeks that the table is woefully inadequate. I am presently doing research on a paper about the 20th Anniversary of the Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk in Canada (more on that this summer). With the help of my graduate student research assistant (Katrina Jansen), I have created an updated and more complete list of all provincial laws that include provisions for endangered species.

Perhaps most important thing is to note the inclusion of earlier acts and later acts. Manitoba passed new and innovative legislation in 2014. I would explore it in more depth in a future blog post. And British Columbia is finally (finally!) considering updating its 1996 legislation. Whoo-hoo! That bill has not yet passed so stay tuned.

Year Province Act
1971 Ontario Endangered Species Act
1973 New Brunswick Endangered Species Act
1984 Alberta Wildlife Act
1989 Quebec Act Respecting Threatened or Vulnerable Species
1990 Manitoba Endangered Species Act
1993 Manitoba Endangered Species Act – Amendments
1996 New Brunswick Endangered Species Act
1996 Alberta Wildlife Act – Amendments
1996 British Columbia Wildlife Act
1997 Quebec Act Respecting Threatened or Vulnerable Species – Amendments
1998 Nova Scotia Act Respecting Endangered Species
1998 Saskatchewan Wildlife Act
1998 Prince Edward Island Wildlife Conservation Act
1999 British Columbia Wildlife Act – Amendments
2000 Alberta Wildlife Act – Amendments
2001 Newfoundland Endangered Species Act
2002 Yukon Wildlife Act
2003 Nunavut Wildlife Act
2004 Newfoundland Endangered Species Act
2007 Ontario Endangered Species Act
2009 Northwest Territories Species at Risk Act


2010 Nova Scotia Act Respecting Endangered Species – Amendments
2012 New Brunswick Species at Risk Act
2014 Manitoba Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act
2016 British Columbia Sustainable Wildlife Management Act – in ProgressWildlife

Progressive Conservative Party takes Manitoba

Trump and Clinton… it is all we here about these days. Indeed, their story is the lead on the Globe and Mail this morning. But Manitoba also had an election yesterday. The Progressive Conservative party, led by Brian Pallister, won a majority government. An impressive majority government. The party won 40 of the province’s 57 seats… and took 53.4% of the popular vote.

The NDP have been in power in Manitoba since 1999 – and historically have been very strong in the province. But last night, the NDP won only 14 seats and 25.6% of the popular vote. Their leader, Greg Selinger, resigned immediately after the votes here counted. The Liberal Party won the remaining 3 seats with 14.2% of the vote.

What was this election about? Taxes. (As most elections are!) Salinger said he would not raise the HST (harmonized sales tax) in the province… and then he did. Voters did not like that. Pallister has promised to decrease the tax by the 1% that it was raised. He better come through. He has also promised to join the New West Partnership trade agreement with BC, AB, and SK.

I am surprised to even write this, but as of April 2016 ALBERTA is the only province to have a NDP government.


Metis are Indians

Chapter 9 in The Canadian Environment in Political Context explains Indigenous politics in Canada. Standard in similar texts, the umbrella term “Aboriginal” is broken down into Inuit, First Nations, and Metis. The book also provides a chart of important Supreme Court cases that impact Aboriginal-Canada environmental relations. There is a new entry:

Daniels v Canada (Indian Affairs and Northern Development). The short story is that the court determined that “Metis” are Indians in Canada – thereby giving them (potential) land and resource rights. As Indians, Metis are the responsibility of the Federal government.

In this case, the court was asked to rule on 3 things:

  1. that Metis and non-status Indians are “Indians” as defined under the 1867 Constitution
  2. that the federal government has a fiduciary duty to Metis and non-status Indians
  3. that Metis and non-status Indians have the right to be consulted and negotiation with (in terms of things like land, environmental rights, etc.)

Initially, the trial judge (Federal Court of Appeals) granted (1) but used the R. v Powley (2003) case to benchmark which non-status Indians are included.  The court declined (2) and (3).

In October 2015 the Supreme Court heard this case and on April 14th made a ruling. It is now determined that Metis and non-status Indians are Indians under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

What does this mean in practice? It means that roughly 200,000 Metis and 400,000 non-status Aboriginal peoples (those not affiliated with a reserve) will become “Indians” and receive the benefits flowing from such status. Exactly who is Metis or non-status is to be determined on a “case-by-case” basis in the future. So, the court left it undefined.

What did the Supreme Court say about (2) and (3) – they rejected them BUT on the basis that confirming them would be “restating settled law.” This means that once you establish (1) then those Metis and non-status Indians would already have (2) and (3) by virtue of having (1).  Also worth noting, the Supreme Court did not rule that the Powley criteria is the basis for “Metis” – instead it will be determined “case-by-case.”

So this is a big victory for Metis and non-status Indians in Canada. What does it mean for the environment?  It is a bit too soon to tell. But the implication would be that Metis and non-status Indians may have the ability to make some land claims and resource claims. It should also mean that these groups will be involved in consultations on natural resource exploitation and exploitation (like oil and gas out West). Essentially, this case extended the scope of potential actors in the policy process.

For more information, see the CBC and APTN.


Status Quo in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan had a provincial election on April 4, 2016. However, there is really no update to the book – as the status quo resigned supreme. Indeed, the election was dubbed “the ground-hog day election.”

The Sask Party (the conservative or centre-right party) won 51 seats while the NDP (the centre-left party) won 10 seats. There are a total of 61 seats in the SK Legislative Assembly.  In terms of popular vote, the SP received 62.5% and the NDP won 30.3% (leaving 3.6% to the other parties, such as the Liberal Party and the Western Independence Party).

Prior to this election, the SP had 49 seats and the NDP help 9 seats. Thus, the NDP did gain a seat, but in a major setback the party leader, Cam Broten, lost his seat in Saskatoon. It is unclear as to whether or not he will remain party leader.

The Sask Party is a relatively new party – founded in only 1997. It gained major success under Brad Wall’s leadership in 2007. In the 2007 election the party won 38/58 seats and in 2011 it won 49/58 seats.  Last night we saw more of the same. And we can expect more of the same in the next five years. This is not good news for the environment – especially not good for any prospects of a national climate strategy in Canada.

2016 Budget for the Environment

7 billion. That is a big number. The Liberal government is planning on spending more than that on the environment in the next two years. Indeed, the CBC reported that the Liberal’s kept with their election promises on the environment.

So how does that shake down by the numbers?

$2.5 billion = public transit

$1.8 billion = green infrastructure, including (much needed) repair and upgrade to water systems

$1.7 billion = climate mitigation and environmental protection

$574 million = energy and water efficiency upgrades

$401 million = clean teach development spending

These are large numbers and can be sliced and diced in different directions. For example, it is actually $11.9 billion being spent on infrastructure and some of that is related to environmental protection and upgrades. I like this graphic from the Globe and Mail:



As you can see, in the infrastructure spending there is money for climate change mitigation and adaptation projects. That is clearly environmental spending. Then there are categories of an overlapping nature – water infrastructure. That is not exactly about protecting water quality for the sake of the environment. No, it is really about public health. But, hey, that’s okay – a win, a win. Similarly, “public transit” isn’t necessarily about the environment. It is really about getting people where they need to go to keep the economy and society functioning. But better public transportation means less carbon emissions. So, hey, that’s okay – a win, a win.

This all sounds good, right? Why is the David Suzuki Foundation not impressed? Over concern that “the level of investment doesn’t match the urgency of the environmental challenges Canada faces.” The DSF was hoping for more news on carbon pricing, alternative energy investments, and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. (Me too).

To that end, the Minister of Finance, Hon. Morneau, also announced an additional $1 billion in the next budget (2018-2019) to establish a “low carbon economy fund” that will give funding to provinces/territories that sign onto a Canadian climate agreement. Sounds like a bribe. I like it. It is also what we call “federal leadership.”


I am waiting for other environmental groups and the Pembina Institute to release their comments and analysis on the budget. We need some number crunchers to think this through from an environmental prospective. I will keep you posted on further details!

Methane Climate Strategy

US Canada
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama pose for a photo with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau at the North Portico of the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 10, 2016, as they arrive for a state dinner. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)


I like to see Canada and the US getting along so beautifully.

And, apparently, it is good for the environment. On Thursday March 10, 2016 President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau announced a new US-Canada climate strategy on methane. Trudeau pledge-matched an earlier US commitment to reduce oil and gas methane emissions from 40 to 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025. This is significant because methane is a dirty greenhouse gas. We tend to focus on CO2 missions… while ignoring the other greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, methane is the second most prevalent GHG emitted in the US and it has 25 times greater an impact than CO2 over a 100 year period. Where does it come from? Well, natural gas leaks would be one – such as the Aliso Canyon gas leak in California that is occurring right now.  That is an extreme example (and one of the worst environmental disasters occurring in North America). Methane is produced in natural gas production, such as fracking, as well as in livestock production, namely beef. The first one is a bit ironic since “natural gas” is often touted as “clean energy.” It isn’t.

Are Trudeau and Obama promising more than they can deliver? Federalism is a problem. What we need is provinces and states to announce methane reduction plans. Thus far, only British Columbia and Alberta have such a strategy in Canada (which is a good start because that is where a lot of natural gas and beef is produced). In the US, California, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming have methane reduction plans (or will have soon). So out of 63 possible sub-national jurisdictions (50 states and 13 provinces), 7 have a plan. At least this time around, there is significant leadership on the issue – and agreement between the US and Canada.

Also of note – and material for future posts – Obama and Trudeau also agreed to take action heavy vehicle emissions and maine areas in the Arctic.

First Minister’s Meeting on Climate Change

The long-awaited First Minister’s meeting on climate change happened yesterday, March 3 2016. It was somewhat anti-climatic given that Trudeau made this meeting part of his fall campaign pledge. Essentially, he has been talking about this  meeting since last summer. And then it just… passed us all by.


The 13 premiers met with Trudeau and McKenna is Vancouver. (I imagined it was rainy). Prior to the meeting, Trudeau announced an aspirational goal of a set minimum price on carbon ($15 dollars a tonne is the number he threw out). Brad Wall of Saskatchewan immediately said no (see prior post).

What did happen yesterday? The CBC offers a gloomy recap here.  There was no agreement on a carbon price. Instead what emerged was yet another set of promises and goals. We call these “frameworks” or “strategies.” Officially, it is titled the Vancouver Declaration on Clean Growth and Climate Change (perhaps such a grandiose name makes it seem more important). The list of goals includes:

  • developing “regional” plans for clean electricity
    • this includes Indigenous and remote Northern communities
  • doubling investments in clean energy research over the next five years
    • this includes electric cars
  • more investments in green infrastructure (like public transit)
    • this includes working together to leverage the federal Low Carbon Economy Fund

That is really it. There was also an agreement to meet again in October.

The premiers did agree on the “need” for “some form” of carbon pricing – but there was no agreement on what approach to use (Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia are hindrances to creating a national price). This will be a focus for the next meeting. The Premiers are supposed to go home and figure out a carbon pricing mechanism that works for their province (so a tax or cap & trade or any pricing mechanism).  In addition to that task, they are also supposed to focus on clean technology, unique (province specific) opportunities to reduce emissions, and adaptation measures for their province.

Where does that leave Canada? Remember that our UN Paris Pledge is 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. That is what we promised the international community. Essentially, as a nation we need to bring our annual emissions down to 534 mega tonnes. Current trends suggest we will be somewhere around 750. Thus, the provinces must act.

Trudeau was not able to secure a carbon price from the provinces. This is disappointing, but not surprising. What we have is more promises but little action. Ontario and Alberta have announced new climate strategies. BC, MB, and QU already have strategies in place (albeit it might be time for BC to update its carbon tax). But that leaves us with 5 provinces out of 13 – that won’t be enough. Of particular concern is Saskatchewan, which has the highest GHG emissions per capita and Wall refuses to entertain any strategies other than “off-setting” the status quo through carbon sequestering.

In the next six months the provinces have a lot of homework. In October, Trudeau better circle the provincial wagons and get everyone facing the same direction. We don’t need new declarations – we need leadership and action.