Wildfire smoke over Yellowknife on August 13, 2023. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
NWT wildfires have emitted more carbon this year than its people will release in their lifetimes. Environmental advocates say that shouldn’t stop you caring about climate change solutions.
Carbon emissions from Canadian wildfires had reached more than 405 megatonnes by September 10, according to an estimate from the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, or Cams.
That’s more than double the previous national annual record of 138 megatonnes in 2014.
In the NWT alone, Cams data shows, wildfires have released more than 110 megatonnes of carbon in 2023 so far, the greatest amount in a single year on record.
Mark Parrington, a senior scientist at Cams, said measuring wildfire emissions is important for accurate forecasts of global air pollution. And it’s not just carbon we need to worry about, he said – wildfires can release other hazardous compounds that affect air and water quality.
Smoke from Canada has crossed the Atlantic to Europe but has also drifted north out to the Arctic, he said.
Alongside the air quality risk, he added: “Think of things like soot and black carbon. That increases the risk of deposition to sea ice, or to the Greenland ice sheet.”
As reported by the CBC last month, wildfire emissions in the NWT this year have far surpassed the amount of greenhouse gas emitted by human-caused sources in the territory.
Since 2009, the NWT government has said, annual human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have varied between 1.22 and 1.72 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent. Converted into CO2 equivalent, the carbon emitted by the territory’s fires this year amounts to roughly 275 times that human-caused figure.
The sheer scale of this year’s wildfire emissions can feel daunting, to say the least, and you could be forgiven for feeling like everyday efforts at reducing pollution, like sorting recyclables, seems pointless in that light.
But environmental advocates say we shouldn’t lose hope.
Elin Kelsey is the author of Hope Matters, a book about the “epidemic of despair” climate change induces, and how those fears can hamper our ability to actually tackle the problems we collectively face.
“Being in the midst of a crisis like that, a personal crisis, at the same time as we’re in a global crisis, is hugely emotional,” Kelsey said of the NWT’s wildfires and evacuees’ experiences.
“It’s important to feel the feelings we have, no matter what they are, and create safe spaces for each of us to share them. And then to sort-of put a recognition on why we feel the way we feel.”
News stories about climate change are dominated by doom and gloom, Kelsey said. According to her, less than three percent of such articles mention solutions.
“We tend to be really inundated by more and more bad news,” she said. “We don’t hear about things that are actually having massive and important shifts in the direction we need them to go.”
Kelsey gave the example of the global transition to renewable energy, which is happening faster than originally anticipated. The International Energy Agency reported in March that global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2022 rose less than forecast due to energy efficiency. According to a 2022 report by the agency, global renewable capacity is expected to increase by almost 75 percent between 2022 and 2027.
“The evidence is there that those things work,” Kelsey said.
“When I know something like that, I’m much more able to demand even more, to expect more of myself to push governments in the direction they need to go, to push corporations in the direction they need to go.”
When it comes to wildfires and forests, Kelsey said people should think about resilience and recovery.
She pointed to the work of Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, who is known for her research on how trees interact and communicate using underground fungal networks. Simard has pushed for changes to logging practices that would protect “mother trees” – the biggest, oldest trees in the forest.
In terms of individual carbon footprints, Kelsey said one of the biggest things people can do is reduce their consumption of farmed meat, as agriculture accounts for a huge chunk of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Kelsey also said instead of supporting the fast fashion industry, which is a huge carbon emitter, people could shop at thrift stores or hold clothing swaps.
“It can feel like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter very much.’ In fact, it has a very big cumulative impact,” she said.
“Continuing to do the things we know we can do as individuals is super important and not insignificant.
“It’s not as if this one event, these increased wildfires around the world, are the deal-breaker.”
‘It’s everybody’s responsibility’
Lloyd Alter teaches sustainable design at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the author of Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More than Ever.
The 1.5 in the title refers to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says current climate protection measures fall short of that mark but it’s not too late, and every fraction of a degree counts.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s the oil companies’ fault, or it’s the government’s fault, or it’s this,’ but the oil companies are making the stuff and we’re buying what they’re selling,” Alter said. “So it’s everybody’s responsibility to essentially stop buying what they’re selling so that it doesn’t get burned and put into the atmosphere.”
He said a distinction should be made between biogenic carbon, or carbon that is stored in trees and plants, and fossil fuel carbon.
“What we have to do more than anything else is reduce our fossil fuel carbon,” he said.
Research shows that per capita, Canadians are some of the worst carbon emitters in the world. In 2021, Canadians on average emitted 17.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Alter said that needs to be reduced to 2.5 tonnes a year.
“It’s really, really going to be hard, obviously, especially if you’re driving and you’re using natural gas to heat and you’re eating red meat,” Alter said.
He acknowledged that reduction will be particularly challenging for people in the North, where many communities are reliant on diesel and have limited transportation infrastructure. While there are solutions that work in the North, he said, people living there can’t be held to the same standard as those in the south. He asserted that the vast majority of emissions come from the richest 10 percent of the population.
“Nobody living in Yellowknife is going to get down to 2.5 tonnes of carbon per year, but we can do it on average in the whole country,” he said.
Changes are also needed at the government and industry level, Alter said, such as improvements to building codes, the fuel economy and vehicle design.
“I believe that there is hope,” he said. “We can actually make a huge difference.”
Mitchell Beer is the publisher and managing editor of The Energy Mix, a news website focused on climate change, energy and the shift from carbon. He said people should not let climate despair defeat climate solutions.
“We know what the solutions are. They’re practical, they’re affordable, they’re ready for prime time. They don’t fry the planet when used as directed and we can make the transition, we just have to get on with it,” he said.
Anything people can do they should do, Beer said, pointing to solutions such as electric heat pumps. But he noted “it would be ridiculous” for people recently impacted by wildfire evacuations to prioritize their personal carbon footprints.
Beyond individual actions, Beer said larger structural and policy changes are needed, such as transitioning to a renewable energy economy and regulating pollution.
In an article published in The Energy Mix, he highlighted a number of actions being taken at the community, national and international levels.
“The hope is that we’ve made really good progress,” he said.
“We need to build the momentum on that and, meanwhile, just take care of ourselves and each other fundamentally, and make sure that we’re ready for the next storm or wildfire.”