Canada is racing to net zero. But do we have the data to get us there?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the data gap in Canada's pursuit of net-zero emissions and how EVs are being used to clean up the air in arenas.

Also: The blame game in the Ohio train derailment

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This week:

  • Canada is racing to net zero. But do we have the data to get us there?
  • The blame game over the Ohio train derailment
  • This EV is wiping out indoor air pollution in arenas across Canada

Canada is racing to net zero. But do we have the data to get us there?

A woman fills up a car with gasoline in winter.

How much gasoline was used in Ontario in December? How many people retrofitted their homes and switched to heat pumps in 2022? And what were Canada's greenhouse gas emissions last year?

These sound like questions we should have definitive answers for, especially as Canada works toward its ambitious goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But we don't have the data, and experts say that's an information hole we need to plug.

"That's the fundamental data gap to me: that we just don't report these extremely important energy indicators," said Nicholas Rivers, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and a longtime climate economy modelling expert.

"Having a better real-time sense of our emissions would enable us to better anticipate which kinds of policies we need and which trajectory we're on, and whether our policies need to be adjusted."

Better information and data on Canada's emissions and climate policies featured prominently in the Net-Zero Advisory Body's annual report, which was released in January. The NZAB was established in 2021, and consists of independent experts from the business, advocacy, science and policy worlds.

The NZAB's job is to provide regular advice to the federal environment minister on how to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

"Information, solid information, is a prerequisite to a good strategy, a good plan. So that's the situation we're in right now, where people need the best information they possibly can get, the best data analysis and modelling," said Dan Wicklum, co-chair of the NZAB.

"We think that because this challenge is of such a great magnitude, [because] we will be spending hundreds of billions of dollars, that it behooves us as a society to inspect how we come up with our options of how to get to net zero."

The NZAB's report has several recommendations related to improving data on Canada's climate plans:

  • Having a public "dashboard" with regularly updated indicators on Canada's climate progress that people can quickly look up themselves — for example, the latest emissions statistics from the oil sands.

  • Closing the two-year reporting gap on greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, Canada reports its annual emissions roughly two years later (so the emissions in 2020 were reported in 2022). The NZAB says Canada could report its emissions much sooner — like, for example, the U.K.

  • Doing more regular modelling of climate plans and policies, and establishing a centre of excellence to support modelling. Energy and economic modelling helps estimate the emissions under different climate policies — for example, the emissions reductions if the government increases the carbon tax by a certain amount.

"If you take a look at how much we're spending or investing on data analysis [and] modelling compared to how much we will spend based on the outputs of the results of that body of work — it's a remarkable mismatch," Wicklum said.

A government spokesperson said that Steven Guilbeault, the federal minister of environment and climate change, wouldn't comment on the panel's report for at least a month.

At the moment, various government agencies and other organizations do climate-related modelling. Even the CBC has used economic modelling in the past — to compare the climate plans of different parties in the 2019 Canadian federal election.

But all modelling relies on a set of assumptions, which have an impact on their outcomes. These are things like future employment, oil prices or immigration growth, which models cannot always predict.

Wicklum said that models are only one tool that decision-makers should use — and a future centre for modelling could work on making those assumptions more transparent and do a better job explaining to the public what models can and cannot do.

"A model is supposed to inform a decision, but there's lots of other things that would inform that same decision as well," Wicklum said. "As we up our game in Canada, for us, it's not just more models … it's also, I think, a community that is transparent on the strengths and weaknesses of their models and in their advice to decision-makers."

Inayat Singh

Reader feedback

Costanza Danovi:

"I found the initiative on counting birds very interesting, and I would like to point your attention to a similar one, regarding endangered moths and butterflies. I work at Friend of the Earth, a project from the World Sustainability Organization (WSO). We are an international organization working globally to promote sustainability by certifying eco-friendly companies. We also support conservation projects to save endangered species and ecosystems.

"In early 2021, we launched a Global Butterflies Census. As you probably know, in North America only about 19 per cent species are currently at risk of extinction. Through this first-ever global butterfly census, we ask people worldwide to send us their butterfly pics, then use this information for scientific research to produce better conservation measures. So far, we have received about 2,000 timestamped and geolocated photos of butterflies from 35 countries across the five continents. What makes it even more interesting is that a good percentage of them pictured endangered or severely threatened species.

"We know there are many similar initiatives worldwide, but none with a global reach. Our idea, indeed, is to build an even vaster database to understand these beautiful pollinators better (analyze their behaviour and the impact of climate change)."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

CBC News has a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. This week, meet a teenager who is on a mission to track emissions from the private jets of the ultra-rich. What On Earth airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: The blame game over the Ohio train derailment

A person looks up at a giant cloud of smoke looming over a small town.

On Feb. 3, a train carrying vinyl chloride derailed and blew up near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. It is thought the accident was the result of a broken axle on one of the 150 cars operated by Norfolk Southern, although an official determination has not been made. Five days later, crews undertook a controlled burn of toxic chemicals at the site to avoid an even more dangerous blast. In order to do so, most of the town of East Palestine, Ohio (pop. roughly 5,000), had to evacuate — not least because the resulting plume would contain phosgene gas, which can cause vomiting and breathing trouble.

Images from the site show charred train cars in pools of sludge, and have led to comparisons to the recent Netflix film White Noise (which is based on a 1985 novel by Don DeLillo), in which a train derailment sets off an "airborne toxic event." The Washington Post has reported that a number of residents who returned to their homes have complained of nausea and headaches. Meanwhile, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has said 3,500 fish have been found dead in the area.

Despite the fallout of the crash, Gov. Mike DeWine has said the train was not considered a "high-hazardous material train," which is why operator Norfolk Southern wasn't required to notify the state of the contents of the cars beforehand. The somewhat muted response from the federal government has led to wild claims from people like Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who have suggested U.S. President Joe Biden's administration undertook the detonation (it was actually agreed upon by the rail company and DeWine) and that the feds' lack of engagement was due to the area voting overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the last presidential election.

Many people across the political spectrum have criticized U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — including noted environmental advocate Erin Brockovich — but the blame game is more complicated than that. As investigative news outlet The Lever has reported, Norfolk Southern fought a shareholder push to review the transport of hazardous materials and successfully lobbied the Trump administration to thwart legislation meant to enhance braking systems across the country's railroads.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Tesla's supercharger network in the U.S. (but probably not in Canada) will be expanded and some chargers will be open to all EVs by 2024, the U.S. government has announced. The initiative is part of the White House's plan to build a national network of 500,000 chargers by 2030 in partnership with companies including Tesla, Hertz, BP and General Motors.
  • B.C. has been a leader within Canada at enacting emissions-cutting policies like a carbon tax. But two of the province's other policies, the Clean Electricity Standard and the Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, may have been even more effective, researchers say.

This EV is wiping out indoor air pollution in arenas across Canada

An electric ice resurfacer does its thing in an arena.

Swapping gas-powered vehicles for electric ones is key to fighting climate change. But Health Canada is touting one particular class of EV for their ability to curb indoor air pollution: electric ice resurfacers.

In Canada, most arena ice resurfacers such as Zambonis are powered by natural gas or propane. Burning those fuels can generate indoor air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide — thesame ones produced by gas stoves.

Cases have popped up in the news whererinks have had to be shut down, and in some casesdozens of people have been sent to hospital as a result of high levels of carbon monoxide, which can cause acute poisoning and be deadly.

There have also been clusters of pollution-induced illness linked to nitrogen oxides, including one in British Columbia in 2019. Nitrogen oxides are also known to trigger asthma, which one study suggests is common among ice hockey players. Researcherssuspect that's exacerbated by a combination of cold air and indoor air pollutants during intensive training.

From 2017 to 2020, Health Canada, along with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, conducted a study monitoring carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides at 16 arenas in Ottawa and northeastern Saskatchewan.

Carbon monoxide levels were generally within Health Canada guidelines. But nitrogen oxides exceeded Health Canada's short-term exposure limit at least some of the time at seven out of the 16 arenas.

Those pollutants accumulated throughout the day with repeated ice resurfacing, peaking in the evening. And they were never completely cleared out by the ventilation system overnight.

The researchers tried a number of strategies to remove the pollution. For example, extra ventilation sometimes made the building uncomfortably cold, and could boost heating costs, said Aaron Wilson, a scientific evaluator with Health Canada's indoor air contaminant assessment section.

But one solution was extremely effective: replacing gas-powered ice resurfacers with electric more or less eliminated the indoor air pollution, Health Canada found. Even at a rink that had nitrogen oxide levels above health guidelines multiple times, that solution brought them to the levels outdoors or below, Wilson said.

In 2021, based on the study, Health Canada issued guidelines for improving air quality in arenas. Its top recommendation was using electric resurfacers and edgers to maintain the ice. "In the long run, I think that's the solution to air pollution inside ice rinks," Wilson said.

Electric ice resurfacers have existed for decades — Zamboni introduced its first model at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., but didn't start selling a commercial battery-powered model until 1978.

Today, several brands of electric ice resurfacers, along with electric edgers for smoothing the sides of the rink, are available in Canada.

The Zamboni brand alone has 400 electric machines across the country, according to Greg Dean, the company's vice-president of sales and brand management. The biggest fleet so far is in Montreal, with 31, followed by Strathcona County, Alta., with 13 and London, Ont., with 12.

"There has been a strong uptick in interest in electric equipment," he said in an email.

Steve Kovacevic is general manager of Elmira, Ont.-based Resurfice, which offers both lead-acid and lithium ion battery electric models.

While its fossil fuel options, which are still cheaper, used to be more popular, he said he's noticed that now when communities issue tenders looking for new ice resurfacers, "they are looking to switch to electric machines — there's no doubt about that."

— Emily Chung

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