Sachs Harbour Global Warming Warning

Born on a slab of sea ice during a seal hunt, Rosemarie Kuptana grew up at a time when life in Canada's North was still, as she says, "idyllic." Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the Arctic landscape was still relatively pristine and her people, the Inuvialuit of Sachs Harbour on Banks Island in the northwestern Arctic, survived on the island's abundant game and fish. Now, the Arctic is undergoing ominous changes. Warmer temperatures are undermining the permafrost, causing ugly mudslides along the coast. The once-plentiful caribou are disappearing and, with ice thawing earlier in the year and freezing later, basking seals no longer offer targets for native hunters. Kuptana blames the warming on manmade gases, which scientists say are heating the Earth's atmosphere. And last week, she was in The Hague to show a graphic video on Banks Island's environmental agony to delegates at a crucial conference on global warming. "The Arctic is one of the first regions to feel the impact of climate change," warns Kuptana. "Other countries have to realize they won't be exempt."

That message carried an extra urgency as delegates from 180 countries met to thrash out ground rules for reducing emissions into the atmosphere. Over the next century, scientists say, the buildup of emissions could increase the Earth's temperature by as much as 4.5° C, causing floods, drought and other environmental devastation. Under a protocol hammered out in 1997 in the Japanese city of Kyoto, signatories agreed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases by an average of 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. While some European countries have already reined in emissions, some industrialized nations, including the United States and Canada, have not: instead of declining, Canada's greenhouse gas emissions have risen by at least 13 per cent since 1990.

With time running out for reaching agreement on implementing the Kyoto targets, the conference faced an array of contentious issues, including the terms under which nations will be allowed to buy and sell so-called emissions credits. Such a system would allow industrialized nations to supply "clean" energy technology to other countries and claim the reduction in potential emissions as a "credit" against their own. The Canadian delegation, led by former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, wants sales of Candu nuclear reactors to qualify for such credits. But that hope was shaken when U.S. officials, who had previously agreed with Canada's position, announced that the inclusion of nuclear power plants was open to negotiation - a move that could leave Canada without a major ally on the nuclear-power issue.

Another controversial subject was the demand by Canada and some other nations to have forests and agricultural land count as emissions credits because of their ability to act as "sinks" that soak up carbon dioxide. Critics of the proposals object that if countries can earn credits for planting new trees, the system could encourage the clear-cutting of old-growth forest so that fast-growing trees could be planted to earn credits. By seeking credits for reforestation and agricultural land management, charged Steven Guilbeault, a Greenpeace Canada campaigner, "Canada is just looking for loopholes instead of taking real steps to reduce emissions."

Environment Minister David Anderson, who stayed home to campaign for the Nov. 27 federal election, bitterly contests such charges. "If Kyoto is going to succeed," he told Maclean's, "the terms will have to be flexible - and we say, if forestry or nuclear reactors can help reduce emissions, why shouldn't they be taken into account?" Despite Canada's poor record so far, the minister insisted "it will be no problem" for Ottawa and the provinces to meet the nation's Kyoto targets. Kuptana was less optimistic. If global warming is to be arrested, she said, "the political will has to exist - and I'm not sure it's there yet. But the health of the planet is at stake - we can't afford to fool around with the environment any more."

Maclean's November 27, 2000