Hidden cost of cuts to Environment Canada

There are very real consequences when the environment is not properly watched.

It has been announced that 776 positions will be eliminated at Environment Canada. Senior scientists and their support staff will be reassigned to other government jobs, resulting in the outright cancellation or downsizing of programs such as ozone research, aircraft-based measurements, solar radiation monitoring, climate adaptation, air toxics research, and air quality research and monitoring. Given these economically difficult times, one might consider environmental monitoring to be a luxury, rather than a necessity. Evidence shows, however, that there are very real consequences when the environment is not properly watched.

As seen in The Toronto Star.
As seen in The Toronto Star.

Just over a year ago, a volcanic eruption in Iceland revealed the need for better environmental monitoring programs in Europe. Despite airline industry protests, airspace closures persisted for over a week, affecting 10 million travellers. The International Air Transport Association says that the losses to the airline industry were about $1.7 billion. Had measurement systems been in place to identify the ash cloud’s location more precisely, a substantial portion of those losses could have been avoided, including for Canadian airlines, which were losing $4 million per day by some estimates.

We should not be smug about Europe’s problems: Environment Canada expects to abandon its new laser radar network that would monitor the impact of a similar disaster over Canada. We also have our own homegrown environmental challenges. Researchers at the University of Alberta revealed how the Athabasca River and surrounding area have been contaminated by oilsands development. This contamination was not reported by the industry-funded group charged with monitoring the situation. Environment Canada has traditionally been responsible for environmental monitoring and regulation, and employs experienced scientific personnel for this purpose. On July 21, Environment Minister Peter Kent announced the “Integrated Oil Sands Environment Monitoring Plan” in response to the contamination issues, but now key capabilities at Environment Canada (including ozone sounding and aircraft-based measurements) required to implement that plan are being cut. How does this make any sense?

Past successes in environmental monitoring demonstrate how policy informed by science can tackle daunting issues. The discovery of the ozone hole led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol banning the use of certain refrigerants worldwide. Acid rain was literally killing our lakes in the 1970s and 1980s, but more stringent emissions controls on energy production have dramatically improved the situation. Environment Canada played a critical role in solving both of these problems, and in both cases industry survived and prospered. The solutions uncovered new areas of economic activity. For example, chemical manufacturers developed and sold new classes of refrigerants.

The current plan for Environment Canada is to monitor and measure less, and to rely more on modelling. Models are computer simulations based on scientific understanding that are applied to problems ranging from weather forecasting to economics. Models of complex systems can easily get it wrong, as the unanticipated economic collapse in 2008 revealed. This is not to say that models are not useful: in economics they give helpful guidance for investments and policy.

Models are, however, no substitute for measurements. No economist would suggest that we stop measuring economic performance, and neither should we abandon monitoring the environment in which we live. New data leads to better models and more accurate predictions.

Why do we now lack the courage to tackle our environmental problems head-on the way we once did for ozone depletion and acid rain? There is certainly no shortage of issues: ozone depletion, air quality and airborne toxins present ongoing challenges. The highly regarded Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change indicated that, without action, climate change will cost between 5 and 20 per cent of GDP each year. A recent article in the Star reported on the myriad of problems stemming from climate change that are faced by industries such as farming and shipping.

We cannot afford to gut Environment Canada of key capabilities for safeguarding the safety and health of Canadians and our environment. It will rob us of measurements that illuminate problems and lead to their solutions. Environmental degradation is something we can pay for either now or in the future. The most pragmatic approach is to pay the smaller cost of supporting environmental science in the present.

Thomas J. Duck is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax.