Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

Posted by Michael Keating

Environment and Sustainability Chronology

If we are going to look at where we are on the curve of sustainable development, we need to take the long view. Civilizations have been struggling with how to live within nature’s envelope for thousands of years. Mesopotamia slid into decline some 4,000 years ago after faulty irrigation methods caused a loss in soil fertility. Deforestation and soil degradation have been unwanted side effects of unsustainable development around the world for at least as long.

With the Industrial Revolution some 300 years ago, we learned how to exploit nature even more efficiently, increasing many aspects of human well-being, but at a growing cost to natural resources and services. By the second half of the twentieth century we faced a rapidly growing list of environmental crises triggered by a growing human population coupled with greater demands and technological capacity. We responded with protests, non-government environment organizations, laws and the sustainable development concept that seeks to reorient development to live within nature’s limits.


More than one million years ago, humans begin to change their environment with stone tools and fire. There is a theory that hunting hastened the extinction of some species even during the Stone Age. The domestication of wild plants and animals, some 10,000 years ago in Asia, the Middle East and Central America marks the beginning of a profound shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. This creates food surpluses that allow the development of cities and civilizations and the growth of human numbers.

There is no way of knowing for sure how many humans there were long ago, but there are estimates that we numbered about 4 to 5 million around the dawn of agriculture. By 2,000 years ago, the population has been estimated at about 300 million, a figure that grew slowly until the time of the industrial revolution, when it was probably just under 800 million. In the ensuing three centuries, human numbers have grown more than seven fold.

This degradation of natural resources is one of two great environmental problems caused by humans. Intensive cultivation, sometimes in combination with deforestation and irrigation from nearby rivers, led to land degradation and is associated with the decline of great civilizations in such places as China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa, Greece and Central America.

The second problem is pollution. Wastes from humans and their domestic animals have been a threat to drinking water for many thousands of years, when waste accumulation in any area outstripped nature’s ability to safely detoxify the harmful organisms. Industrial wastes have been accumulating for thousands of years. Workers in lead and mercury mines and smelters during Roman times suffer severe health effects, as both metals are neurotoxins. Lead fallout from their smelting operations was so widespread that it is found in ice cores from Greenland glaciers 2,000 years later. Romans who sweeten their wine with lead acetate unknowingly harm their own health.

A natural climate shift sends Europe and the North Atlantic region into a warming period from about the years 600 to 1400. This allows Norse settlements on Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. The Little Climatic Optimum, or Mediaeval Warm Period, is followed by the Little Ice Age from the mid 1400s to mid 1800s, when harsher winters drives out the Norse settlements.

In medieval Europe, the demand for wood grows so much that laws are passed in regions from Venice to England to protect some forests. Air pollution from wood and coal fires is severe enough to bring air pollution control regulations. There are records of royalty moving from one castle to another to escape dense wood smoke from fires. Edward I forbids coal burning in London when Parliament is in session. In 1661, industrial emissions are recorded blowing across the English Channel between England and France, harming plants and people—an early record of what we now consider long-range air pollution.


The Industrial Revolution is a term applied to the widespread technological and economic changes that took place in first in Great Britain, and later in Western Europe, and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. It involved a centuries long shift from economies based largely on farmers, merchants and crafts people to those based more on industries. This introduces the large-scale use of fossil fuels, greater consumption of natural resources, and resulting pollution and resource depletion.

By the second half of the 19th century, over-hunting and habitat destruction are leading to the extinction of passenger pigeon and near extinction of plains bison in North America. Reaction to these impacts brings controls on hunting, and the creation of national parks, particularly in Canada and the United States.

1798. English political economist Thomas Malthus predicts that if population growth continues indefinitely, populations will outstrip food supplies.

1804. The world’s population is estimated to have reached 1 billion.

1824. Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier proposes that the sun’s heat is partially trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, which acts like a giant glass jar, the first scientific reference to the greenhouse effect.

1852. Chemist Robert Angus Smith writes of acid rain in and around Manchester, noting that sulphuric acid in city air damages fabrics and metals.


1864. George Perkins Marsh, U.S. diplomat, traveller and scholar, publishes Man and Nature, in which he says that humans are destroying nature to our own detriment.

1873. First of a series of killer fogs in London. Over 1,150 die in three days from severe air pollution from coal burning.

1885. Canada creates a reserve that later became Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park.

Karl Benz with car

Karl Benz with car

Karl Benz builds the first successful gasoline-driven automobile.

1896. Svante Arrhenius notes that carbon dioxide permits passage of short wavelength radiant heat from the sun, and traps reflected longer wave radiant heat emitted by Earth. This leads to an understanding of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.


1900. World population is 1.65 billion.

1908. The first continuous chlorination system in North America begins operating in Jersey City, starting a trend in drinking water disinfection to stop the ravages of cholera, typhoid and other diseases caused by water that is polluted by sewage discharges.

1909. The United Kingdom (on behalf of Canada) and the United States sign the Boundary Waters Treaty to prevent disputes over shared waters. This leads to the formation of the International Joint Commission and important agreements to reduce Great Lakes pollution.

Passenger pigeon

Passenger pigeon

1914. The last passenger pigeon dies in Cincinnati zoo. At one point, there were millions of these birds migrating in eastern North America.

1915. Canada’s Commission of Conservation writes about the need to live within natural cycles saying: “Each generation is entitled to the interest on the natural capital, but the principal should be handed on unimpaired.” This presages the concept of sustainable development.

1918. The first International Joint Commission report speaks of chaotic, perilous and disgraceful water pollution in parts of the Great Lakes.

Canada and the United States sign the Migratory Birds Treaty to restrict hunting.

1919. Canada’s federal and provincial governments hold the first cooperative session on wildlife and wilderness preservation.

THE 1920s

PCBs are developed and put into service as liquid insulators and heat-transfer fluids. Decades later, they will found to be hazardous, widely distributed in the environment and building up in the food chain. They will be banned for use in North America. CFCs are synthesized in mid-1920s and put into use in 1930s as refrigerants. They will later be found to destroy the stratospheric ozone layer, and be banned. Tetraethyl lead is introduced as an anti-knock gasoline additive. It is later declared a health risk and gradually phased out.

A lawsuit begins that will find sulphur dioxide from a lead-zinc smelter in Trail, B.C. is damaging apple orchards and crops in Washington, and compensation must be paid. A tribunal rules that, “No state has the right to use or permit the use of its territory in such a manner as to cause injury by fumes in or to the territory of another, or to the persons or property therein, when the case is of serious consequence and the injury is established by clear and convincing evidence.”

THE 1930s

A combination of low rainfall combined with high winds, light soil and poor land conservation methods lead to Dust Bowl conditions in western Canada and the United States. Wind erosion blackens the sky with storms of a period known as the Dirty Thirties. This sparks a wide series of water management and soil conservation measures. It also leads to wide-scale irrigation, mainly in the United States, often based on pumping underground water faster than it is naturally replaced.

The United States Supreme Court sets limits on how much water can be drained out of Lake Michigan through the Chicago Diversion. The judges also impose water conservation measures on the Chicago region, including closed loop industrial processes which re-use water once it is withdrawn, and meters for all water users.

THE 1940s

The industrial boom created by production for the Second World War sets the scene for very large-scale industrialization in coming years. This period marks the popularization of many chemicals, including pesticides such as DDT, which will later be found to be environmentally harmful, and will be banned in some countries.

Atomic bomb

Atomic bomb

1945. The first atomic explosions begin, and over the next couple of decades they will release nuclear fallout, including radioactive iodine and strontium 90, over huge regions of the planet. The fallout will turn up in milk thousands of kilometres from nuclear test sites.

1948. The International Union for the Protection of Nature, later renamed the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and the World Conservation Union, is founded in France. It calls for the planet’s natural resources to be used in a wise and equitable manner.

1949. The United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources, held in Lake Success, New York, is the first major United Nations meeting on natural resource problems.

THE 1950s

Atmospheric nuclear testing and nuclear accidents continue to release radiation. Increasing air pollution from coal burning leads to more killer smogs in Europe and the United States. Industrial discharges and human wastes are becoming a serious problem in the Great Lakes.

1950. World population is 2.52 billion.

The International Joint Commission reports major concern over the amount of pollution in the Niagara River. The report recognizes that sewage treatment has not kept up with population growth.

Smog has become a serious problem in Los Angeles.

1952. The infamous London smog kills 4,000. A year later, a New York smog kills about 200.

1956. Widespread mercury is poisoning discovered in the Japanese fishing village of Minamata. Industrial discharges get into the food chain through fish, a staple food for Minamata Bay dwellers. The poisoning causes more than 100 deaths and several hundred cases of illness, including brain damage and birth defects. This experience will later raise concerns when mercury is found in some fish in the Great Lakes and nearby lakes and rivers.

1959. Antarctica is protected as a wildlife and scientific preserve by a treaty signed by representatives of 12 nations, the first continent to be protected.

The first United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea approves draft environmental protection language.

THE 1960s

Concerns about nuclear fallout and chemical pollution trigger the beginning of the modern environmental movement, with protests against nuclear weapons and chemical pollution. Acid rain is identified as a serious problem in Scandinavia while Lake Erie is said to be “dying” from excessive phosphorus pollution. Chemicals such as DDT and PCBs are found in wildlife. A series of major oil spills arouse public opinion.

1960. World population is 3 billion.

1961. Creation of the World Wildlife Fund to protect animals and plants threatened with extinction.

photo of Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson

1962. U.S. biologist and ecologist Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring, which warns of the harmful effects of pesticides, such as DDT. The book causes a huge public debate about chemical risks in general, and is often considered the start of the modern environmental era.

1963. Britain, United States and the Soviet Union sign the limited atmospheric nuclear test ban treaty.

1965. The Vietnam War heats up with major landings by U.S. troops. To protect its soldiers, the United States will spray massive amounts of the defoliant known as Agent Orange, which turns out to be contaminated with dioxin, a highly dangerous chemical associated with cancer and birth defects in animals. This leads to claims of health effects both by U.S. veterans and by Vietnamese.

Mink breeders in Michigan note reproductive failures in animals fed Great Lakes fish, leading to concerns that chemicals dumped in the environment enter the food chain and return to harm humans.

The International Joint Commission advises Canada and the United States to reduce phosphorus discharges to the Great Lakes to control eutrophication. This process of over-fertilization was causing massive blooms of algae that died and their decay sucked oxygen out of the water, creating dead zones on the bottom of the shallow Lake Erie. This leads to the phrase that Lake Erie is dying.

1966. The first photos of Earth from space bring the term “Spaceship Earth” and let people see the planet as a small oasis of life in a hostile solar environment.

1967. The oil taker Torrey Canyon runs aground off the Scilly Isles, near the southwest coast of the UK, spilling 117,000 tones of oil into the sea. This massive damage leads to ship owners being held liable for such damage.

1968. Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, warning of ecological threats from a rapidly expanding human population, triggers an intense and ongoing debate about population, consumption and the relative impacts on the environment of rich and poor nations.

The Intergovernmental Conference of Experts on the Scientific Basis for Rational Use and Conservation of the Resources of the Biosphere is held by UNESCO. It helps put environmental issues on the global agenda and pave the way for a series of global meetings on the environment and what becomes known as sustainable development.


1969. Pollution Probe is created by a small group of University of Toronto students assisted by some faculty. It draws widespread support by acting as a focal point for growing public concern about the environment.

Cuyahoga River on fire

Cuyahoga River on fire

A fire on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland dramatically shows the seriousness of pollution.

A blowout on an oil rig off Santa Barbara, California triggers a sharp rise in environmental consciousness in the trend-setting state.

Canada’s Commission on International Development, chaired by former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, releases its report, Partners in Development, emphasized global interdependence, and promoting the practical virtues of multilateral cooperation. This leads to the founding in 1970 of the International Development Research Centre, an organization that stresses building the capacity of developing countries to identify and develop their own potential. Many IDRC projects focus on what would later be considered sustainable development.

THE 1970s

A decade of more discoveries of serious pollution problems. Canada and the United States sign two Great Lakes water quality agreements, and begin negotiations on acid rain controls. Scientists raise concerns about the risks of chemicals to the ozone layer. Chemicals leaking from Love Canal and other toxic waste dumps along the Niagara River trigger fears for drinking water safety. The Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment marks the beginning of global discussions then negotiations on environmental protection and sustainable development. This decade brings the formation of a large number of environmental departments from the United Nations Environment Programme to national, state and provincial departments. It also sees the creation of many environmental non-government organizations, such as Greenpeace, the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Sierra Legal Defense Fund, the International Institute for Environment and Development and Worldwatch Institute.

1970. World population is 3.7 billion.

Dangerous levels of mercury found in fish in parts of Ontario lead to some fish consumption bans and awaken Canadians to the dangers of pollution in the food chain.

The first Earth Day is held in the United States on April 22, attracting 20 million people and creating one of the largest organized demonstrations in U.S. history.

The tanker Arrow runs aground in Chedabucto Bay, N.S., spilling heavy bunker C oil that will foul over more than 100 kilometres of shoreline.

The United States creates the Environmental Protection Agency.

1971. Canada creates a Department of the Environment, combining a series of other federal organizations with environmental responsibilities.

The Founex Report on Development and Environment sets the scene for the Stockholm conference the next year and for the Brundtland commission more than a decade later by linking environment and economic development issues. However, it will take at least 15 years for the environment and development linkage to gain popular currency.

Fish consumption warnings are issued for Lake Michigan trout because of PCBs in the fish. This follows studies showing that ranch mink raised on such fish suffer reproductive problems.

Greenpeace sails to Alaska against nuclear tests

Greenpeace sails to Alaska against nuclear tests

Greenpeace is created by a small group of protestors sailing from Vancouver to protest against underground nuclear tests at Amchitka Island, Alaska.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development endorses the polluter pays principle, saying those causing pollution should pay the costs.

The International Institute for Environmental Affairs, later known as the International Institute for Environment and Development, is created to promote sustainable patterns of world development through collaborative research, policy studies, networking and knowledge dissemination.

The International Chamber of Commerce declares that “protecting the environment will be one of the greatest challenges for all countries in the closing decades of the twentieth century.”

DDT banned for all but “essential” uses in the United States.

1972. The Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, headed by Canadian Maurice Strong, draws worldwide attention to environmental issues and leads to creation of environment departments by governments around the world. The conference declares, “The capacity of the earth to produce vital renewable resources must be maintained and, wherever practicable, restored or improved.” Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi says that poverty is the greatest polluter, referring to the fact that the poor have to exploit the environment to meet immediate needs. This makes a strong link between environment and development issues, helping to set the scene for the sustainable development concept. The Stockholm conference is seen as the start of major global meetings on environment and development.

Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos publish Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet based on the findings of the Stockholm conference. This title captures the changing relationship between humans and nature. Humans had felt puny against natural forces. Now, this species was starting to change the planet, and had to learn to control its demands and impacts.

Canada and United States sign the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which aims to control sewage and phosphorus discharges. This leads to further restrictions on phosphates in detergents, and to billions of dollars of investments in sewage treatment plants.

The United Nations Environment Programme is created, giving the world its first global environmental agency.

ENDA (environnement et développement du tiers-monde) is established as a network to provide education about environment and development in Africa.

The Club of Rome, a gathering of world scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists and civil servants, publishes Limits to Growth. It warns of impending shortages of natural resources provoking a huge debate. The experts call for humans to “…alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. This state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his or her individual human potential.”

Researchers say that most of the acid rain falling on Sweden results from air pollution coming from industrial nations to the south in Europe, highlighting the problem of long-range transport of air pollution.

1973. The Science Council of Canada publishes The Conserver Society, saying that “Canadians, as individuals, and their governments, institutions and industries, (must) begin the transition from a consumer society preoccupied with resource exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more constructive endeavours.”

E.F. Schumacher photo

E.F. Schumacher

E.F. Schumacher publishes Small is Beautiful, promoting the concept of the wise and economical use of nature.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is signed by 80 nations in an effort to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

The MARPOL convention on pollution from ships sets controls on dumping at sea.

The United Nations holds the first world conference on population in Bucharest, Romania, and the World Food Conference in Rome.

The oil embargo by Arab nations in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries creates a world energy crisis and drives up oil prices. This sparks the largest round of energy conservation measures in North America since the Second World War. Sales of small cars soar, thermostats are turned down, insulation is added to buildings, lights are turned off when not in use, darkening skylines and governments invest in energy conservation.

A group of Himalayan villagers stop loggers from cutting down a stand of trees, starting the Chipco or tree hugging movement to combat deforestation.

1974. American scientists publish an influential article stating that chlorofluorocarbons, used for many purposes, including aerosol sprays, refrigeration, air conditioning and industrial cleaners, can destroy ozone molecules and therefore pose a threat to the planet’s protective stratospheric ozone layer.

DDT use is restricted in Canada.

A cabinet directive launches the federal environmental assessment process. This process is formalized in 1984 when the federal government issues the Environmental Assessment and Review Process Guidelines Order.

1975. Catalytic converters are mandated for Canadian 1975 model automobiles beginning the phase-out of leaded gasoline.

Greenpeace sails against whaling, helping to lead a worldwide movement that will end most commercial whaling.

1976. Ontario passes the Environmental Assessment Act, the first province to make such assessments legally required in the planning and approval of certain projects.

An accident at a chemical plant in Seveso, Italy releases a cloud of chemicals including dioxin into the air, killing wildlife and forcing the evacuation of a large region.

photo of Love Canal protest

Love Canal residents protest

Love Canal becomes the biggest pollution story in North America. Chemicals seep from an old toxic waste dump in Niagara Falls, N.Y. into neighborhood basements, and bubble up onto the ground beside the elementary school. The chemicals, including dioxin, also drain into the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. In subsequent years, millions of people downstream fear for the safety of their drinking water because of concerns about chemicals leaking from Love Canal and more than 150 other chemical dumps along the Niagara River.

Canada hosts the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat) in Vancouver, focussing attention on the rapid global urbanization.

1977. United Nations Water Conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina produces an Action Plan in an attempt to deal with serious global water quality problems, particularly the lack of safe drinking water for more than one billion. This leads to the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-1990).

The United Nations conference on desertification in Nairobi, Kenya leads to a global convention on desertification particularly in Africa.

The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry by Thomas Berger says that an oil and gas pipeline in the Mackenzie River valley of northwestern Canada should only be built in an environmentally sound manner and only after native land claims are settled.

The Green Belt movement to plant trees is organized in Kenya.

1978. A series of stories points to a health emergency around Love Canal. By spring, state and federal health and environment agencies move in, fencing off the canal itself and testing air and water samples. In August, New York declares a state of emergency, closes the school and evacuates pregnant women and infants. Governments evacuate 255 families.

Canada and United States sign the second Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, introducing the concept of protecting the entire ecosystem of the lakes, the philosophy of zero discharge of persistent toxic substances to the lakes and the policy of the virtual elimination of inputs of persistent toxic substances that build up in the food chain.

The United States raises concerns about transboundary acid rain with Canada, triggering a decade-long struggle in both countries to understand and deal with the corrosive air pollution problem that threatens the environment, human health and buildings over a huge swath of the continent, particularly in the heavily polluted northeast.

1979. A mass poisoning of people by PCBs that leak into cooking oil in Taiwan shows risks of exposure to high levels of this widely-used chemical.

The Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, led by European nations, sets the scene for more controls on acid rain in both Europe and North America. Subsequent agreements will set controls on a series of air pollutants.

image of The greenhouse effect

The greenhouse effect

The World Climate Conference in Geneva, sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization, concludes that the ‘greenhouse effect’ from the increased buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere demands urgent international action.

A reactor core at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in Pennsylvania partly melts during an accident, triggering a strong reaction against the further development nuclear power in the United States.

Canada’s environment minister declares acid rain “the most serious and pressing environmental problem environmental problem Canada has ever faced.”

James E. Lovelock publishes Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, suggesting the planet is a self-regulating entity, unconsciously maintaining optimal conditions for life through a series of interactions among living and non-living components.

THE 1980s

Disasters such as the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the chemical accident at Bhopal, in combination with more attention on long-term problems such as acid rain, the ozone layer, climate change, desertification, destruction of rain forests, garbage and toxic waste create a major focus on environment. In Canada, the decade starts with acid rain identified as the culprit in the death of lakes and rivers in the eastern part of the country. Around the Great Lakes, there is fear of toxic chemicals in the drinking water. On the west coast, it is protection of remaining temperate rain forests. On the east coast, the decade closes with the collapse of the cod fishery. During the decade, there are major droughts in the Sahelian region of Africa and in western North America. The latter raises concerns about water diversions from Canada to the United States. However, the decade also brings a sea change in attitude. In 1986, the Canadian Chemical Producers’ Association launches the Responsible Care program. Governments pass a series of environmental protection regulations to deal with issues such as acid rain and protection of the ozone layer. Curbside recycling is introduced. The Brundtland Commission publishes Our Common Future, and popularizes the term “sustainable development.” Canada has its own mini-Brundtland in the form of the National Task Force on Environment and Economy, setting a model for collaboration among government, industry and the non-government sector.

1980. World population is 4.45 billion.

The World Conservation Strategy, prepared by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, United Nations Environment Program and the World Wildlife Fund, promotes the idea of environmental protection in the self-interest of the human species. It warns that the destruction of natural resources eliminates future sources of food, medicines and industrial products. It encourages sustainable forms of development and the conservation of essential life processes for the benefit of humanity as well as other species. It is another major step in launching a public debate about sustainable development.

The North-South Commission headed by former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt releases a report titled North-South: A Programme for Survival calling for wealthy countries to increase their development assistance to 0.7 per cent of GDP by 1985, a target that will not be reached by most rich nations.

The Global 2000 Report to the President, commissioned by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, projects what the world might be like if present trends continue, and calls for action to stop environmental degradation. Canada commissions a parallel report, Global 2000: Implications for Canada, which warns in 1981 that demands from growing world population may mean that “…Canada may face impossible demands to provide food, water and shelter.”

Canada and the United States sign a memorandum of intent to curb acid rain and other air pollution problems, but it will take most of the decade to reach a formal agreement.

A federal government scientist announces that the highly toxic dioxin has been found in Lake Ontario herring gull eggs, raising fears that it is in the drinking water. Fortunately, this is not the case.

The United States introduces the Superfund law creating a fund to clean up abandoned toxic waste sites, including some on the border with Canada.

Canada, the United States, Sweden and Norway ban most aerosol uses of CFCs.

1981. Canadian residents protest against chemical waste dumping into the Niagara River.

Formation of the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain to lead a campaign to get controls on acid rain.

There are rising concerns that chemicals from leaking Niagara River chemical dumps and industrial discharges are a threat to drinking water drawn from the river and from Lake Ontario.

1982. Law of the Sea Convention includes provisions for preservation and protection of the marine environment.

The United Nations adopts the World Charter for Nature, prepared by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Development Alternatives is established in India to innovate and disseminate the means for creating sustainable livelihoods on a large scale. The goal is to mobilize widespread action to eradicate poverty and regenerate the environment.

1983. The United Nations, with the backing of Canada and a handful of other nations, votes to create a commission on the future of the environment.

A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academy of Sciences result in front page stories in the New York Times and Globe and Mail that launch the public debate about what was then known as the greenhouse effect and later called global warming and finally, climate change.

photo of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

1984. The World Commission on Environment and Development is created, headed by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway. It includes two Canadians, Maurice Strong, who headed the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the United Nations Environment Programme, and Jim MacNeill, who is secretary-general to the new commission, as well as government, business and academic experts from around the world.

The World Industry Council for the Environment is held on the initiative of the International Chamber of Commerce and the United Nations Environment Programme.

The International Conference on Environment and Economics concludes that the environment and economics should be reinforcing.

Seven eastern Canadian provinces agree with the federal government on a 50 per cent cut in the emissions of sulphur dioxide, which causes acid rain. This will require major cuts by nickel and copper smelters and by coal-burning power plants.

In Bhopal, India, an accident at a pesticide plant releases tonnes of methyl isocyanate, a lethal gas used in making insecticides. The toxic cloud kills more than 3,000 quickly, and thousands more die in following years, while tens of thousands more suffer health effects.

image of Hole in the ozone layer

Hole in the ozone layer, Antarctica

1985. The hole in the Antarctic ozone layer is discovered by ground observations. It had existed for a decade, but earlier satellite data that showed the problem had been considered inaccurate and set aside.

The Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer is the first step in a long series of agreements to cut pollution that destroys the ozone layer.

A spill of PCBs from a transport truck in Northern Ontario becomes a flashpoint in a provincial election as people worry about the threat to health.

French secret agents sink the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior at dock in New Zealand, killing a photographer and triggering a worldwide outcry. Greenpeace had been using the ship to protest against French underground nuclear tests in the Pacific.

A “blob” of perchloroethylene (dry cleaning fluid) from a chemical spill is found on the bottom of the St. Clair River at Sarnia. This raises fears of possible widespread leaks of toxic chemicals in that region, known as Canada’s chemical valley. Public concern helps push the chemical industry to even greater efforts at reducing spills and emissions.

The remaining uses of DDT in Canada are further limited, with a four-year phase out.

Canada releases a federal inquiry into water policy known as the Pearse Report. It finds that too much water is being wasted and polluted, and recommends more conservation and proper pricing of water.

image of Chernobyl radiation

Radiation spreads from Chernobyl nuclear accident

1986. An explosion and fire in a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine ejects about seven tonnes of radioactive material into the atmosphere, causing the world’s worst civilian nuclear accident. It kills thousands in the immediate region and in cleanup crews, and leaves many others with the effects of radiation poisoning. Radiation circles world in 11 days, and fallout contaminates food in parts of Europe. A large area around the nuclear plant is evacuated, but three other reactors in the complex are used for years more to generate electricity.

Canada releases its first national State of the Environment report.

The World Commission on Environment and Development visits Canada, sparking strong interest in the idea of shaping development to live within environmental capacity. The Canadian Council of Resource and Environment Ministers creates the National Task Force on Environment and Economy to develop a Canadian approach.

A global moratorium on commercial whaling is imposed as the population of the world’s great whales declines.

The Canadian Chemical Producers’ Association, reacting to growing concerns about the safety of chemicals, launches the Responsible Care program, in which the industry group sets rules to reduce its risks and impacts. The organization sets guiding principles to which companies must adhere as a condition of membership. This model is adopted by chemical industry groups in a number of countries.

Times Beach, Missouri is evacuated after dioxin levels 100 times the emergency level are found. The town is later cleaned up and turned into a park.

1987. The world population hits 5 billion, doubling in less than 40 years.

Conferences in Bellagio, Italy and Villach, Austria establish a scientific consensus on climate change.

The Mobro, a barge laden with Long Island garbage, travels nearly 10,000 kilometres unsuccessfully looking for a place to dump its trash and highlighting the growing resistance to new dumps.

The Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, by the World Commission on Environment and Development, popularizes the term “sustainable development.” The report defined sustainable development this way: “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It says that development must be environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. The Brundtland Commission calls for “a new era of economic growth” in the poor nations, but adds that this “must be based on policies that sustain and expand the environmental resource base.” This report marks one of the most important turning points in modern environmental history, as the debate begins to shift from mainly identifying crises and demanding new laws to punish polluters (react and cure) to trying to design development itself to be less harmful to the environment (anticipate and prevent.) This brings industry into the environmental debate not just to defend its actions, but also to try to find long-term solutions. The Brundtland Commission chose the phrase “environment and development” to highlight the fact that much of the world lived in poverty and needed more development to allow people decent living standards. In the highly industrialized north, the debate is mainly about how to reduce impacts of current development.

Canada’s National Task Force on Environment and Economy, a group of 17 environment ministers, business leaders and environment experts, reports on what Canada needs to do to move toward sustainable development. Despite wide differences in background, they come to a common conclusion that society must evolve rapidly away from a pathway of environmental degradation. The task force makes 40 recommendations ranging from research into how to run an economy without running down the environment to educating young people on how to protect the environment. One of its key recommendations is for collaborative leadership from all sectors of society. This group paves the way for the round table movement not only in Canada, but also in other countries. This encourages the multistakeholder process that brings various sectors together in a collaborative manner to discuss problems and solutions.

Twenty-four nations sign the Montreal Protocol to control substances that deplete the ozone layer, the first action step in a global atmospheric protection agreement. It is also important because negotiations involved industry. The agreement begins the phase-out of CFCs and related chemicals.

Canada and the United States sign a Protocol to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, broadening its scope.

1988. Canada holds the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere (the Toronto Atmosphere Conference) publicizing the issue of climate change and bringing calls for major cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide. The meeting recommends a 20 per cent initial cut by 2005. This conference is held at the start of a heat wave, drought and smog crisis that affects several parts of the world. The Mississippi River drops to its lowest recorded level, leading to calls for water diversions from the Great Lakes.

Later that year, the United Nations creates the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of world scientific experts who assess the state of knowledge on climate change.

A fire in a warehouse containing PCBs at St. Basile-le-Grand, near Montreal, forces the evacuation of over 3,300 people for three weeks and provokes heated discussions over how to safely dispose of these hazardous chemicals. There are calls for incinerators to burn the PCBs, but no one wants an incinerator near them. Resistance to incinerators and garbage dumps is described as the NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome.

Canada begins the formation of round tables on environment and economy, and promises an international centre to promote sustainable development.

The foreign minister of the then Soviet Union, which has been in a Cold War with western nations for decades, makes a historic declaration in the United Nations that arms spending should be cut to provide money for environmental protection.

The president of the World Bank says the world has “…a collective responsibility to break this vicious cycle of poverty and environmental degradation.”

Canada’s finance minister says that, “Environmentally sound development is no contradiction in terms. Indeed in the long run it may be the only sure foundation of better lives for everybody in the world.”


Scientists say that toxic chemical fallout is accumulating in the Arctic food chain because of weather patterns that carry it from far away. The levels are high enough to pose a health risk to people eating wild foods.

photo, Chico Mendes

Chico Mendes

Francisco (Chico) Mendes, Brazilian rubber tapper and activist is killed by ranchers over his efforts to save the Amazon rain forest for sustainable long-term use rather than clear-cutting and burning them.

Canada adopts a new Environmental Protection Act.

1989. The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes seeks to control shipments of toxic wastes to poor nations that are not equipped to deal with them. The agreement was partly a response to complaints about shipments of hazardous wastes from rich countries to poor nations that were unable to safely handle them.

The tanker Exxon Valdez hits reef off Alaska, dumping 76,000 tons of oil into the sea, causing North America’s largest oil spill.

The G-7 leading economic nations summit meeting puts the environment on the agenda.

PCBs, including from some from the St. Basile-le-Grand fire, are shipped from Quebec to Wales for incineration, but the ship is turned back at UK ports by protests, and the wastes are returned to Canada.

Canada’s energy ministers meet but fail to agree on a 20 per cent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2005 as recommend by the Toronto Atmosphere Conference. They simply endorse this as a good target.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce Task Force on Environment releases its report, saying: “The state of our environment has become a major national issue and it is time that Canadian business people took the initiative in dealing with ecological problems.” It says that business needs to rapidly move to more environmentally sustainable practices, because the benefits will outweigh the costs. This is the most comprehensive such statement from a major Canadian business organization.

Systematic overfishing has devastated the centuries old cod fishery off eastern Canada, forcing the Canadian government to cut fishing quotas. Tens of thousands lose their jobs, fish packing plants close and many people emigrate, particularly from hard-hit Newfoundland. The fishery crisis will drain communities of their people and cause long-term social and economic dislocations. It is one of the starkest examples of the results of the unsustainable use of natural resources.

THE 1990s

The decade begins with the environment very high on the public agenda, and with governments, corporations and many non-government organizations promoting the concept of sustainable development. Early in the decade, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, is held in Rio de Janeiro. It convenes the largest-ever meeting of world leaders, and endorses a series of far-reaching statements and agreements on sustainable development. However, the momentum is stalled by an economic recession and the challenge of implementing and paying for the changes needed. There are major cutbacks in environmental spending by governments seeking to reduce deficits. The marketplace is touted by some as the forum for solving environmental issues, but by the end of the decade this approach faces a growing international anti-globalization movement, and the environment is rising again on the public agenda. New environmental issues arise, such as the question of risks from genetically modified organisms. The business community starts to take a more active role in some environmental issues, looking for ways to maintain production but also to reduce environmental impacts by using such approaches as Factor Four. During the decade, Canada faces its worst ever fishery crisis off the east coast as well as strong anti-logging protests on the west coast. Weather extremes, including droughts, floods and a devastating ice storm raise questions about climate change. Governments finally agree on modest cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by industrial nations.

1990. World population is 5.3 billion.

The second World Climate Conference hears first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment. Governments acknowledge that they should negotiate a convention to protect climate from dangerous interference by human activity.

A fire in a pile of 14 million tires near the town of Hagersville in Southern Ontario provokes a debate on how to safely dispose of wastes.

The federal government releases an ambitious Green Plan for the country, promising billions of dollars in spending. It includes smog controls, a safe drinking water act, the virtual elimination of toxic wastes, cleaning up the Great Lakes, a 50 per cent cut in garbage, a packaging act as well as the completion of a national parks system by 2000.

The Canadian and Manitoba governments establish the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg as a global centre of expertise.

The first GLOBE conference (Global Opportunities for Business and the Environment), an international environment industry trade fair and conference, is held in Vancouver. It becomes a biennial event.

The Canadian government promises to stabilize the country’s emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000.

The ozone layer over Canada is reported to be thinning. With the London Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, nations strengthen the commitments to protect the ozone layer, phasing out CFCs sooner and putting controls on other ozone depleting substances.

The United States passes a new Clean Air Act that will bring about major reductions in pollutants that cause acid rain across northeastern North America.

Nigeria’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People is founded by author and government administrator Ken Saro-Wiwa in reaction to extensive pollution in Niger River delta caused by oil companies.

1991. Canada’s fisheries minister closes the northern cod fishery off Newfoundland. The ministry also stops the sockeye salmon fishery in the Fraser River for the rest of the year because of fish shortages.

photo, A giant oil spill follows the Kuwaiti well fires

A giant oil spill follows the Kuwaiti well fires

The Gulf War leads to the world’s largest oil spill as Iraqis retreating from Kuwait set fire to hundreds of oil wells. Soot lands as far away as the Himalayas.

The Canada-United States Air Quality Accord resolves the transboundary dispute over acid rain after  more than a decade of negotiations.

Canada issues stringent new regulations to control discharges from pulp and paper mills.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature along with the United Nations Environment Program and the World Wildlife Fund issue Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living as a sequel to their 1980 World Conservation Strategy.

1992. The binational International Joint Commission recommends that Canada and the United States sunset the use of chlorine and chlorine-containing compounds as industrial feedstocks.


riologoThe United Nations Conference on Environment and Development is held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conference, headed by Maurice Strong, includes the Earth Summit, the largest meeting of world leaders in history. The conference releases Agenda 21, a blueprint for making development socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. The meeting also sees many governments sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at levels that will not dangerously upset the global climate system. They also sign the Convention On Biological Diversity, which requires countries to conserve the variety of living species, and ensure that the benefits from using biological diversity are equitably shared. The conference issues a statement on the sustainable use of forests and the Rio Declaration, which contains 27 principles that define the rights and responsibilities of nations as they pursue human development and well-being. The Earth Summit will mark the peak of environmental concern and government statements of action for many years. It is followed by a decline in interest caused by a severe recession and a lack of direction on how to implement promises for more sustainable development.

Hurricane Andrew levels parts of Florida and Louisiana, and Typhoon Itaki devastates Kauai Island in the Hawaiian chain, provoking concerns that climate change may be causing more severe weather.

ECO-ED, the World Congress for Education and Communication on Environment and Development, draws more than 2,000 to Toronto in the first major post-Rio conference.

The Copenhagen Amendment to the Montreal Protocol further strengthens controls on substances that deplete the ozone layer.

Canadian Elizabeth Dowdeswell named the third head of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Major new cuts in east coast fisheries lead to thousands more layoffs.

The World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity is issued by some 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences. “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

In Changing Course, The Business Council for Sustainable Development uses the term eco-efficiency to describe a process to produce goods and services while reducing the ecological impacts of production.

In Canada, the Business Council on National Issues issues a paper, Towards a Sustainable and Competitive Future, saying, “The world’s economy and the earth’s ecology are one and indivisible. To ignore one is to jeopardize the other. This is the new reality of sustainable development.” It says that producing more goods and services with fewer resources per unit of production is a source of competitive advantage.

The United Nations creates the Commission on Sustainable Development to follow up the work of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, and to report on implementation of the Earth Summit agreements.

1993. The worst flood in recorded history affects the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

British Columbia is hit by major protests against logging in old-growth forests. Protestors try to get purchasers to boycott products from such forests. The province will see both violent protests, and agreements on sustainable forestry involving loggers, environmental groups, citizens, native peoples and governments.

The federal government closes most of remaining Atlantic cod fishery and some other fisheries to conserve dwindling stocks. About 40,000 people are now out of work. Fishers struggle to find other sources of income. Some turn to other fisheries, such as crab, while others move away from the region, seeking work in other parts of Canada.

1994. Canada, the United States and Mexico sign the North American Free Trade Agreement, lowering tariff barriers. They also sign an environmental side agreement, the North American Agreement for Environmental Cooperation. This leads to the creation of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, based in Montreal. The environmental agreement and commission provide mechanisms for collaboration among the three nations on environmental and sustainable development issues, and provide a forum for citizens from the countries to hold governments accountable for the enforcement of environmental laws.

The London Convention against dumping radioactive material at sea comes into force.

The World Conservation Union issues a Red List of endangered and threatened species.

The United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo sees huge disputes over attempts to deal with population issues but also agreement on a plan to stabilize and reduce population growth, particularly by emphasizing women’s education and access to reproductive health care.

The Global Environment Facility, an organization created to finance actions to deal with biodiversity loss, climate change, degradation of international waters, and ozone depletion, is restructured after the Earth Summit in Rio to have a broader mandate.

1995. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act comes into force with goal of promoting environmental assessment as a planning tool to protect and sustain a healthy environment. It requires environmental assessments of projects involving the federal government.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is created through a merger between the Business Council for Sustainable Development in Geneva and the World Industry Council for the Environment in Paris. Those organizations led the business response to the Earth Summit.

Canada and Spain wage the ‘turbot war’ in the Atlantic over who has the right to migrating fish stocks that move between Canada’s waters and international waters. Canada seizes the Spanish trawler, the Estai at gunpoint during the dispute.

Canada creates the office of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development under the Office of the Auditor General, with a mandate to produce an annual “green” report on the federal government. At the same time, federal departments and certain agencies are required to prepare sustainable development strategies and action plans.

Major budget cuts as part of deficit fighting reduce federal and provincial environment departments.

The World Trade Organization is created as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was established in the wake of the Second World War to encourage freer trade.

A meeting of nations, called the Conference of Parties, is held in Berlin on the Climate Convention, but fails to reach agreement on how to control greenhouse gases. Countries agree to Joint Implementation by which developed countries would get credit for sponsoring emission reducing measures in developing countries.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni are hanged by the Nigerian government over their protests against environmental and human health impacts of oil extraction.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues a report stating, “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” It warns of social, economic, and environmental consequences unless there is a large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen deals with poverty while the World Conference on Women in Beijing deals with the status of women.

1996. A ban on the production of CFCs in industrialized countries for use in those countries comes into force, but developing nations have a longer time to phase out.

In the Saguenay region of Quebec, torrential floods kill 10 people and drive thousands from their homes. Parts of Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario are struck by floods, hail, and tornadoes, which cause widespread damage. In China, the worst floods in decades kill more than 1,500 and affected 20 million.

Concerns about endocrine disrupting chemicals are raised by the book, Our Stolen Future written by a team headed by scientist Theo Colborn. It warns of reproductive threats from massive amounts of chemicals, some of which mimic hormones that are released into the environment.

The International Organization for Standardization introduces the ISO 14000 standard for environmental management systems.

1997. A relatively modest progress meeting evaluates changes since the Earth Summit, and reports little progress on Agenda 21, the landmark report from Rio.

Canada and the United States dispute the shrinking salmon stocks on the west coast.

The Plastimet recycling plant fire in Hamilton burns 200 tonnes of PVC plastic over four days. Huge clouds of black smoke containing various chemicals, including dioxins roll over the region, provoking health concerns among residents and firefighters. It raises questions about the safe handling of recycled materials.

Huge forest fires on the Indonesian and Malaysian islands of Borneo and Sumatra blanket the region with choking smoke. They are caused by drought conditions and illegal burning to clear land for crops.

A study shows that despite cuts in acid gases, the eastern Canadian environment is still suffering damage, and pollution levels may need to be lowered further.

photo of Climate change negotiations in Kyoto

Climate change negotiations in Kyoto

Countries negotiating greenhouse gas controls sign Kyoto Protocol, committing industrialized nations to cut their emissions by 5.2 per cent from 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012. Canada is to cut by 6 per cent. However, emissions continue to rise. The protocol is a far cry from the 20 per cent cut by 2005 that scientists suggested would be a good start to controlling climate change caused by humans.

1998. The great ice storm of early January paralyzes a huge area from eastern Ontario through southern Quebec to the Maritimes and into the northeastern states. Up to three million people are left without power, some for over a month as hundreds of utility poles and even giant towers are pulled down by ice. This brings the largest peacetime mobilization of the military. This storm creates Canada’s greatest insurance loss.

By spring and summer, dry conditions cause huge fires from Southeast Asia to the Amazon to Mexico and Florida to western Canada and Greece. By late summer, there is severe flooding in China. The fall brings severe hurricanes in the Caribbean. All this provokes more debate about climate change.

The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica grows to more than 25 million square kilometres, more than twice the size of Canada.

1999. The federal government increases spending for the environment department for the first time in five years.

Atlantic salmon are reported spawning in the Credit River, marking a return to Lake Ontario for first time in more than a century.

Heavy winter rains cause floods in Central and South America, killing an estimated 20,000-50,000 making it one of the worst natural disasters in Latin America this century. Violent storms lash Western Europe uprooting millions of trees, some more than two centuries old.

Late in the year, the growing anti-globalization movement clashes with the World Trade Organization in the “Battle of Seattle.” More than 30,000 demonstrators cause mass disruption that stops the trade talks. They protest against what they see as the growing power of multinational corporations and growing inequity among rich and poor nations.


natural_capitalismPaul Hawken, Amory and L. Hunter Lovins publish Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, which suggests a transformation of commerce and societal institutions by redesigning industry on biological models with closed loops and zero waste and reinvesting in the natural capital that is the basis of future prosperity.

The Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes group is launched, giving more credibility to companies and funds with a sustainability perspective.


At the start of the twentieth century, there was already a significant environmental movement centred around the protection of wildlands and wildlife, but no one likely thought that humans could change the global environment. By the close of the century, humans had looked at the planet from space and seen it as a small and vulnerable to change. Science told us that we were altering the very atmosphere that supported life on earth. The world population keeps rising, though the rate of growth has started to decline a bit. The world is shifting from rural to urban, with about half of all people living in built-up areas. In Canada, about 80 per cent are urban dwellers. Citizens, governments and many corporations are now starting to change expectations and performance to try to live more within the environmental envelope. However, the race to make the shift remains, as put by Maurice Strong, “a race between our sense of survival and our more indulgent drives.” After the post Rio slump, the environment is now starting to move up the public agenda, and is back in the media. The anti-globalization movement continues strong protests in Europe and North America. Nations struggle to deal with the challenge of meeting the terms of the Kyoto Protocol.

2000. World population is just over 6 billion.

Heavy rainfalls carry e. coli bacteria from farm wastes into a poorly protected drinking water well for the small, rural town of Walkerton, Ontario. The resulting outbreak of illnesses kills seven and leaves more than 2,300 ill. This triggers even more concerns about drinking water safety in Canada and raises concerns about the ability of governments to protect water quality.

The Second World Water Forum in the Netherlands attracts 114 cabinet ministers and 5,700 participants. It releases a World Water Vision for the sustainable management and use of water resources on Earth to provide water security in the 21st century.

The Biosafety Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity seeks to protect biological diversity from the risks posed by genetically modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. It requires that countries give informed consent to the import of such organisms, and calls for use of the precautionary approach.

2001. Cryptosporidium in the drinking water of North Battleford, Saskatchewan leaves many ill, and raises more questions about drinking water protection.

The Kyoto Protocol is saved by a last minute agreement among about 180 countries at a meeting in Bonn, Germany. Canada wins concessions on use of forests and farmland as sinks for greenhouse gases. Money is promised to help developing nations control emissions. In Marrakech, there is agreement on how the protocol will be implemented.


The September 11 terrorist attack on the United States provokes a huge debate about security, making this the focus of much public and government debate and spending. Some commentators say it shows the need to ensure that sustainable development reduces a sense of global disparity that can feed terrorist ideas.

The Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants sets goals to eliminate a dozen of the world’s most dangerous chemicals, including DDT, dioxins and PCBs.

The fourth ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization includes a mandate to ensure that environmental issues are addressed in world trade talks.

Despite controls on chemicals, the hole in Antarctic ozone layer is the largest recorded.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that the global temperature is rising, and there is “new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” Given current trends, the global temperature is project to rise by 1.4—5.8 degrees Celsius over the next century.

photo of Larsen B ice shelf 2002

Larsen B ice shelf collapse 2002

2002. A 3,200 square kilometer section of the Larsen B ice shelf on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula shatters and separates from the continent, raising questions about global warming.

World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg is held 10 years after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. World leaders declare that the “deep fault line” between rich and poor posed a major threat to global prosperity and stability, and then adopted a broad plan to address it, containing specific global targets in poverty reduction, clean water and sanitation, and infant mortality. http://www.un.org/events/wssd/

Oil Tanker Prestige sinks some 240 km off Spain’s northwestern coast, taking more than 70,000 tonnes of fuel into the Atlantic with it. Bad oil damage to Spanish and French coasts.

2003. Worst European heat wave in many years kills an estimated 37,000. Ironically, this leads to the installation of more air conditioning, driving energy consumption and greenhouse gas releases.

2004. The Kyoto Protocol comes into force with Russia’s ratification, however most countries find it difficult to meet even the modest Kyoto targets for greenhouse gas reductions. Economic expansion in developing countries such as China and India are leading to emission increases.

2005. Hurricane Katrina sweeps in from the Gulf of Mexico to devastate New Orleans. The huge storm kills more than 1,800 people in the United States and is estimated to have caused more than $100 billion in damage.

2006. NASA scientists report that the hole in the stratospheric ozone layer that forms annually over Antarctica is the largest recorded.

Canada’s prime minister declares the country an “emerging energy superpower.” Production continues to rise in the controversial oil sands in western Canada as world oil companies increase their investments. Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are now more than 32 per cent higher than the country’s Kyoto reduction target.

The Stern Report by Sir Nicholas Stern, the World Bank’s former chief economist, says that climate change will cost the world economy as much as $7-trillion in lost output and could force as many as 200 million people out of their homes because of flood or drought unless drastic action is taken by governments worldwide. Coming from such a credible source, this report has considerable impact on the climate debate.

A study by a group of scientists, led by biologist Boris Worm from Dalhousie University in Halifax, says that if current trends in the global fishery continue, the world’s oceans could effectively be empty by 2050. It says 29 per cent of fish and seafood species have collapsed — that is, their catch has declined by 90 per cent.

2007. People pay attention to extreme weather stories. While Denver is snowed in Europe has a snow drought, with ski races cancelled and many resorts with no or limited runs.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists sets its famous Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to Doomsday over concerns that climate change could cause widespread devastation and a new nuclear age might begin.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750, and now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores spanning many thousands of years. The global increases in CO2 are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land-use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which seeks to raise awareness about climate change, wins an Academy Award for best documentary feature.

While many national governments appear stalled in efforts to cut emissions, there is leadership by a number of local and regional governments.

2008. Climate change is prominent in the news, with more signs of warming, including big storms, concern about rising ocean levels, thinning polar icecaps, drowning polar bears and large chunks in floating away from Antarctica. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise as nations increase power consumption, with much of it from coal and oil.

Scientists warn that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is making the world’s oceans more acidic. This change in seawater is expected to harm a wide range of ocean life, particularly creatures with shells.

The global economic crisis diverts some attention from the environmental crisis, as governments move to save banks and other financial institutions from collapse.

2009. Environment remains high in opinion polls. There is a continuing of the “greening” of attitudes as political and business figures refer to need to deal with environmental issues as part of economic development.

UNEP issues a climate change report saying situation appears worse than forecast by the IPCC.

China overtakes the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but ranks only 78th in per capita emissions.

Losses from glaciers, ice-sheets and the Polar Regions appear to be happening faster than anticipated.

Maldives politicians don diving gear to hold the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, in a symbolic cry for help over rising sea levels that threaten the Indian Ocean archipelago’s existence. They vote to buy a new homeland in case their islands are submerged.

Researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University list biophysical boundaries. Outside of these boundaries, they warn, the Earth System cannot function in a stable state, in which human civilizations have thrived. They list boundaries for climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution.

UN Climate Change Conference (COP 15) held in Copenhagen. The Copenhagen talks are supposed to find a successor to the 1997 Kyoto climate treaty, but do not succeed. Negotiations are difficult because rich and poor nations are divided on how to share the burden of emissions cuts and how to fund the deal.

2010. Climate change is becoming established as reality for all but a few skeptics. There is more discussion of adaptation to a changing climate. The melting of the Arctic sea ice is raising sovereignty issues for Canada as navigation becomes easier in the far north.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues for three months after an explosion destroys a deepwater oil drilling platform. An estimated 5 million barrels of oil escape before the well was capped. The spill causes considerable damage to fish and wildlife, and to the fishing and tourism industries.

UN Climate Change Conference (COP16) held in Cancun, Mexico. Negotiators from around the world reach a modest set of agreements. They say industrialized countries should reduce emissions by 25-40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. There is no agreement on cuts by a number of rapidly growing economies.

2011. A massive earthquake under the Pacific Ocean off Japan’s northeast coast leads produces a giant tsunami that kills tens of thousands and destroys whole towns. Debris floats across the ocean and will later land on the North American west coast. The earthquake and tsunami disables the reactor cooling systems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, leading to nuclear radiation leaks and major evacuations. It is one of the world’s worst civilian nuclear accidents.

The ozone layer over the Arctic has a loss of about 40 per cent from the start of winter until late March. It is caused by a combination of wind patterns and intense cold temperatures high in the atmosphere.

The UN estimates the world population has reached 7 billion, an increase of 1 billion since 1999. The number of megacities with at least 10 million people has grown from 10 in 1992 to 21 – a 110 per cent increase.

A UN Environment Programme report says nearly all mountain glaciers are shrinking, sea levels are rising, and forests and biodiversity continue to decline. The global use of natural resources, including oil and minerals, rose by over 40 per cent from 1992 to 2005, while CO2 emissions rose 36 per cent.

UN Climate Change Conference (COP17) held in Durban, South Africa. Negotiators agreed on a complex set of documents called the Durban Platform. These include the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, a formal structure for a Green Climate Fund, new market mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and an agreement to negotiate a new global treaty to reduce emissions by 2015. It is the first time all nations have agreed to be governed by a new global emission reduction treaty under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Immediately after the conference, Canada withdraws from the Kyoto Protocol, setting itself lower targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

2012. There is more extreme weather, with winter much milder than normal in parts of North America and very severe in much of Europe. Summer in central North America is hot and dry, with the worst drought since 1956 in the US Midwest, and reduced food production. In October, Hurricane Sandy devastates portions of the Caribbean and the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States. In New York it destroys homes, floods subway tunnels and cuts power in and around the city. At least 253 people were killed along the path of the storm in seven countries and damage estimated at more than $65 billion. It triggers a major public debate about the role of global warming in making a bad storm worse.

Canada’s federal government eliminates the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, an expert group created in 1989 to provide the country with advice on how to have environmentally sustainable economic development.

UN Conference on Sustainable Development – Rio+20 – is held in Rio de Janeiro on 20th anniversary of the UN Conference on Environment and Development. The 2012 meeting focuses on two main themes: how to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development and lift people out of poverty; and how to improve international coordination for sustainable development.

Canada and the United States sign a newly amended Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the fourth version of the binational agreement since 1972. New provisions address aquatic invasive species, habitat degradation and the effects of climate change, and support continued work on existing threats to people’s health and the environment in the Great Lakes Basin such as harmful algae, toxic chemicals, and discharges from vessels.

The annual United Nations climate change negotiations concluded. Delegates from more than 190 nations agreed to extend the increasingly ineffective Kyoto Protocol. The conference also cleared the way for the Kyoto protocol to be replaced by a new treaty binding all rich and poor nations together by 2015 to tackle climate change. The new agreement is to be concluded by 2015 and enter into force in 2020. The summit established for the first time that rich nations should move towards compensating poor nations for losses due to climate change.

2013. Winter starts with more extreme weather around the world. The World Meteorological Organization warms that climate change is not just about rising temperatures, but also about intense, unpleasant, anomalous weather of all kinds.

Nations agree to the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a treaty to control and reduce the use and release of the toxic heavy metal that has range of serious health impacts, including brain and neurological damage especially among the young.

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere pass another critical marker, reaching 400 parts per million. This is the highest amount of CO2 since recordings began in the late 1950s. Scientific research indicates that over the last 800,000 years, atmospheric levels CO2 fluctuated between about 180 ppm during ice ages and 280 ppm during interglacial warm periods. The modern rise began with the industrial revolution and burning of fossil fuels.

CO2 is the most significant greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Once emitted, CO2 added to the atmosphere and oceans remains for thousands of years, meaning that climate change will be with us for a very long time.

Since 1992, governments have been trying to reduce CO2 emissions, but they have been rising at an accelerating rate.

Extremely heavy rainfall in June 2013 led to the worst flooding in Alberta’s history. More than 100,000 people were displaced as rapidly rising waters drove people out of towns and parts of Calgary. People had to be rescued from rooftops. Damage was very severe, and many homes were ruined. Losses have been estimated at over $5 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. Following the flooding, the province is trying to discourage settlement in flood prone areas. Climate change has been implicated in the severity of the rainfall.

In July record rains hit parts of Toronto, flooding streets, submerging cars, trapping a commuter train and cutting power.

In mid-September, severe floods in Colorado killed a number of people and damaged or destroyed as many as 2,000 homes. Flooding washed out roads and left many small mountain towns cut off. As with Alberta, many people will be homeless for months.

In late September, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued an even stronger warning, stating it extremely likely that humans have caused global warming over the past half century.

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent.”

The world’s top climate scientists warned the planet is committed to centuries of a changed climate, even if emissions stop now. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

As if to add an exclamation point to the IPCC report, a large freighter sailed through the Northwest Passage as global warming opens routes that mariners have sought for centuries. The Nordic Orion carried a load of coal (which releases greenhouse gases when burned) from Vancouver, destined for Finland.

2014. In September the World Wide Fund For Nature released a report saying that the number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish across the globe is, on average, about half the size it was 40 years ago. Habitat loss and degradation, and exploitation through hunting and fishing, are the primary causes of decline. Climate change is the next most serious threat.

The fall brought two major breaks in the impasse over how to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In November, the United States and China reach a historic accord in which the world’s largest and second-largest carbon polluters promised major greenhouse gas controls. The United States promised is to emit 26-28 per cent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. China pledged to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner.

In December, more than two weeks of negotiations by  194 countries in Lima, Peru lead to the elements of a climate change agreement scheduled to be completed in Paris in November 2015. By next spring, nations are to produce national plans for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. The talks were difficult because of disagreements between rich and poor countries over how to spread the burden of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

2015. In early August the United Nations agreed on 17 sustainable development goals and 169 specific targets for the post-2015 UN development agenda. It has a strong focus on ending poverty and hunger, ensuring equity, promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the new development agenda “will chart a new era of Sustainable Development in which poverty will be eradicated, prosperity shared and the core drivers of climate change tackled.”

The document, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, resulted from two years of negotiations that had unprecedented participation by civil society. The agenda is to be formally adopted in late September by a summit meeting of some 150 world leaders at the UN headquarters in New York.

The new agenda with its 17 “integrated, interlinked and indivisible goals” is a successor to the eight Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000. That global agreement covered an array of issues including slashing poverty, hunger, disease, gender inequality, and access to water and sanitation by 2015.

In a historic meeting every country in the world promised to curb emissions of greenhouse gases that are changing the climate and threatening humans around the planet. Dec. 12, 2015, the Paris Agreement on climate change was accepted by 195 nations at the COP 21 conference.

The agreement is to peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century. The deal sets the goal of a carbon-neutral world before 2100. This means limiting the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally. Scientists believe the world will have to stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether in the next half-century in order to achieve this goal.

A warming world

A warming world

The agreement includes a commitment for developed countries to create a $100-billion-a-year fund by 2020 to help developing countries cope with climate change, including moving to renewable energy.

The planet’s temperature has already risen by almost 1 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution of some 200 years. The agreement’s aim is to keep the global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees C, and to seek to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The agreement came at a time when Earth’s temperature continues to climb, while melting glaciers cause sea levels to rise. The world is seeing more severe storms and droughts, destabilizing food production, and creating climate refugees. So far 188 countries have offered climate action plans, but experts calculated these would at best hold the rise to 2.7C.

2016. A huge wildfire raced into the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray on May 3, destroying at least 10 per cent of the city and forcing the emergency evacuation of all 88,000 residents. Hot, dry, windy weather made the massive wildfire impossible to stop, although firefighters saved important parts of the city. At times people were fleeing on roads barely visible through dense smoke and burning embers were falling on their vehicles. This was the latest in an increasing number of early and severe wildfires around the world that show the fingerprints of climate change. As the climate continues to warm, the forests become drier earlier, making them more susceptible to fire. Ironically, Fort McMurray is the hub of the Canadian oil sands boom, a major source of greenhouse gases in this country.

In August, extreme weather hit both sides of the southern United States. California, suffering from years of drought and a scorching summer, had more than 4,000 wildfires, sending people fleeing and destroying homes. In southern Louisana catastrophic flooding submerged thousands of houses and businesses in such areas as Baton Rouge. At least 30,000 people were evacuated.

In September, China and the United States, the world’s two largest carbon polluters, both ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change. The two nations account for 38 per cent of global emissions, and this was a major boost to efforts to get enough nations to ratify the pact to bring it into force.

In December, four of the world’s biggest cities, Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City are to ban diesel vehicles from their centres within the next decade, as a means of tackling air pollution that is causing illness and death. Diesel engines produce nitrogen dioxide, a harmful gas, and tiny particulates that can lodge in the lungs.

2017. The World Health Organization estimates that poor air quality kills at least 3 million a year globally. In early 2017, choking smogs affected a number of cities. In severely-polluted Beijing, much of it came from coal-burning power plants, industries, and motor vehicles. In Paris and London, much of the smog was fine particulates from diesel engines. Ironically, diesels had been promoted as a way to reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, and vehicle manufacturers had promised “clean diesels.” A number of countries, including as Britain and France plan to end the sale of new diesel cars by 2040. China, the world’s largest car market, said it will dramatically increase the country’s production of electric vehicles. A number of major car and truck makers announced increases in hybrid and pure electric vehicles, and some, such as Volvo, say they will phase out gas and diesel engines.

Electric cars recharging

In spring and summer 2017, severe flooding affected more than 100 towns and cities in Canada from British Columbia to Ontario and parts of Quebec. Some of the worst flooding in decades drove thousands from their homes, and the army was used to help fight the floods. In the summer, fires hit western North America from California to Canada. British Columbia had its worst wildfire season, with thousands being evacuated from towns and villages in the interior. Meteorologists said the jet stream had shifted from its normal patterns, leading to a drier, hotter west, and a cooler and wetter summer in eastern Canada. In southern Europe, there was very high heat and drought with severe wildfires in southern France, Spain, Portugal, Croatia and Montenegro.

Summer ended with two devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean and southeastern United States. In late August, Hurricane Harvey dumped a metre or more of rain in Houston, Texas and surrounding areas, causing catastrophic flooding. Floods damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and cars, and displaced more than 30,000 people. In early September, Hurricane Irma, a huge and powerful storm, caused catastrophic damage in parts of the Caribbean. It damaged or destroyed almost all the buildings on Barbuda, leading to an evacuation of its inhabitants. It then did severe damage in Florida and southeastern states, especially in the Florida Keys.

Climate experts were saying that all these events were made more extreme because of a warmer world caused by climate change.

The changing climate was also blamed as a factor in the first increase in the number of hungry people in the world since the start of the century. In September, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said 11 per cent of the world faces chronic hunger. Another major factor, particularly in East Africa, is conflict, which drives people off their farms.

Also in September, World Wildlife Fund Canada released a report saying there is a steady, ongoing decline in the country’s wildlife. From 1970 to 2014, 451 of 903 monitored wildlife species in declined in abundance, including mammals, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles.

2018. In early 2018, Cape Town, South Africa was running out of water with Day Zero forecast for spring, when the taps would run dry for the 4 million residents in one of the continent’s most affluent cities. This followed a series of years of droughts, linked to climate change, combined with a growing population. The city was saved by late winter rains that raised the level of the reservoir.

Summer 2018 saw an unprecedented spate of extreme floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires across North America, Europe and Asia. Heat waves with temperatures well above the long-time averages were recorded in the Northern Hemisphere. They caused a number of deaths, particularly among the elderly, and severe declines in crop yields.  According to the World Meteorological Organization, the severe heat waves were linked to climate change. Fires in British Columbia burned more area than in any prior recorded year. California had its largest fire on record. The town of Paradise was virtually destroyed and dozens of people killed. There was even a forest fire north of the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia.

In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] released a report warning that global warming on Earth is proceeding faster than governments are responding. The IPCC report, Global Warming of 1.5° C  said the world’s climate will reach a dangerous 1.5 degrees Celsius increase from pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030, bringing extreme drought, huge wildfires, great floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people. Global net emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach “net zero” around 2050 in order to keep the warming around 1.5 degrees C. Instead, emissions are rising. We are now on a track to see global warming reach 3C by the end of this century, taking us into uncharted and dangerous territory. According to the IPCC, lowering emissions to a safe level, while technically possible, would require widespread changes in energy, industry, buildings, transportation and cities, the report says. It would mean a dramatic overhaul of the global economy, including a shift away from fossil fuels.

In December, representatives from 196 countries and the European Union signed the Katowice Climate Package. The Katowice guidelines cover how to set new targets for financing emissions reductions, how to measure progress and how to verify reductions agreed to under the 2015 Paris Agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

2019. In March, the United Nations Environment Programme issued its sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6). The encyclopedic 740-page report on the world environment was produced by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries. It warned that environmental conditions continue to deteriorate in much of the planet, bringing more suffering and death particularly from air and water pollution.

In May, the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported that about 1 million of 8 million known species on Earth face extinction because of what we are doing to the planet. The most comprehensive yet on the health of plant and animal life on Earth said humans are now the dominant force of change on the planet. We have altered three-quarters of the land, and 85 per cent of wetlands are gone. Coral reefs are dying. One-third of marine stocks are over fished and 60 per cent are fished to the maximum sustainable level. The report, Nature’s Dangerous Decline, says stopping the destruction “…may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.”






In August, Greta Thunberg, the Swedish student activist who inspired school strikes for climate action around the world, sailed from Plymouth, England to New York City to avoid the carbon emissions of flying. Thunberg, 16, will speak to world leaders at the United Nations in September, and will certainly remind them of their responsibility to keep the planet habitable for future generations.

Photo of Greta Thunberg aboard sailboat

Greta Thunberg sailing to America








Also, in August, tens of thousands of fires in the Amazon triggered world attention on one of the last remaining great tropical forests. The fires, mainly in Brazil, were mainly caused by people clearing the trees for timber and to clear land to raise soybeans and cattle for export, something encouraged by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. There are so many fires that some experts fear the Amazon may pass a tipping point in which the remaining forest would die and the land turn into a dry savannah, releasing billions of tonnes of stored carbon and pushing even more climate change.


In September, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, castigated world leaders in a fiery speech at the United Nations. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” she admonished a world leaders. “How dare you.” Days later, millions of young people around the world, including Thunberg, marched against climate inaction by their leaders. They are part of movement Fridays for the Future also known as the school strike for the climate, started by Thunberg last year. Many young people are so discouraged about their future under a worsening climate that they feel it is better to protest and push for change than stay in school every day. Students are castigating politicians for focusing more on keeping power than heeding the science warning of a looming climate crisis. They are asking leaders to go beyond the bounds of conventional politics with its incremental approach at a time when climate catastrophe is coming at us like a runaway train. Their marches, which are growing in number, come amid more warnings of climate change impacts. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said climate change is hitting the world’s oceans and ice caps, and many serious impacts are already inevitable, from more intense storms to melting permafrost and dwindling marine life. The seas are getting hotter, more acidic and hold less oxygen. They will continue to rise, flooding more and more coastal areas, putting tens of millions at risk.

In December, the Madrid climate conference [COP25] ended in virtual failure as major fossil fuel producing nations stalled progress. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise with forecasts that global oil consumption will go from 100 million barrels a day to 125 million in about 15 years then peak. UN scientists said emissions have to fall by about half in the next decade or the world will run out of tine to prevent catastrophic global warming.

2020. The year started with massive Australian bushfires that destroyed thousands of buildings, and  killed more than two dozen people and an  estimated one billion animals. Prolonged drought and record temperatures created uncontrollable files with people having to be rescued from beaches. The disaster led to a backlash against Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, who is promoting coal at a time when carbon dioxide emissions are rising.

On a more encouraging note, Germany announced funding to phase out coal-fired electricity production by 2038 and BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, is getting out of investments in coal used to generate power. A number of tech companies have pledged to go carbon neutral but Microsoft pledged to go one better by pledging that by 2050 it will have removed all of the carbon from the environment that it has emitted since the company was founded in 1975.

By early in the year a new viral infection was sickening and killing people in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central China. COVID-19 spread rapidly around the world  and in early March, the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic. The highly contagious coronavirus, so small it can only be seen through an electron microscope, brought the industrialized world to a screeching halt, shutting millions of businesses and public venues, meetings, concerts and celebrations. It became the greatest world health crisis since the 1918-19 influenza, that killed an estimated 50 million people. Fears of COVID-19 left people trapped on cruise ships that were refused entry to many ports. Millions abandoned holidays to rush home. Then things went quiet, with most of the world’s aircraft grounded because countries had closed their borders. With nearly half the world staying at home clouds of smog lifted, and the World Meteorological Organization estimated there would be a 6 per cent drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year. There is an ancient saying that nature abhors a vacuum. As people stayed home, wildlife moved in. Mountain goats were seen strolling through Llandudno, Wales, jackals howled in Tel Aviv, a puma was seen roaming the streets of Santiago, Chile and deer wandered peacefully in a deserted shopping area in Nara, Japan.

By July, companies were struggling to resume business but many employees were still working from home. Airlines remained very hard hit as people avoided the risk of being in a confined space, or could not travel because of health restrictions. From January to May passenger revenues dropped by about US126 billion. Reduction in travel and industry led to a brief drop in greenhouse gas emissions. 

2021. In January, new U.S. President Joe Biden brings the United States back into the Paris climate accord and promises massive spending plan on sustainable development projects.

In May a Dutch court ruled that the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell must accelerate its planned emission cuts of greenhouse gases. On the same day shareholders voted to nominate climate activists to the board of ExxonMobil, another of the world’s largest oil companies and one that has been trying to avoid dealing with climate change.

The International Energy Agency released a report saying that if countries are going to achieve their Paris agreement goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 they need to immediately cease new investments in oil, gas and coal supply, shutter coal-fired plants in advanced economies by 2030 and ban sales of new internal combustion engine cars by 2035.

In June a report from the world famous atmospheric observatory atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano said the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 50 per cent since the start of industrial revolution some 200 years ago. It is the latest signal that despite years of promises the world is still failing to meet promises to reduce the release of the main greenhouse gas that is overheating the planet.




In late June an abnormal heat dome settled over western Canada and the United States setting record temperatures. In the village of Lytton, in the British Columbia interior on June 29 the temperature reached 49.6 degrees Celsius. It was the hottest temperature ever measured anywhere in Canada and similar to highs in deserts. The hot, dry weather sparked a series of forest fires, leading to evacuations in British Columbia. One fire virtually destroyed Lytton where people had as little as 10 minutes to flee. There were widespread wildfires across western North American and hundreds of deaths linked to the heat. Forecasters are predicting more extreme heat and forest fire risk this year. For decades scientists have been warning that global warming will bring more extreme weather, including heat waves, violent storms, floods and droughts. The global temperature has increased by 1.2C since industrial development started pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and Canada is warming twice as fast as the global average.

In the summer, fires destroyed homes and parts of towns in California, Turkey, Greece and Algeria, killing some people and forcing others to flee. At the same time historic floods destroy parts of towns in Germany and Belgium, killing more than 100 people. As if to drive home the point, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a huge report saying we have released so many greenhouse gases that the world is locked in to some climate change. We can expect more melting glaciers and ice caps, rising and acidified seas and extreme weather. The severity of climate change depends on how fast we reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

On November 13 the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow ended with only modest gains in the struggle to get the world’s nations to agree on major cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. The goal set at COP21 in Paris in 2015 was to reduce emissions enough so the global temperature would not rise by more than 2C above pre-industrial levels with an aim to keep the rise to nor more than 1.5C. [It is already up 1.1 degrees.] In Glasgow there was an attempt to all 197 nations to commit to phase out coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, but it was watered down to a “phase down.” A number of large countries, such as India and China, are still heavily dependent on coal for power generation. Others are coal producers. The commitments for emission cuts made by countries so far will still lead to an estimated 2.4C rise in the temperature by the end of the century. This will lead to even more disastrous weather, including violent storms, fires, floods and droughts, bringing famine and mass migrations of climate refugees. Hopes are for stronger cuts at next year’s COP meeting in Egypt.


February brought the Russian invasion of Ukraine which caused energy chaos in western Europe as Russian gas supplies were cut off. This led some countries to revert to coal burning for power generation, leading to more greenhouse gases. It also pushed European countries to move faster to get off fossil fuels to reduce dependence on supplies from other countries.

A February report by the by the world’s top climate scientists says we are almost out of time to stop a climate breakdown. The report said the climate crisis is happening faster than earlier predictions and that, at current levels, many parts of the planet will become unlivable in the next few decades. According to Hans-Otto Pörtner, a co-chair of the group that produced the report, “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.” The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] said the effects of melting glaciers and thawing permafrost in some areas are “approaching irreversibility.” Mass die-off of fauna and flora are happening now. Dramatic impacts of climate change are already seen across the world with more severe storms and droughts, deadly floods and wildfires, unprecedented heat waves and rising sea levels that threaten coastal communities and the very existence of low-lying island nations. The report said that almost half the world lives in highly vulnerable climate areas, often in poor countries that release few greenhouse gases and have little capacity to cope with the impacts. This will lead to tens of millions of climate migrants fleeing areas that are flooded, can no longer produce enough food or become unlivable because of extreme heat.

The report says the world must cut its total emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 to avoid climate catastrophe. Under the 2015 Paris climate accord nations committed to reduce emissions enough so the global temperature would not rise by more than 2C above pre-industrial levels with an aim to keep the rise to no more than 1.5C to prevent “irreversible” impacts. These include the melting of ice caps and glaciers, and a cascading effect whereby wildfires, the die-off of trees, the drying of peatlands and the thawing of permafrost release additional carbon emissions, amplifying the warming further. The global temperature has already risen by 1.1C since the industrial revolution and estimates are that even if current promises are met the world is headed for 2.4℃ warming.

In addition to cutting greenhouse gas emissions countries need to adapt to the changes that can no longer be avoided but only half of IPCC member countries have adaptation measures worked into their climate strategies. These include flood barriers, drought-resistant crops, and early-warning storm systems.

On April 4 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] released its latest report on the climate crisis. The 278 climate experts from 65 countries said we have only a few years to make gigantic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions or we will overshoot our targets for a relatively safe climate future. The global temperature has already risen by more than 1C, bringing more severe wildfires, floods, storms and drought. The world has agreed holding the increase to no more than 2 degrees with the goal of keeping it to 1.5C. This report, Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of climate change, said that to meet the 1.5C target requires global greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2025 at the latest, be reduced by 43% by 2030 and reach net zero in the early 2050s. Net zero means if there are some emissions they must be offset by a process that removes them from the atmosphere. So far we are going the wrong way with emissions increases. At this rate we are heading for a temperature increase of more than 3 degrees.

The report tries to inject a note of optimism. IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee said a mix of policies, regulation and market adjustments are having an impact, but they must be scaled up dramatically avoid a climate disaster. We need a huge reduction in fossil fuel use, widespread electrification, improved energy efficiency, and use of alternative fuels (such as hydrogen). We will need to move much faster to electric or hydrogen powered vehicles and planes. Major industrial processes must be changed and buildings must dramatically cut energy waste.

A number of countries have been cutting emissions over the past decade, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden and Ukraine. They used less energy, transitioned away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and increased the energy efficiency of their products.

The question is can the world summon the political willpower, the public support and the ingenuity to leave behind the age of fossil fuels that built modern civilization. The IPCC report said incremental change will not be fast enough. We need an unprecedented shift in how we run our societies and we need to spend trillions of dollars. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres did not sound optimistic as he accused the governments of high-emitting countries, of making “empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.”

As if to underline this point two days after the IPCC report the Canadian government approved another oil project off the country’s east coast. The Bay du nord project is to produce some 300 million barrels but some experts say it could be three times as much. Each barrel of oil burned releases more than 400 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding to climate change.

The summer and fall of 2022 brought more heat waves around the world. In Europe there were devastating wildfires from the Atlantic to east of the Adriatic. London hit an all-time heat record of more than 40C with wildfires burning houses on the city outskirts. Tens of thousands of Europeans were evacuated from homes and campgrounds as fires consumed thousands of hectares of forests. In the southwestern United States, a years-long drought caused water shortages and wildfires threatened centuries-old trees. China suffered a severe heatwave. In Africa, drought has threatened millions with stavation. In the fall, Australia had severe flooding. Extremes of heat and flooding are characteristics of climate warming.

In November the world met at the 27th Conference of the Parties in attempt to agree on how to limit the steady rise the global temperature. The two-week meeting Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh failed to get an agreement to phase out the production and use of fossil fuels even as the emissions and global temperatures keep rising. The conference did agree to create a loss and damage fund from high-emissions nations to at least partially compensate poor countries for climate impacts like flooding and drought.

In December the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity got an agreement from 188 countries to protect 30 per cent of their land and territorial waters for nature by 2030. It is a historic global framework to safeguard nature and stop biodiversity loss, with the aim of putting nature on a path to recovery by 2050. The conference in Montreal got agreement of financial commitments to conservation, benefit sharing between countries, efforts to recover degraded landscapes, improvements to agricultural practices, curbing the spread of invasive species and cuts to environmentally damaging subsidies.


In early March, after decades of negotiations, UN member states agreed on a treaty to protect nearly one-third of the high seas. Oceans cover more than 70 per cent of the planet and two-thirds of them are considered international waters, commonly called the high seas. Countries have jurisdiction over the waters that extend 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from their shores. Beyond that limit all countries have a right to fish, ship and exploit resources without limits. This leaves most marine life at risk of from threats including pollution, overfishing and shipping traffic. Two-thirds of fish stocks in the high seas are overexploited, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The UN High Seas Treaty calls for protection of 30 per cent of the oceans by 2030, an important part of implementing the UN biodiversity conference agreement in December under which nations agreed to protect a third of the sea and land by 2030. The oceans treaty calls for Marine Protected Areas where human activity can occur “provided it is consistent with the conservation objectives” meaning it doesn’t damage marine life. This could mean limiting fishing activities, shipping routes and exploration activities like deep-sea mining and drilling for oil and gas.

Sea turtle with fish
Sea turtle






On March 20 the United Nations expert panel on climate change released a report warning we are running out of time to stop severe global warming. “Humanity is on thin ice — and that ice is melting fast,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]. “Our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once.” The IPCC report said: “More than a century of burning fossil fuels as well as unequal and unsustainable energy and land use has led to global warming of 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. This has resulted in more frequent and more intense extreme weather events that have caused increasingly dangerous impacts on nature and people in every region of the world.” As the global temperature increases we will face more intense heatwaves, heavier rainfall and other weather extremes. This will bring more deaths from heat, and risks to food and drinking water. The report said to meet the international target of holding warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels requires deep, rapid and sustained greenhouse gas emissions reductions in all sectors. Emissions should be decreasing by now and will need to be cut by almost half by 2030. In fact they are still rising and many experts believe we will cross the 1.5°C mark in the next 10 years. The IPCC called for a stop to financing more fossil fuels and to shift the money to clean energy. It also called for changes in food production, electricity, transport, industry, buildings and land use. This would make it easier for people to lead low-carbon lifestyles, which would improve health and well-being.

The spring and summer brought extreme heat and violent floods to various parts of the world. Climate change has been causing more hot, dry weather creating ideal conditions for bigger and more dangerous forest fires around the world. Northern Canada became a tinderbox where fires exploded into raging infernos. Tens of thousands of people became climate refugees in their own country. Thousands of firefighters from around the world came to Canada to help but they faced uncontrollable walls of fire as high as a 30-storey building. Smoke from the wildfires travelled thousands of kilometres into the United States and to western Europe. June was the hottest month on record for the world. People suffered and died from extreme heat and crops withered in the fields.

Northern Canadian forest fire

On Dec 12 a historic agreement at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai said the world must transition away from fossil fuels by 2050 to stop the growing damage from climate change. It was the first time in nearly three decades of world meetings that countries, including fossil fuel producers, agreed that there has to be an end to their use. The transition will take decades at the current pace and greenhouse gas emissions keep rising. So do the impacts. This was the hottest year on record. Tens of millions of people around the world suffered from heat waves, drought, forest fires, floods and the spread of tropical diseases in a warmer environment.