The Climate Barometer: Optimism and the Olympics

The Climate Barometer
Our planet is heating up, causing tremendous upheaval for life as we know it.
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We're just over one month from the scheduled start of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

"Scheduled start" is an important qualifier here, because the ever-evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic means questions continue to swirl around exactly how, when, and even if the Games will actually take place. NHL players have already been told they won't be going.

The pandemic isn't the only reason these will be a most unusual Olympics. Nations including Canada and the U.S. are taking part in a diplomatic boycott, not sending the handful of government officials and staffers who normally show up at the Games. They're citing various human rights issues, including abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang province and the recent disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai.

But this is a climate change newsletter, and therefore our focus is on the contrast between the 'green' Games touted by the Chinese government and the reality that the country is a laggard on climate action.

Responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than any two other countries combined, China spent 2021 single-handedly pushing the world back to pre-pandemic levels of emissions, despite sustained decreases in emissions from much of the West.

China's spotty environmental record was one of the reasons the International Olympic Committee was criticized for awarding the country another Games. Warnings were sounded specifically about the air quality for athletes in Beijing, which is famously filled with smog much of the time.

Despite efforts to improve the air quality in advance of the Olympics, China still lists the winter smog risk in its capital as "severe." Rumours that heavily-polluting factories may be shut down before the Games have been denied by the Chinese government.

However, there are some encouraging signs. Measurements of fine particulate matter in the Beijing region's air are nearly half of what they were in 2016. The Games themselves were designed with the environment in mind, with all Olympic venues fully powered by renewable energy.

Chinese officials have even vowed to make these the first carbon-neutral Olympics, although environmental watchdogs say the government hasn't released nearly enough data to allow for an accurate judgement of that claim.

That lack of transparency is a common accusation levied against China, whether for human rights issues or its justice system or its response to the pandemic. It's also come up with what might be the country's most important climate pledge of all -- to hit peak carbon emissions by 2030.


Taking a look at stories about the environment that caught our attention this week
  • The year in which Western Canada experienced some of the most devastating extreme weather events in the world couldn't come to an end without one more headline of that type, could it? Parts of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan experienced bone-chilling temperatures last week. The coldest conditions of all were in Grande Prairie, Alta., where the mercury fell to -44 C -- or -56 with the wind chill.
  • About a year ago, we told you that the COVID-19 pandemic was having no discernable impact on climate change -- not even when taking into account the short-lived but major decreases in greenhouse gas emissions. With another year of the pandemic behind us, experts say it's clear that COVID-19 wasn't even a blip on the radar of climate change. So if COVID-19 can't stop it, what can?'s Alexandra Mae Jones asked the experts.
  • Here's one of the stranger stories of adaptation we've come across: microbes that have evolved to consume plastic. Researchers in Sweden say they've found a correlation between microbes that have developed the ability to eat plastic and microbes that live in areas with more plastic pollution.
An in-depth look at an important climate issue

The warmer temperatures our world will experience as a result of climate change pose problems for humans and animals -- and for just about everything else.

Potatoes, for example, are more at risk of disease during longer and warmer growing seasons. Work is already well underway in the United States to breed new forms of potatoes that can better resist the conditions of the future. Elsewhere in the U.S., researchers say grape growers can conserve water without affecting the quality of their product.

But when discussing the future of food, scientists are coming up with ideas that seem far more exciting than a new potato or slightly drier grapes. A team at Texas A&M, for example, has proposed capturing water and carbon dioxide from vehicles' exhaust systems and using them to grow food.

Fuel is a major contributing factor to our pollution woes - and here, too, scientists are reporting promising findings, including a plant-based solution that could reduce jet fuel emissions by more than two-thirds, a more efficient ethanol replacement for diesel and jet fuel, and a sustainable fuel made from plastic grocery bags.

This sort of climate-friendly approach is being touted as a possibility for manufacturing everything from cement to less dangerous plastics. Swiss researchers have even developed a wooden floor that can power a light bulb.

When it comes to mitigating and adapting to our climate-changed future, however, we reserve our greatest awe for the capabilities of the natural world.

Two of these stories have stood out to us since our last roundup of positive climate-related developments: new evidence that depleted tropical forests can quickly recover under the right conditions, and proof that different marine species can work together to shield each other from extreme heat.

Does any of this suggest that the consequences of climate change may not be as significant as we think, or that we're making significant progress in the fight to stop it? Of course not. But they do allow us to start the new year with a small dose of optimism.


Dan Riskin
CTV News Science and Technology Specialist Dan Riskin shares his exclusive insights


Scientists like to listen to what science has to say, and tend to believe that everyone else operates the same way.

But that's not always the case. Sometimes a scientific message can be ignored or dismissed because of the manner in which it is communicated. Sometimes it can simply go over the heads of its intended audience.

That's what happened in Nairobi, Kenya, where scientific explanations of how local behaviours were contributing to pollution, which in turn adversely affected human health in the area, were never able to break through.

In this week's Riskin Report, CTV News Science and Technology Specialist Dan Riskin explains how turning to the arts helped get the message across in a way traditional scientific communication never could.

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