Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/1/2015 (2435 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Best known for saving the Experimental Lake Area, the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development was also among the first think-tanks with a global reach to paint the economy green.
We sat down with Henry David Venema, IISD's chief scientist and vice-president for business development, to talk about environmental challenges facing Manitoba.
Q: What are the top environmental topics in Manitoba?
A: Flood issues, water, Lake Manitoba, Lake Winnipeg, those are really the issues Manitoba should be concerned about.
Flooding has caused damages that are so expensive that it's affected provincial finances. It's in Manitobans' interests how we respond, not only to reduce future damages but how we create future opportunities. The downside is dangerous, those unmanaged costs. The upside is really huge. You've got those new agricultural value chains.
Q: You emphasize the solutions are out there, within the concept of a green economy, which would be critical to the province's future. First of all, what are we up against?
A: On the adaptation side, we're dealing with frozen pipes, extreme weather, extreme flood conditions, extreme rainfall. No one can ascribe any particular event, whether it's a cold snap that freezes the pipes of 5,000 homes in Manitoba or a torrential downpour, to climate change. But it's entirely consistent to what climate-change scientists are telling us to expect.
The situation for Manitoba is we're going to have to cope with more regular extreme events, floods, torrential rainfalls, longer periods of drought. Those are the kinds of things Manitobans will have to prepare for.
Q: You've said there are ways of creating a green economy in Manitoba to tackle the impact of climatic changes, and you cite something called hard infrastructure and soft infrastructure. What's the difference, and how do you integrate them into the economy?
A: We responded in the 1950 flood with the floodway. Now our challenge is how to respond in an era of hydro climatic shock. We think it should be through investment in soft infrastructure, valuing ecosystem services...
The challenge is are we going to invest in hard infrastructures, like the floodway, which is very important. That doesn't address the damages upstream caused by flooding... The green economy values social inclusion, and this is important. If it did not, it would alienate important components of society... There's an opportunity to invest in things like upstream storage, which provides basically a shock absorber, small reservoirs upstream that can absorb runoff and intercept those nutrients before they get into Lake Winnipeg.
Q: So that's an example of soft infrastructure?
A: They are opportunities that can create benefits for agriculture... Farm storage (artificial reservoirs) can create the potential for irrigated crops, biomass crops that are valuable in their own right, like cattails, for example. They're used in engineered wetland projects around the world. We're advocating a very balanced approach, and only the areas that are vulnerable to flooding would be advocated for biomass production. In Europe it's... wet agriculture.
Q: It's easy to take that thread of thought and trace it all the way to Lake Winnipeg. In 2013, the Global Nature Fund identified Lake Winnipeg as the most-threatened lake in the world.
A: The major trends in the world come together and manifest here in Lake Winnipeg. The lake's a really important example of how stressors, particularly climate change and loss of ecosystems, come together.
The frequent flooding flushes nutrients down to Lake Winnipeg, the loss of wetlands, more and deeper ditches, they all make pathways for nutrients to the lake.
Lake Winnipeg can be our reason to adapt to climate change in a creative way that rebuilds ecosystems we need on the landscape. We can tackle the point sources, the cities and towns. The bigger issues that really dominate how nutrients enter Lake Winnipeg is the geography of the landscape. The really defining feature of Lake Winnipeg is its basin: The area is huge. The nutrient load comes from everywhere. It traverses four provinces and two states and little bits of two more states: North Dakota, Minnesota and small bits of South Dakota and Montana.
Q: So how do you take all the stuff that's harmful over that vast landscape and turn it to the province's economic advantage?
A: If you see it in the right light, and if you can manage the variability, this water and these nutrients are actually assets. There are many places in the world where water and nutrients are scarce. Take the absolute scarcity of rock phosphorus. It's a component of agricultural fertilizer, and it's almost all imported into Canada from a few places around the world. There's no substitute for it.
The only way to harness these and put them to work is to intercept them upstream and not let them flow downstream (into the lake)... through the use of biomass (cattails and other swampy plants) that concentrate and trap it. It can be used as a renewable energy source. And we'd be able to recover some of the phosphorus and return it to agriculture.
Q: The province has always looked to the north. What are some of the challenges we face there?
A: The reason the Golden Boy points north is we've always understood the north points to the future of the province. In the coming decades, we will be challenged to demonstrate leadership. We have tremendous assets, but we need to steward them and develop the investment case for coming to Manitoba. Manitoba is really, by land area, 20 per cent agriculture and close to 80 per cent boreal forest and water. The big global energy drivers, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, loss of ecosystem services and loss of biodiversity, those issues are present in the north.
At Churchill, you see two competing influences of climate change. On the one hand, the length of the shipping season is increasing as the climate warms and ice recedes. On the other hand, the sole land link, the rail corridor, is increasingly under stress because of the... (thawing) of the permafrost. Why does it matter? It's melting, and if we don't adapt, we miss out on an important economic-development opportunity.