When Damon Matthews co-published a 2012 paper warning that the days of Canada’s outdoor skating rinks could be numbered, the associate professor in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment received more media attention than he ever had before. Hockey in Canada is, after all, sacred.
“Based on the conditions needed to create outdoor rinks and what we’ve observed from the meteorological data over the previous 30 years, we extrapolated that we have about three more decades of viable outdoor skating,” Matthews says. “That really touched a cultural nerve among Canadians that I hope will help lead to significant action in terms of reducing carbon emissions.”
Matthews uses mathematical calculations to model climate response to carbon dioxide (CO2) and other emissions. “The ratio is a 1.5-degree-Celsius-higher global temperature for every trillion tonnes of carbon emitted into our atmosphere,” he explains. “And while it took us 200 years to emit a half-trillion tonnes, it will take us only 50 years to emit another half-trillion at current levels.”
With carbon emissions still increasing, that additional 500 billion tonnes might occur even sooner, he adds.
The only way to stop the planet from warming further is to stop emissions immediately. “Of course, zero emissions are unlikely to happen overnight because people won’t decommission current production and transportation systems or change their habits that quickly,” Matthews says.
Matthews and his Concordia colleagues have therefore looked at the amount of emissions already embedded into the current fossil fuel infrastructure to determine the amount of “wiggle room” to stabilize the increase in the Earth’s overall temperature to only 2 degrees Celsius. “If we want global warming to stay below 2 degrees Celsius, we need to cut all emissions by at least half,” he says.
Given this reality, some researchers are proposing to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. “That’s when people start talking about geo-engineering projects, such as artificial trees to suck CO2 from the atmosphere,” Matthews says.
He’s conducting simulations to determine how the climate might respond to some of the proposed technological solutions. “For instance, one idea is to spray reflective particles into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight,” Matthews says. “However, that would introduce a whole other suite of potential side effects on the climate system, such as impacts on the ozone layer and changes in rainfall patterns.”
His modelling indicates that reaching zero emissions as soon as possible through renewable energy sources and significant changes in our lifestyle and habitat remains the best solution. To show what needs to be done, one of his recent projects involved calculating the historical emissions produced by nations and how each country’s emissions are contributing to the global temperature increase. “Of course, the United States produces the most emissions, and Canada ranked 10th, which is not very good given its relatively small population,” he says. “We’re hoping this kind of information will spur governments to action.
“There’s a misconception that even if we stopped emitting carbon, the Earth’s temperature would continue to rise, and that’s not the case,” he emphasizes. “We could stabilize the planet’s temperature if we take prompt and significant action.” It’s why Matthews conducts studies that alert people to the fact that if carbon emissions aren’t dramatically curbed without delay, other young boys and girls might not have the chance to learn hockey on an outdoor rink like Wayne Gretzky did.