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Wednesday, August 14, 2002

More severe weather likely: UN

By SANDRA CORDON-- The Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) -- Unless we give up our gas-guzzling SUVs and our appetite for disposable products, Canadians will have to get used to the kind of severe weather patterns seen in recent years, United Nations experts warned Wednesday.

The kind of sweltering, choking heat waves hitting Central Canada and the droughts on the Prairies this year are going to become a lot more common, they said in a report entitled North America's Environment.

"There will be more extreme events, in terms of droughts and floods and weather phenomena," predicted Ashbindu Singh, one of the authors of the report which examines the state of the environment over 30 years.

"We have to really look at how to reduce our impact. . . . People are driving SUVs, 4-wheel drives where they don't need to."

North Americans must accept more responsibility for environmental damage and could start by curbing their energy demands -- which are linked to climate change, says the report.

Total energy use grew in North America by 31 per cent between 1972 and 1997, according to the the report, which comes as Canadians are complaining about unusually severe heat and pollution, especially in population-dense southern Ontario.

So far this year, there have been at least 22 poor-air-quality days in southern Ontario, hit hard by pollution from across the border. By Wednesday, that was expected to match last year's record-high number of 23 poor-air days between May and September 2001.

Meanwhile, parts of the Prairies and the midwestern United States are facing their worst drought in 133 years, posing a serious threat to the agricultural economy.

As a result of climate change, "there is greater variability in our weather and we're getting more extreme weather events and the report clearly documents (that)," said Keith Robinson, deputy director of the UN Environment Program for North America.

From the current drought conditions in the West to the freak ice storm that crippled eastern Ontario and Quebec in 1998, the costs of climate change are severe and will only continue, he warned.

"That's what the trend seems to be . . . we need to change our behaviour, deal with our issues," said Robinson.

The 200-page UN report also examines the state of fresh water, forests and marine life in North America as well as the impact of the environment on human health.

The reviews are mixed: North Americans have cut their use of substances that damage the ozone layer, controlled acid-rain emissions and reduced pollution in the Great Lakes, the report notes.

But per capita annual gasoline consumption in North America is nine times the world average, and the continent produces one-quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions, even though it houses only a 20th of the world's population.

And that's setting the stage for much worse harm down the road, the report warns.

The Ontario Medical Association has estimated poor air quality already claims the lives of an estimated 1,900 people a year in Ontario alone and costs the medical system about $1.1 billion annually.

Across North America, 5.5 million children have developed asthma, a respiratory disease that's growing fast due to air pollution, indoors and out, says the UN report.

Canada and the U.S. also lead the world is spewing municipal waste, the report adds.

Every Canadian produced 720 kilograms of annual waste -- even more than the average American who produced an annual average of 630 kilograms, according to data from the mid-1990s.

Climate change will be on the agenda in less than two weeks when Prime Minister Jean Chretien and roughly 100 other heads of government meet in Johannesburg at the Earth Summit.

The summit, which begins Aug. 26, comes one decade after the groundbreaking 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Canada should use its influence there to push other countries to promote environmental education and better use of renewable forms of energy, said Claudia Octeau, with the United Nations Association in Canada.

"If Canada is progressive and played a leadership role as we did in 1992, it would look beyond its never-ending need for more and contribute to more sustainability."


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