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Kevin O’Leary’s claims about Canada’s carbon absorption are false, says UBC prof

Is Canada carbon neutral?
Is Canada carbon neutral? Kevin O’Leary at The University of British Columbia Friday, February 10, 2017.

Kevin O’Leary, carbon expert? Err, maybe not.

Conservative Party leadership hopeful Kevin O’Leary, the self-styled “Mr. Wonderful” of television fame, has been careful to strike a more reasoned and balanced approach since throwing his hat in the political ring. But the man some refer to as Canada’s answer to Donald Trump has a ways to go in matters of the environment, according to at least one UBC professor.

On Friday, O’Leary appeared at an event hosted by the UBC Conservative Club in Vancouver and gave a short speech. Today, the claims O’Leary made were fact-checked by writers Jack Hauen and Moira Wyton from campus newspaper The Ubyssey, who found varying levels of truth in them.


O’Leary told the crowd of students that Canada absorbs nearly four times the carbon it emits. The Ubyssey said it found “almost nothing” to back this statement up

One of the assertions O’Leary, who stood on a small black riser and held a glass of white wine, made was deemed “almost definitely false” by Hauen and Wyton.

O’Leary told the crowd of students that Canada absorbs nearly four times the carbon it emits. The Ubyssey said it found “almost nothing” to back this statement up, and contacted Hadi Dowlatabadi, a professor at the UBC Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, who said O’Leary didn’t have his facts straight.

“The net CO2 emissions from forests, et cetera varies from year to year. In general, CO2 is about 80 per cent of our emissions and land use effects are less than plus or minus five per cent of the whole on a year to year basis,” he told Hauen and Wyton in an email.


Is Canada carbon neutral?

The Ubyssey cited one op-ed that may have steered O’Leary’s thinking towards the number he came up with. In March of last year, F. Larry Martin, a retired politician from Saskatchewan, wrote a piece for the Financial Post in which he claimed that Canada may already be carbon neutral. Martin cited a 2014 report from the Global Carbon Project that said 27 per cent of all carbon emissions are absorbed by water and an additional 37 per cent are absorbed by land.

“A conservative estimate of Canada’s existing carbon-absorption capacity, based on land area and the global carbon-absorption average, indicates that Canada could already be absorbing 20 to 30 per cent more CO2 than we emit,” reasoned Martin, who deduction is clearly not supported by professor Dowlatabadi.

There’s another problem with both O’Leary’s and Martin’s assessment of Canada’s absorbtion capabilities. There is increasing evidence that C02 absorbed by our oceans is not a wash, and is in fact leading to ocean acidification that could have debilitating consequences.

Martin’s logic also doesn’t pass muster with the Canadian Forest Service. Their data says that between 1990 and 2005 Canada’s forests, moved from being a forest “sink”, meaning we absorbed more C02 that we created, to a forest “source” meaning we produced more than could be absorbed by our forests. The Canada Forest Service’s 2007 report cited forest fires and the mountain pine beetle as a reason for a hindered ability to absorb C02.

There’s another problem with both O’Leary’s and Martin’s assessment of Canada’s absorbtion capabilities. There is increasing evidence that C02 absorbed by our oceans is not a wash, and is in fact leading to ocean acidification that could have debilitating consequences. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the world’s oceans have become about 30 per cent more acidic since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

What will happen to our ecosystems if oceans continue to become more acidic? It seems no one really knows.

“Scientific awareness of ocean acidification is relatively recent, and researchers are just beginning to study its effects on marine ecosystems,” says National Geographic. “But all signs indicate that unless humans are able to control and eventually eliminate our fossil fuel emissions, ocean organisms will find themselves under increasing pressure to adapt to their habitat’s changing chemistry or perish.”


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Cantech Letter founder and editor Nick Waddell has lived in five Canadian provinces and is proud of his country's often overlooked contributions to the world of science and technology. Waddell takes a regular shift on the Canadian media circuit, making appearances on CTV, CBC and BNN, and contributing to publications such as Canadian Business and Business Insider.
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  1. “In 2014, mostly as a result of significantly higher numbers of forest fires than in previous years, Canada’s managed forests and forest products sector were a net carbon source, releasing about 71 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), or 19 million tonnes of carbon (Mt C), to the atmosphere.”

  2. Atmospheric CO2 is at the lowest it has ever been in all the history and prehistory of this planet and in spite of those previously higher CO2 concentrations and in some cases many times today’s levels, all the evidence shows that everything was more robust and more fruitful when CO2 was higher. The Dinosaurs died out when CO2 bottomed out and our planet has continued to slowly die as CO2 continued to diminish, with more and more desertification and more and more species dying out or at risk.

    But what else would one expect if you withhold their food. After all, CO2 IS, the very bottom of the food chain. Reducing CO2 affects everything, all higher life forms. Increasing CO2 also affects everything!

    We have a once in human history opportunity to recreate The New Garden of Eden, right here and right now. We need to increase atmospheric CO2 to somewhere around 1000-2000 ppm but it has been a long hard battle to increase the meager 100 or so ppm over the last century. If we allow these AGW nuts to have their way, we may never get this opportunity again. There may not be enough resources on this planet to do it again.

    CO2 is key to the future wellbeing of everything and everyone, and could deliver a prosperity and peace, never before dreamed of.

  3. Does this particular professor question anything Trudeau says? One professor says one thing, the other says something else. Who are we to believe?

  4. I’d like to see some references to support your claims. The data clearly indicate that atmospheric CO2 levels have been significantly lower than they are today for most of the last 800,000 years.
    “Over the last 800,000 years atmospheric CO2 levels as indicated by the ice-core data have fluctuated between 170 and 300 parts per million by volume (ppmv), corresponding with conditions of glacial and interglacial periods. The Vostok core indicates very similar trends. Prior to about 450,000 years before present time (BP) atmospheric CO2 levels were always at or below 260 ppmv and reached lowest values, approaching 170 ppmv, between 660,000 and 670,000 years ago. The highest pre-industrial value recorded in 800,000 years of ice-core record was 298.6 ppmv, in the Vostok core, around 330,000 years ago. Atmospheric CO2 levels have increased markedly in industrial times; measurements in year 2010 at Cape Grim Tasmania and the South Pole both indicated values of 386 ppmv, and are currently increasing at about 2 ppmv/year.”
    Most of the other statements in your post appear to be incorrect, as well.

  5. W hat you are talking about is what I refer to as recent history and they are the lowest levels in the last 4 billion years.

  6. I find some of the “global warming” so called scientists profess that the only arguments that are acceptable is that global warming is an undeniable fact . Yet if someone says there are other explanations well they are “climate change” deniers,idiots or neanderthals . The earths climate in fact has been changing for billions of years . Canada was tropical and had dinosaurs at one time . The earth has had ice ages . It is the speed of the change in the earths average temperature that we are all supposed to be alarmed about .Yet the planet is billions of years old so do short term climate variations of 10 or 50 years really mean that much to a planet that is billions of years old ? Some of these scientists claimed that the Arctic would be ice free years ago . Well the reality is different . The article claims that the forest fire s and the pine beetle caused Canadian forests to not be as effective in cleaning the air .Well yes on a temporary basis those forest fires would add a lot of C02 into the atmosphere and the pine beetle killed a lot of trees . Yet these are part of a cycle .The forest burns then rejuvenates ,the pine beetle hopefully will be controlled . The reality of Canada is that it produces about 1.6% of world C02 and does have the third largest forests in the world ,huge wetlands ,lakes and rivers that do act as a carbon sink . The major world emitters like China that at 24% of the world emissions or the USA at 16% are countries that need to do more . The “global warming ” zealots say we must totally eliminate fossil fuel use . Guess what it will not happen the world runs on fossil fuels .Yet we have reduced emissions from vehicles by installing catalytic converters. More efficient house insulation , more efficient LED lighting ,recycling materials etc …. So we do react to an ozone depletion by changing refrigerant gas chemicals . We are doing many things to reduce emissions and pollute less . Can we do more .Yes but that will also be gradual.

  7. Why would I give you references? I you want to know, you can do your own research. I wouldn’t trust someone else’s research and neither should you.

  8. Global warming is real! and by taxing the life out of Canadians our government is going to save the planet. All of us Canadians, the 99% who actually pay taxes, should welcome with open arms carbon pricing, and any new taxes levied on us, because it will be paid by us, not the corporations, and be proud of ourselves. That the day is coming when we will have to decide between warming our homes in winter, or buying groceries to feed our families due to the fact that our wages do not increase as fast as taxes do, is not part of the equation. Our taxes are driving Canada’s green initiatives, we can feed that to our kids, right?

  9. Trudeau asks the trick question. “Do you believe in climate change?” The answer is, “Of course, the climate is always changing.” The correct question is, “Do you believe industrial carbon dioxide (4% of the total carbon dioxide budget) causes climate change. The correct answer is no, the sun causes climate change, always has and always will. Can Trudeau do anything about it?


  10. “February is one of the first months since before months had names to boast carbon dioxide concentrations at 400 parts per million. Such CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have likely not been seen since at least the end of the Oligocene 23 million years ago, an 11-million-year-long epoch of gradual climate cooling that most likely saw CO2 concentrations drop from more than 1,000 ppm.” –Scientific American, March 2015

    On the multi-megayear timescale that the OP has in mind, I don’t think 400 ppm portends, or is, anything particularly horrendous.

  11. Thanks for your reply. You’re the one who made the claim, not me. If you can’t back it up with evidence, I’ll leave it. At any rate, your claim is, I would suggest, still tangential to the more relevant issue: CO2 levels have never been this high in all the time homo sapiens has been on the planet. The consequences of not addressing this by reducing carbon emissions are likely to be significant for individual and social well being, and not in any ways that are good for us.

  12. Besides, if you cite sources, you’ll be informed that you’re cherry-picking, misunderstanding things, not using peer-reviewed material, being a persistent troll, etc.
    The plain, unvarnished fact is that there were flourishing ecosystems in past periods at >1000 ppm CO₂

  13. Homo sapiens is the species best equipped to survive, and thrive, under the most widely varying CO₂ concentrations and climatic conditions.

  14. I hope you’re right. It seems most climate scientists would disagree with that. The 400 ppm level, in and of itself, may not be that significant, but the rate of change of climate in the last 100 years certainly is. My bottom line is that I hope all the AGW sceptics are right … but I don’t see anything yet, in theory or empirical evidence, that suggests that they are. Cheers

  15. I took climate, and physical and biological oceanography courses in university. The climate prof was unquestionably of the AGW persuasion, but it sufficed him to lead us through the facts and science and not get into any scare routine. Because science is ultimately objective, gathers evidence, devises testable hypotheses, etc. I’m not particularly skeptical of AGW myself, but it brings out the advocate in me when I see bad arguments vs denialism in some sort of anti-obscurantist crusade.

    When they start talking ‘catastrophic’, ‘disastrous’, ‘serious consequences’ scientists are entitled to their opinion, but so is Dennis Rodman about N. Korea.

  16. I think O’Leary prides himself a bit on being a somewhat better curator of facts than the Donald. It’s going to cost him to make outsized claims on carbon that are based on limited, dated, or unreliable sources.

  17. Oh, I agree about bad arguments! But are the stated claims of scientists ‘their opinions’? I’d suggest they are not simple opinions. The positions put forth by scientists and organizations like the NAS, NASA, NOAA, IPCC, the Royal Society, and so on are not ‘opinions’ but statements of probabilities based on past and present evidence. As citizens, you and I ultimately get to vote on whether to accept or reject those claims. My own position is simply that the balance of probabilities suggests, rather strongly, that we should act promptly to reduce carbon emissions and develop non-carbon producing sources of energy production.

  18. That may be true. Time will tell if adaptation is sufficient. Meanwhile, ‘no man is an island.’ We live in ecosystems that are likely going to be impacted significantly, and whether those impacts will have a negative impact on human flourishing is another concern. Evidence suggests that the rate of change for many of these ecosystems is already presenting adaptation challenges.
    Danny, it seems to come down to a balance of probabilities, at least for me. The evidence thus far persuades me we should adopt the precautionary principle and reduce CO2 emissions. You may conclude differently. The ‘interesting’ thing about this ‘experiment’ is that in about 50 years we’ll have a much more complete data and better idea of whether we should have reduced (or need to reduce) CO2 emissions.

  19. We already know that CO2 is no threat, it is only the scientifically ignorant that need to be afraid.

  20. Climate scientists are scientists in name only. Climate science has nothing to do with the real world. It is a fabrication designed to make and redistribute wealth.

    I see NO evidence to support AGW, only opinion and consensus, which are meaningless and irrelevant.

    CO2 is what feeds us and all living things!

    We need to increase atmospheric CO2 to about 1000-2000 ppm and turn this planet into, The New Garden of Eden.

  21. Thanks for the reply, Gallilao. “What an ignorant pile of crap. It would be a waste of my time to bother with you.” Well, I’m pleased to see you’ve changed your mind. And thanks for clarifying your position about climate science and climate scientists.

    Sincerely, I appreciate your position about the making and redistribution of wealth, and it’s an argument I’ve heard before. But I’m puzzled as to why folks like you go after the scientists. They don’t create economic policy. Why don’t you go after the politicians and others who play roles in economic policy?

  22. I don’t go after scientists, I go after frauds that call themselves scientists. Why go after politicians, they aren’t the ones perpetrating a fraud and hoodwinking the gullible, unwashed masses, like yourself, who have no clue, so you have to rely on these frauds that have no idea of what science is. They think science is as arbitrary and interpretive as the weather. But then, they are not scientists, they are just meteorologists that wannabe. Meteorology is just elaborate guess-work, which is the antithesis of science.

  23. Anyone who would accept opinion and/or consensus as evidence of anything is NOT a scientist and that is all these frauds have to offer. But that is because they refuse to accept the real hard science, which says that there is no such thing as a greenhouse gas. Of course if they did they would all be out of a job.

  24. Again, thanks for your reply. Can you name some of these “frauds that call themselves scientists”? Are there any climate scientists whose work you respect? Would the one UBC scientist mentioned in this article, Dr. Hadi Dowlatabadi, be a ‘fraud scientist”?

    Also, what gives you the impression that these ‘frauds’ think that
    ‘science is as arbitrary and interpretive as the weather”?

  25. So can you offer some links to the science that says there is no such thing as a greenhouse gas? Thanks.

  26. The jury is still out but I may have misjudged you, maybe you really do want to understand. We’ll see, if you want understand the truth, you have to learn first of all, what the definition of a greenhouse gas is. I don’t do other peoples homework, I do mine, they can do theirs. That said, if you research the greenhouse effect theory as described by John Tyndall the theory’s author, and try to understand the theory and its purpose. If you can do that, you are on your way.

  27. “Also, what gives you the impression that these ‘frauds’ think that
    ‘science is as arbitrary and interpretive as the weather”?

    They apparently believe that they can just ignore scientific facts if those facts contradict their objectives, just as they would if the meteorology data seemed contradictory. But this isn’t the weather, another thing they don’t seem to understand. Although they are always willing and eager to point out the fact, that weather and climate are two disparate and distinct phenomena, they themselves are completely incapable of differentiating between the two.

  28. I know a bit about Tyndall’s work, as I do about the work of Arrhenius, Callendar, Revelle, and a few others (hat tip to Spencer Weart and folks like Mike Hulme–

    I’m still curious, though: who are the climate scientists whose work you don’t seem to trust? BTW, I have no desire to convince you of anything; just interested in understanding more about your position.

  29. FYI, I have no fear of contrary points of view or honest debate but I have yet to encounter anyone who was willing to do so. Not one!

    You say you know Tyndall, then what is his definition of a greenhouse gas. BTW, if you want to understand my position then you must first understand the definitions of the terms. We have to speak the same language.

  30. I’m guessing Gallilao you had a tough time with quantum mechanics in university. I didn’t. CO2 is a heat trapping gas. Something which has been settled science since the 19th century.

  31. The climate’s a bit more nuanced than that. The carbon cycle processes roughly 700 GT of carbon per year with, during pre-industrial times, 350 GT (or so) being released by natural processes and 350 GT (or so) being sequestered. The ‘or so’ part is a wiggle room of about 10 GT per year. We now release nearly 40 GT per year from unnatural sources (burning fossil fuels). 4 times the carbon cycle’s wiggle room. So our release of carbon is actually 400% of the carbon budget’s wiggle room which is the nuanced bit.

  32. Why do you think I didn’t graduate from high school? Is it that my level of understanding of the sub-atomic reasons why CO2 is transparent to UV but only semi-transparent IR EM radiation something you find threatening? Why threatening? Does hard core post-grad science chip away too deeply at the walls of your echo chamber?

  33. Anyone who considers EM hard core post-grad, never finished high school.

    You’re an uneducated nitwit!

  34. I would consider understanding the math that explains, at the level of quantum theory, why CO2 is transparent to UV electro magnetic (EM) radiation but only semi-transparent to IR (infra red) pretty hard core but … what … ever. There was a time that I felt explaining the basics of climate science was a good thing but I’ve learned that it’s a fool’s quest. And also, in a very real way, an amoral one. You have a perspective on how our planet’s atmosphere works Gallilao that provides you a level of comfort and I don’t have the right to change that. I’m hoping you are right and that what I consider settled science, is wrong. We live in interesting times.

  35. You must have gone to a pretty advanced high school Gallilao. In Canada the level of math needed to understand the level of quantum mechanics needed to understand exactly why CO2 is semi-transparent to IR was second and third year level stuff. Even that just scratched the surface.

    Given your level of expertise I’d be very interested to get your opinion on if or if not the classical Hamilton equations of motion, in particular how they describe the equations dependence on vibrational angular momentum and the energy of the frequency of quantum plane switching and plane switching angles in particular for the CO2 molecule. The carbon to oxygen double bonds I’m mostly certain are at the root of the molecule’s transparency to long wave radiation like infra red.

    I await your reply to what I hope will be a fascinating conversation. It’s unfortunate that Discus does not provide a good mark-up language for the equations we will need to discuss and describe.

    Your move. 🙂

  36. I reiterate, what do you think you are saying? Why do you specify “semi”-transparent, how do you think that is relevant?

  37. CO2 is transparent to short wavelength EM radiation (e.g. ultra violet – UV) but is only semi-transparent to longer wavelength EM radiation (infra red – IR). This means that 100% of the UV energy of the sun passes through the atmosphere to be absorbed by the ground. The ground then emits what was UV energy but in the IR wavelengths back to space. Since the CO2 in the atmosphere does not let all of that reflected energy back into space (it’s able to absorb some of the IR energy) it traps heat.

    CO2 and water (H2O) are like the Earth’s thermal blanket. The more CO2 and H2O the thicker the blanket. We’ve gone from 280 ppm of CO2 to over 400 ppm in just 2 centuries. Our thermal blanket is 43% thicker than it was in 1800 CE in other words.

  38. Well, in spite of yourself, you managed to get something right, although I doubt you understand what you’ve said:

    “CO2 and water (H2O) are like the Earth’s thermal blanket.”

    That is exactly right! CO2 and Water vapour act as a “blanket”, Not a “greenhouse”, and the implications are drastically different. A blanket effect is completely indifferent to solar radiation and only determines the rate at which the planet cools off and has no heat storage potential. Which means Humans, CO2 and solar energy have absolutely nothing, whatsoever, to do with climate. The Sun gives us weather and feeds and nurtures life on this planet and that is a huge contribution, from a small light-bulb in the sky, why would you expect it to govern climate as well? It does NOT!

    Thank you Doug, for giving an honest response for a change. That reply shows that you do NOT possess the qualifications you claim. If you did, you would know that matter can NOT absorb Ultraviolet and return IR. Because of the way subatomic structure works, that is a physical impossibility. You can shine high-intensity Ultraviolet radiation at the ground for ever and ever and it will never return IR as a result. That is why a blacklight doesn’t produce heat and a heat lamp doesn’t produce UV, no matter what you shine them on or for how long.

  39. LOL! Fine Gallilao. About the only thing you’ve contributed to this conversation is proof that your ineptitude at even basic social conversation is matched by your scientific ineptitude. Have fun in your echo chamber. Peace out.

  40. Oh, one last thing; I will gladly give you One Million Dollars Canadian if you can demonstrate, the ground or soil, returning IR as a result of shining UV on it.


  41. And, “your ineptitude at even basic social conversation…”, I have no interest in being sociable with people who pretend to be, what they are not, and then try to spread their own particular brand of disinformation.


  42. So, are you ready to collect your Million dollars? It’s real easy! You just have to show how UV is converted to IR in the ground. If you’re right, it’s going on constantly, it should be easy to prove, it’s easy and cheep to measure UV and IR radiation. The easiest Million you’ll ever make?

  43. A grade 8 science student could prove that.

    Light is energy – photons – the “light as a particle” theory.

    Photons travel in waves thus the idea of light having a wavelength. The shorter the wavelength the higher the energy. The “light as a wave” theory.

    The sun emits light with much of it having a short wavelength. Short wavelengths are blue. Long wavelengths are red.

    Our eyes can see some of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum but longer wavelengths of light, infra red, we can’t see. Same with shorter wavelengths of light such as ultraviolet. Birds can see some of the UV light though.

    Light from the sun, the big bright thing in the sky you see on cloudless days, travels to the Earth and the energy in that light is absorbed by the trees, the oceans and plain old dirt. As the Earth warms the molecules that make up the trees, or oceans or plain old dirt, get “excited” enough to cause momentary transitions of the quantum state of the electrons in the atoms that make up the molecules.

    (Check point: You are aware that all the ‘stuff’ you see around you Gallilao is made up of atoms which form molecules correct?)

    Atoms like to stay in a stable state and an ‘excited’ atom with it’s electron is in a higher orbit aka higher energy state will quickly transition back to what’s called it’s ‘ground’ state by releasing a photon of energy. The wavelength the photon is released at varies but for much of the matter on Earth it has a low, infra red wavelength.

    Sun bathes the Earth in ultra violet light, the ground absorbs the energy, it warms up and this releases the energy as infra red light.

    Incandescent light bulbs work in much the same way. You run an electrical current through a thin strip of metal, it absorbs the energy and as it warms it turns red then “white hot”. Same thing.

    UV in. Some IR out. CO2 = greenhouse gas.

    I’d like my million in small bills please. $20s, $50s and $100s.

  44. Don’t give me your imaginary notions, give me the laboratory and field experiments, equipment, procedure and data that proves that UV is converted to IR in the ground. Give me the real thing, if you want to collect.

    Think of it like an “X” prize.

  45. Gallilao, you have to be a fossil fuel shrill. To have such focused dedication to climate change denial to the point of demanding proof of grade 8 level science is, honestly, stunning. And revealing.

    Why should I invest all of that time, money and easy effort to prove something that 5 minutes of open minded Googling would prove? And why should I believe a fossil fuel shrill would honour an X-prize like bet? You have zero credibility, have earned zero respect in this conversation and continue to demonstrate a creepy passion for denial of basic science.

    I love this conversation. It strengthens my convictions and gives me new angles to confront paid climate change denialists like you. You’re not the first of your ilk that I’ve bumped into as I’m sure you’ve started to suspect.

  46. No, I can tell you have been trying to fake it for a long time. But you have given me an excellent idea! Hold that thought!

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