Environmental News – Lots of Confirmation of Expectations, Some Signs of Progress

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Students marching on Ave. Parc, Montréal on 15th March, part of the worldwide student march that day, and one of the largest efforts in Canada.  The kids understand what is happening.  Image © John Mahony, Montreal Gazette.

So, what has been happening in the world of climate change and environmental decline?  School students around the world are showing up the rest of us, and there is a continuing, some would say mind-numbing, flow of environmental news in the media.  It is difficult for the casual browser to cut through the mass of information to see anything really new.  Even as a scientist, more or less in tune with what is going on, I have difficulty sorting the wheat from the chaff.  Not that there is anything wrong with chaff – we need the accumulation of detail in order to model processes and make future projections that are likely to fall even closer to reality.  The following stories caught my eye over the past couple of weeks, mainly in the pages of Science or Nature, rather than in the general media.  Mostly they confirm what we already knew but each adds needed detail.

Nicholas Gruber, an environmental physicist at ETH Zurich, Switzerland, with 17 co-authors from institutions across Europe, the USA and Japan, published an article in Science on 15th March, 2019.  It was called “The oceanic sink for anthropogenic CO2 from 1994 to 2007” and dealt with the global distribution of inorganic carbon dissolved in ocean waters.

As we add CO2 to the atmosphere through our burning of fossil fuels, cement manufacture, and changes in land use, a portion of this ‘extra’ CO2 dissolves into the oceans.  A second portion is taken up by plants and microorganisms and incorporated into soils and biomass on land.  The remainder remains in the atmosphere causing the planet to warm. 

In the ocean, CO2 combines chemically with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3) which promptly dissociates into HCO3and H+ ions, thereby lowering pH and acidifying the ocean. CO2 concentrations in surface waters are at or near an equilibrium with the atmosphere, but dissolved carbon is only slowly distributed to the deeper ocean, meaning that most of the ocean is less saturated than are surface waters.  It is this slow redistribution of dissolved inorganic carbon to deeper waters that makes it possible for a continuing net flux of CO2 from atmosphere to ocean surface waters.  Over time, over a long period of time, the concentration of carbon in deeper waters will become closer to that in surface waters, and the oceans’ capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere will decline.  One question Gruber and colleagues were exploring was whether the rate at which CO2 was dissolving from the atmosphere to the oceans was starting to slow down yet.

Oceanographers produce the neatest illustrations and I admit to being first attracted to this article by a wonderful diagram, looking a bit like a three-bladed, rather square propeller, that depicts how the rate at which carbon concentration was increasing at different latitudes and depths in the three oceans – Atlantic, Pacific and Indian – during the period 1994 to 2007.

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The rate of increase in concentration of dissolved carbon is shown on a color scale from blue (low) to yellow (high) for different depths and latitudes in a slice taken through each of the three oceans from vicinity of Antarctica to the most northerly extent of that ocean.  Figure © Science.

An amazingly effective way of compressing vast quantities of data into a single, understandable image.  Still, what does it tell us?  Over the period 1994 to 2007 the oceans of the world have continued to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  Gruber and colleagues estimate that 34 ± 4 petagrams of carbon (Pg C) moved from atmosphere to ocean during those years, an average of about 2.6 petagrams carbon per year.  That’s a lot of carbon (2.6 billion tonnes of carbon or 9.5 billion tonnes of CO2 per year).  Let that sink in for a minute: 9.5 thousand million tonnes of CO2, which is just 31% of the amount of CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere.

That those billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide did not remain in the atmosphere is just as well, because if they had remained there, that would really have boosted global temperatures.  Gruber and colleagues refer to this fact as an example of the oceans providing a service to humanity – literally cleaning up after us!

Gruber and colleagues report that, as expected, the oceans have continued to take up anthropogenic carbon dioxide at about the rate they were in the early 1990s, however, their results show marked differences from place to place in the rates at which carbon is being distributed toward deeper waters (the redness in the figure marks places where rate of addition of CO2 is greatest).  This variability is understandable given our knowledge of ocean circulation, but the extent of the differences was surprising.  Future warming-caused changes to ocean circulation, such as the anticipated slowing of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), which transports North Atlantic surface waters to deeper layers, could have serious implications for future rates of CO2 uptake by the oceans.

Take home message?  The oceans continue to play a very important moderating role as the world warms, but there is a limit in how much longer they can continue to do this, and all that CO2 taken up by the oceans has serious consequences for ocean pH, and therefore for the lives of many marine organisms.

Anna Woodward of Lancaster University, UK, and four co-authors from British and Swedish institutions, provided a perspective on the human consequences of the changes taking place on coral reefs because of climate change.  Their article, in Functional Ecology, was published on line on 28th March as Coral reef ecosystem services in the Anthropocene.

Reef ecologists are becoming aware that the reefs of yesterday are not coming back any time soon.  The extra warmth added to ocean waters since the 1950s has changed the frequency and severity of el Niño events to produce more frequent periods of warmer than usual water, warm enough to lead to profound bleaching events.  As a consequence, the rates of mortality of various coral species have been altered from what they were, with the result that reefs have less living coral present, living corals are, on average, younger, and the mix of species has also changed because some species are more susceptible to warming than others.  Its still too early to say what the reefs that exist in 2050 will be like, except to note they will be fewer, less coral-dominated, and with a different mix of dominant coral species.  But its not too early to admit they will be ecologically different to today, or to the reefs of the 1950s.

Woodward and her colleagues use this new awareness that reefs are changing in many ways to anticipate likely impacts of those changes on humanity.  Hundreds of millions of people depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods, for important protein food, for coastal protection, and for esthetic, emotional, spiritual support.  As coral reefs change, their ability to provide these services will also change, but at present there has not been sufficient effort made to understand the nature or extent of those changes.  Woodward and colleagues review some of the ways in which other components of the reef ecosystem, such as fishery species, are likely to respond to changes in abundance and both age and species distribution of corals.  The4y provide some useful suggestions for future research.  I found this article important for highlighting the need to consider how the value of coral reefs must change as the reefs are changed, because if we understand more clearly the likely changes in fishery yield, storm protection, or effectiveness for stimulating tourism, we will presumably be in a much better position to plan for adaptation to these changed circumstances.

On the other hand, I was disappointed to see just how little Woodward and colleagues were able to provide in terms of definitive projections of future state, or even in terms of ways to advance the needed understanding.  Beyond suggesting that the provision of an ecosystem service is governed by an interaction between ecological and societal processes that respectively deliver and select for the service, or advocating a trait-based approach to identifying how particular ecological actors, such as fishery species, will respond to particular changes in the reefs, they seem to suggest scientists are at the very beginning of understanding how changes to reefs will affect people. 

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It seems unlikely that substantial changes on coral reefs will not have impacts on adjacent coastal habitats such as seagrass beds or mangroves.  Image © Smithsonian Institution.

I think it is also true that we have relatively limited understanding of how changes to reefs likely over the next couple of decades will ramify to impact those other ecosystems that share continental shelves with reefs.  How will a general decline of reefs impact seagrass systems or mangrove forests?  To what extent will loss of reefs lead to substantial ecological reorganization of tropical coastal seas.  While this may all sound like reef scientists have been asleep at the switch, I fear it is safe to say that scientists more generally, and humanity more broadly, are both uncomfortably naïve concerning the degree to which our direct perturbations of specific ecosystems – such as reefs, or salt marshes, or tropical forests – will ramify across the biosphere.  Hopefully, the article by Woodward and colleagues will spur reef scientists, in particular, to delve more deeply into the consequences of what we are doing.  Otherwise, the Anthropocene is likely to be far nastier than most of us expect.

In the March 22nd issue of Science, Warren Cornwall of the National Sea Simulator in Townsville, Australia, provided a Feature article (Science is becoming more like a trendy magazine and less like a dreary technical journal every month) titled, The Reef Builders.  Copiously illustrated with glorious pictures of corals spawning, it’s a pity it is hidden behind the paywall, instead of being on open access (I really do not understand why Science did this!).

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Acropora millipora spawning in a tank at the National Sea Simulator, Townsville, Australia.  Tourists to the Great Barrier Reef can book night dives to see this, assuming they can be at the reef on the right night.  Photo © Mikaela Nordborg, AIMS

The article reports on the research program of Madeleine van Oppen, now at Melbourne University, and the late Ruth Gates of University of Hawaii.  Ruth died, far too young, in October 2018, and I was gratified to this fruitful collaboration is continuing despite that setback.  Van Oppen, Gates and their collaborators and students have been pioneering efforts to manipulate the genetics of corals and their algal symbionts to see if it is possible to breed greater resistance to warmer water.  Such genetic research, using techniques ranging from straightforward selection of apparently more resistant individuals for breeding to use of genetic engineering techniques such as CRISPr-Cas9 for directly manipulating the genome, is nothing new in animal husbandry or crop science, but it is radically new in the world of coral science. 

To begin with, there is the problem that many corals breed just once a year, on a particular night.  If you don’t catch them at the right moment, you have to wait a year for the next opportunity.  Then there is the nasty fact that the algal symbionts, single-celled dinoflagellates of several species, live in intimate, intracellular association with the corals.  Using conventional approaches to collect genetic material from cells yields a mixture of coral and algal sequences.  And third, there is the daunting challenge, political as well as ecological, of putting lab-reared corals back into the ocean to see if they are indeed a tougher strain.  Australia has a long and unhappy history of introducing creatures that became unwanted pests on its landscape, and the last thing anyone wants is a plague of ‘bad’ corals on the Great Barrier Reef.

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Corals being grown under controlled conditions at Australia’s National Sea Simulator. 
Photo © Christian Miller, AIMS.

And yet, if we do not explore all possible tools to assist coral species, we are very likely to watch them disappear one by one as oceans warm.  Far better to explore possible ways to strengthen corals’ abilities to survive warming, than to engage in the harvesting of coral nubbins to be fragmented and grown up in a coral nursery and then planted back on the reef.  While reef restoration, as it is called, is being practiced in many places around the world, I fear there is little point in rearing and then out-planting tiny colonies of corals that will simply bleach the next time warm water passes by.  Such activities may be useful in small, high-value locations adjacent to tourist enterprises, but they seem unlikely to be a solution to our killing off of coral reefs.  In fact, such activities, if inaccurately portrayed as real solutions to the reef dilemma, could damage the overall effort to do something for reefs, because they divert activity and interest away from more difficult, but more effective, choices.  The research done by van Oppen and colleagues is very different to the broad sweep of reef restoration activities, few of which even have much of a scientific underpinning.  Meanwhile, the most effective way to do something to aid the world’s coral reefs?  Cut our emissions of CO2 as drastically and rapidly as possible and seek additional solutions to suck CO2 from the atmosphere.  One irony, not mentioned in Cornwall’s article, is that all the time van Oppen works to build stronger corals, the Australian government continues to promote coal mining and export, while failing, year by year, to reduce its own unconscionably high emissions of CO2.  Not the attitude one might expect from a government that carries the responsibility of caring for the largest coral reef system on the planet.

The final article I want to mention, by Guillaume Chapron, Yaffa Epstein, and José Vicente López-Bao, of the Swedish University of Agricultural Science, Uppsala University (both in Sweden), and Oviedo University, Spain, respectively, appeared in the 29th March issue of Science.  It was labeled an Insight or a Perspective, and titled A rights revolution for Nature.  This one is on open access, so accessible to all.

Chapron and colleagues have written a short 2-page article reporting the status of efforts to grant rights to Nature.  I was surprised to see it in Science; but pleased also.  Maybe there really is movement in that direction.

I’ve discovered in recent months that when I suggest that, perhaps, the Biosphere has a right to exist, and humans have a duty to sustain it, you get a mixture of puzzled and outright incredulous looks.  At least in North America.  What on earth is Sale talking about now?  And yet, I’ve also discovered that the more I suggest that the Biosphere has rights, the more sensible a proposal that sounds to me.

Perhaps I should give some background.  Climate change and the broader environmental crisis have brought home to me that humanity cannot go on treating the planet as a larder full of things to use and discard.  We currently use the goods and services we extract from Nature at rates that cannot be sustainable in any real universe, and certainly not in ours.  But getting that fact across to other people is extremely difficult.  We of a western, market-based, Judeo-Christian-influenced society simply don’t get the fact that the planet is finite, and capable of generating, or regenerating resources at rates that are also finite and limited.  And the human enterprise has far outstripped those rates.  We are literally using up the planet.  And yet, we, cocooned in our comfortable, middle-class social system, do not see the damage we are doing first-hand.  That almost all the fish in the local supermarket come from far away, and usually from fish farms, is not noticed by most shoppers, and yet it is a radical change from the situation in our supermarkets just a decade or so ago.  The same is true of produce.  Because I live in a wealthy western nation, I can be assured my supermarket will have fresh fruit and vegetables, plus plenty of meat and seafood, in copious quantities and endless variety, every day of the year despite what is happening out there beyond in the places where this food is grown or acquired.  The same is also true for all the other things I might require.  I will be one of the last people to discover there is no longer enough to go round.  And this is surely unfortunate, because I have grown up believing (or at least, I live in a society in which the great majority of people have grown up believing) that I am entitled to use as much as I want, because that is why this wonderful planet-larder is here.

Members of my society do not believe it is possible for the larder to become emptied out, and our eyes tell us all is well, whenever we go shopping.  Given these facts, how do we become convinced we need to change our ways?  Telling us of the damage we are doing to the planet has relatively little effect, because the state of the planet is of no concern.  A little bit of environmental damage here and there?  Oh dear, that is a pity.  But the economy has to continue to grow.

What we need is to become convinced that we have a duty to nurture the planet, and there are a few ways in which this might be done.  One of these is to use the legal system.  Most humans live in societies with laws.  In some of these societies the laws are obeyed more often than not.  We understand the concept of law, the idea that the government can enforce certain behavior by penalizing misbehavior, because there are laws stipulating same.  But mostly our legal systems do not suggest that we have a duty to sustain the natural world.  In fact, for the most part, our legal systems have grown up in a whimsical fantasyland in which there are people and property.  People own property.  They can buy and sell it.  Carve it up and even eat it.  But property itself has nothing.  And other than people, there is only property.

Now I’m exaggerating of course.  But only to make an important point.  Our legal systems have been very good and producing order in the interactions among people.  We’ve also been very creative in expanding the concept of personhood to include inanimate human constructs such as corporations.  Sometimes these non-human persons are immortal (as are corporations unless they declare bankruptcy.  But we have also been very good at leaving the natural world out of the equation.  Humans, corporations and their property exist in some kind of space, an environment, and that space can be used to dump things we don’t want, with no penalties for doing so.  Or we can take from that space things which it needs to sustain itself (to our ultimate detriment) also with no penalties.  But if we were to suggest that that space in which we all live, that environment, that Biosphere, was also some form of person, who had rights and duties, that would change things dramatically.  And that is what the global effort to grant rights to Nature is all about.

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There are many representations of the Andean Earth-Mother goddess, Pachamama.  The Ecudorean constitution of 2008 was the first to establish the right of Nature, as Pachamama, to exist, to be sustained, and to continue its natural functions.  Revealing the universality of the concept, this version is by Australian contemporary artist Jassy Watson, of Bundaberg, Queensland.

In their brief two pages, Chapron and colleagues do a good job of summarizing progress on the effort to establish rights in law for Nature, or components of nature.  They have a (rather incomplete) table listing notable examples of successful efforts to grant rights to nature, and they contrast efforts, such as that of Ecuador which granted rights to Nature writ large and that of New Zealand, which granted rights to a single river system to be a legal person.  They also point out that granting rights in law does not ensure people will embrace the duty to respect those rights – a wide range of ethnic, religious, racial, and gender groups will recognize the truth of that statement with respect to human persons.  It’s not surprising if it also applies to non-human persons.  Nevertheless, implementing law which grants rights to Nature could help us make the required transition from treating the planet as our larder of things to use to treating our planet as the complex system it is, a complex system which includes ourselves, and which sustains our lives.  I’m glad these ideas found an outlet in Science!

Categories: Changing Oceans, Climate change, coral reef science, In the News, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Environmental News – Lots of Confirmation of Expectations, Some Signs of Progress

Which way, Canada? Which way the world?


Those of you who follow this blog, as opposed to simply stumbling upon it, will have noticed that the frequency of my posts has fallen precipitously over the last year or so.  Never a frequent poster, my output has dwindled from once every ten days, to once a month, and now to once or so a quarter.  Have I run out of things to blog about?  Am I just running down in that inevitable decline towards final silence?  Fact is, I’ve been busy with other things, and the urge to blog has lessened.

Partly, my decision two years ago to not spend time talking about the President of the United States left me with many matters of environmental and political importance off limits.  Partly, the end of the Harper era in Canada left me with fewer environmental outrages close to home to rail against.  Partly, the pace of climate change, and of global environmental degradation in general, does not sustain frequent blog posts on the topic.  The news continues to appear.  The news is still bad.  But talking about it begins to sound repetitious.  Instead, I’ve been trying to put my thoughts together in a coherent way and create something more substantial than a blog post here or there.  I won’t say I am writing a book yet.  But it is either a book or a lot of unpublished words on pages.

Cartoonist Dave Whamond captures the moment when Canadians realized Justin Trudeau was not all that different from other politicians.  Image © Dave Whamond.

So why post something today?  SNC-Lavalin.  I’m worried that Canadians, alternately agonizing or celebrating over the fact that Captain Canada does not walk on water, are going to do something perilously stupid in a few months’ time when they vote.  The SNC-Lavalin affair is really just so much tempest in a teacup, and yet it has revealed, surprise, surprise, that our Prime Minister is a politician.  Did we really think that Justin Trudeau was not a politician?  Do we want our country led by someone who is not a politician?  Have we lost sight of the policies and the achievements of his government as we beat ourselves up about the fact that he appears to have thought political and economic considerations might be important when weighing up the best approach to dealing with the transgressions of a major economic player in our country?  (Incidentally, how does one do business in Libya without paying bribes to government leaders?  That’s the crime engineering firm SNC-Lavalin is accused of, and nobody is accusing Trudeau of seeking to prevent SNC being punished.)  Sure, the shining suit of armor has been tarnished.  But is that such a bad thing?  Maybe we are removing our rose-colored glasses at last and can assess Justin’s goals and methods and compare them with those of his erstwhile opponents in the coming national election.  I’ll pick this thought up again after I’ve done the responsible thing as an environmental scientist and reminded us all of where we stand in early 2019.

One of the few adults left standing in North American politics: Barack Obama speaking in Vancouver 5th March 2019.  Photo © Matt Borck.

At Last!  An Adult!

One of the few remaining adults on the planet made a brief speaking tour to western Canada this week, with stops in Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver.  Billed as “A Conversation with President Barack Obama” the talks allowed him to paint a global canvas as he mused about international relations, inequality, globalization, integrity in government, and climate change.  On climate change he was very clear.  He noted the range of environmental changes that climate change is triggering, conjuring up images of half a billion people in South Asia suddenly made climate refugees because the monsoons have collapsed, and contrasting that with the present instances of thousands of migrants fleeing environmental disasters in places round the world.  He spoke clearly and simply, saying nothing particularly new, but perhaps providing a different context – he spoke as a former political leader rather than a nerdy scientist.

 “At the current pace that we are on, the scale of tragedy that will consume humanity is something we have not seen in perhaps recorded history if we don’t do something about it.”  Or again: “This is coming, and I have two daughters who in their lifetime will see these effects. I don’t have grandchildren yet, but for those of you who do, it will make life very difficult for them even if they are wealthy and can somehow insulate themselves temporarily.” 

At his Calgary stop, he did not shy away from the future of the fossil fuel industry.  Acknowledging that he was an “old-fashioned guy” who still believed in using facts to draw conclusions, he talked about the need to transition from use of fossil fuels, and noted the need to build recognition, not just generally, but in places such as Alberta, that newer energy sources need to be developed and older ones have to be cleaned up.  But he also admitted that the fossil fuel sector in Alberta had long been an important part of the economy: ““It is important for our politics to take into account all the jobs and the economy that is generated from energy,” he said, dismissing the idea of a shutdown of the business for the sake of the environment. “That’s not going to happen.”  But we do need a coherent plan that gets us to a new place in 20 years or so (I think his timeline is too generous), and he suggested Canada, like many countries, has been “paying lip service” to its commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Reading about Obama’s visit, I wished it would have been possible to simply put him back in the Presidency in 2016 for a third term – the election of his successor was so clearly a flawed process that I’m sure a few legal minds and government historians could have developed a plausible rationale to justify such a thing.  Sorry, Michelle, four more years of White House duty please.  But fairy tale solutions seldom occur in real life.

The State of the Climate

And what is the state of the climate and environment in early 2019?  David Wallace-Wells, journalist and author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, has recently pointed out that we have done more damage to the environment since the United Nations established its Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the parent of IPCC, in 1992, than we did in all the millennia that preceded that date.  Or, to put it a different way, “We have now done more damage to the environment knowingly than we ever managed in ignorance”.

Greta Thunberg is a 16-year old Swedish leader.  Last September, furious at the lack of attention to climate change from Swedish politicians, she went on strike, refusing to go back to school.  She sat down alone outside the Swedish legislature with a rucksack of books, snacks and home-made signs saying ‘School strike for Climate’.  Over subsequent days, she built a crowd.  Eventually she went back to school, but still strikes every Friday.  And tweets under #FridaysForFuture (the Canadian website is here).  Her actions have inspired a worldwide movement by youth, tens of thousands of them around the world.  A worldwide strike is planned on March 15th (Unfortunately winter break for Ontario schools falls during that week).  These signs of commitment by younger citizens are inspiring.  I hope the strike on the 15th is a crushing success.  I hope that those of us a bit older than 16 will pause to reflect – do we really have to wait for the 16-year olds to reach voting age, or enter politics themselves before we will start to act serious about climate change?

The Steady Drip of New Climate Science

When it comes to actual evidence of climate change or environmental, economic and health consequences of same, there has been a steady drip of new science, none of which makes the climate problem any less extreme than it looked a year or so ago.  Some of the articles being published in Science and Nature are clear attempts to argue for an urgency that is not yet perceived by the majority of politicians or policy wonks.  For example, a team of leading climate and environmental scientists, mostly based in the USA, led by Christa Anderson of World Wildlife Fund, published a ‘Policy Forum’ article in the March 1st issue of Science, titled ‘Natural climate solutions are not enough’.  Natural climate solutions (NCS), such as more effective forest management, reforestation, and changes in agricultural practices that collectively sequester carbon in soils at a greater rate, or reduce agricultural methane emissions, are useful weapons in the battle to slow climate change, and all the authors had previously argued for their value.  But in this article, they came together to put forth a clear statement that use of NCS alone was not going to be sufficient to bring climate change under control.

I was surprised that they needed to make this statement or put it out in such a prominent place (for scientists).  It has always been obvious to me that emissions due to use of fossil fuels were the single largest cause of anthropogenic climate change, and that we could not wrestle this change to the ground without curtailing those emissions.  It seems however, that some policy experts and politicians have been looking to use of NCS as a way of delaying action to reduce use of fossil fuels.  Because that is what we usually do – kick difficult problems down the road, leaving them for the next group of leaders to deal with (or, in the case of climate change, the next generation).  As Justin Trudeau famously said at an energy industry conference in Houston in 2017, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.  The resource will be developed. Our job is to ensure that this is done responsibly, safely, and sustainably”.

A second technical article I was surprised to see was a detailed examination of the scientific evidence that greenhouse gas emissions were a form of air pollution, and therefore within the purview of the US EPA.  You’ll remember that during the Obama presidency, this fact was used to justify new regulations on power plants, and other measures, to combat GHG emissions, that would be enforced by EPA.  That was the only way Obama, with a solidly Republican Congress, could advance any climate change actions in that country.  The current, strangely orange occupant of the White House has, of course, had the EPA repeal the regulations that were put in place, to the considerable approval of the fossil fuel industry, especially the operators of all those inefficient coal-fired power plants.

The article, by a 15-member team of US-based climate and environmental scientists led by Philip Duffy of Woods Hole Research Center, appeared in the February 8th issue of Science, under the title “Strengthened scientific support for the Endangerment Finding for atmospheric greenhouse gases”.  The Clean Air Act (CAA) requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate air pollutants when the EPA Administrator finds that they “cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”.  The Endangerment Finding was the finding by the EPA that greenhouse gases did pose a threat to human health and welfare that had been upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007, even if the EPA under Scott Pruitt’s backwards leadership had managed to renounce this conclusion.

The article consists of a detailed reexamination of the evidence supporting each of the eight way in which EPA had formerly concluded greenhouse gases endangered public health and well-being in the USA, plus four additional ways for the science was now sufficiently robust.  In all cases the evidence had strengthened over the intervening decade.  The illustration I found most damning was a county by county survey of where in the USA impacts of climate change were likely to be most severe.  As always seems to happen, the less wealthy counties are the ones most at risk.  Funny how wealth provides insulation for bad environmental news, isn’t it?

Map and chart from Duffy article showing the economic impact of present and future climate change across the USA, county by county.  The economic impact is greatest in those counties which are least wealthy to begin with.  Another example of how wealth seems to insulate against environmental problems.  Image © Science.

My surprise at seeing this article was that it had always been obvious that the changed decision by EPA once the AFP (alternate facts presidency) came into play had nothing to do with the science or the reality of climate change.  I was also surprised that it was published now, given the growing chance that we will have another five years of AFP before the USA can possibly return to reality.  Why did the scientists bother?

Nitrogen – Another Problem

In the same issue of Science, there was a short ‘Perspectives” article by Carly Stevens of Lancaster University, UK, called Nitrogen in the Environment.  In it, Stevens begins by pointing out that while nitrogen is one of the most abundant elements on the planet, reactive nitrogen (Nr), the nitrogen in the form of oxides and other organic molecules, and that is accessible to plants, and via them, to animals, is often in short supply.  Such Nr is naturally formed by nitrogen-fixing bacteria or by lightning, but over the past century, its supply has been greatly increased by human production of fertilizers, so that Nr availability is roughly twice what it used to be.  This now more abundant Nr is not uniformly distributed around the planet, and it is creating both problems of excess and of depletion.  In many places excess Nr pollutes aquatic systems resulting in anoxia and algal blooms, worsens low-altitude air pollution, and contributes as a greenhouse gas to climate change.  In others, deficient in Nr, crop yields are seriously reduced.  Stevens points to the need to curtail use of fertilizers, to use fertilizers more effectively, and to manage agricultural waste, particularly domestic animal waste, far more effectively than we mostly do.  At the same time, in impoverished countries in which land has been over-grazed and mis-managed, and in which farmers lack the resources to obtain needed fertilizers, there is a growing need to provide additional Nr.  Stevens argues that humanity has exceeded the planetary threshold for reactive nitrogen and reminds us that our assault on nature is not limited to climate change.  Incidentally, the number of dead zones in the coastal ocean (one clear consequence of this excess Nr), estimated to be less than 50 in 1950 and “more than 400” in 2008, was reported as more than 500 in an article in the 5th January 2018 issue of Science by a team of 22 marine scientists led by Denise Breitburg of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on Chesapeake Bay.  Most of these are due to pollution of aquatic systems by the Nr in sewage and agricultural runoff.  They are represented as red dots bordering most of the shorelines of the planet in the map accompanying Breitburg’s article.

Map from Breitburg’s Science article showing the 500+ dead zones in coastal waters as red dots.  Also shown, in blue, are deep-water regions of equally low oxygen content (<2mg per litre) caused primarily by ocean warming and other climate change effects.  Map © Science.

Deoxygenation of the Oceans

The main focus of Breitburg’s article, however, is on the decline in ocean oxygen content that has been going on for the past 50 years due primarily to impacts of climate change on the open ocean.  Warming reduces the solubility of oxygen in seawater, accounting for about 15% of the overall, open-ocean depletion.  Warming also enhances the stratification of the oceans, resulting in less transfer of oxygen from atmosphere to ocean.  This is believed to account for the remaining 85%, although increased rates of metabolism of marine organisms, including microbes, also deplete available oxygen.  And this brings me to one of my pet concerns (if you can have pet concerns): repeatedly, we see science demonstrating the inherent connectedness of environment, and of our destructive effects on environment.  Increased production of Nr leads to more and larger coastal marine dead zones, plus nitrous oxide air pollution leading to climate warming.  Warming reduces oceanic oxygen content directly, and through the enhanced metabolic activity of marine organisms.  We sure know how to make a mess.

By the way, given the evidence of growing ocean deoxygenation, it should come as no surprise that among the articles I’ve noticed in recent issues of Science was one by Christopher Free of Rutgers University and five colleagues which appeared in the 1st March issue: Impacts of historical warming on marine fisheries production.  They report that ocean warming is forcing redistribution of predators and prey, changes in metabolic rates and shifts in primary production, all of which impact overall fishery yield.  They calculate that over the last 80 years, global fishery production (what the populations were capable of, not what the fishery catch was) has declined by 4.1%, but that this decline varies a lot from region to region, so that some places, such as the East China Sea, have experienced losses of 15 to 35% in fishery yield.  I fear we are on the cusp of learning how our impacts on the global ocean are going to harm us directly through the influence of the ocean on our lives.

And Back to Canadian Politics

Meanwhile, average CO2 in our atmosphere above Mauna Loa reached 411.75 ppm in February, 3.43 ppm higher than in February 2018, and winter here in Muskoka and through much of central and eastern North America has been dominated by the vagaries of the polar vortex.  Which all brings me full circle, back to Justin Trudeau’s current troubles.

It appears that Trudeau and his advisors have been concerned that the giant engineering firm, SNC-Lavalin, which as a major civil engineering firm depends heavily on government contracts in Canada and outside, may be in a particularly difficult spot if found guilty in our courts of having paid out lots of bribes in order to do business in Libya.  Their concerns may stem purely from worry over the implications for the Canadian economy and employment were the country to fail or have to downsize.  They may stem from the fact that SNC-Lavalin has apparently been a significant donor to Liberal coffers over the years.  Or most likely, these concerns stem from a mixture of those economic and political reasons.  For a country the size of Canada, SNC-Lavalin does approach the ‘too big to fail’ category, which is real whether or not people like to recognize such facts of life.

Well, from the editorials, the hours of coverage in the media, and the tone of voice used by commentators and political opponents when discussing this issue, you’d think the Trudeau government and Justin Trudeau in particular, are guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors the likes of which have never been seen before in Canada.  Too horribly corrupt to govern.  Too much like the cabal of crooks that form the Cabinet of that country to the south of us.  Such attitudes are concerning, given that we have an election coming in 6 months time.

I’m not condoning the actions that may or may not have occurred within the Trudeau cabinet over the last several months.  I view them, assuming they occurred, as part of the sausage making which is politics.  I suspect that some members of Mr. Trudeau’s ‘sunny ways’ government may have been inexperienced enough to recognize that even a sunny ways government has to make sausages – it’s what governments do, usually in private spaces away from the media and the public.  And I can even be strongly disapproving of the role of money in politics, even while recognizing that it does have a role and that role is unlikely to disappear completely.  But I do think, now that most everyone has vented, it may be time to get back to thinking about the need to govern Canada, and to ask serious questions about policies and likely performance of the various possible governments being offered at the coming election.

While I still am deeply disappointed at the failure of the Liberal government to replace first-past-the-post voting with something more representative, I recognize that at the present time, and using our present electoral system, there are really only two possibilities for government following October 2019:  the Liberals and the Conservatives.  Take a look at Canada’s Conservative Party.  If anything, it has moved further to the right than it was when the Hon. Stephen Harper was our Prime Minister.  And before SNC-Lavalin reared its messy head, the Conservatives seemed to be preparing to mount an election based on moving backwards on all things environmental, helped along by the right-leaning conservative governments in several of our provinces.  Now is not the time to be electing a right-wing government in Canada, one that will cut taxes, especially on the wealthy, roll back environmental regulations, avoid doing anything serious on climate change, and in numerous other ways maximize the benefits of the fortunate few to hell with the rest of us or those who follow us in the future.

There is a corollary to this perspective, of course.  Now is the time for the Trudeau Liberals to move forward on the plans they have for dealing with climate change and our other affronts to environment, not the time to soft-peddle or reduce them.  Canada needs to lead on climate change if only because we sit next door to the USA and can provide a healthy contrast to what the AFP government down there is doing.  There is much to do to bring Canada’s achievements on the climate file in line with the sunny ways aspirations.

It is also a good time for all Canadians to recognize that, no matter how nice it might have been (to some eyes, at least), the tar sands development was never going to grow as rapidly or to the size that proponents envisioned and is now moving towards its eventual closing.  Sunny ways Trudeau also got into trouble at a town hall in Ontario in January 2017 (just a couple of months before he spoke, and got into trouble, in Houston) when he said, “You can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy.  We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels. That is going to take time. And in the meantime, we have to manage that transition”. 

Canadians, and Albertans especially, will benefit if that transition is managed properly with a planned scaling back rather than an abrupt collapse, and a coordinated development of new industries to make use of the talents now invested in pulling bitumen out of the ground.  As for SNC-Lavalin… let’s keep that episode as the teacup tempest it really is.

A bad week or two, compared to a bad several years.  Cartoon © Tim Dolighan

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Which way, Canada? Which way the world?

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How is Canada Doing?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinTo evaluate Canada’s performance vis à vis greenhouse gases there are several things to consider:  What is the current magnitude, and the trend in emissions today?  What are the sources of those emissions, and how might emissions change in coming decades?  How does the expected trend in emissions compare with the commitment made by Canada as a party to the Paris Agreement?  How does the expected trend in emissions compare to what Canada would need to achieve if it was to do its fair share of emissions reduction to keep the world within a 1.5oC increase in average temperature?

Canada has its geese, but it also has its industry.  How are we doing on GHG emissions?
© Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press.

I am an environmental scientist.  I am interested in these questions because I care about the environment and believe that there is now more than sufficient information available to establish that humanity faces an existential problem in climate change that could threaten our civilization, if not our persistence as a species.  In the absence of a benevolent world dictator, we have relatively weak mechanisms to drive the global cooperation that seems needed as the only feasible way of wrestling climate change to the mat.  I am not a rabid greenie (at least, I don’t think so), and I do understand that countries only thrive when they have economies that provide jobs and wealth (they need a few other things besides!).  Canada has a very poor record on climate so far, and our resource-intensive economy poses problems for doing better.  In particular, we have encouraged development of a major industry extracting bitumen from tar sands and turning it into something that can be refined into useful fuels.

Closely related questions that should be investigated therefore concern the production of bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, because this activity is the largest source of human-caused GHG emissions in Canada.  Industry and government projections all call for production to rise significantly from its current level, adding to GHG emissions.  A subsidiary set of questions concern the capacity of pipelines to transport bitumen and oil from Alberta, the rail transport capacity which supplements this, and whether there is a shortage of capacity that is curtailing the expansion of this industry.

Beyond the facts that answers to such questions should provide, there are questions about the responsibility that Canada has to reduce GHG emissions and to market its fossil fuel resources.  Although it may seem backwards, I will focus on these questions about responsibilities, after I set out current oil production and GHG emissions data.

Canada’s Oil Industry

Canada is a net exporter of oil, and oil production is a significant part of our economy.  According to Natural Resources Canada, Canada produced 4.2 MMb/d (million barrels per day), exported 3.3 MMb/d, and imported 0.8 MMb/d of crude oil in 2017. Geography, lack of refining capacity, and lack of west-to-east pipelines force us to import some oil from other countries (61% from the USA, 12% from Saudi Arabia, remainder from other countries in 2017).  On these numbers, Canada consumes about 1.7 MMb/d of oil.

The Suncor refinery near Edmonton, just one tiny part of Canada’s tar sands infrastructure.  Photo © Jason Franson/Canadian Press

Alberta was responsible for 80.7% of oil production in Canada in 2017; this breaks down as 64% tar sands bitumen, and 17% light and tight oil.  Of the 2.7 MMb/d bitumen produced, 43% (1.16 MMb/d) was upgraded in Alberta, turning it into ‘synthetic crude’.  The remainder was mixed with diluent (gas condensates) to permit it to flow before export.  This ‘diluted bitumen’ is called ‘dilbit’.  (Some diluent is mined in western Canada, but 430,000 b/d of diluent was imported from the US in 2017, shipped to Alberta, and added to the bitumen, meaning that some pipeline capacity is used to transport diluent.)

The oil reserves represented by the tar sands are prodigious, 168 billion barrels or 10% of global reserves, and third largest reserves in the world.  Plans by the industry, supported by Alberta and the Federal government of Canada, are for significant expansion of the rate of extraction from the tar sands.  While earlier projections spoke in terms of three-fold increases, expectations by the industry have moderated over the last several years.  This has chiefly been because of the great increase in oil production worldwide (so-called tight oil) due to fracking technologies.  This cheaper to produce oil coupled with a soft global economy since 2008 has kept prices (and excess demand) lower than they might have been, curtailing expansion in the very costly to produce tar sands.  Lack of new capital for other reasons may also have tempered optimism.  Still, CAPP, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, projects in its 2018 Crude Oil Forecast, that total Canadian production will be 5.6 MMb/d in 2035, achieved almost entirely by an increase of 1.55 MMb/d to 4.2 MMb/d from the tar sands.  That is a 58% increase in tar sands production over 18 years.  (CAPP projects that production in eastern Canada will decline by 150,000 b/d, while that of conventional oil in western Canada will increase by 200,000 b/d.)

Needless to say, oil production, particularly in Alberta, is a significant portion of the economy.  Again, according to Natural Resources Canada, government revenues from the energy sector were $10.3 billion in 2016, and the industry directly employed 276,000 people in 2017.  While the energy sector, directly and indirectly, represented about 10.6% or $213 billion of Canada’s 2017 GDP, the energy sector is much more than the oil production sector.  The oil industry yielded about 2.6% or $52.2 billion of GDP.  Some 80% of this is produced in Alberta, mostly from the tar sands.

So, a major industry, centered on the Athabasca tar sands, and potentially of growing importance, but still only 2.6% of our economy.  What about GHG emissions?  Oil production is a messy business, and extraction of bitumen from tar sands is particularly challenging, whether shallow deposits are being extracted by open-pit mining, or deeper deposits are being extracted in situ, via the injection of high-pressure steam (with additives) to warm and liquify the bitumen which can then be pumped from the well.  There are important water and land pollution issues associated with such operations that should not be ignored when evaluating this industry.  There are other forms of air pollution also, but emissions of greenhouse gases are particularly important.  The extraction of bitumen is an energetically demanding task.  Upgrading to produce synthetic crude requires further energy, and oil does not flow through pipelines without being pushed.

Canada’s GHG emissions

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada’s National Inventory Report issued in April 2018, Canada emitted 704 MtCO2eq of greenhouse gases in 2016.  (MtCO2eq or metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent is a way of combining emissions of all greenhouse gases as a single entity, by relating tonnes of each gas to the equivalent amount of CO2.)  In addition to CO2 itself, our emissions include methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).  The 704 MtCO2eq represent a 3.8% reduction from levels in 2005.  I mention this because Canada committed, in 2010, at the Copenhagen climate conference, to reduce its emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 – we managed to chip away 3.8%, just 13.2% to go.  (Needless to say, Canada long ago stopped trying to meet this goal (if it ever intended to do so).)  Further context for these numbers is provided by the 2018 report of the Global Carbon Project (GCP), released on 5th December to be available for the Poland climate conference.  As reported in a Commentary by Christine Figueres and colleagues in Nature, 6th December, global CO2 emissions rose 1.6% from 2016 to 2017, and are expected to increase a further 2% in 2018.  These increases followed a plateau during 2014-16 when many people believed the world had turned a corner.  Global emissions are dominated by emissions from China (27%), the USA (15%), and India (7%), all of which increased emissions between 2016 and 2018.  In the USA, early estimates show emissions jumped 3.4% in 2018; Chinese emissions are expected to increase 4.7% and Indian emissions 6.3%.  Canadian emissions jumped 2.6% between 2016 and 2017.  In other words, the world is not yet beginning to reduce GHG emissions, largely because economic growth is more than sufficient to use all the carbon-neutral energy generated by wind and solar projects and still require increased use of fossil fuels.

Canada’s GHG emissions by economic sector (2016 data).  Of the 26% due to oil and gas industry, 10.2% are due to tar sands production.  Image from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Of 2016’s Canadian emissions, 183 MtCO2eq were due to the oil and gas industry.  Of these emissions, 72 MtCO2eq were due to the tar sands operation (not including some costs in upgrading, and the costs for transportation).  The oil and gas sector was the largest contributor, just ahead of transportation (173 MtCO2eq) and heavy industry (75 MtCO2eq).  Emissions from all components of our economy, except tar sands mining, have been falling in recent years.  Tar sands production accounts for more than 10% of GHG emissions in 2016.  This proportion will continue to rise, especially if production increases at the rate expected by CAPP and others.

What are Canadians’ responsibilities?

And so to responsibilities.  The Canadian oil industry and its governmental supporters are quick to highlight the fact that Canada’s GHG emissions are less than 2% of the global total, and tar sands mining accounts for just 10% of that.  Why should anyone care about 0.2% of the emissions that are causing climate change?  Looking after the Canadian economy is far more important than that.

We may be contributing less than 2% of the total, but that still leaves Canada the 10th largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet (9th largest if you don’t think ‘international shipping’ is a ‘country’).  We are well behind China (29%) and the USA (14%), but not far behind Germany, Iran or South Korea.  If we look at emissions per capita, Canada’s relatively small population puts us 9th overall, but 3rd among developed countries at 15.5 tCO2eq/capita, compared with the USA (16.1) and Australia (18.6 – all 2015 figures).  (The other six top emitters per capita are all small, low-population, middle eastern states.)  This is not a beauty contest, so being high on the list is definitely not a good thing.  Canada should be trying very hard to reduce its GHG emissions, and to date we have been making only very modest progress.  All the time, progress made is being chipped away at by a tar sands industry that continues to grow.

Why do I say Canada should be ‘trying very hard’?  I watched in despair as Canada failed to come close to its Kyoto target for GHG emissions and eventually withdrew from that treaty.  We have now given up on our commitment made under the Copenhagen Accord.  Are we going to fail a third time with our 2030 target under the Paris Agreement?  At present, it looks like we might.

In its Nationally Determined Commitment (NDC) submitted to UNFCCC under the Paris Agreement, Canada committed to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030” and to also work to reduce emissions of black carbon, a relatively short-lived pollutant which has particular importance in the Arctic.  The NDC specifies 523 MtCO2eq as its target, however using up-to-date figures that number should be revised downward to 512 MtCO2eq (the 2018 NIR specifies Canada’s 2005 emissions as 732 MtCO2eq).  Canada’s commitment was calculated to be a reasonable effort for this nation to help achieve the stated Paris Agreement goal: “to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to below 1.5 degrees”.  There are two questions to consider here:  How is Canada doing in terms of its stated 2030 target?  And is that target a fair effort by Canada to help limit the global average temperature to well below 2OC?

The graph included in the NDC submission is not very encouraging.  It shows a nearly horizontal line projecting emissions out to 2030 if Canada did nothing new after 2015, and an encouragingly downward trending blue line of emissions assuming adoption of all the mitigation measures included in the Pan Canadian Framework in December 2016.  What?  You don’t remember the Pan Canadian Framework?  It includes a carbon tax in all provinces and a number of measures applied to large emitters such as the oil industry.  There’s been a few delays and backward marches (thank you Premier Doug Ford) since then, so this blue line is not necessarily the trend we are following.  And, worse than that, the blue line ends at 567 MtCO2eq in 2030.  There is a gap to be filled by other measures that are likely to develop, from where is not sure.  In other words, Canada has a plan in place that is guaranteed to fail, unless something unexpected happens.  In baseball, three strikes and you’re out, but this is not baseball.

Figure 1 from Canada’s NDC Report to UNFCCC.  Titled Pathway to Canada’s 2030 target, it’s a pathway that does not get there.  Image © Environment and Climate Change Canada.

No wonder Climate Action Tracker judged Canada’s NDC to be Highly insufficient when it was first submitted to UNFCCC.  Even if Canada was to hit its 2030 target, Canada has not made a commitment sufficiently strong to represent Canada’s fair share of the reductions in emissions needed to achieve a climate warming of less than 2oC.  According to Climate Action Tracker, if all countries responded as modestly as Canada, the world will head towards a 3o– 4oC average warming.  If you believe, as I do, that Canada has a moral responsibility to do at least its fair share of emissions reductions, then you must find both our stated commitment – the NDC – and our plans for achieving it to be disappointingly underwhelming.  So much for being a “leader on climate”.  Why do I think Canada has a responsibility to do better?  Because I believe that climate change is an existential threat to civilization, and if countries are not willing to do their fair share, especially wealthy countries that can afford a tiny bit of belt tightening, what hope do we have for the world?  (And to those who say, ‘why should we try when others are not’, I say, ‘someone has to lead, and wouldn’t it be better, when our descendants look back in 50 years’ time or so, to be one of the leaders instead of a laggard who dragged the world down?’.)

Indeed, I maintain there is reason to be very concerned about Canada’s performance on GHG emissions because recent political developments seem to be building very strong resistance from some sectors to core components of the Federal plan for emissions mitigation.  I include here the non-thinking backward goosestep performed by Doug Ford’s new Ontario government on taking office, cancelling a carbon cap-and-trade program already in place and working, cancelling several programs designed to encourage a shift away from our carbon-intensive lifestyle, and announcing a plan to oppose the Federal carbon tax in the courts as soon as it is implemented next year.  This from a government that has yet to announce anything substantive that it claims it will put in place instead.  Alberta’s cap on emissions from the tar sands, originally to be put in place next year, has now been deferred till after the Alberta election, and its disappearance after that seems quite likely, no matter who gets elected.  I fear Canadians are not behaving responsibly when it comes to climate change.

Right-of-center politicians in Canada are finding opposition to the carbon tax to be a reliable way to fire up their base.  Image © Brian Gable/Globe and Mail.

And this brings us back to the tar sands.  Some in the industry, in Alberta, and in the Federal government seem to be demanding that Canadians develop an individual moral obligation to support the expansion of production in the tar sands.  Nightly on TV, I see happy little stick figures who claim to be enjoying all the benefits that Alberta’s tar sands industry is bringing to us.  But let’s think a bit more deeply.

Yes, it is true that oil production is a major portion of Alberta’s economy.  Its also true that Alberta governments grew fat and lazy, living off the revenues from that oil industry over many years, when they could have been building a sovereign wealth fund, as did Norway very successfully.  Obviously, under such circumstances there will be pain in Alberta if tar sands production ceases to grow, or even shrinks, and that pain will be shared, to an extent, across Canada.  But get a grip; total collapse of the oil industry in Canada represents just a 2.6% loss to our economy, and nobody is suggesting the imminent collapse of the industry.  Furthermore, I dispute that just because corporations built a production industry without taking sufficient care to ensure that there would be capacity to refine, or ship the product, and just because a succession of governments endorsed those corporate plans, advocated for them, and provided substantial subsidies to allow them to proceed (subsidies that continue to be paid, while subsidies for carbon-neutral energy production are scarce), I should be somehow responsible for helping this industry succeed.  What happened to the idea of free markets?  It is emphatically not my problem, even if a downturn in Alberta will hurt me a little bit.  There are lessons in Alberta’s fossil fuel industry and they are not lessons about the need for the nation to ensure that the industry can grow as it wants, to hell with everything else.  They are lessons about humility, and responsibility of industry to plan properly.

I also believe that, given that there is sufficient pipeline capacity to transport oil currently being produced, there is no justification to ease environmental requirements, or the requirement that industry consult appropriately with First Nations and other groups whose lives would be impacted by new pipelines, simply to get pipelines built quickly.  It is nobody’s fault except the oil industry that they find themselves constrained by their ability to get their product to market.  And, where is it written that it is every industry’s right to expand as much as it wants?  Do I admit that some of the opposition to pipelines is politically motivated?  Yes, of course it is?  But Canadians have a right to their own political views, and many of us have not been persuaded that pipelines carrying dilbit are an important part of our future.  In fact, there are strong reasons for arguing that continued expansion of tar sands production is an inappropriate direction for Canada’s economy to move in.

The tar sands currently emit 72 MtCO2eq of greenhouse gases.  If their production increases as CAPP and others expect, and if the carbon intensity of the product remains the same, they will emit 58% more greenhouse gases than now, or 114 MtCO2eq, by 2035.  (If Alberta’s emissions cap is not abandoned, growth will be constrained to limit emissions to 100MtCO2eq; if carbon intensity of tar sands production should decrease it might remain possible to increase production as planned and still keep emissions below 100MtCO2eq.)  Either way, ramped up production in the tar sands makes reducing total Canadian emissions way more difficult than otherwise.

David Hughes considered this issue in his 2018 Canada’s Energy OutlookUsing the data on production trends from the National Energy Board, and data on emissions from Environment and Climate Change Canada, he showed a major squeeze on other sectors of Canada’s economy would be needed.  Needed, that is, if we decide to permit growth in the tar sands and also achieve our NDC targets under the Paris Agreement.

Figure 132 from Canada’s Energy Outlook, 2018, by David Hughes, shows the restrictions that could be imposed on the rest of Canada’s economy if the expansion in the oil and gas sector (almost entirely in the tar sands), as anticipated by the National Energy Board is permitted to go ahead.  Image © CCPA.

If the growth permitted under Alberta’s emissions cap is permitted, as National Energy Board assumes, and if Canada continues to strive to honor its commitment under the Paris Agreement, all non-oil and gas components of the economy must reduce emissions a whopping 49% from 2015 levels by 2030, and an even more whopping 85% by 2040.  Being a retired academic who does not need to concern himself directly with the economic well-being of Canada’s agriculture, construction, heavy industry, transportation or any other economic sector, I can be dispassionate, but does anyone for one second believe all these sectors of the economy will meekly downscale (or invest very heavily in an effort to decarbonize) while the tar sands are permitted to expand their emissions by 100 MtCO2eq?  If anyone does believe this, I have some bridges for sale you may be interested in.

Fact is, Canada is not going to permit the anticipated growth in tar sands production, or Canada is going to fail dismally, yet again, on the world stage and remain a climate pariah.  Let’s assume, for one moment, that Canada behaves rationally (no I have not been smoking dope, even if it seems I have), and puts the well-being of 97.5% of its economy, and the well-being of our shared environment, ahead of that of tar sands bitumen production.  Albertans, if anyone there is reading this, bear with me a moment – I have nothing against Alberta, the west, the oil industry, or even country music, I’m just trying to think logically about what is best for Canada.  If it is simply not going to be politically possible for tar sands production to grow as planned, then we should be asking questions like:  Do we really need more pipelines?  Is there something fundamentally wrong with producing bitumen at the present-day rate over the next several decades (so long as the price makes any production worthwhile), providing decent jobs and making decent profits?  And, wait for it, wouldn’t it be a good idea to leave some of this stuff in the ground (after all, maybe we will discover less polluting ways of recovering it, and uses more valuable than simply exporting it for others to burn)?  Its not going to disappear if we leave it in the ground for the future.

That’s enough about my views on this topic.  Every Canadian is entitled to develop his/her own views.  All I ask is that perspectives be based on the same set of facts:  We produce a lot of dilbit and synthetic crude from the tar sands (2.7 MMb/d in 2017).  That economic activity is particularly polluting, so while it represents just 2.6% of our economy, it is responsible for more than 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions.  The industry, with Provincial and Federal government encouragement and support (those subsidies), wants to increase production 58% by 2035.  Doing this would make it virtually impossible for Canada to honor its international commitments concerning climate change, the existential problem facing humanity.  Do we produce fossil fuel and to hell with the future, or do we try to steer a path for Canada and the world towards a sane future with a climate conducive to continuation of human civilization.  Along the way, are additional pipelines so necessary that they must be built no matter what people along the path think?  (On that issue, David Hughes has some important things to say in Canada’s Energy Outlook, and I have blogged about the topic in the past.).

Construction on the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion.  Sure there are jobs here, but are new pipelines really needed, or would there be better ways to use these construction skills?
© Kinder Morgan.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How is Canada Doing?