Global Environmental Impacts Keep Growing; Canada Manages Not to Notice that Times are Changing

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PM Harper Celebrates Science!

It was good to see Prime Minister Harper, smiling, excited, obviously enjoying himself as he shook hands, slapped backs and simply mingled with a group of scientist sharing the excitement of discovery. They had found the wreck of one of the two ships of the Franklin Expedition that left England for the Arctic in May, 1845, only to become inextricably bound in the ice by September, 1846. What was left of the crew eventually abandoned the ships and began walking south, and like the ships, were never to be seen again. But one of those ships has now been found. On Saturday 8th September, side scan sonar being operated by scientists on board the small research vessel, Investigator, revealed the wreck in remarkably good condition lying 11 meters down, and the next day an ROV obtained images and video confirming the find. Which ship it is, HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, is still not known and plans for further research next season are being made now. The joy of discovery is a special pleasure that keeps scientists going. It was evident in the faces of the members of the team as the announcement was being made, and Stephen Harper was getting his small taste of it.

Harper announcing Franklin discovery

Stephen Harper, having elbowed the scientists out of the way so he can claim ‘we’ found the Franklin ship. Photo from National Post video.

Marine archeologists are not environmental scientists even if they do work for Parks Canada. PM Harper, trying over-hard to become ‘one of the team’ as he congratulated the discoverers of the Franklin vessel, has not suddenly changed his stripes and recognized the talent and dedication of other government scientists. He is happy to hunt for ships lost in the Arctic, but not to hunt for clues to how the Arctic is changing as climate warms. That Ottawa has not had much of a summer this year perhaps reinforces his view that he has been correct to ignore climate change, putting it so far down his priority list that it simply never comes up even in casual conversation. Yet, warming of the planet continues apace even as we get the first tinges of an unseasonably early Autumn in my part of the country.

A Strange Year for Weather

It has become more and more difficult to convince some of the people I meet around Muskoka that the planet is warming. Last winter was definitely cold and snowy, a throw-back to the winters of the 1950s and 1960s, and this summer has continued the distinctly cool conditions. Now, here it is only the last days of summer and we are already getting frost warnings (although no frost yet). Some of my friends now look at me with that expression that suggests they pity the poor scientist who has been talking up climate change over the past few years, and may have to eat his words. Others just relax into the knowledge that they never really believed the stories I was telling, and, after all, why should anyone assume an academic knows much about what he is saying. Throughout the winter, I tried to draw attention to the polar vortex, and the fact that melting of Arctic sea ice leading to warmer Arctic temperatures is contributing to the instability of the vortex. Ho hum, they all said. In April, I wrote about the so-called global warming hiatus, and the recent papers attributing this to the negative status of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (meaning that strong trade winds across the Pacific produce strong upwellings of cold deep water off the west coast of the Americas, and lots of heat being absorbed by this cool water instead of warming the atmosphere). That same month, I also talked about the possible slowing of the ocean conveyor due to reduced salinity of surface waters in the Arctic and therefore slowed downwelling which in turn slows transport of warm southern water northwards where it loses heat to the atmosphere. Both mechanisms increase the amount of heat trapped in the deep ocean, and both seem to be operating over the last few years. Of course, the hiatus is not a cessation of warming of the planet. It’s just a change in where the planet stores the extra heat. The warming hiatus is well discussed in this series of articles from Nature Climate Change and Nature Geoscience, all open access so accessible to all readers. The Guardian has also produced an informative summary of the hiatus discussion.

The regular monthly analyses of global climate, by NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, are also useful to show what is really happening. The global map of temperature anomalies (departures from average temperatures over the 1981-2010 period), for the January to August period this year has virtually all land surfaces colored pink (meaning warmer than average). There is a swath of pale blue across central Siberia, Tibet and Pakistan, and a more intensely blue blob centered on my home town and encompassing eastern North America – these were almost the only places that were colder than average over those 8 months. Ottawa, and a host of big important US cities where influential people live are all in this colder than average patch.
Jan Aug 2014 temp 201401-201408

Despite the warming hiatus, NOAA reports that “the first eight months of 2014 (January–August) were the third warmest such period on record across the world’s land and ocean surfaces, with an average temperature that was 0.68°C (1.22°F) above the 20th century average of 57.3°F (14.0°C)”. NOAA also reports that, over this same period, if one looks only at ocean surface temperature, 2014 ties with 2010 as the second warmest period, exceeded only by those same 8 months in 1998. The reason for these warm temperatures is the CO2 we release into the atmosphere as we burn fossil fuels. Total CO2 emissions for 2013 were 36.1 billion tonnes, a new record and 60% higher than the amount released in 1990 when the IPCC issued its first report on the global climate. Needless to say, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has continued its giddy rise. It registered 397.01 ppm over August, and was above 400 ppm in April, May and June. Our march towards 450 ppm and beyond progresses, and at an ever accelerating pace. The year-to-year rate of increase in CO2 concentration has also been trending upwards – in other words, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now increasing more rapidly than it was a few years ago. Far from reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases, we are emitting more of them than we used to.

co2_trend_mlo

Recent trend in CO2 concentration in the air above Mauna Loa. The red line is the monthly mean, which fluctuates seasonally due to changes in amount of photosynthesis taking place. The black line is the trend with the seasonal variation subtracted. Figure from NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory.

Growing Evidence of Growing Environmental Impacts

Beyond evidence that the global climate continues to change, there is a steady stream of evidence that our impacts on the biosphere are going to be severe. Two months ago I wrote about the Science article by Rodolfo Dirzo and colleagues concerning the extent of defaunation during the Anthropocene (that geological period in which humanity is the major driver of biosphere change). Now, timed to coincide with the death in the Cincinnati Zoo of Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, on 1st September 1914, the Audubon Society and the North American Bird Conservation Initiative have each brought out reports on the status of birds in the USA. The Audubon report claims that 314 species are at risk of losing more than half their available habitat by 2080 if nothing is done to stem our releases of CO2.

2014 SotB_Cover

The new State of the Birds, USA, report provides compelling evidence of the damage we are doing to our natural ecosystems. Image © US Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative

The State of the Birds report, to which Audubon contributed as one of 22 partner organizations, took a more comprehensive approach and examines other factors likely to impact birds. It deals with all 720 or so species that breed within the USA, in a habitat by habitat approach revealing a number of positive examples in which conservation efforts have paid off over the last decades, but also documenting too many instances of species that are declining fast. Numbers of arid land birds in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico have declined 46% over the last 45 years, and in Hawaii where 71 bird species have become extinct since human settlement, all 33 remaining native forest species are in serious trouble.  The State of the Birds report includes a ‘watch list’ of 230 bird species, including all species formally classified by the government as threatened or endangered as well as a number of others showing signs of decline. This list, one third of all species, includes some species in every habitat. A second list of 33 species includes abundant species that have shown rapid losses in abundance in recent years. While birds are environmentally sensitive species they are also particularly well known because of the popularity of bird-watching as a hobby. What about all those other, less ‘interesting’ species that few people think about? And what about animals in many other countries where the extent of habitat destruction is arguably much greater than in the USA? Defaunation is already a major component of the environmental crisis.

In a provocative article in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, Charles Sheppard of Warwick University, UK, uses the fact of coral reef decline as an opportunity to discuss the issue of food security and starvation across the developing world. He begins with a simple statement: “It has become fashionable to claim that Malthus’ predictions of mass famine have been wrong”, and then sets out abundant evidence that we have famine all around us. He argues that since malnutrition the underlying cause of about 54% of the 10 million or so deaths of children under 5 in developing countries, it is fully appropriate to state that famine is a significant problem today. He then turns to seafood, the global decline in yields, and the particular problems for reef fisheries around the world.

declining status of global fish stocks Sheppard MPB 2014 1-s2.0-S0025326X14002744-gr2

Global history of fishery stocks since 1950, using FAO data. Almost 60% of stocks are collapsed over over-exploited at present. Figure from Sheppard 2014, modified from Pitcher and Cheung 2013.

Globally over the past 60 years, there has been a progressive increase in the number of fishery stocks exploited until now there are essentially no stocks yet to be fished. In addition, there has been a growing extent of exploitation so that more and more stocks are fully, or over-exploited. About a quarter of all fishery stocks are now considered collapsed, yielding far less than they used to.

For coral reefs, Sheppard describes the ways in which fishing pressure grows as fishermen acquire larger boats and motors (although he fails to mention the way in which global markets and tourism create an inexhaustible demand for reef fishery products). It’s an informative article, well worth reading, and is open access so accessible. The impacts of humanity of the natural world of coral reefs have ramifying effects on our own well-being.

A very different paper dealing with coral reefs has just appeared in Global Change Biology. Riccardo Rodolfo-Metalpa, of the Musée Océanographique, Monaco, with colleagues from Spain, the USA and Israel, reported on the capacity of the coral, Oculina patagonica, to adapt to warmer water, thereby reducing risk of bleaching. They did not explore the ability of individuals to acclimate as temperature increased, but rather the capacity of a population to acclimatize to warmer conditions experienced over a long time – these can be physiologically quite different, and the important question when it comes to climate change is ‘can a species acclimatize to permanently warmer water?’.

To do this they took advantage of the fact that O. patagonica occurs in Spanish, Italian and Israeli portions of the Mediterranean Sea, which differ by several degrees in average summer water temperature. By collecting corals from each location and maintaining them side by side under the same temperature conditions in the lab they carried out what ecologists used to term ‘common garden’ experiments (because the first such experiments were done on plants that were brought together in a common garden to see how plants from different regions performed when provided with identical environmental conditions).  Rodolfo-Metalpa and colleagues reared the corals under a set of temperatures ranging from 20 to 33oC, and measured a number of metabolic attributes. Their hypothesis was that if this species could acclimatize, the metabolic performance characteristics would be shifted towards higher temperatures in the corals collected from the Israeli site where temperatures are normally warmer. Unfortunately, they found no evidence of such a shift of metabolic characteristics, suggesting that, at least for this one species, a warming world means that the risk of bleaching will grow year by year.
Coral specialists have suspected for some time that corals had only limited capacity to adapt to warmer water. They are environmentally sensitive organisms, there has been little evidence that mass bleaching events result in the survival of hardier, better adapted individuals that resist similar warm temperatures in future years, and long-term laboratory experiments, such as those of Sophie Dove, of University of Queensland, show no evidence of an ability to adapt to warmer water. The report by Rodolfo-Metalpa and colleagues makes that disappointing suspicion somewhat more certain, and suggests that coral reefs really are at very great risk of disappearing if climate continues to warm.

A number of recent articles have also provided possible solutions to our impacts on the environment. I’ll mention just two. William Laurence of James Cook University, and 11 colleagues from the USA, UK, Malaysia, Costa Rica and Australia recently published a commentary in Nature on the impacts of roads and how to deal with them. Humans evidently enjoy building roads, because our road network has grown continuously throughout history. Their map of the roads of the world is quite daunting.

Density of roads globally Laurance et al Sept 11 2014 nature13717-f1

The global road network is yet another way of seeing where on the planet we are having  our largest impacts. Figure © Laurence et al 2014, Nature.

Each time we build a road, we add to the fragmentation of natural habitat. For many animals, even a small forest track can be a significant barrier to movement, and the mortality of animals along more travelled roads around the world is substantial. Laurence and colleagues use a series of attributes of environment – species richness, number of threatened species, habitat diversity – to characterize locations in terms of their environmental value. They used a similar approach, using several attributes to rate areas in terms of the economic (chiefly agricultural) benefits that would result from addition of new roads. They show that while places having high rankings for environmental value and those having high rankings for value of increased roads are broadly separate across the globe, there are many regions in which these overlap. These are the parts of the world where road-building should be carefully scrutinized to ensure that environmental values are retained to the extent possible.

Meanwhile, in Nature Climate Change, Sally Brown of University of Southampton and a multitude of colleagues from all over, published an examination of the way in which the five successive IPCC Assessment Reports have treated the topic of climate impacts on coastal zones. They see a progressive shift from reporting of individual impacts towards greater integration and a shift towards adaptation. In the authors’ view the changes evident across the five IPCC reports show the way in which our understanding of the environmental and economic implications of climate change has matured. I was fascinated by their figure showing the set of topics discussed and how the pattern of emphasis changed across reports.

Brown et al Sept 2014 climate impacts on coasts nclimate2344-f2

In this figure, increasing extent of discussion of each topic is shown by increasing orange color, from the first 1990 to the most recent 2014 IPCC Assessment Report.
Figure © Brown et al 2014 Nature Climate Change.

In the authors’ words, “The IPCC perspective has shifted from impacts to adaptation, reflecting a growing focus on integrated approaches to reducing risk that rely on flexible adaptation options and management. These aim to be effective regardless of how environments change. Coastal managers now need to implement a further shift to planning and implementation, with an emphasis placed on resilience, cost-effectiveness and working with nature. Furthermore, adaptive, sustainable planning should be undertaken in a wider socioeconomic development framework, taking into account human needs — many of which are more immediate than climate change. Rather than pointing the finger only at climate change and assuming it inevitably spells disaster, there is a need to better understand climatic and non-climatic drivers of coastal change and their interactions at different spatial and temporal scales.

Such articles and many more tell me that our understanding of climate change is growing, and our appreciation of the extent of the impacts on our economies and our lives is growing even faster. What is still lacking, however, is the political commitment to do something. This lack of political progress is particularly stark in Canada.

Building Political Will

ClimateMarchNewYork Jason DeCrow - AP

Marchers on 6th Avenue, New York, 21st September 2014.
Image © Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

This week, the United Nations is hosting another climate conference in New York City. A total of 120 heads of government are in attendance. The Prime Ministers of Australia and Canada are both conspicuous by their absence. Canada’s PM Harper is in the city. He attended a private dinner with other heads of government, and will speak at the General Assembly later in the week, but he saw fit to send his able Minister of Environment to the climate conference. There Leona Aglukkaq valiantly parroted the same tired words, “We are not waiting to act. We are taking decisive action to ensure Canada remains a leader and contributes its part to this global cause.

Aglukkaq at UN Summit Sept 2014 Sean Kilpatrick CP cda-un-20140923

Canadian Minister of Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, speaking to an empty room at the United Nations, in place of Stephen Harper who was in New York but avoiding anything to do with climate change. Leadership!
Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

I wonder whether she is just super obedient to the wishes of her Prime Minister, prepared to go on parroting lies as long as that is the party line. She must know that she is being given nonsense to spew. There must be people who tell her these claims are just plain false. That she made a ‘major’ address in front of an empty room at the UN perhaps tells us most clearly the high regard in which the world holds Canada’s performance on climate issues. That she re-announced new regulations on automobile emissions that were first announced two years ago, and then only to comply with the changes being brought in by the USA, also shows how little regard the Harper government has for the process of dealing with climate change.

But enough about Canada’s pathetic performance. Other nations are starting to make real progress, and there are a number of signs elsewhere that the world is beginning to shift. First, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, chaired by Felipe Calderón and including Nicholas Stern and a flock of bank presidents, senior economists and former heads of state, released The New Climate Economy, timed to coincide with the UN Climate summit. I will talk about it more in a later post, but the thesis is that the global economy is going to change, and become less carbon-based, but is also going to grow. If they can be believed, moving towards a carbon-free economy is going to be good for business! The Globe and Mail, in reporting on the release, cautioned that the fossil fuel economy will be at risk, particularly the ‘highest-cost, highest-carbon forms of oil” such as what we have in the Alberta tar sands.

Second, there is a growing number of reports concerning the fossil fuel divestment project. Whether it is in Australia, the USA, or elsewhere, a growing number of corporations, foundations, universities, and individuals are divesting themselves of investments in the fossil fuel sector. On 15th September, The Age reported on divestment action taken by the Uniting Church in Australia. “Further investment in the extraction of fossil fuels contributes to, and makes it more difficult to address climate change,” the church states in a recent press release. “Given the harm climate change will cause, “further investment and extraction is unethical”. The Age goes on to report divestment activity at 19 Australian universities and in other bodies and compares this to action in the US and Europe. On 22nd September, Huffington Post reported on divestment action taken by the Rockefeller Foundation ($50 Billion to be divested), Stanford University ($18.7 Billion), and the actor Mark Ruffalo among others. Regrettably, similar activity here in Canada seems rather muted.

I probably should not end with a down note, but not only does Canada fail to take the positive steps that others are starting to take, we double down on making bad moves. I commented facetiously some time ago about digging up the entire tar sands region, putting it on a giant barge, and floating it off via the Arctic to China. Well, we are not going to use a barge, but a new study commissioned by the oil company Canatek and the Province of Alberta has set out a route and given a name to the Arctic Gateway Pipeline. Direct from Fort McMurray, 2400 km all the way to the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk. Way to go, Canada. Made my day.

Arctic Gateway Pipeline

The proposed route for the Arctic Gateway Pipeline to ship tar sands bitumen to the Arctic.
Map © Canatek

Categories: Biodiversity Loss, Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, coral reef science, Economics, In the News, Politics | Leave a comment

Compromising with our planet: We Need to Make Progress in Climate Negotiations

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Nature, Science and Politics – Not the Same Thing

There is an old saying, “Nature does not negotiate.” It is based on the fact that there are fundamental truths such as that pure water freezes at 0oC when at normal atmospheric pressure. Even if you desperately believe that water should freeze at 50C, and argue that point eloquently, with sound logic and solid (but flawed) science, you still won’t get Nature to budge. Even if you convince the overwhelming majority of water scientists that you are right, you won’t get Nature to budge. Water will continue to freeze at 0oC. Nature is not politics.

Science is one of the ways in which humans seek to understand the fundamental truths governing the behavior of Nature. In my view, science is one of the best ways we have for understanding nature. Science does not give us ‘truth’ about the natural world, because Nature does not have a spokesperson who is there to tell us the facts. Science is a process whereby we use our abilities to observe, to measure, to infer and deduce, all in an orderly approach that builds a model (a concept, an equation, a specific statement or description) of the rules governing the behavior of Nature. Science should have nothing to do with our beliefs and everything to do with observable information. Over time, better observations, measurements and experiments permit us to refine our models to become ever closer to the ‘truth’, accurate descriptions of how Nature behaves. ‘Ever closer to’ emphasizes an essential difference between science and some other ways of discerning the rules governing Nature – science is a process that leads to continual refinement and improvement of our understanding, and therefore of the accuracy of our models of reality. A scientist never knows absolutely what Nature’s rules are, but with sufficient time and investigation, his or her knowledge becomes very close to absolute and makes it possible to make such statements as ‘water freezes at 0oC’ with virtually complete confidence that they are correct. When scientific knowledge is less complete, such as in fields that are very new or little attended to, there will be differences among particular studies and among scientists. In such cases, additional investigation is necessary to resolve such differences, and relying on authority (Dr. Smith is world-famous and he said…), or seeking a compromise between apparently dissenting views are not appropriate ways to reach an agreed conclusion. Science is not religion, not mysticism, and certainly not politics.

Politics is different. Politicians are expected to discuss issues from multiple viewpoints, and then reach a compromise. This ideal, which seems so rare in several modern legislatures, is believed to yield the best outcome, meaning the outcome that will come closest to fulfilling the needs and wishes of each party. This is the same approach used in the marketplace and in business negotiations. It is when questions about Nature get muddled up in politics that we get into real difficulties – because Nature does not compromise; it does not even negotiate. Nature behaves the way it does, because that is the way it behaves.

climate-change-science-v-politics-cartoon
Scientists and politicians work and think differently.
Cartoon © John Ditchburn

The Special Nature of Climate Negotiations

Our growing power to disturb nature has brought Nature and politics together like never before. Consider the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC process is an inherently political process because it is, in the end, a process whereby the great majority of countries around the world will reach a negotiated agreement concerning anthropogenic climate change. Or at least, the hope is that, in the end, such an agreement, a compromise, will be reached. But the IPCC process also deals with the science of climate change, and the science is our attempt to understand, or decipher, the immutable rules that govern the behavior of our planet, and thereby explain what happens when we substantially increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and heat the planet up.

Our scientists do not have total understanding of how our planet works, but the understanding is growing – they are grasping at the immutable rules that govern Nature’s behavior. The IPCC process seeks to build a global consensus agreement (an agreed model) among scientists about what the rules appear to be that govern the myriad components of the very complicated response of the planet to our additions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The scientists have a broad range of expertise, because the myriad components are just that – myriad: there are processes in the atmosphere, in the oceans, between the atmosphere and the landscape, in the Arctic, the Antarctic and the Tropics, biological, chemical, and physical processes affecting all parts of the biosphere, and of the planet itself. The scientists have differing skill levels, different capabilities, different training and experience, and these differences as well as the fact that they are human mean that they do not all agree on the significance of every finding, every analysis, every model projection. But, so far as I know, they approach the task before them as scientists: always attempting to decipher the rules by which nature functions. They seek to understand the rules, not find a compromise between nature’s rules and their own wishes or the wishes of communities or nations to which they belong.

The results of the scientists’ deliberations are conveyed to the politicians in the series of IPCC Assessment Reports to provide a sound, agreed understanding of Nature and our impacts. The underlying assumption governing the IPCC process is that when negotiating international treaties governing human activities that affect climate, availability of sound, up-to-date scientific understanding should help achieve best possible results. But in this transfer from scientists to politicians we move from an arena where Nature operates under certain imperfectly known rules to an arena where nations negotiate seeking the most optimal outcome from each national perspective. Suddenly the growing, but not yet perfect, certainty of the scientists is replaced by the flexibility of negotiation among competing viewpoints.

As a scientist, I find it difficult to comprehend the mental gymnastics that permit a belief that a compromise view is not only a satisfactory outcome to a political process, but usually a superior outcome to any other. When the political process involves an issue centering on the behavior of Nature, I find the assumption that the compromise view is the one to aim for mysterious in the extreme. Let me illustrate with a simple but hypothetical example. Imagine a world consisting of a number of small low-lying countries that lack fossil fuel resources, and a number of larger, wealthier, more mountainous countries that do have abundant fossil fuel reserves. Imagine that economies of all countries are powered by fossil fuels and the CO2 emitted is causing the climate to warm and sea level to rise. The scientist in me says that sea level will continue to rise unless we reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. We can do this by replacing our fossil fuels with alternatives, or by introducing technology that prevents the emitted CO2 from reaching the atmosphere or removes it once there. Now imagine that there is no technology available to sequester CO2 that is not enormously expensive. Given these circumstances, I do not see a negotiated compromise yielding a satisfactory outcome.

Eliminating use of fossil fuels substantially impacts economies in the mountainous countries. Putting effective CO2 sequestration in place impacts the economies of all countries, and substantially the mountainous ones which gain no benefit from whatever share of the cost they cover. Continuing to use fossil fuels leaves the low-lying countries disappearing beneath the seas, or forced to embark on extensive dike-building programs to survive. Any compromise – some reduction in use and some slowing in the rate of submersion from a rising sea level – between large countries not troubled by sea level rise and small nations risking total submersion would be harmful to both groups and likely more harmful to the smaller (and weaker) low-lying nations.

For me, the correct solution is to agree to stop emissions of CO2 and equitably share the cost of that action. This is a solution that recognizes the inability of Nature to compromise, and therefore seeks to remove the human activities that have caused the problem with sea level. But the political process among nations of differing wealth, power, and investment in the fossil fuel industries seems to me very unlikely to reach that solution, because it is precisely the wealthy and powerful nations that would have to absorb the economic loss.

climate negotiations small
It is perhaps not surprising that the climate conferences have made so little progress. All parties argue to preserve their own vested interests and it’s the powerful countries that have the biggest stake in fossil fuel and other current technologies. Image © Diplo

The real world we live in is not all that different to the one I just imagined. The ramifications of anthropogenic climate change are more far-reaching than just an effect on sea level, and nations are not easily divided into the rich and mountainous vs the weak and low-lying. But the differences among nations in the extent of the impact on current economic and way-of-life norms are considerable, and the politicians will approach the negotiations in the way they always do – seeking compromise that preserves their own benefits to the maximum extent possible. Inevitably, the stronger countries will get more of what they want and the weaker countries will lose. Little wonder that the IPCC has been in existence since 1988 and we still do not have a substantive climate change agreement in place.

Making the Negotiations Work

On July 12th I commented on an article by social scientists Marco Grasso and Timmins Roberts in Nature Climate Change. They sought to resolve the current lack of progress on climate change by redefining the terms of the negotiation, specifically by seeking agreement first among the largest CO2 emitters, the 13 members of the Major Economies Forum, that account for over 80% of cumulative global CO2 emissions. Once these major emitters reached agreement, that agreement would be taken to the larger group. Not being a social scientist, I do not know if this two-step process will help us move forward, but it seems logical and worth a try.

I am far less comfortable with an article by two other social scientists, Oliver Geden and Silke Beck, which appeared in the September issue of Nature Climate Change. Geden is at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin, and Beck is at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Leipzig. Their article is titled “Renegotiating the global climate stabilization target.” That target is the familiar 2oC maximum increase in average global temperature (or an atmospheric concentration of 450 ppm CO2) that IPCC members have agreed should not be breached. As Geden and Beck note in their introduction, that target was formulated through a dialogue between climate scientists and policy advisors, and was formally adopted by policymakers at the 2010 UN climate change conference in Cancun. They note the concept of a temperature target had been suggested as early as the mid-1990s; certainly, the idea of 2oC as a reasonable limit on temperate rise (one that left the world with manageable climate change) was clear by the time of the 4th Assessment Report in 2007. It is also clear, as Geden and Beck note, that the chance of achieving agreement on policy in time to remain within this limit has been growing dimmer with every year that has passed without substantive progress.

Geden and Beck argue that the IPCC process must not move forward with the 2oC limit in place if the world is going to fail to remain within it. In their words,

“For national governments that take climate policy seriously, it is unthinkable to continue pursuing political goals that are patently unachievable. This will make it necessary to modify the 2 °C target in some way.”

They leave no doubt that by ‘in some way’ they mean ‘upwards’. As a scientist I find this reasoning staggering, although I also see it as logical given the negotiation/compromise nature of the political process that has to take place. I also see in it a repeat of the process the UN has recently gone through with many of its Millenium Development Goals.

ive-failed-over-and-over-and-over-again-in-my-life-and-that-is-why-i-succeed-michael-jordan
A message for IPCC and for Geden and Beck; it’s OK to fail, suck it up and try harder. Changing the negotiation rules so failure won’t happen is not exactly grappling with the issue of climate change. Image © Quotepedia

The MDGs were put in place by 2001 after nearly a decade of discussion and negotiation; they were intended to be achieved by 2015 (an interesting history is here). Some of the targets specified for the MDGs have already been, or will be reached by 2015, but a number of other targets will not be met. Beginning as early as 2010, discussion about the effectiveness of the MDGs focused on the failure to set achievable targets and on items of good news from many countries: some goals are being met in some countries so let’s cheer these accomplishments, and some goals were too difficult (at least in some countries). Apparently it is preferable to pay attention to the items of good news, and find reasons to explain away the bad news instead of stating forthrightly ‘we believed these targets were achievable by 2015 but they have not all been met; we failed’. Beginning about the same time, discussions explored what could replace the MDGs after 2015. Retaining the goals that had not been met was considered less palatable than coming up with a somewhat similar group of new Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. Those SDGs are now being rolled out with much fanfare. My point here is not to condemn the effort to provide a list of clear, quantitative goals to be met within an agreed timeframe, or to suggest the MDGs were a wasted effort. They were not. My point is that the negotiation process took a long time, with lots of little retreats to come up with an initial set of MDGs that, at the time, were believed reachable, and when it became clear that many would not be reached excuses were invented and discussion shifted to the generation of a whole new set of goals. Failure seems to be a word that is avoided at all costs.

Back to the 2oC emissions target. Now that it is becoming apparent that the world is in grave danger of not meeting it, Geden and Beck argue that it is time to soften the target, because it would be ‘unthinkable’ to have a target which was not reached. I think it is worth pointing out here that even as early as 2007 when the 2oC target was first being floated, there were many environmental and climate scientists who warned that 2oC could well be too high to avoid profound climate change and the environmental and human stresses that would cause. Those working on coral reefs were quick to recommend 1.5oC, or a CO2 concentration in the atmosphere of 350 ppm, an amount of CO2 last seen in the early 1980s. A number of other environmental scientists have expressed support for this safer level. Indeed, as knowledge of the ramifying effects of warming, and the environmental responses to them, has grown, support for a more conservative target than 2oC has grown among the scientific community. The report from Working Group II that forms part of the IPCC 5th Assessment being rolled out this year shows this growing conservatism in its many references to warming ‘between 1o and 2oC’, however it also introduces the concept of managing risk and illustrates how mitigation decisions can increase or decrease environmental resilience which is key to ultimate success. The report from Working Group I sticks with the 2oC limit for the most part but does talk about targets lower than this. So does the report from Working Group III.

I suggest that the scientists participating in the IPCC process during the period prior to 2010 never held that the 2oC limit was an absolute threshold below which all would be well and above which there would be climate disaster. Nothing in the 4th Assessment documents suggests this. It was the policy experts interested in creating conditions favoring an effective international negotiation process who turned it into a firm target. From the perspective of the scientists, a firm target was preferable to no target at all in a negotiation process that did not appear to be being taken very seriously. While scientists have become increasingly concerned over the possibility of sudden environmental changes due to so-called tipping points, they recognize that specifying the future temperature at which a tipping point will occur is either fortune telling or educated guesswork but certainly not science. A target of 2oC was a reasonable one, and therefore one the science community could work with. For the 5th Assessment, the discussion of risk management by Working Group II seems to me an attempt by the science community to suggest to the policy negotiators that any specific temperature target will be shorthand for negotiations that ultimately lead to consensus on the amount of risk that will be tolerated that actions to be taken will ensure the future climate will be manageable. The Synthesis of their report includes a figure that makes clear how the choices among alternative actions made over time can lead to a broad range of end results, from a very good world with high environmental resilience to a much poorer world with little environmental resilience. I also accept what Geden and Beck imply; that political negotiators will find it far easier to negotiate with reference to a specific temperature target than using something as complex as a risk management strategy to achieve a best possible outcome for the planet. In their words, “even a sensible approach, such as establishing a three tiered risk-management framework … has little chance of being seriously considered before 2016.”

IPCC WGII 5th Assess Report SPM 9
While the 2014 IPCC WG II report, supporting the 5th Assessment, speaks in terms of temperature targets, it also discusses risk management. Figure SPM9 shows how a series of choices over time between more difficult and less difficult actions can lead to a broad range of futures that differ in the resilience of the planetary environment. Working to achieve a challenging target should lead to better futures. Figure © IPCC

When the scientists, with their improved models of how the planet’s climate system works, continue to warn about unacceptable climate impacts if CO2 concentrations rise much above 450 ppm and a 2oC temperature rise, and even talk about targets more conservative than this, I find it ‘unthinkable’ that Geden and Beck would advocate raising the target above 2oC simply to ease the negotiation process. They are putting the ease of political negotiators ahead of the improved understanding of the rules under which Nature operates.

The insistence by policy experts and by politicians that a climate treaty be negotiated among nations as if it were a treaty on trade or security misses one crucial point. Climate negotiations are not the same as trade negotiations. The issue centers on how much, if at all, we should restrict the ability of humanity to affect the climate of the planet. Nature, which is governed by immutable natural laws, is not at the negotiating table, and nobody else is there to speak on Nature’s behalf. We have only the scientists’ improving, but not yet perfect understanding of Nature’s laws to guide us. That understanding should not, and cannot be treated as just one more starting position to be modified by compromise in reaching decisions. In other words, the negotiation around climate is not comparable to the negotiations around trade or security because all negotiating parties are more or less on one side of the struggle and no party represents the opposing view. All nations would prefer to retain their freedom to manage their activities in ways that best serve their immediate economic or other needs. Few if any will be altruistic enough to voluntarily step back, curtailing practices seen as globally damaging but locally and immediately economically beneficial. The only force moving parties towards a compromise that involves any repression of national freedom to act according to immediate self-interest is an appeal to be team players on a global scale. People in leadership positions, political or economic, seldom put good sportsmanship ahead of economic self-interest, and shaming so far has not been very effective. Changing the already agreed 2oC target to something warmer, simply to ease these negotiations seems to me a very bad step.

I suggest that the IPCC science community, having worked to build consensus on how human activities modify the planet, and having used this consensus view to build projections of likely and less likely futures under different sets of political decisions between now and then, must go one step further. The scientists must articulate in clear, understandable language, the likely planetary consequences for every set of proposed actions that the policy and political participants come up with. Rather than the present linear process of IPCC scientists delivering detailed Assessment reports that then guide climate negotiations, there needs to be a parallel process in which negotiators use the latest Assessment data to guide their negotiations while teams of scientists take alternative negotiating positions and generate projections into the future of the likely consequences of such actions, reporting their results back to the negotiators. The participating scientists would retain their scientific credibility because they would not be advocating for or against any particular proposal; they would be reporting their best assessments of the future consequences of adopting each proposal under consideration.

The IPCC Assessment process already goes a lot of the way towards achieving this. The 5th Assessment includes abundant projections of future consequences of adopting different broad policies. What is needed now is a more effective roll-out of these projections so that people understand the scale and timeframe of likely changes, and a mechanism for real-time interaction between an apolitical science team that runs projections and an international political negotiation group that develops and then compromises among proposals for action. As for the 2oC target; let’s keep it as a fixed goalpost while we struggle for a collective solution to this existential problem.

Why the IPCC Process Need Some Successes Now

That we need to get moving on efforts to lower CO2 emissions is shown by another new paper, this one by Steven Davies of Univ. of California at Irvine and Robert Socolow of Princeton University, published in Environmental Research Letters on 26th August. It is open access so accessible to all. What Davies and Socolow have done is to calculate the extent of committed releases of CO2 globally from the operation of electricity generation plants. By ‘committed’ releases, they refer to the CO2 that will be emitted by each generator during its remaining lifetime. Committed releases for a single generator are highest the day it goes into operation and then decrease as it operates, reaching zero on the day it is decommissioned. Davies and Socolow argue that by calculating the global committed releases every year for the electricity generation industry they provide a new way of documenting the extent of the contribution to climate change from this source. In a world in which the amount of electricity being generated from use of fossil fuels is thought to be going down, global committed emissions will fall year by year.

The results they present, from 1950 to 2012 do not suggest anything like that rosy picture. Global committed emissions of CO2 have risen continuously since 1950. Initially that was due to construction of new generating capacity in the US and Europe, but in recent years it has been caused by the rapid increases in capacity in China, India and some other developing countries. The overall pattern through the years has been driven primarily by the emissions from coal-fired power plants. Even today, coal remains the primary fuel used for electricity generation. All told, the committed emissions due to electricity generation were 307 gigatonnes CO2 in 2012, and this committed amount was increasing at about 6.5 gigatonnes CO2 per year. Not only have we not been reducing our use of fossil fuels in the electricity generation field, we continue to increase this use, and predominantly we use coal.

Figure 5 [Remaining Commitments, Changes, Ratio].eps
Parts A and B of Figure 5, Davies and Socolow, showing the continuing accumulation of committed CO2 emissions to 2012. In A, the commitments are partitioned among nations; in B among fuels. Figure © Envir. Res. Lett.

A September 7th article by Stephen Leahy drew my attention to one particularly concerning consequence of Davies and Socolow’s work. The 2014 IPCC Working Group 1Report included a number of simulations to determine the cumulative CO2 emissions that would be allowable for various target temperature increases. In other words, if we decide on a specific temperature target, how much more CO2 can we emit and still get there? If we do decide to work to limit the temperature increase to 2oC, the allowable future anthropogenic emissions of amount to about 990 gigatonnes CO2 between now and 2100. More than this, and we overshoot the 2o C target. Now electricity generation is currently responsible for about 40% of total CO2 emissions, and 307 gigatonnes is about 30% of 990 gigatonnes, which means that either we are going to have to drastically curtail all our other sources of CO2 emissions, or we are going to have to stop building new fossil fuel power plants within the next couple of years, even to replace ones that are coming to the end of their lives.

Let me say that a different way. The set of power generation plants now in action on this planet will, in the remainder of their lives before decommissioning, emit virtually all the CO2 that our budget allows for if we want to keep to a target of no more than 2oC temperature rise, and want to continue our other activities, chiefly to do with land use, that emit CO2. There is essentially no wiggle room left. We have so greatly increased the rate at which we emit CO2 that we now have in place enough capacity to emit all the CO2 we will be permitted to emit if we want to keep the global temperature reasonable. Surely that fact is one that might help spur on the negotiations on climate?

climate t shirt cop16-cancun-0261
A message the climate negotiators need to hear. Far better than the message that the target is being eased to make the task easier.

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Coal, Climate, and Tales from Four Countries

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Our use of coal

Wikipedia says it is the official state mineral of Kentucky, and the official state rock of Utah. It also gets placed in the Christmas stockings of children who have been badly behaved during the year. And it is responsible for a lot of the carbon pollution we have inflicted on the world. Today, I am exploring some issues around coal.
To start with some facts and figures, I turned to the International Energy Agency. The first diagram is from their 2013 Key World Energy Statistics. It shows the global energy production (TPES) broken down by fuel type in 1973 and 2011. The quantity of each fuel is expressed in millions of tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe), the amount of oil that would produce the same amount of energy as the fuel in question; coal is prominent. It was 24.6% of total fuel produced in 1973 and 28.8% of a much larger total in 2011.

1 Fuels in enegy supply IEA 2014The shares of each fuel in the total primary energy supply (TPES). These are the fuels we extract from nature to drive our global economy. Figure © IEA

The majority of coal gets used in production of electricity and other forms of energy, rather than being burned to produce energy directly for end-users. Thus, its share of the world total of final energy consumption, as shown in the next diagram, is quite a bit smaller: 13.7% of a total of 4,674 Mtoe in 1973, and 10.1% of 8,918 Mtoe in 2011.

2 share of fuels in final consumption IEA 2014The shares of each fuel, including electricity and synthesized oils, which we use to power  our global economy. Figure © IEA

Nevertheless, as shown in the third diagram, whether it is used in the production of other fuels, in other industrial processes, or to produce energy itself, the burning of this coal yields impressive amounts of CO2 pollution: 35.0% of the 15,628 Mt of CO2 emitted in 1973, and 44.0% of the 31,342 Mt of CO2¬ emitted in 2011. It’s the most polluting, per unit of energy released, of all the fossil fuels, and for that reason, a fuel that we should be consigning to history as quickly as possible.

3 share of fuels in co2 emissions IEA 2014The shares of CO2 emissions due to the use of each of our primary fossil fuels, whether the fuel was burned in producing refined fuels or electricity, or directly to produce motive power. The totals of CO2 emissions shown are those due to energy use. We also emit CO2 through our patterns of land use, cement manufacture and other activities. CO2 emissions due to fossil fuel use are 74% of all anthropogenic releases of this gas. Figure © IEA

Unfortunately, the planet has stored an enormous quantity of coal, and, unlike oil which tends to be available in far fewer places, coal is widely distributed across all continents. Coal was the first fossil fuel we harvested; in many ways it proved the easiest to mine, to transport and to use. In Our Dying Planet, I talked about the many environmental and health problems associated with extraction and use of coal. While it started our industrial revolution, it was definitely a mixed blessing for humanity, and it continues to be one. Here, I will focus on recent trends and events and on three parts of the world.

As recently as 2006, while advocating greater speed in developing and implementing technology for carbon capture and storage, as an essential tool in the fight to rein in CO2 emissions, the IEA was projecting a continuing and nearly linear increase in the global rate of coal consumption from about 3000 Mtoe in 2005 to about 4500 Mtoe in 2030, a 50% increase in 25 years. The U.S. Energy Information Administration was similarly bullish, with nearly identical numbers (although they measured in Quadrillion BTUs, just to make life difficult). They reported use of 3089 Mtoe coal in 2005, and predicted 5099 Mtoe in 2030. For both agencies, the growth in use expected in China was a major factor underlying the calculations. In 2006, IEA was reporting Chinese coal-fired electricity generating capacity of 302 Gigawatts in 2004, and an expected increase to 661 Gigawatts by 2020.

China: So Much Coal, So Much Use, So Much Smog. Whoops.

So let’s start with China. This country has vast reserves of coal. In 2012, China was responsible for producing 45.3% of the 7.8 billion tonnes of coal mined worldwide, and imported a further 278 million tonnes from other countries. China is a rapidly modernizing country without a lot of oil or gas. It has had to make full use of its available coal, and had been building coal-fired power plants at a rate of almost one a week as recently as 2010. There have been consequences.

800px-Coal_mine_in_Inner_Mongolia_Wikimedia Commons 002-450x337A typical Chinese open-pit coal mine, this one is in Inner Mongolia. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Pannan Coal Fired Plant in ChinaThe Pannan power plant, one of China’s many coal-fired generation stations.
Photo © Simon Lim/Greenpeace

China has the unenviable reputation of having the most dangerous coal-mining industry worldwide. On August 20th, USA Today reported that authorities were working to try and save trapped miners in two separate accidents that had already recorded fatalities. There were over 1000 fatalities in mining accidents in China in 2013 (a less lethal than average year). The pollution of land and water that always lurks around coal mining operations is undoubtedly also serious, but not necessarily closely monitored. But it is the air pollution in the big Chinese cities that has captured world and Chinese attention in recent months. This pollution is a result of multiple causes, but undeniable is the role of fine particulates due to the mining, transport, and use of coal. And China has begun to respond. In September 2013, National Geographic reported that China was taking a number of steps to rein in its coal industry, including cancelling a number of planned coal-fired power plants in the vicinity of its major cities. Early this month, Beijing announced plans to phase out all use of coal for heating by 2020, and now there are indications that use of coal in China might actually be falling. Greenpeace reported on August 19th that the growth of imports had almost ceased during the first half of this year and that domestic production had dropped 1.8%. Part of this plateauing could be due to the sluggish (for China) economy, but an apparent increase in coal stockpiles appears to indicate that the reduction in use has been more than an economic slowing would cause. In April 2014, Jeff Rubin, writing in the Globe & Mail, picked up on the Chinese slowdown in coal use, predicting that it would have an impact on world trade in coal. If the Beijing smog has got the attention of the Chinese leadership, and there is real movement on the coal front, that can only be good news for the global climate and the prospects for progress at next year’s climate talks.

Tiananmen Square smog AFP photo ST_20130131_GNPOLLUTION31I6Z1_3505137e

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on a less than ideal day in January, 2013. Photo © Agence France Presse

Ontario: A Good-news Energy Story from Canada

The slow move away from use of coal has been going on for a long time in North America, and that has speeded up with the enhanced availability of natural gas due to fracking. As a result, the US EIA projected increased exports by both Canada and the US from 2011 through 2040 as greater proportions of the product being mined were shipped overseas. In Canada, the transition in use has been led by provincial governments, most notably Ontario, which announced in April that the Thunder Bay Generating Station, Ontario’s last coal-fired power plant, had burned its last coal and was being closed. Over a span of 10 years, Ontario went from depending on coal for 25% of its electricity needs to relying totally on nuclear, hydro, and renewables – chiefly wind and solar. Nuclear and hydro are the backbone, together providing 78% of Ontario’s power requirements (about 155 Terawatt hours in 2013). The nuclear infrastructure includes the 6,300 megawatt Bruce Power facility on the shore of Lake Huron – the world’s largest operating nuclear site — and a further 6,600 megawatts in two other plants, while the hydro generation capacity is primarily at Niagara Falls and at the Lower Mattagami River in the north.

Bruce Power Plant Toronto Star photoBruce Nuclear Power Plant, Ontario. Photo © Toronto Star

Newboro1 solar farm Ontario David Chan Globe & MailThe 10 megawatt Newboro1 solar farm under construction in eastern Ontario.
Photo © David Chan/Globe&Mail

Ontario undertook this transition because its government articulated a clear policy favoring a cleaner mix of fuels. (Needless to say, the Harper government has provided no spurs or carrots to encourage such progressive action by Canadian provinces!). The path taken included an emphasis on conservation. This was encouraged by a differential cost of electricity depending on hour by hour demand, and by use of smart metering for residential consumers, as well as by comparable inducements to industry. As a result, the Ontario government claims to have ‘saved’ about 8.6 terawatt hours demand through increases in efficiency of use. Use of a feed-in tariff (FIT) program specifying fixed prices for electricity sold into the grid from solar or wind generation systems spurred development of a robust renewables sector that is now responsible for over 5% of total demand. The remainder is supplied by gas-fired generation stations. These renewables-favoring policies have resulted in a significant investment in wind farms, and in solar – both on-roof residential systems and large solar farms – development not seen to a similar extent in other parts of Canada. Along the way, the Ontario government made one stupid decision, giving in to nimby-ism just before a critical election that resulted in significant added costs to relocate to planned gas-fired plants, and electricity prices for consumers have spiked upwards (largely due to prior mismanagement, but consumers notice only the added cost). Nevertheless, Ontario’s story is one of the few good-news stories on the climate front in Canada – one that has made a significant dent in Canada’s overall CO2 emissions. But not in Canada’s mining of coal, which is primarily for export.

USA: New EPA Regulations Start to Turn Off the Coal Button

Exporting of coal to China, India and other nations is now a major activity in Canada, in the US, and in Australia. Exporting coal requires coal export terminals, with all the attendant mess in terms of coal dust, fine particulates and low-scale chronic pollution. Some potential sites for terminals are saying ‘no’. Last week the Oregon Department of State Lands rejected an application by Ambre Energy to transport coal by rail from Montana and Wyoming to Boardman, then barge it down the Columbia River to Port Westland for transfer to bulk carriers for transport to markets in Asia. The project would move 8.8 million tonnes of coal per year, and was the smallest of three new projects proposed for the Pacific North-West as a way of finding access to new Asian markets for US-produced coal. This week Port Metro Vancouver approved the expansion of the Fraser Surrey dock to accommodate shipping 4 million tonnes of US coal brought in by rail and then shopped to Asia.

The pressure to develop new coal terminals arises from pressures within North America to reduce use of coal. In the US that pressure has been partly the ample supply of inexpensive natural gas that has resulted from use of fracking – gas is a less polluting fuel, and retrofits to generation stations are relatively straightforward. Partly it has been the growing realization that coal’s time has passed in the US economy. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency, which had previously announced tough new regulations governing new coal-fired plants, introduced new requirements for CO2 emissions from existing coal-fired plants. Given that some 39% of electricity generation is based on use of coal, regulations to cut CO2 emissions from these plants can have a major impact on the US contribution to global CO2 emissions. But equally, the importance of coal-fired plants means that the new regulation is going to be fought. Early this month, the LA Times reported that 12 states were suing the EPA over the proposed regulations, however, John Deutsch, writing in the Wall Street Journal on 18th August, termed the new regulations “an unexpectedly thoughtful and well-supported plan setting specific goals for reducing emissions chosen from a menu of measures such as increased efficiency, emissions trading and fuel switching, mainly from coal to natural gas for electricity generation”. If successful, this will be a significant move to curtail CO2 emissions form use of coal. And it will curtail domestic coal use.

Australia: Economy vs Environment – Coal vs Coral, but Maybe the Coral will Win

Australia is one of the other major coal producers, 5th largest on the planet according to the IEA, producing some 421 million tonnes of coal per year, of which 302 million tonnes are exported to Asia. In Australia the rush to increase export capacity in order to keep up with the presumed growing demand from China has led to an unfortunate conflict between support of one of the country’s major industries and conservation of its most important, and iconic, natural heritage treasure, the Great Barrier Reef. In Australia, the major coal production regions are in Queensland and the major export terminals lie along the Queensland coast, immediately inshore from the Great Barrier Reef.

I vividly remember the sleepy town of Gladstone, Queensland in the early 1970s – a small country town on the Queensland coast that had even then been transformed by the construction of a giant alumina plant that processed raw bauxite into alumina for export, using the readily available Queensland coal in the process. Close to the alumina plant, along the large estuary that was Gladstone harbor, was a coal terminal that shipped coal out to Asia and points beyond. It was a quaint Queensland town that had already been morphed into something unreal by all this heavy industry, and it showed it. On the main street there were gift shops catering to tourists headed to the reef, with postcards of the alumina plant at night – as if this was a scenic wonder tourists might want to see. Maybe some of them did! In the early 1970s, it was a quaint little town with a small cancer growing on its southeast flank.

I saw Gladstone last in 2012, after many years away, and because I took the helicopter out to the Heron Island Research Station, I got to see it from the air. The cancer had grown. There are now two alumina plants, and the coal terminal had clearly metastasized. There is something incredibly sad about a region of mangroves, deltaic channels, and mud flats that has been taken over by industry.

Gladstone Q Rachel Fountain - ABCr350481_1606081

Somewhere in this scene there is a quaint Queensland country town named Gladstone, but it’s sure hard to find. Photo © Rachel Fountain/ABC

Gladstone is just one of several coal terminals on the Queensland coast, and recently there have been plans advanced to upgrade, and expand several of them and to build completely new ones. It’s all part of the rush to build shipping capacity to get the coal to China before anyone else does – a remarkably similar plan to the one that drives the urgent need to build pipelines from Alberta to every corner of Canada in order to export the tar sands glurp as quickly as possible. In both cases the industries are acting as if they know that they are dealing in a time-sensitive product, one that is going to spoil very soon. In both cases they are dealing in products that will spoil, not like rotten bananas, but in value once the world suddenly stops using them.

The Australian port expansion plans are extensive, and I discussed them last month. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of University of Queensland sent me a couple of articles discussing this issue. I also found two recent documents concerning management of the Great Barrier Reef. The first, Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014, was produced by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) as mandated both by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act, and by UNESCO regulations governing management of a World Heritage Area. It replaces the 2009 Outlook Report, and assesses the state of the Great Barrier Reef, factors influencing, and trends in that state, and projects a long-term assessment of reef condition. The second, Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment: Strategic assessment report, was produced by GBRMPA as one part of a National and Queensland strategic assessment of the Great Barrier Reef region, including the Great Barrier Reef and its catchment area along the coastal plain of Queensland. A comparable assessment is being done by the State of Queensland on the terrestrial portion of the region. Both documents deal with the impacts of port development on the Great Barrier Reef.

Coal ports GBR Outlook 2014

Ports within the Great Barrier Reef region and the total throughput (imports + exports) per year in millions of tonnes. Most of the tonnage is coal exports. There are major expansion plans, or work in progress, at Abbot Point, Hay Point, Gladstone, and Townsville, however proposals for three new coal terminals in the northern part of the region have now been shelved. Figure © Ports Australia.

Production of coal in Queensland has doubled since 1990 to about 200 million tonnes per year, and exports are expected to reach between 300 and 450 tonnes per year by 2025. That requires significant port expansion, and expansion requires significant dredging and disposal of spoil. Plans for Gladstone include the dredging of 12 million m3 of sediments that would be disposed offshore, but within the Great Barrier Reef region. Similar quantities of dredging are involved at other ports, and there is also regular maintenance dredging to keep shipping lanes deep enough for the ever larger vessels.

However, opposition to the dredging is growing, and three banks, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, and RBS, have recently announced that they were cancelling planned investments in coal port expansion in Australia. Perhaps more importantly, the lowering of demand in China is causing some adjustments to plans for mine development and port expansion in Australia. The Dudgeon Point development at Hay Point, which would have required dredging of about 15 million m3 was cancelled on June 20th because of “weakened demand”. It has always been recognized that humanity would come to its senses regarding climate change before we burned up all known reserves of fossil fuels. At some stage, perfectly good resources would get left in the ground. It now seems possible that we are starting to see this shift, and after coal, the tar sands will be next. On July 28th, Jeff Rubin drew attention to the parallels between Stephen Harper’s love of the tar sands and Tony Abbot’s love of Australia’s coal industry, and suggested that the Chinese slowdown could be the game-changer that slows or cancels the expansion in coal production that Prime Minister Abbot so clearly wants to occur.

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