Climate Change Update: Where we are in early 2020


As I write this, Covid-19 is extending its impacts around the world, cruise ships are being quarantined, global stock markets are in a tailspin and the price of oil is collapsing.  The new Coronavirus is going to have some major impacts on our world, including a likely drop in CO2 emissions in 2020.  Whether it will substantially alter the grim forecast I close with remains to be determined.  But it could.  We do live in interesting times.

It seems appropriate, now that Winter might be giving way to Spring, to take stock of where we are in this great battle we claim to be engaged in to shut down climate change.  You’ll remember, back in the heady days of late 2015, when the world seemed likely to become a better place, at the Paris Climate Meeting, COP21, the nations of the world agreed to hold

the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and [pursue] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”

If I remember correctly, Canada played a leading role in getting that bit about 1.5oC into the agreement.  Canada had just elected the first Justin Trudeau government and we were bringing Sunny Ways to the world community.  Oh Happy Day.

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The fact is, of course, that climate science had long pointed to the need to contain climate change if we wanted to continue to enjoy the kind of world in which human civilization had developed, and 2.0oC was going to be too much warming to permit that.  That 2.0oC target had been the result of an earlier (COP15, Copenhagen, 2009) political compromise between a target of 1.0oC recommended by scientists and doing nothing.  The politicians felt 1.0o was way too hard a task, so why not just ease the task by doubling the goal and declaring victory?  After all, that is how politics is done – seek middle ground.  Such was the origin of the primrose path we’d been happily following, until Sunny Ways arrived in Paris and we all nodded wisely and embarked on the quest for 1.5oC.  Or at least, that’s what we all like to believe, and that’s what we keep telling ourselves  Every nation which has ratified the Paris Agreement has signed on to doing its share to keep the extent of climate warming well below 2.0o and preferably close to 1.5oC.  We all claim to be doing so.

And we have continued increasing our annual contributions of greenhouse gas emissions, year after year, all while “putting in place stringent measures” to stop doing this.  As we add emissions, the atmosphere traps more heat and the planet warms.  We already see the consequences of that warming in warmer temperatures, more erratic weather, more storms, floods, droughts and wildfire, more retreating glaciers and incremental rises in sea level.  The warming we have already caused has set in progress a melting of ice and raising of sea levels that is going to continue for 2000 years.  The changes to weather have been sufficiently profound that the overwhelming majority of people finally believe that something strange is happening to our climate.  Current projections indicate we are nowhere near limiting warming to +1.5oC, and that 3, 4, or 5oC is far more likely. Yet we are not yet reducing emissions.

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In 2017, scientists were projecting warming of anywhere from 2o to 6oC by 2100, depending on what humanity decides to do.  The 2o futures are achieved in scenarios that involve significant removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, not just reductions in emissions.  Technologies for massive CO2 removals do not yet exist except in pilot projects and there is no certainty they will be feasible.  Image © Global Carbon Project.

While most of us accept that we are changing the climate, few of us grasp the extent of the changes being set in motion or the seriousness of what is happening to the world we live in.  There are many reasons for this disconnect, which I won’t go into here.  This problem of our changing climate is far and away the biggest problem humanity currently faces, and yet it is not the only problem confronting us in 2020.

The global environmental crisis includes lots of problems, not just a warming climate

Late in 2019, a team led by Bill Ripple of Oregon State University published an opinion piece in BioScience (it appeared on-line in November 2019, and in print in January 2020.  Titled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency”, it was signed onto by over 11,000 environmental and climate scientists from around the world.  In their warning (more on that in a moment), the authors took pains to draw attention to a number of other troubling trends now in place.  These included the continued rapid growth of the human population, the concurrent growth in global GDP, the growth in numbers of our cattle, sheep and goats, and a concomitant growth in the rate at which forest cover is being lost.  Our population is now growing at about 15% per decade, although growth continues to slow and a peak is anticipated around the end of the century.  Our economy is growing at about 80% per decade, and the size of our livestock herds is growing at nearly 9% per decade.  Ripple and colleagues could have chosen a number of other concerning trends to highlight – our use of water and of fertilizers, the amount of land used by agriculture, the delivery of nitrogen pollution to coastal zones, and the rate of loss of biodiversity are all increasing rapidly.  These changes pose many problems for ecosystem functioning and for our ability to continue to feed ourselves and provide potable water.  They also interact with each other in various ways that make the overall impacts on the planet more complex and also more severe from the perspective of organisms like us.

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A set of disturbing trends documented in the World Scientists’ Warning.  Reductions in fertility and in Amazon deforestation (but not total forest cover), and the increase in the funds divested from fossil fuel industry are what I’d call positive trends.  All the rest are downright alarming.  Image © Alliance of World Scientists.

Many of these trends are clearly related to, or caused by, the warming we have induced, but others are unrelated to climate change.  Together, the rapid changes in condition that we have forced upon the global biosphere are the global environmental crisis, a multifaceted problem that is talked about not nearly often enough.  Climate change is the most obvious, ugly core of this crisis.

Where is the Climate Right Now?

During the week ending 24th February 2020, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa was 414 ppm.  The rate of growth in atmospheric CO2 continues to accelerate, due to a growing rate of emissions from extraction and use of fossil fuels, cement manufacture, and land use changes.  Of these the fossil fuel contribution is by far the greatest.  Other greenhouse gases, particularly methane show similar trends.  On 19th February 2020, it was reported in Nature by Benjamin Hmiel, University of Rochester, and colleagues, that the ‘fugitive’ emissions of methane in the gas and oil industry are almost double what has been reported. 

I know the word ‘fugitive’ sounds like these emissions are secretive, unnoticed, nothing to do with the people doing the extraction and refining, but most of them are from deliberate flaring of unwanted gas, plus a certain amount of wellhead leakage – a factor which is closely monitored because of the potential for explosions.  The industry, not wanting to pay the cost of not releasing these gases, finds ways to not notice them.

Specifically, Hmiel and colleagues used an isotopic analysis of carbon in methane molecules to partition atmospheric methane into natural and anthropogenic.  They show that while reported anthropogenic methane emissions are 40 to 60 Teragrams per year (that’s 40 to 60 million tonnes of CH4 per year), that is an underestimate of from 38 to 58 Teragrams CH4 per year.  In other words, industry has been underreporting by somewhere between 25% and 40%.  In other words, our total emissions of greenhouse gases are even worse than we imagined.

Looking specifically at CO2, our accumulated emissions since 1850 are a bit over 2.3 Trillion tonnes CO2.  Annual emissions due to extraction and use of fossil fuels account for the great majority of this amount and have increased virtually every year in recent decades.  The emissions due to extraction and use of fossil fuels for 2019 are currently estimated as 36.8 Gt CO2 (Gigatonnes = Billion tonnes).  This trend is shown nicely in this graph.

Annual emissions of CO2 from extraction and use of fossil fuels are shown from 1955 to 2019.  Emissions have increased almost every year since 1955, and there is little evidence that climate change policies are yet bringing about a peak, followed by a rapid decline. 
Animation © FutureEarth and Global Carbon Project.

Needless to say, the consequence of steadily increasing emissions is a steadily warming world.  All the major climate science institutes which monitor global temperature agree on what is happening.  While it was not the case a few years ago, few people now dispute the validity of such data (although some continue to spin intriguing stories to avoid admitting that our emissions are the root cause).

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Temperature data showing rapid warming in the past few decades, the latest data going up to 2019. According to NASA data, 2016 was the warmest year since 1880, continuing a long-term trend of rising global temperatures. The 10 warmest years in the 140-year record all have occurred since 2005, with the six warmest years being the six most recent years. Image courtesy NASA/NOAA.

As a consequence of the warming, we are seeing a broad range of environmental changes.  These include more extreme storms, rapidly melting glaciers and concomitant sea level rise, more extreme wildfires. 

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Three major storms at one time! Katia, Irma, and José (west to east) are seen in this satellite image taken 7th September, 2017.  Image courtesy NASA.

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Polar bear photographed from the deck of the Canadian Coast Guard ship, Louis S. St-Laurent, in Franklin Strait in 2013.  Photo © Adrienne Tivy.

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Alberta wildfire in 2017.  Photo © Cameron Strandberg/Flickr

The severity of droughts and floods is likely also increasing, growing seasons are lengthening, and plant growth zones are shifting poleward.  Each of these trends appears to be more rapid than at any previous time during the 8000 years of human history, so the impacts on our cultures, or lifestyles, and particularly on our agriculture are likely to be profound.

A carbon budget

Since our emissions cause the warming, it is possible to visualize a budget of emissions that if released will cause a given amount of warming.  The world used a budget of 2.3 Trillion tonnes of CO2 to achieve the approximately 1oC of warming that has occurred between 1850 and today.   A somewhat smaller quantity of CO2 will be sufficient to add the 0.5oC of warming to meet the Paris Agreement goal.  This currently available budget for releases of CO2 by the fossil fuel industry is generally estimated to be about 650 Gt CO2

(Why this is only 650 Gt and not 1150 Gt – half of 2.3 trillion – is because the warming effects of the 2.3 trillion tonnes already released are still being felt over the next several years.  In other words, the 2.3 trillion tonnes will ultimately achieve more than 1o of warming and our remaining budget is all that is required to top that total ‘committed warming’ up to 1.5oC.)

Think of the budget as emissions poured into a bucket of a certain size by the various countries as they emit their CO2. Turns out, our bucket, which we started filling in 1850, is now almost full. Given that humanity is currently emitting about 36.8 Gt CO2 per year, our available budget if we intend to keep warming to 1.5o, works out to a bit over 17 years at current rates.  That is why climate scientists talk about the urgency of acting to reduce emissions.

In fact, by thinking about the allowable budget, it’s easy to understand why we need to have been acting far more strongly than we have.  The global budget allows for continued emissions at the present rate for 17 years, or a linear ramp down to zero over 34 years.  But if we sit around and think about acting for a few years, as we have been doing, the task becomes a lot more difficult.  An appropriate rate of ramp-down today (one that remains within budget) is no longer appropriate if we procrastinate for a few years more – we have to use a steeper rate, much more difficult to do.

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This diagram shows how delaying action requires much more stringent action subsequently if the world is to remain within the agreed budget.  The diagram uses either a 600 Gt or an 800 Gt CO2 allowable budget at 2016.  It also shows how its possible to delay action (from 2016 to 2020) and still have a gradual decline in emissions, but only by increasing the allowable budget and therefore the amount of warming.  Image © Global Climate Project.

Fairly Partitioning the Budget

This 650 Gt CO2 budget is a global budget.  It is being shared by all countries, which means we also need to think about fair ways of sharing – how much of the budget should be available to each country?  Not a ‘nice’ topic to talk about when we realize that some of the countries are led by men who probably think they are entitled to use as much as they want.  But without a fair plan for sharing, we are never going to be able to stick within the budget available.

Canadians, being such fair people, should be able to relate to this task.  So, let’s think about Canada’s fair share of the global allowable budget.  Perhaps the fairest way to do it is to assume every human is entitled to an equal share of remaining emissions.  Then, given the present population, Canada deserves a 0.48% share, or 3.1 Gt of the 650 Gt CO2 we are working with. 

Or maybe the emissions should be allocated according to area of each country.  That would give Canada a much larger share (I don’t have the area data to make the calculation). 

Maybe we should apportion budgets according to the relative sizes of national emissions today.  That would give Canada 1.8% of the remaining budget, or about 11.7 Gt CO2, because our current emissions are 1.8% of the global total.  That’s substantially better (= larger) than a per capita distribution, but less than a distribution based on area. 

Or maybe we should not just be sharing out the allowable budget now remaining but should be apportioning the total budget allowable at 1850.  That becomes complex because populations have changed greatly over that time and it’s unclear how best to apportion.  Still that approach would likely leave Canada worse off (a smaller share of the remaining budget because we have used so much already) than either of these other approaches. 

Creative people will be able to think of other ways to apportion the emissions budget fairly.  My point is that different formulations will favor different countries so deciding which formula to adopt will not be an easy negotiation. 

Just imagine the United States magnanimously agreeing to a per capita share – even with a rational President at the helm, that would be a tall hill to climb. 

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Tom Toles’ cartoons on climate change have a habit of hitting the nail on the head!
Figure © Tom Toles/Washington Post.

Yet, if there is no agreement on how to apportion the budget, how will it be possible to tell if countries are ‘doing their fair share’ in the effort to reduce emissions and rein in warming?  Our decades of failing to act have made the task of reducing emissions to reach a 1.5o or even a 2.0o target far more difficult than it might have been and therefore made the challenge of agreeing to a fair apportionment far more difficult. These facts conspire to make it appear likely that we will fail to reach the target we have all signed onto in the Paris Agreement.

I find it fascinating that none of the politicians in any country seem to be spelling out these difficult problems.  In fact, to listen to politicians speaking we are all well on the way to solving the climate problem.  It’s time to get real.

What Does Canada Have to Do to Meet its Paris Commitment?

Canada is in a particularly difficult position.  We are a high emissions country, with the third highest per capita rate of emissions among developed nations (we lag the USA and Australia in that race to be bad).  If we decide fairness means a per capita apportionment of the budget, Canada only has a bit over 4 years at our current emissions rate available.  A linear ramp-down to zero over 8.8 years means decarbonizing at a rate of 11% per year, when we have been slowly increasing emissions year after year for decades.  Do you see any signs around Ottawa or Edmonton that we are about to begin this 11% per year climb-down?

Justin Trudeau, who likes to portray himself as compromiser-in-chief, a thoroughly reasonable, fair-minded leader, has suggested that Canada must act responsibly on climate, and must take care to ensure that doing so does not hurt the western Canadian, chiefly Alberta, economy in the process.  As if this challenge was insufficient for his skills, he has also decided that major industrial projects like new oil mines or pipelines must be undertaken only after full and meaningful consultation with all affected parties, and has managed to wrap that undertaking up in a commitment to genuine reconciliation with First Nations and other indigenous communities.

I cannot fault his logic, but I do worry about the ambition.  Is this remotely possible politically?  When members of an indigenous community, perhaps one of the many indigenous nations who never entered into any treaties with us immigrant Canadians, have deeply imbedded beliefs that they are of their land, meaning literally a part of the life on their land, it is not possible to simply wave away this belief with an assumption that all that is needed is a rational, respectful conversation followed by some exchange of money or sustained income.  Being of the land is not simply another way of saying, I own this land.  In fact, we’d all be a lot better off if more of us had the sense of belonging to place that many indigenous persons do, because it is a very different, far more respectful attitude to place than us immigrant Canadians tend to hold.  And that’s just the bit about consultation with all parties.

What about the idea that we can act responsibly on climate and still sustain the oil and gas economy of Alberta particularly, but also British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland.?  That is going to be extremely challenging for quite a different reason.  When Canada’s current emissions are divided among economic sectors, the gas and oil industry accounts for 27% and the transportation sector (which also transports some gas and oil) accounts for 25%.  Transportation, at present, is heavily dependent on oil and gas as the fuel, and the extraction and refining of oil and gas are activities that generate lots of CO2 emissions.

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Canada’s total emissions, and emissions by sector have changed only marginally over the last 30 years.  The most noticeable trends have been the growth in emission by the transportation and the oil and gas sectors.  Together these now comprise 52% of our total.  Ramping total emissions down to zero in 8.8 years is an enormous challenge and there is no sign that we have begun to make this transition.  Image © Environment Canada.

Talk to your average Albertan, and a good many other Canadians, and you’ll hear that not only should the gas and oil industry continue as a major component of Canada’s economy, it should be a growing component.  Indeed, there are many among us who believe that we Canadians have almost a moral obligation to exploit the resources provided for us beneath our land.  (The difference between this perspective and the indigenous belief in being of the land is vast, and a major hurdle to overcome by anyone interested in a rational discussion leading to appropriate, respectful decisions.)

Let’s make a compromise.  Let’s agree that the oil and gas industry should be allowed to continue at its current level of emissions, while the rest of the economy takes on the task of ramping total emissions down at 11% per year.  (This even permits an increase in oil and gas production, if the per barrel emissions can be reduced!)  I’m not even sure people around Fort McMurray would agree to this compromise, but let’s assume they will.

If the 11% per year ramp-down is to be put in place, but with the sector responsible for 27% of emissions to continue unaffected, the rest of the economy will have to ramp down at 16% per year.  And in just 6.6 years, all emissions in Canada will come from the oil and gas sector. 

Whoops, what happens then?  Then the oil and gas sector has to ramp down and cease all emissions in just 2.2 years.  If I thought that Albertans might not be too keen on a compromise that said, continue operating but no growth, I’m damn sure they’d complain once they understood that that was for only 6.6 years!

To put it bluntly – something the politicians seem incapable of doing – Canada cannot live up to its obligation to the Paris Agreement (keeping to close to 1.5oC or warming) and continue to have a major oil and gas industry indefinitely into the future.  It’s impossible.  The decarbonization required of it as a fair proportion of the overall global decarbonization means at best that oil and gas production have to be totally decarbonized in 8.8 years.  From right now.  Or sooner.

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Justin Trudeau speaking at the Prospectors and Developers Association, 2nd March 2020, and stating that Canada has to get to carbon neutrality by 2050.  It’s a start, but he was not very clear on how we’d get there while still having an oil and gas industry.  Image © Fred Lum/Globe & Mail.

It’s time for some honest talk about what we do want to accomplish, and how to go about doing that – both within Canada and in the global community, because Canada is not the only country that has been pretending.

This situation frustrates me deeply, because we could have easily dealt with climate change if the world had listened to the advice and taken timely action back in the 1990s.  Now we have a snowball’s chance to stay within 1.5oC, and no sign that we are taking even that slim chance seriously.  Frankly, we’d all be better off if global leaders would agree on a goal they were prepared to reach, explain that goal to the rest of us, and let us then figure out how we will deal with the huge difficulties a 3o or 5o target would bring us.  The leadership needed for this is sadly lacking.

What I Fear Is Happening – The Anthropocene We Are Going to Get

While the political rhetoric at present is all about how we are tackling climate change, the reality is that the world is largely frozen (and I don’t mean cooling down).  There are impressive advances being made in provision of solar and wind power, in moving towards energy-neutral buildings, and in development and sale of hybrid and electric vehicles.  But these positive trends are not reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases, because the growing global economy still needs as much or more oil, gas, and coal as it did last year.

News worth celebrating!  Image © CBC

The impressive strides deserve to be talked about.  They are good signs.  But they are not good enough.  On the political front, there seems a growing tendency to announce new climate initiatives, suggest these are part of an overall plan that a government is rolling out over time, and then stand about, patting each other on the back. And lots of time being wasted in meetings that achieve no results.

There have been four global climate conferences since Paris: COP22, 2016, in Marrakech, Morocco; COP23, 2017, in Bonn, Germany; COP24, 2018, in Katowice, Poland; and COP25, 2019, in Madrid, Spain.  COP22 had the unfortunate fate of coinciding with Donald Trump’s election and accomplished effectively nothing.  Attendees at COP23 experienced the surreal presence of an American delegation despite Trump’s having signaled his intention to withdraw from the climate effort.  Sometimes this delegation behaved responsibly, sometimes not.  Again, there was little real progress, but plenty of talk about future goals and actions, lots of planning, little sign that countries recognized the urgency.

COP24, held in the heart of Polish coal country, got off to a rocky start with countries disagreeing over whether or not to ‘welcome’ the recently completed IPCC report on a 1.5oC world.  The report had been requested at a previous COP, but some countries, including the USA, only wanted to ‘note’ it.  Such are the subtleties of international climate diplomacy. 

Otherwise COP24 was relatively successful, approving most of the rules under which national performance towards the Paris commitments will be evaluated.  COP25, the longest climate negotiation on record, was a dismal failure.  Even UN Secretary General António Guterres said he was “disappointed” with the results of COP25 and that “the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation & finance to tackle the climate crisis.”  The conference failed to finalize the Paris rulebook, and provided little that would encourage a belief that countries are stepping up to the task before us.

Both at international conferences and within nations, what appears to be happening is political stasis, masked by lots of vague promises about what will be done soon, or next year, or over the next decade.  Meanwhile a growing economy is increasing demand for fossil fuels (except for coal) despite the enormous growth in alternative sources of energy.  And global temperatures are continuing to rise.

If this situation continues, and I see no signs that it won’t, it really is time for us to start discussing the Anthropocene we are going to have, rather than the one we hoped for – that ‘nice’ Anthropocene with temperatures 1.5 – 2.0oC warmer than in the preindustrial past.  So here goes.

Average global temperatures will continue to rise, reaching 3o or 5oC by the end of this century and continuing to rise after that.  Scientific discoveries will continue and will demonstrate that climate is changing more rapidly than anticipated and in many ways.  Glacier melt and sea level rise may be the aspects that surprise us the most.  The releases of methane as permafrost melts may also provide unpleasant surprises.  Extreme weather of many kinds will be the new normal and will keep getting more extreme year after year.  Dramatic changes will occur in the structure and functioning of ecosystems that actually matter to us.

Some parts of the planet are going to be impacted more seriously and sooner while others, including the southern half of Canada, will suffer less extreme impacts.  This differentiation among parts of the world, already starting to be apparent, will become more pronounced and, unfortunately, it will be parts of the developing world that are most savagely dealt with.  In parts of South Asia and the Middle East, lethal temperatures will occur and kill substantial numbers of people during heat waves ( I am not exaggerating – temperatures too hot for humans to survive).

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These maps plot wet bulb temperatures in the recent past, and under a moderately successful and an unsuccessful ‘business-as-usual’ battle against climate change.  Wet bulb 35oC is lethal for humans.  Image © I. Eun-Soon and colleagues, Science Advances.

Politicians in developed countries who have not already learned, will discover that there is an art to providing a semblance of progress on climate change while not really doing anything too grand.  Bad news due to extreme events will be attributed to anything other than inexorable warming – ‘the loss of life was due to a flood, for god’s sake, not to climate change’; or, ‘agriculture is a difficult business and crop failures happen from time to time.’  (Australian politicians have already proved themselves masters of this tactic.)  Fossil fuel producers, such as Canada, will struggle to prop up the faltering fossil fuel industry, keeping it alive long after it should have been put to rest, and emissions will continue to soar.

The trend towards increasing nationalism, isolationism and xenophobia will continue, and wealthy, powerful communities will find ways to ensure they are protected from the effects of climate change.  The world will devolve into a small number of well-defended, isolationist communities, surrounded by a wasteland of failing agriculture, lack of water, disintegration of societal structures, suffering and mortality.

In a book I wrote in 2011, I described four possible futures that might be brought about by our efforts, or not, to deal with the global environmental crisis.  What I have just described is the Mad Max world I called Belvedere, because of the luxurious but superficial lives of the better-off minority in their defended enclaves.  It’s the future I least wanted to see.  It’s the future that would arise if we allowed our basest instincts to prevail.  Unfortunately, it now seems to be to be the world we are blindly drifting towards.

It is time to demand of our political leaders that they actually lead.  Time to demand that they tell us the truth.  A 3o or a 4oC world will not be impossible to live in.  But the overall quality of life in that world will be far better if nations plan for it and implement actions to minimize its consequences.  The path we seem now to be on is one of selfish looking out for me that will make that world politically, socially, culturally far more dystopian than it needs to be.

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Movies are full of dystopian images of possible futures, many including such climate impacts as blighted desert lands.  Image © Mad Max: Fury Road/Warner Bros.

Categories: Arctic, Biodiversity Loss, Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, In the News, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Climate Change Update: Where we are in early 2020

Yes, we have a climate emergency; Alberta and the rest of Canada both need to listen up.


@JKenney, Premier of Alberta, tweeted out this cartoon by Vance Rodewalt last January, while saying that the rest of Canada needs to understand that a hurting Alberta is bad for the *entire* country.

Poor Alberta and Saskatchewan

We’ve been hearing a lot in Canada about western alienation.  Apparently, citizens living in Alberta and perhaps Saskatchewan are feeling neglected by the rest of us, during their economic downturn.  We who don’t live in either of those provinces are accused, en masse, of insensitivity, even of downright hostility to their plight.  Some of them are threatening to secede, although its unclear whether Alberta would somehow join the USA, or become an independent land, a sort of North American Paraguay.  They’d not be permitted to join the United Nations list of 32 LLDCs – landlocked developing countries – too developed for that, but they might form some sort of alliance with Switzerland and Austria.

The alienation appears to stem from the lack of willingness of the rest of Canada to let them build pipelines to any port they deem worthy of their attention, or even to just lend a sympathetic ear in their time of need.  It’s true that a number of pipelines proposed in recent years have failed to materialize.  There’s the Keystone XL that would have increased the capacity to ship crude oil from Alberta to the mid-west USA refineries, and that still might happen someday, although nobody is holding their breath.  There’s the Northern Gateway that would have delivered diluted bitumen to the Pacific coast of British Columbia, at a new terminal to be developed at Kitimat, over 100 km upstream through torturous fiords from Hecate Strait and the Pacific Ocean.  That one was cancelled by the federal government in 2016, given numerous environmental concerns, including the sheer brilliance of planning for a major oil terminal that far from the real coast.  There’s the Energy East that would cobble together existing and build some new pipelines to carry Alberta crude or diluted bitumen to refineries and ports in New Brunswick.  That one was killed in 2017 by TransCanada Pipelines when it realized that opposition to this plan was too strong to warrant the cost and effort to have it approved by government.  Then there was the now forgotten Arctic Gateway that would run north from Alberta through the Mackenzie Valley to the Arctic Ocean.  And finally, there is the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, well actually to Burnaby.  This proposal is for twinning an existing line thereby tripling its capacity to ship diluted bitumen.  Funny how twinning = tripling, but that’s pipeline math and as an environmental scientist I just have to accept it.  This one is still inching forward and will likely get built.  Of course, its original owners, US corporation Kinder-Morgan saw the looming lack of profitability and sold the existing line to the Federal Government of Canada.  That’s right Alberta, the Federal Government paid $5 billion to buy the existing line and has committed to paying billions more for the expansion.  How’s that for the rest of Canada not offering you help? (And if you think I’m just being a selfish easterner, take a look at what economics reporter, David Parkinson, wrote in the Globe & Mail on 8th November.)

The fossil fuel industry, notably CAPP, and Alberta, claim that a lack of capacity to deliver product to market is limiting the value of Canadian oil and gas.  So, there is an economic argument that one or more of these pipelines is needed, and a long time has passed with notable lack of success in approving and building them.  I’ll return to this point later, because the economic case is less straightforward than it might appear.

And Then There is the Global Climate Emergency

There is also the global climate emergency.  Alberta seems to brush that one aside pretty quickly, but let’s briefly recap our perilous situation.  On November 5th, a warning to the world was delivered by way of a ‘viewpoint’ article in the journal BioScience.  The five listed authors of the article were joined by 11,224 fellow scientists who signed onto the statement, affirming their agreement with its content.  I was among those 11,000 plus, I’m proud to say, and I have scanned the list of signatories.  Many of us are graduate students, but most are established scientists in a broad range of fields, at all stages from recent PhDs to hoary old emeritus professors like me.  We come from 153 countries, and the list is peppered with the names of recognized leaders in the environmental and climate sciences.  The article is not behind a paywall, so it really is accessible to anyone who wants to read it.  It is also not the first time the global science community has done this.  The lead author, Bill Ripple of the Forest Ecosystems and Society department at Oregon State University, produced what was called the second warning by the science community in 2017. The Union of Concerned Scientists had published what was called the 1992 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity in July 1992.  Needless to say, scientists have been speaking out on this topic for a long time.  The extent of our concern has spread greatly over the last decade.

This month’s warning was released on the 40th anniversary of the first world climate conference held in Geneva in 1979.  Scientists there agreed that alarming trends for climate change made it urgently necessary to act.  We’ve been stressing the urgency ever since and it is numbing my mind.

Figure 1 from the global scientists’ warning, which tracks changes in “global human activities”.

This latest warning comes with two figures.  Figures that are numbingly reminiscent of ones I’ve seen numerous times before as groups of scientists attempt to put into pictures the broad range of causes and effects that contribute to our existential crisis.  The first figure this time documents human activities of concern.  Each panel displays an indicator, with a line representing the change in that indicator over time.  Eleven of the indicators pictured have clear positive trends over the decades measured – that is, they are getting worse.  Of the other four, the drop in female fertility and in the loss of Brazilian forests are good news – fewer children per women must ultimately slow population growth and reduce demands on the planet, and less forest being lost means better retention of the important carbon sequestering services forests provide.  The remaining two non-positive trends are just bad news – the price on carbon has actually been falling when we need it to rise if we are to curtail our emissions of CO2, and the level of fossil fuel subsidies, which had been falling sharply is back where it started.  We are paying the corporations to bring fossil fuel to market when we should be paying them to go out of business!  Overall, this first image is not a sign of a system under control; more like a train going rapidly off the rails.

The second figure is similarly unsettling.  This figure includes panels displaying trends in 14 climatic responses over time.  Every one of these, whether increasing (nine do this) or decreasing (the other five), shows a dramatically worsening trend over the decades examined.  There are no encouraging reversals of trends in recent years, something we might have expected if climate policies by governments were starting to have an effect.  Instead we see CO2, CH4, and N2O all increasing in the atmosphere, surface temperature and ocean heat content also both increasing, Arctic sea ice, Greenland and Antarctic ice mass, and glacial thickness all falling, ocean pH falling as the ocean acidifies, sea level rising, and area burned, number of extreme weather events and annual costs due to weather-related damage all increasing.  Again, not a sign of a system under control.

Figure 2 from the Global scientists’ warning, which tracks climatic responses to our activities.

This time around, having summarized the situation described by these two figures, the authors provide some explicit recommendations for action, and they put these under six headings: Energy, Short-lived Pollutants, Nature, Food, Economy, and Population.  Putting things bluntly, it is not going to be sufficient for the world to gradually, more-or-less, as the economy allows, wean itself off the use of fossil fuels for energy, we also have to rapidly curtail our emissions of methane, nitrous oxide and HCFs (Hydrofluorocarbons – the chemicals we adopted when we phased out use of CFCs because CFCs were gobbling up ozone).  We have to treat all of these emissions-related goals as urgent because otherwise we will fail to bring warming to a halt and will find ourselves in a very uncomfortable world.

Nor is it just energy sources and short-lived atmospheric pollutants we must address.  Under the heading Nature, the authors plea for protection and restoration of Earth’s ecosystems, arguing that these can do much to sequester carbon and cycle nutrients.  In fact, up to one third of reductions in emissions needed by 2030 could be achieved by restoring and protecting healthy ecosystems.  They also recommend a transformation of the human food supply, shifting the world towards a more plant-based diet, and a transformation of the economy away from an emphasis on “GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality”.  Finally, and I am very happy to see this being included more and more often, we have to confront the seriousness of the growth of the human population, and work to encourage choices that slow and eventually reverse human population trends.  The sheer scope of these recommendations accurately reflects the extent of the transition we have to make.  We’ve been warned before.  We have to do this.

For those of you in Canada, as winter approaches, just imagine India in a plus 4oC world.  Large expanses of that subcontinent will be unsafe for humans outside of air-conditioned spaces.  Unsafe means unlivable, too hot for the human organism to survive.  Can I put it any plainer (and it’s not just India that will reach such conditions in the world to which we are currently headed)?

Back to Alienation

I recently heard a clip from CBC’s The National for 7th November, of Scott Moe, Premier of Saskatchewan, speaking about the need for the Federal Government to do more for the west.  In it, with reference to the carbon tax, he spoke confidently of being able to find some ‘opportunities for give and take and for a new direction’ with Justin Trudeau, confident that with good will, agreements that would be mutually satisfactory would be reached.  Later in the interview, responding to a question about whether as a Premier he had a responsibility to tamp down the alienation, he talked about it being incumbent on Premiers and the Prime Minister  “to work together to try and find common ground, not to legislate… for climate policies that you [the federal government or CBC?] feel are ideologically correct, like a federally imposed carbon tax imposed on Provinces across this country…” 

I realized as I listened that Premier Scott Moe just does not understand that conventional politics do not apply when dealing with the climate emergency.  The science says we need to curtail emissions to keep the world from overheating.  Canadians agree we need to do our part.  Therefore, it is incumbent on us to reduce carbon emissions and every part of Canada must be part of this process.  There is no room for give and take on this.  Until now, Saskatchewan has not put in place its own mechanisms to price carbon and curtail emissions.  The Federal carbon tax exists as a fall-back case for those Provinces which failed to put their own carbon policies in place.  It only gets imposed on those Provinces that are dragging their feet.  But Premier Moe wants a year’s reprieve because his province has failed to act.  Why?

Still, Scott Moe comes off sounding a whole lot more reasonable than his Alberta colleague, Premier Jason Kenny.  At least Moe sounds like he wants to keep the country intact.  On 10th November, Jason Kenny gave a speech at the Manning Centre in Red Deer, Alberta.  He claimed that “Albertans have been working for Ottawa for too long, it’s time for Ottawa to start working for us.”  He then went on to describe a series of measures that would expand Alberta’s autonomy within Canada.  He described it as a fair deal for Alberta that would “get Ottawa out of the way so that we can do what we do best—what Alberta has always done: grow our economy, create jobs, get back to work, and generate an oversized contribution to Canada’s wealth”.  Gee, thanks.  I did not know Alberta has taken on this ‘older brother’ role for the rest of the country!

Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator Ð Friday October 25, 2019

MackKay captures Jason Kenney’s new push to be the most alienated one of all.  Cartoon © Graeme MacKay, Hamilton Spectator.

According to the Globe & Mail, Kenny also referred to Justin Trudeau’s government having been “actively hostile” towards his province’s energy industry and claimed he has seen fear in the eyes of Albertans. He said the resulting decline in the province’s oil and gas sector, compounded by Ottawa’s indifference to his province’s pain has led to a spike in suicides. “This literally, for many people, is a life or death question.”  I’ve not seen a transcript but it’s possible we may have a nascent Trump in our midst – oh, the damage those tar sands fumes can do to one’s brain.

Getting back to reality, the lack of ways of getting tar sands bitumen to market is as much a failure of the industry to properly plan for and execute construction projects as it is of governmental red tape and environmentalist obstruction.  If you know that your drilling efforts are going to yield large quantities of toxic, explosive stuff that you will want to ship off to markets elsewhere, would it not be prudent to put in sufficient effort to build the transport system before it is needed?  Would it not have been even more prudent, given the nastiness of this product, to build more refinery capacity right in Alberta.  After all, surely as leaders within Canada, Albertans would be keen to move beyond a primitive ‘dig and ship’ mentality towards development of a mature industry with high value refined products? 

And, just by the way, are we really so sure that the lower prices for tar sands diluted bitumen are really because of a pipeline bottleneck.  There are well-placed sources that point to other factors, including the difficulty and cost of refining this lower-quality product (their words not mine).  I’ve blogged about these issues several times, most recently last January, and don’t need to repeat myself.

Canada cannot afford to continue expanding the mining and export of Alberta’s bitumen.  That is incompatible with an effective response to the global climate emergency, because it is impossible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the extent required and leave this polluting industry free to continue and to grow.  (I say this on the assumption that an emissions-free process for exploiting bitumen is not about to be discovered – that could be a game-changer.)  Canada, as a middle-sized country, cannot afford to be seen as ignoring the major global emergency of our age.  We are way behind where we should be, and have got to up our game, not make further concessions to an industry that is the major cause of our high level of emissions.

The oil sector, and the Province of Alberta have been assuming all along that either climate change does not matter, or that the rest of Canada will make adjustments to curtail our overall national emissions.  It has been inconceivable to them that this industry should plan for an orderly shutdown long before reserves of exploitable bitumen run out.  Sorry, just because we have resources in this country does not mean that we are obliged to dig them up and export them!  If Jason Kenny really wants a new deal for Alberta, he should start with an economically sound plan for how to phase out the tar sands industry and replace it with modern, knowledge-intensive, forward-looking industries capable of providing rewarding, carbon-free employment for the talented people of Alberta.  He’d discover the rest of Canada would love to help him in that process.

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Climate change, Economics, Politics, Tar Sands | Comments Off on Yes, we have a climate emergency; Alberta and the rest of Canada both need to listen up.

Climate Change and the Canadian Federal Election – One ecologist’s perspective


It’s been ages since I added to this blog, but Canada is embarking on a Federal election and climate change is high on the list of topics being discussed.  Lots of Canadians think acting on climate change is important, but many are unsure just how important it should be, compared to other issues.  Some Canadians think climate change is relatively unimportant.  How to decide?

Canada currently contributes less than 2% of the greenhouse gases humanity currently releases into the atmosphere.  Canada has an economy that is substantially dependent on the extraction of natural resources, especially oil and gas.  Curtailing our production of these fuels, especially the still mostly untapped bitumen reserves in the Athabasca Tar Sands, will dampen our economy and cost jobs.  In fact, what Canada desperately needs is a further investment in pipelines to coastal ports because the overwhelming majority of Canada’s gas, oil and bitumen is exported, and those exports are being limited by lack to ability to transport product to the coast.  There is more than enough global demand over the next several decades to provide lucrative markets for Canada, and we have a moral obligation to make use of the bounty Nature has provided for us in Athabasca.

Apart from referring to the Athabasca Tar Sands (their correct name) instead of the politically correct oil sands, which they definitely are not, that paragraph pretty well sums up one side of the argument that would suggest Canada has little need to do anything special about climate change – because we are such a tiny player in greenhouse gas pollution – but a great need to strengthen our economy by continuing to invest in a growing energy sector based largely on the mining of bitumen for export.

The other side of the argument is more nuanced, a little more sophisticated, and, I believe, the side that will be proved right in hindsight from somewhere a few years ahead.  This argument hinges on 1) the science of climate change, 2) the art of diplomacy for middle tier countries, and 3) the economic opportunities inherent in acting aggressively on climate change.

Climate Science

The science is pretty clear.  Climate scientists have known since the 1960s that the global economy was pumping sufficient CO2, CH4, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, that concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere were measurably changing, and that these changes were causing a warming of the planet.  There is no disputing the data and the physics of greenhouse gases is quite clear – science understands what is happening to the atmosphere, how that affects the radiation of heat away from the planet, and the consequences in terms of planetary warming.

The data on atmospheric concentration of CO2 atop Mauna Loa are inexorably clear, and freely available on the web.  Unless one believes in government conspiracies (in this case involving both a major government agency and a major university who have collaborated in this charade for 51 years), the simple fact that CO2 concentration has been going up at an ever increasing rate since 1958 when the instruments were first installed to measure it, is about as self-evident as reproductive organs on a canine.  Similar graphs show similar changes in atmospheric concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide – all due to us.

Once we get it through our collective thick head that our global economy really is altering the composition of the atmosphere, the rest falls into place.  Increases in concentrations of greenhouse gases (such as these three) progressively impede the radiation of heat away from the planet without impeding the arrival of solar energy as light.  Ergo, the planet warms up.

We then must turn to another sphere of climate science, that to do with weather, to comprehend what is likely to happen to our climate as our planet warms up.  If there is any uncertainty in the science underlying climate change, it lies in our incomplete understanding of the ways in which warming the planet lead to altered weather.  Some of the multiple causal pathways involved are quite well understood – for example the way warming of the planet translates into higher average temperatures from place to place.  Other pathways, such as the one that begins with warming’s effects on the melting of ice, and ends up dealing with the contributions of massive loss of glaciers on climate, fresh water supply, and sea level rise, are still processes about which we have a lot to learn.  Understanding the details of how warming alters availability of fresh water which in turn alters agricultural production still has a fair way to go.  But anyone who claims the science of climate change is so poorly understood that we should hesitate to make any policy decisions until the science is better defined is really only looking for an excuse to do nothing.  If we all continue doing nothing, but continue our economic business as usual, it does not require great forecasting skill to project an increasingly alarming future for the planet.  And all the signs suggest that future is already upon us and getting worse daily.  To sum up, the science is very clear that climate change is upon is, is huge, and must be curtailed if we want to preserve any semblance of a stable world order with thriving economies and high quality of life.

Art of diplomacy

Canada is a mid-tier nation.  We are wealthy, have a relatively high standard of living for most of us, based on a relatively advanced economy.  We also have a relatively tiny population spread over an enormous country.  We have a miniscule capability in conventional warfare, no capability in nuclear war, and a lack of experience in terrorism as a way of getting our wishes fulfilled.  We know there are plenty of countries quite capable of rolling over us without pausing for breath.  We live next door to one such country and across the Arctic Ocean from two others.

Canadians are remarkably intelligent people, or we’ve been blessed to have remarkably intelligent leaders over the years.  We’ve not had to learn our relative weakness by having our faces ground into the dirt; we’ve somehow sized up the situation and decided that discretion, or, more aptly, effective diplomacy is the better part of valor.  We are collectively the skinny kid in the schoolyard who knows that massively armed bullies are best dealt with diplomatically.  Over the years, we have actively supported international agencies that seem the best places in which to allow hotheads to cool their ardor, and we have forged strong partnerships with likeminded nations.  We understand that not only is the glass half full, but several can drink from the same glass to mutual benefit.

At the present time, the world seems to be becoming a place where the advantages of such diplomatic, cooperative, win-win behavior by nations seem to be being discounted.  In too many nations at present, people have found their way into leadership positions who doubt there is such a thing as a treaty worth upholding or a problem which can be resolved in a win-win way.  Maybe Canada should wise up and start planning on going it alone?

Think about that for a moment.  We could arm ourselves to the teeth, build a wall along our southern border, develop much less lenient policies on immigration in order to keep undesirables at bay, and try to refocus our economy so that we minimize the importance of international trade.  Does that sound like a reasonable plan?  Or maybe we could go along as at present, relatively weakly capable of our own defense, but convinced that so long as we remain nice people – Canadians are so very nice – the rest of the world will leave us to our own devices even as the planet changes and quality of life degenerates for many people in many places.  The USA would never dream of taking Canadian water from the Great Lakes would it?  Even when vast areas of the US Midwest and Southwest become veritable deserts?  No, of course our American neighbors would never dream of taking our water.  As for Russia and China, on the other side of a rather small sea that will soon be navigable for much of the year, they’ll play nice so long as we do.  Right?

I think it should be very clear that, at this particular time, when the usefulness of international diplomacy is being so widely questioned, Canada is one of those nations that cannot avoid doing its best to keep the world order on track.  But, in order to continue to be recognized by others as one of the nations that contributes positively to international good governance and cooperation, Canada has to be seen to be acting in ways that are appropriate to the situation the world faces at the present time.  Given the science of climate change, given the future that is upon us, can Canada afford not to be pursuing international efforts to limit the extent of climate change, by deeds rather than by words?  Far better Canada be seen to be a nation doing its best to support the global effort to mitigate climate change, than to be seen as yet another rich country that does not give a damn, and worse yet, that is actively expanding its production and export of the fuels that are contributing so much to climate change at present.

Canada should be a strong, a leading, supporter of international efforts such as the Paris Agreement, and actively seeking ways to do even more to bring climate change under control, not because we are nice, cooperative people, but because it is in our own self-interest as a mid-tier nation attempting to support the existing world order. 

This image shows total GHG emissions per capita for 2016 and only includes nations with 10 million inhabitants.  If we look only at CO2 emissions, Canada’s 15.6 tonnes per person remains close to the highest.  The same is true if we consider our releases of all greenhouse gases.

If any of us Canadians need any more reason for the need to act on climate change, let’s remember the following.  Although Canada contributes under 2% of greenhouse gas emissions at the present time, we are still the tenth largest emitter nation, and our per capita emissions, at 15.6 tonnes CO2 per person, are the third highest in the world among developed nations (all data come from the Global Carbon Atlas for 2017).  Canadians waste energy and our emissions per capita show that.  We trail the USA and Australia in this, but seven small oil-producing countries, including Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, also have higher per capita emissions than Canada.  If our contribution to the problem is trivial, as some Canadians claim, why should any nation on the planet do anything to rein in emissions.  Oh, and by the way, Canada has failed to live up to every international climate treaty it has entered, withdrew in disgrace from the Kyoto Accord, and is currently failing to achieve the emissions reductions we committed to under the Paris Agreement.  If we continue this sorry performance, how long before other nations will start to see us as the phony we are proving to be – all talk, not much walk.

Carbon Action Tracker’s thermometer shows very clearly the extent of the work that needs doing globally on climate.  Canada is not the only country to have pledged to do too little and to have failed until now to live up to even its insufficient pledge.  Ponder what a 3oC warmer world might be like.  For starters, Canada would be a lot more than 3 degrees warmer – higher latitudes are warming more than equatorial latitudes.

Economic Opportunities

Many who seek to defer any action on climate argue for the need to protect Canada’s resource-based economy.  Increasingly, this argument is sounding more and more like the argument that may have been made at the turn of the 20th century to protect the industry built on making and repairing buggies, breeding and caring for horses.  Somehow the automobile took care of that issue.

The market, so often revered by those who argue against any government regulations that ‘impede’ business, is already shifting away from fossil fuels, and particularly the especially difficult and costly to produce fuels such as bitumen extracted from the Athabasca tar sands.  The global investment in oil production peaked in 2014 at about $550 Billion, but in 2018 it was down to $350 Billion.  Companies like Exxon-Mobil are narrowing their focus to the oil that is likely to be the most profitable in the midterm, such as the Permian Basin back in Texas.  Exxon-Mobil announced earlier this year that it was delaying development of its large $2.6 Billion Aspen project in the Athabasca region because of ‘uncertainty’ while simultaneously expanding its investments in the Permian Basin and off the coast of Guyana. Koch Industries sold all its tar sands leases in August, exiting Alberta completely.  And Norway’s giant sovereign wealth fund, which was built initially with revenues from oil – hint, hint, Alberta, and is now valued at about $1 Trillion, announced in June a major program of divestment from fossil fuel projects around the world.  The planned divestments will amount to about $13 Billion.  When the big players leave the game, you know something is afoot.

What’s afoot for the Alberta tar sands is collapsing profitability as the global demand for oil falls and purchasers choose the less expensive supplies with the lowest carbon footprints.  As some of the dirtiest fuel in the world, difficult to extract and refine, Alberta’s so-called ethical oil won’t stand a chance.  So far, our governments (federal and provincial) have propped things up by charging only modest royalties for the product being extracted, providing many favors on taxes for the producers, and now buying a pipeline that may eventually get expanded.  But putting large quantities of bitumen that nobody wants to buy on the BC coast seems a plan unlikely to succeed in stimulating Canada’s economy.

By contrast, there are enormous growth opportunities were Canada to embark on a major effort to decarbonize the economy – everything from installation and operation of renewable sources of energy supply, to retrofitting of buildings to lower energy costs of operation, to creating high-speed train, light rail, and other energy-efficient transportation solutions for this enormous country.  Then there are the ancillary benefits in quality of life, such as improvements in overall human health – an important issue in a nation that has most of health costs covered from government funds.

The phase-out of Ontario’s polluting coal-fired power plants completed in 2014 eliminated emissions of 28 megatonnes of CO2 and 320 kg of mercury, a known, bio-accumulating neurotoxin.  The average of 53 smog days per year in Toronto fell to zero (although air quality improvements south of the border also helped here).  Based on the growing evidence of beneficial health impacts in Ontario, the Federal government was able to claim earlier this year that its planned phase-out of coal power generation across the country would yield “260 avoided premature deaths, 40,000 fewer asthma episodes, and 190,000 fewer days of breathing difficulty and reduced activity — resulting in health benefits of $1.2 billion, from 2019 to 2055” for a cost of $2.2 Billion.  Yes, the phase-out will cost money, but half the cost is offset by health savings.  And independent auditors have judged those claims of health savings to be reasonable (and less than some advocates have suggested).

In short, a perusal of what is happening in places such as Europe where countries are further along the path towards decarbonizing, and some back of the envelope calculations on likely costs and benefits for Canada make clear to most people who bother to enquire that there are substantial pluses in a forward-looking economy that operates as Canada shifts away from use of fossil fuels.

Brian Gable’s cartoon says it well: Canada can cling to the belief that tar sands bitumen will always be an important part of our economy, or we can open our eyes, look around, and realize that the world has changed, and will continue to change, in ways that do not make that bitumen look like much of a hot commodity.  There is no economic argument to avoid the decarbonization that is needed.

Above all, Canada needs to put in place an organized phase-out of tar sands bitumen production, done by the energy sector in collaboration with Alberta and Federal government, with due recognition of the need to sustain employment opportunities for displaced workers, while minimizing investment losses.  An unplanned collapse, which is what will happen if we collectively do not tackle this problem, will do considerable damage to Canada’s economy and the quality of life of Canadians working in the energy sector.

Putting it all together

Lest there be any doubt about the seriousness of climate change, just as I was preparing to post this, I looked at this week’s issues of Science and Nature.  Nature had an editorial on how time is running out to act.  In it, they state, “Last year, the IPCC warned that limiting global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels would be a colossal undertaking, requiring greenhouse-gas emissions to be cut in half by 2030. The transition to renewable energy alone would cost US$2.4 trillion annually. And yet, without such drastic measures, the world is likely to exceed 3 °C of warming by the end of the century, and will experience more frequent and more severe catastrophic effects, including weather extremes, rising seas and drought.”  Nature backs this up with a short article by Jeff Tollefson including scary graphics to show just how little progress is being made.  He begins by quoting Argentinian 18 year old Bruno Rodriguez, “There is no middle ground.  We need radical industrial transformation.”  He then draws attention to Friday’s global climate strike, and presents graphs showing how national emissions have been growing, how inadequate the commitments made under Paris really are, and a map showing which countries have been showing least progress.  Canada is among the poor performers.

This graph, from Tollefson’s article shows how many million people worldwide will be impacted in each of several ways, and in which locations the risk is greatest, if climate is allowed to warm by 3oC (we are heading for more than this).

Science posted a new review article online today from Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and a group of scientists active within the IPCC that looked again at the consequences of particular levels of warming, 1.0oC, 1.5oC and 2.0oC.  The point out that commitments under the Paris agreement are “woefully inadequate” to achieve a 1.5oC goal, and state, “Warming of 1.0°C since the pre-industrial period has fundamentally transformed our planet and its natural systems. Multiple lines of evidence reveal that a 1.5°C world will entail larger risks to both human and natural systems. The risks of a 2°C world are much greater. This places us at a critical time in human history where proportionate action taken today will almost certainly minimize the dangerous impacts of a changing climate for hundreds of millions of people.”  I frankly do not know how much clearer the problem can be stated.  We really are in a global climate emergency and the time for half-measures is long past.

So, is climate change a major issue in the minds of Canadian voters?  And should it be?  All but one of the political parties have statements concerning actions to curb climate change in their platforms.  Most Canadians are capable of reading these statements and making informed judgements.  Some of these platforms are a lot stronger than others, and the media have been providing helpful evaluations of each.

The Green Party policies on climate change stand out from the pack in being significantly more ambitious and have been criticized because of this.  The NDP also proposes a more aggressive ramping down of emissions than is currently planned.  Neither of these parties is likely to form a majority government, and so their policies can be viewed more for what they might be able to extract from the Liberals or Conservatives in the event of a minority government.  From this perspective, the Green Party seems better positioned with a clearly enunciated set of policies and goals on climate change.  Nor, by the way, is the Green goal of reducing Canada’s emissions by 60% from 2005 levels by 2030 (double the reduction planned by the Liberals) an unrealistic response to the need to act.  It is not an impossible goal and could be achieved with a rapid but well-planned phase out of tar sands production.  That it seems so different to the policies of the other parties is more a reflection of how far the other parties need to go to fully understand the immensity of the climate problem that confronts us.  (A lot of Canadians, not just the political class, also have yet to comprehend just how severe the climate problem is.)

The Liberal and Conservative parties both have reasonable chances of forming government, though not necessarily a majority government.  Of the two, the Liberals have a set of climate policies, as well as climate actions already taken that suggest they comprehend the need to act in a meaningful way on climate.  The Conservative policies, in contrast, rely too much on business-as-usual and the effectiveness of the private sector taking steps that make sound economic sense.  Without a firm hand setting clear goals, the ‘market’ is not going to shift us out of fossil fuels at a pace remotely commensurate with the need – the market has too much interest vested in the existing fossil fuel-driven economy to change at the pace required.

I had high hopes for what the Liberals would accomplish four years ago, and I’ve not yet given up hope completely.  But the Liberals got tangled up in the political game of telling people what they wanted to hear – you cannot plan for an orderly phase-out of Canada’s exploitation of tar sands bitumen without discussing with the energy sector the need for such a planned, orderly phase-out!  Gentle suggestions, designed not to ruffle the feathers of an Albertan oil man, ain’t gonna’ get us where we need to be.  And now that the government owns a pipeline, they may find it even more difficult to walk the correct walk than they have over the past four years.

So what is a Canadian voter to do?  The science and the geopolitics say Canada needs to act aggressively on climate change.  One of the two parties most likely to form the next government seems far more likely to attempt to respond appropriately to climate change.  One of the other parties is the only one that has a set of policies on climate change that point us in the right direction with a sufficient effort; that party could play an effective role on climate in a minority or a narrowly majority government. 

As always in Canada, we are hobbled by the first-past-the-post voting system, so that in some ridings voting your conscience results in the candidate you least want to see elected winning the seat.  In such ridings, a more strategic approach to voting, if adopted by significant numbers of voters concerned about climate, could help elect more candidates with policies favorable to acting on climate.  In a few ridings the Greens have a possible path to victory and I hope they gain seats in the Parliament.  In other ridings, however, voting for anyone other than a candidate from one of the two major parties is merely a protest vote.

And finally, there is the question – how important is the need to act on climate change relative to all the other things that political parties promise?  That is something each individual voter must decide but let me provide a few estimates of impacts of climate change in a warmer world (we are currently heading towards a 3.3 degree increase in average global temperature as shown on the CAT thermometer graph above). 

In November 2017, The Guardian reported on impacts of sea level rise in a 3 degree world, using UN data and analyses by Climate Central.  They estimate 275 million people currently live in areas that will be flooded by 2100; most of these people live in Asia.  Among the most affected cities are Shanghai with 17.5 million people affected, Hong Kong with 8.5 million and Osaka with 5.2 million people, but even Miami, with 2.7 million people is essentially eliminated by 2100 in a 3 degree world.  And it’s not just Miami, even at 2 degrees projections show the southern third of Florida, from Lake Okeechobee south, home to 7 million people, essentially under water.  When sea level rise is affecting cities all over the world, its unreasonable to plan on building shoreline defenses.  Those people have to move!

An even more disturbing set of information has been compiled by the respected website, CarbonBrief.  It reports a wide range of consequences for 1.5o, 2.0o, and warmer worlds.  I am cherry-picking here but encourage you to peruse the site because it is definitely disturbing.  Just remember, while perusing that each effect, in each location is happening along with all the others, making the overall impact on our lives considerable.  For example, marine heatwaves, very destructive of coral reefs and of plankton production and hence of fishery yield, are projected to be 16 times more frequent in a 1.5o world than in the past, but 41 times more frequent in a 3.5o world and the AMOC (Atlantic meridional overturning circulation), which drives the circulation of the oceans, is destined to slow by 11% in a 1.5o world but by 34% in a 2.0o world.  Slowing of the AMOC leads to cold winters in Europe and a variety of other changes.  Similarly, at 1.5o ocean acidification will increase by 17% by 2050, but in a 2.0o world the increase in acidification will be 29%.

On land, the proportion of species losing 50% or more of their range in a 1.5o world ranges from 2% for birds to 8% for plants, but in a 4.5o world (definitely within the realm of possibilities this century) those percentages become 40% and 67%.  (If two thirds of all plants lose at least half their native range you know that many of them will go globally extinct.)  Global per capita GDP is projected to fall 8% in a 1.5o world, but 13% in a 2.0o world.  I could go on. 

Each of these projections has some uncertainty, but taken together, a 3 degree or warmer world is going to be a very different place to where we now live, and even 1.5o causes significant problems for us.  (And just because the examples I grabbed were not Canadian ones, bear in mind we have a rapidly thawing Arctic and no plans for how we will deal with the economic, sociological and environmental upheavals that are coming in our North.) Yes, the Greens are correct: climate change is a serious problem that requires urgent solutions, and yes, Canadians should be concerned and trying to ensure they elect a government capable of providing us with leadership in the struggle to achieve important climate goals.  The casual ‘let’s do a little bit and see how we fare’ approach in place up until now has got to be replaced with a much greater commitment.  Vote carefully this October, Canada!

Brian Gable scores with yet another cartoon!

Categories: Canada's environmental policies, Changing Oceans, Climate change, Politics, Tar Sands | 1 Comment