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Crunch Time on Climate, or why Canadians should strongly support Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax


Crunch time is now.  The IPCC special report, Global Warming of 1.5oC was an early October shot across our collective bows.  It reported the substantial difference in extent of risk in a 2oC world, compared to a 1.5oC world.  The US report in late November was a follow-up to make sure we noticed.  That report: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States, is the second volume in the two-volume Fourth National Climate Assessment mandated by Congress.  It was produced by the 13 federal departments and agencies responsible for research and supporting the national response to climate change.  Just to rub some salt in, UNEP released its 2018 Emissions Gap Report on November 27th, revealing the not unexpected news that the emissions reductions committed to by countries are woefully insufficient to achieve the Paris goals for 2030 (meeting those goals is why nations have made their commitments).  Now, with COP24 under way in Katowice, Poland, there is a flurry of news mostly concerning how rapidly the climate is changing and how far beneath a satisfactory level the world’s responses fall.  This week’s issue of Nature, out today, contains several articles and an editorial on this topic.

A wonderfully hypnotic view from high above of the The Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant in Andalusia, Spain.  Image © Markel Redondo/Panos.

Frankly, I don’t know how much more clearly the scope of our predicament could be portrayed.  The Emissions Gap Report begins its Summary for Policy Makers with a paragraph in red:

Current commitments expressed in the NDCs are inadequate to bridge the emissions gap in 2030. Technically, it is still possible to bridge the gap to ensure global warming stays well below 2°C and 1.5°C, but if NDC ambitions are not increased before 2030, exceeding the 1.5°C goal can no longer be avoided. Now more than ever, unprecedented and urgent action is required by all nations. The assessment of actions by the G20 countries indicates that this is yet to happen; in fact, global CO2 emissions increased in 2017 after three years of stagnation.

There’s no scholarly wiggle words here, no hesitant tiptoeing to a conclusion.  The ‘nationally determined commitments’ or NDCs, those promises voluntarily given, perhaps complete with a Boy Scout’s salute, by each participating country, are INADEQUATE.  They won’t do.  They won’t magically let us reach the Paris goal.  Of course, we’ve known that fact ever since the NDCs began to come in back in 2015.  (We’ve also known that most countries have not managed to put in place policies that will achieve their NDCs, so the situation is even worse than the inadequacy of the NDCs implies.)

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere continues to increase.  Concentration over Mauna Loa averaged 408 ppm last month and reached 411 ppm earlier in the year during the late spring peak, and the trend shows no sign of slowing down.

The cause of this is pretty clear: in 2018 global anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases reached 49 gigatonnes CO2e not including releases due to changes in land use, a 1.1% increase over 2016, and emissions are projected to increase a further 2.7%.  There had been a plateau in emissions 2015 to 2017 leading many to believe the corner had been turned, but that was clearly misplaced optimism.  The reason for the increases?  A growing world economy with energy demand increasing fast enough to suck up all new green energy production and still require an increase in fossil fuel use.  While use of coal has slowed, use of gas and oil continue to grow rapidly.

Trends in GHG emissions from burning of fossil fuel, 1965 to 2018.  There is definitely no sign of a slowdown!  In addition to emissions due to fossil fuel use, there are emissions due to manufacture of cement and due to changes in land use.  In 2017, total GHG emissions were 53.5 gigatonnes CO2e, and total emissions excluding those from land use change were 49.2 gigatonnes CO2eImage © Nature.


Trends in energy use from 1965 to 2018, by fuel type.  Despite the enormous growth (proportionally) in solar energy, it still remains a minor part of the global energy mix.
© Nature.


The climate is continuing to warm as a consequence of the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the IPCC special report in October demonstrated the very different consequences of acting to limit warming to 1.5oC or allowing it to reach 2.0oC – a half a degree really does matter in this new Anthropocene world.

The IPCC report shows that global monthly mean surface temperature has now exceeded the range of temperatures typical of the pre-industrial era.  We are effectively in territory totally new to humans, although the world has been here before.  Furthermore, in an article published in this week’s Nature,

An unfortunately low-res, prepublication version of Figure 1.2 of IPCC’s 1.5o report showing the trend in globally averaged mean monthly surface temperature since the start of the industrial revolution.  Temperature (orange line) now exceeds the range of temperatures during the Holocene.  The observed trajectory is towards the high side of the range of projections from global climate models (green band).  Image © IPCC.

Yangyang Xu of Texas A&M, and V. Ramanathan and DG Victor, both of UC San Diego, argue that the IPCC report did not pay sufficient attention to the fact that rising emissions are combining with two other factors to increase the rate at which warming is taking place.  They point to improving air quality in many cities mostly due to use of more efficient cars, trucks, buses and trains, which is allowing more sunlight to reach the surface, thereby enhancing warming.  In addition, the planet is now entering the natural warming phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, expected to last a couple of decades. Xu and colleagues are saying, “Hey, wait a minute, as bad as IPCC made things seem, the overall warming rate is going to be faster, and increasing in rate over the near term”.  They suggest we may reach the 1.5oC target as much as a decade earlier than IPCC suggested!

And just to repeat, our mitigation efforts are nowhere near being sufficient to plateau at 2.0oC let alone 1.5oC.

According to Xu et al, the combined effect of continuing GHG emissions, improving air quality, and the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation now entering its warming phase means that warming is going to proceed even faster than IPCC was projecting in its October special report on keeping warming to 1.5oC.  Image © Nature.

So, what do we do now, other than assume the fetal position and hope for the best?  Nature managed to include some good news this week.  In an article titled, Emissions are still rising, Christiana Figueres and colleagues report that while decarbonization by 2050 may appear impossible now, key technologies are on track.  Costs of generating solar energy have fallen 80% in the last decade, and solar electricity is being produced in Morocco, Mexico, Chile and Egypt for 3 cents or less per kwh, cheaper than using natural gas.  Today, more than 50% of new electricity generating capacity is renewable, with wind and solar doubling every four years.

Coal is being priced out and coal-fired power plants are being retired in the USA despite the supporting bluster from a certain large, not very nice politician there.  In October, the World Bank cancelled planned funding for a 500 watt coal project in Kosovo – the last coal project in its pipeline.  There were lower cost ways to provide the needed energy.

Giant strides are being made in developing new, more efficient batteries, and electric vehicles are starting to surge.  Norway, France, the UK, the Netherlands and India have all set deadlines for stopping the sale of non-electric cars, with Norway’s deadline in 2025.  The recent North American plant closures announced by General Motors are part of a massive restructuring to switch R&D and production towards electric vehicles.  And, while OPEC projected 46 million by 2040, it now projects 253 million by that date.

Of course, even Figueres could not be totally optimistic.  Their article noted the growing trend away from support for international cooperation in reducing emissions, specifically mentioning the brilliant White House decision to have the USA withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the pro-harvesting attitude towards the Amazon rainforest by the newly elected populist President of Brazil, and the prevalence of climate sceptics among Australia’s political leaders, who worship at the coal shrine every chance they get.  Still, refusing to end on a down note, Figueres and colleagues lauded the widespread support for climate action at regional and local levels even within countries that are intransigently opposed to moving on climate at the national level.

Reading Figueres’s article did cheer me up.  It goes on to enumerate actions by private industry, and strong support by some countries for the Paris Agreement.  Its worth a read if only for the uplift it provides (and it is open access, even if in Nature).  Still, for me the uplift did not last: I remain pessimistically unconvinced.

You see, here in Canada, the Trudeau government has got itself all tangled up in unbuilt pipelines, and the most ridiculous wailing coming out of Alberta because they are having difficulty selling their oil at a decent price.  These days, every time there is a price dip, a chorus of voices rises like angels on high, singing out that its all because we don’t have enough pipelines, and the downturn in the tar sands is going to lead the Canadian economy to abject ruin.  Fingers are pointed at Justin Trudeau, who simply has not done enough for Alberta, the most misunderstood, and poorly treated Province in all of Canada.

I’ve talked before about the mythical lack of pipeline capacity, and have yet to see anyone provide evidence to the contrary.  There WOULD BE a shortage of capacity if the production of bitumen had grown as rapidly, and to such high levels, as was being predicted by all the oil-savvy experts back in the Harper years.  Production is going to increase three-fold!  Have to get those pipelines built (all of them)!  Cannot delay!

Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley fixing Canada’s claimed pipeline shortage.
© David Parkins/Globe & Mail

But growth has been a lot more anemic (thank god, given impacts on the climate), and present-day problems have been caused by four things that have come together as the proverbial perfect storm.  First there is a glut of oil on the global market partly because lifting of sanctions has allowed Iran back into markets, partly because of growing fracking output in the US, and partly because demand has not kept up with supply.  Second, Suncor has successfully brought new production online ahead of schedule, contributing to a glut of product within Alberta.  Third, a number of refineries in the US Midwest that process Canadian heavy crude (read ‘tar sands gluggy stuff’) have shut down for maintenance at the same time.  And fourth, Canada has pipelines that only go to US refineries, so any slowdown in that pathway hits Alberta which has no alternative destinations for its oil.  This October, even if we had a twinned Trans-Mountain, and a new Keystone XL in operation, Alberta would have faced discounted prices.  Nevertheless, despite these facts, numerous authoritative sources and politicians (not necessarily the same thing) were criticizing anyone who had the temerity to wonder about the climate, or the environment, or who argued against building every more pipelines from Alberta.  The normally sane and sage Globe & Mail even wrote an editorial to this effect!

Amazingly, fantastically, and revealing just how inflated the rhetoric about a shortage of pipeline capacity had become, as soon as Alberta’s Premier Notley promised to buy some rail cars, and create some legislation to force a slowdown in production, the low prices disappeared.  Whereas prices for Western Canadian Select (the tar sands product) had bottomed out in October at $50 below the price for West Texas Intermediate, leading to all the wailing from Alberta, the prices rebounded today to a $15 discount on West Texas Intermediate – slightly better than the long-term average of $17, due to the greater difficulty with handling and processing this stuff.  Look at the graph and explain to me a) how the claimed chronic shortage of pipeline capacity could produce such a yo-yoing price differential, and b) how some calming words and a promise from Premier Notley for some changes in production sometime in 2019 could have produced the recovery over the last few days.  Main message here?  Take with a grain of salt any crisis talk out of Alberta.

This delightfully zig-zaggy trend line shows the difference in price between tar sands ‘oil’ and conventional oil (West Texas Intermediate).  A shortage of pipelines that is claimed to have existed for years could never be responsible for these gyrations.  On the other hand, that gifted politician, Premier Notley has been able to save the day at the end of November by a promise of government help sometime next year.  Wow, does she have charisma or what!
© Globe & Mail.

Prime Minister Trudeau, who has already committed Canadians to buying a pipeline we did not ask for, is now being asked by Rachel Notley to help her buy the rail cars she has promised.  Hell, why not go into the railroad business together to please Alberta?  Trudeau has wisely kept his lip buttoned on rail cars, but I wait with bated breath while the meeting this weekend between the PM and all the Premiers – political promises are seldom cases of careful rational deliberation.

Still, it is undeniable that Justin Trudeau has found himself tangled up in pipelines more than he ever expected, and this has kept him from taking pressing action on climate change.  Canada is still saddled with the original NDC (nationally determined commitment) for the Paris agreement.  It had been cobbled together by Stephen Harper, a person noted for his complete disdain of climate change, and it was delivered to IPCC by the newly elected Trudeau team.  It has been widely condemned as one of the least adequate – make that most inadequate – NDCs offered by a developed country.  And Canada is hopelessly far behind on even achieving this modest little effort.  Meanwhile the sunny ways of the early Trudeau years have faded into a particularly nasty political battle in which conservative politicians (both in the federal opposition, and in power in provinces) are gleefully using spurious claims that the planned federal carbon tax is just a tax grab by the government.  Men (and they are all men) who should know better are feverishly stoking resentment from the public, who are believed, apparently, to be too stupid to actually understand a) that putting a price on carbon pollution is the most effective way of reducing it, and b) the proposed tax will generate revenues that are being passed back to the public.  No Net Increase in Taxes.

One of Canada’s less thoughtful provincial Premiers, who goes by the name @FordNation and has spent his first six months in office scrapping every piece of environmental legislation he can find.  Goose-stepping backwards into the past ain’t a bit like John Cleese’s ‘silly walk’.
© Now Magazine

There have been several opportunities to resuscitate the climate policies.  Each of the reports from IPCC or other bodies over the last few months has pointed to the urgent need for countries to do more than they are doing.  But on each occasion, I have watched and waited, and neither Justin Trudeau, nor his Minister of Environment and CLIMATE CHANGE, Catherine McKenna, has grabbed the ball and run with it.  It’s got so bad that @CathMcKenna has been tweeting about all the wonderful things Canada is going to do to solve the problem of plastic in the ocean.  I mean, who is going to be opposed to doing something to reduce plastic pollution.  Yes, we’ll all give up plastic straws, and live happily ever after as the world grows warmer and warmer.

On the other hand, I am not a politician, and maybe keeping one’s powder dry is a useful posture given that they never planned to bring in the tax until next year anyway…. Except, next year is also an election year, and the Conservatives are already beating the drum about why we must not pay taxes to curb greenhouse gases.

Its possible that there is more real support in Canada for curbing global warming than I believe is the case.  But I have watched in distress as the newly elected Ford government of Ontario (now there is a political leader to admire) has methodically wound down every progressive environmental measure put in place by its predecessors.  Ontario’s cap-and-trade program, barely in place, was scrapped the moment they assumed power (at some cost to the treasury, too).  Various other environmental advances made by the former government have also been rolled back.  And I have heard only silence.  Like its too bad, but it probably doesn’t really matter.  It DOES matter.

Elsewhere, I see the city of Paris on fire as people riot against a gasoline tax to curb carbon emissions.  It’s touching.  It makes for great theatre – all those yellow vests in the dark night, and it did get the tax cancelled for now.  But how does France move forward?

In Australia, the endless spewing of nonsense out of the Parliament House about the lack of need for Australia to do anything towards curbing greenhouse gases leaves me wondering.  They built that Parliament building half underground.  Perhaps they should just bury it fully, with the politicians inside, and plant trees on top of it.

A nation that has put up with exceptionally severe droughts, fires, cyclones in recent years should surely be aware that climate is changing in ways that make Australia a far more difficult place in which to live and prosper than it once was.  The nation that prides itself on its management of the Great Barrier Reef, and recognizes that reef as of iconic value, a major generator of tourism jobs and dollars, and a piece of Australia’s national heritage that absolutely defines that country, is being led by politicians who find it appropriate to throw $444 million at an NGO ill-equipped to use it effectively, and claim that by so doing they are protecting the Great Barrier Reef, following its severe bleaching two years in a row because of climate change.  Meanwhile the demand to dig up coal and export it to India continues unabated.  If all Australia’s coal was dug up and used, the world would be in exactly the same mess as if all Canada’s delightful tar sands were dug up and used.  We collectively cannot afford to do either of these things, and the sooner people realize that and stop trying, the better.  The world is not a larder full of stuff for us to use willy nilly.  No matter what any economist thinks.

Why not cut 9 million out of the 10.7 million acres previously set aside to protect this amazing bird?  More land for mining and drilling!  What a great, forward-thinking step to take by an Administration that has yet to find a single environmental issue it supports.  Is this what Americans voted for?  Image © Dan Cepeda/Associated Press.

And then there is the United States.  Led by a madman who clearly has never seen a natural environment he might consider protecting.  This morning’s paper had a wonderful picture of a sage grouse in courting pose.  This amazing creature has already had its numbers greatly reduced because we prefer to use prairie differently, and the photo was there because Mr. Trump has found yet another environmental reserve, set up to protect the grouse on their lekking ground, that needs to be trashed so that there is more land available to drill for fossil fuels.  Getting that pesky bird out of the way was one step.  Almost simultaneously, rules governing emissions from coal-fired power plants have been rolled back. Yes, there are large parts of the USA that are trying their best to make progress on climate change, but I think the world needs far more from the USA than a partial response, while the disease which is the current central government does all it can do to undo any progress from past years.

At present, despite rereading the Figueres article in Nature, and trying to become inspired again, I find myself looking into a very warm and chaotic future.  It won’t be the 1.5o or the 2.0o future that IPCC talks about.  IT’s going to be the 4o or the 6o or the 7o future that nobody who understands these things wants to contemplate.  A future in which we will lack the water needed for crops to feed our people, one in which our major cities will all be moderately or severely damaged by rising sea level.  A future with a sea level that continues to rise until all the ice in polar regions is gone, and virtually all our major cities are so many Atlantises.  A future that will make the scenes of refugees today the new normal across vast stretches of the planet.  And we will have caused it.  Through our carelessness, our greed, and our blind stupidity.

Or maybe, just maybe, we will find a way to at last begin to take due notice of what is the most profound set of changes unleashed on this planet since we began to learn how to farm.  I sure hope there is going to be some good news in 2019.  For now, my advice to everyone is to let your political leaders know you support taking strong action on climate change, you want to see results.  For Canadians, particularly, it is imperative that people who have been convinced that climate change is a real and present danger all communicate their concern to the federal politicians, as loudly as possible.  We want a carbon tax.  We want other actions to shift the Canadian economy away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.  We want a progressive, well-thought-out, coordinated program that will address greenhouse gas emissions while also building the infrastructure and creating the new technology that will provide high-value jobs for the future.  Canada is lucky to be in a part of the world where climate change risks will be manageable.  We need to seize that luck to ensure a great future for our people.