Friday, January 25, 2008

Alberta's climate change plan

Last Friday's post on transit plans ended with this aside:

But I can guarantee you no one, at any level of government anywhere in the country, wants to look like Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, who toured Washington this week trying to deny the environmental impact of oil sands operations... The argument: large facilities are required to "reduce the intensity by 12 per cent." This while they plan to triple production. So if intensity is the emissions per unit of production, that means the emissions would multiple by 2.64. Canadians do understand fractions.

Prophetic? The release of the Alberta government's dubious climate change plan invited no shortage of ridicule.

There are two things any discussion of this must concede right away. First, the fact that Alberta has recognized the need to address climate change, let alone release a plan, is a huge positive change. Second, Canada's economic boom in recent years has been driven in large part by high oil prices encouraging expansion of production from Alberta's tar sands. So, like it or not, Alberta's in a difficult place on this issue.

That all being said, the plan is purposely deceptive, relying on tricks of language and statistics to pretend that meaningful action will be taken. The report also displays a fundamental misunderstanding of climate change, discussing it as an environmental problem, rather than a problem that will affect the economy and human well-being worldwide.

For the number: the plan calls for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below business-as-usual projections by 2050. Given that the usual business is carbon-intensive, this equates to a 14% decrease from 2005 emissions.

Now, Alberta's GHG emissions increased by over 40% from 1990, the baseline most of the planet is using, to 2005. Therefore, the 2050 target is around 20% above 1990 levels. I can't provide exact numbers because the reported total 2005 emissions in the Alberta plan is lower than what I find in the federal inventory. This may be a simple reporting issue.

Comparing to a business-as-usual scenario that involves ramping up oil sands production paved
the way for the disingenuous graph
to your right. It appears that Alberta is calling for far greater emissions reductions than any other province. Two reasons: i) the comparison is to the business as usual projections, which again, assume a huge increase in oil extraction from the tar sands, ii) BC, Quebec and Ontario have set emissions reduction targets for 2050, but based on current or 1990 levels rather than Alberta's business-as-usual approach, so no comparison is made.

The idea of setting a target based on business-as-usual emissions follows from the "stabilization wedges" approach developed by Steve Pacala and Rob Socolow at Princeton; the word wedge even pops up in the Alberta report. Their popular idea is to use a variety of strategies to at least stabilize emissions by 2050-2055. The Alberta "wedges" include carbon capture and storage (70% of reductions), conservation (12%) and "greening energy production" (18%). Again, the breakdown appears to put the burden on industry, particular those related oil sands production. But the calculations have been done assuming a huge expansion in oil sands production. So, at best, it is a wash.

However you crunch the numbers, the Alberta's plan openly conflicts with even the mediocre plan put forth by the Conservative government. It openly conflicts with the idea that the developed world should shoulder a greater burden of emissions reductions -- the reason global emissions are expected to rise without any mitigation is supposed to be development in the Global South.

Following this template, it will be extremely difficult for Canada to meet any scientifically meaningful long-term emissions target. NDP leader Jack Layton summed it up well: "This program put forward by the government of Alberta would be totally contrary to virtually any target that anyone has set anywhere."

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