Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Is opposition to new pipelines distracting from broader climate policy concerns?

There's much argument about whether building the Keystone XL pipeline will unleash an oil sands "carbon bomb" and whether activists are attacking symbols rather than true causes. Below is a post from last year, outlining my argument why opposition to Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway across British Columbia is a reasonable climate policy decision, under the circumstances:

(Re-post from March, 2012)

After a few months of thinking, I came to the conclusion that there is no choice but to oppose the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline. There are many worthy arguments on either side of this issue, from the economy to First Nations rights, and from the preservation of the BC coastline to the reality of oil consumption here and abroad. My argument, presented in the Mark, is entirely about climate:

If the Harper government were not so consistently obstinate on federal climate policy, people like me (a climate scientist who has long been wary of the NIMBYism of environmental groups) might not become vociferous opponents of projects like Northern Gateway. We are forced to oppose individual carbon-intensive projects because the government refuses to listen to scientific or economic reason on climate change.

My compromise solution is a federal carbon pricing system.

A carbon-pricing system, like those of British Columbia and Australia, would not necessarily prevent pipeline construction. Rather, it could allow the market to decide whether the costs of a new pipeline outweigh the benefits, and ensure that any emissions from such new projects are more than compensated for by cuts elsewhere. This would also help Canada slowly transition towards a 21st-century economy, based on innovation and our plentiful renewable resources, without ignoring extractive industries of our past.

I encourage people to read, consider and comment on this argument. It is not based on concern about the direct effect of an individual pipeline like Northern Gateway on the physics and chemistry of the climate system. The approval of an individual project, and for that matter, the overall expansion of oil extraction in Alberta, would not specifically be  - physically or chemically speaking - "game over" for the climate, as some have claimed. They could, however, lead us down the wrong path. 

Absent a federal effort to manage carbon emissions, there will be a pitched battle over every new pipeline and every new coal-burning power plant. Many of those seeming slam dunks, like Keystone XL, will clang off the rim. We could keep fighting like this forever. Or we could work together on a federal climate policy.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Poll: Canadians more interested in preserving the environment than expanding oil drilling

This is from the latest barometer, a semi-regular poll about Canadian values, from the Manning Centre. Before anyone screams "bias", the Manning Centre is not an environmental group. It is a think tank, created by the former leader of the Canada's "right" wing party, "to ensure that conservative-oriented politicians command public confidence and govern in accordance with conservative values once elected".

Food for thought. Keep in mind, though, that "preserving the environment" does not necessarily include dealing with climate change.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Carbon emissions blow right past the financial crisis

Data from CDIAC. Asterisks notes dips with multiple possible causes.
During a plenary presentation at last fall's AGU meeting, Bob Watson argued that this is the first time in modern history that the carbon emissions have fully rebounded from a drop, due to some economic or political crisis, using a chart along these lines.

While this is by no means a comprehensive scientific analysis, it is a very interesting and telling observation. If you look at the global fossil fuel emissions data, all of the major disruptions to energy and oil use in the past 60 years caused carbon emissions to drop or level off. Annual emissions would later continue to rise at a rate similar to that before the disruption, but the total annual emissions would not "catch up" to where it "would have been" without the disruption.

The recent world financial crisis appears, on the surface at least, to be an exception. Carbon emissions stopped rising in 2008 and 2009, but rebounded so strongly in the past couple years, that emissions have reached the level to which they appeared to be headed, presuming linear extrapolation, before the crisis.

I'll let you argue why: whether it is the nature of the crisis, the rise of China's economy, etc. Regardless of the cause, the effect points to the potential naivete, not to mention the questionable morality, of people thinking or hoping that economic slowdowns will 'naturally' limit carbon emissions and save the world from the dangerous impacts of climate change.


Thursday, March 07, 2013

"Storm the Riding" this Saturday, March 9, to spread the word about climate change

The student group UBCC350 is organizing a rally this weekend to encourage people in the Vancouver-Point Grey, the riding of B.C. Premier Christie Clark and also of UBC, to vote in the upcoming provincial election with climate change in mind.

All Vancouver-ites are welcome to participate in Storm the Riding. The organizing starts at 10 am, at Lord Byng High School in Point Grey.

The non-partisan group is asking all parties in the May provincial election to take strong stances on key climate issues including the 2020 legislated greenhouse gas reduction targets and BC's growing carbon exports.  As we've discussed here at Maribo, the carbon emissions that come from burning fossil fuels exported from the province exceed the emissions from the province itself. The proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, just one proposed means of increasing carbon exports, would alone contribute an extra 93 Mt CO2 to the atmosphere each year, more than double the provincial target for the year 2020.

The post-canvassing meetup in McBride Park, at 4th and Waterloo, in the early afternoon will feature three of the four major candidates in the upcoming Vancouver-Point Grey election.


Monday, March 04, 2013

The most important figure about the oil sands

Are the oil sands a "carbon bomb"? Will the construction of new pipelines unleash this "bomb" on the climate?

There's lots of confusion about these questions. On Friday, the U.S. State Department released an assessment that stated the Keystone XL pipeline would have a negligible climate impact, essentially because a market analysis suggested that other options will arise for transporting additional carbon from the oil sands. Environmentalists are crying foul, energy and industry experts are arguing both sides, and pundits are wondering why the report was released on a Friday afternoon, when few people follow the news. It's hard to know who to trust.

The figure below, based on one figure made by Keith Stewart from Greenpeace and shown to me by Mark Jaccard in the fall, suggests the answer to both questions could be considered "yes", but not in the way people normally say. 

The first column is existing, planned and announced oil sands projects;
 the orange bars are oil sands production in the IEA future scenarios.
Production is assumed to be 80% of capacity, following the IEA methods. 

The figure shows that according to International Energy Agency (IEA) modeling, if all of the oil sands projects with regulatory approval go ahead, oil sands production will exceed the level expected to occur in a +2°C world. If the projects under regulatory review all go ahead, oil sands production will be higher than that in the IEA's +6°C scenario.

The expansion of the oil sands is by no means the sole driver of the extreme warming in those scenarios. As estimated in a much-discussed article by Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver last year, the total amount of carbon stored in the oil sands is "only" sufficient to raise the world's temperature by 0.24-0.50°C. Now, some may argue that is enough to consider the oil sands a "carbon bomb" - scientist John Abraham argued as much in the Guardian recently. Others disagree, since Swart and Weaver's analysis showed that the potential "warming" from the oil sands is tiny compared to that from the world's coal stores.

The IEA scenarios suggest that both arguments miss the point. The oil sands are only one source of oil, and only one source of fossil carbon. That carbon will not be exploited in a vacuum. In analysing this problem, you need to consider what role the oil sands are likely to play in the global oil and global energy system. A world in which the oil sands are fully exploited is a world in which many other sources of oil and carbon are also exploited. In a sense, the State Department's market analysis for Keystone XL was too limited in scope to capture the global carbon picture.

Regardless of whether the carbon in the oil sands should be directly labelled a "carbon bomb", the IEA Outlook suggests a world with greater oil sands extraction is, in essence, a "carbon bomb world". If we want to avoid a world that is >3.5°C warmer, we likely need a global energy system in which the expansion of extraction in the oil sands is constrained.

This is why so many climate policy experts here in B.C. oppose the pipeline expansion or construction. Absent carbon regulations or pricing, the best available tool for slowing or capping oil sands expansion is blocking new transportation options. The proposed pipelines would move additional bitumen; new pipelines would allow for construction of many of those projects with regulatory approval or under regulatory review. 

Does this mean the "science" says you should oppose the pipelines?

The hard truth is that there's no "right" answer on climate policy. Science, or energy modeling, can guide our decisions, but cannot make decisions for us. Each of us will develop an opinion about the pipelines and oil sands expansion based on other considerations as well. My hope, and I suspect the hope of most climate experts, is that people think about these numbers before making a decision.