Saturday, September 30, 2006

Emissions (or energy) intensity

A snippet of the upcoming Canadian GHG and smog-forming emissions plans (Globe and Mail):

In a separate interview with CTV Newsnet, Ms. Ambrose said the plan would include financial penalties.
Oil industry sources said yesterday the Tories intend to set standards to reduce "energy intensity" in the sector, an approach that would reduce emissions for every barrel produced. That approach, which is favoured by the Alberta government and the industry, would see emissions continue to rise as oil-sands development booms, but would slow the pace of the growth.

Any regulation is better than the current situation. But the intensity trick is what I've been warning about for months (Toronto Star):

Since the days of the Canadian Alliance, Harper and colleagues have opposed the Kyoto limits on greenhouse gas emissions. They preferred the approach of the United States, which refused to sign any international climate agreement under the pretence that it could hurt the economy. The new "Made in Canada" plan is expected to be based upon the current U.S. government policy that the Bush administration adopted in 2002 after rejecting Kyoto... It is worth examining the problem with a U.S.-style policy...

The economy, expressed as GDP, grows at roughly 3 per cent a year. The compound interest function on your calculator will show that this average annual growth rate works out to 34 per cent growth over a 10-year period. The stated target is to have the GHG intensity — the emissions divided by the GDP — be 18 per cent lower in about 10 years. Since the GDP will have increased by 34 per cent, the greenhouse gas emissions can actually increase by 10 per cent over those 10 years. The proposed reduction in intensity is actually an increase in total emissions.

Proponents will argue that this is still an improvement over business-as-usual. If the greenhouse gas intensity remains constant over the 10 years, the total emissions would increase by 34 per cent. In that sense, the reduction in intensity could represent some progress. It would not save the planet from the disastrous implications of climate change but it would be better than nothing.

Actually, no. The catch is that the greenhouse gas intensity of the U.S., of Canada, and of virtually every industrialized country has been decreasing for years as our economies become more productive and our technology improves. How much? Here's the funny coincidence. In the U.S., the greenhouse gas intensity decreased by about 18 per cent between 1990 and 2000.

In other words, the Bush administration climate policy is just a statement about staying the course. It does absolutely nothing to address climate change. Canadians should be wary of any similar Conservative policy that uses words like greenhouse gas intensity and claims to address both the economy and the climate. When the announcement is made, have a calculator handy.


Friday, September 29, 2006

Fallout from the auditor general's climate change report

After reading the news this morning, I looked at my old Globe op-ed on climate change policy, published before the 2004 election (the Martin minority). With the Liberals and Conservatives in mind, I wrote that try as you might to ignore it, climate change is one issue that will not go away, so you'd better come up with a plan.

Well, here we are. Still bickering after all these years.

The Conservative government is keeping quiet on whether any of the recommendations in the Auditor General's report are addressed in the greenhouse gas component of the new Made-in-Canada plan (to be released next week). Most likely, the answer is no. Instead, their focus has been on the auditor general report's well-founded criticism of the previous Liberal government's plan and on Stephane Dion, the former environment minister and now Liberal leadership candidate. Dion's rebuttal has been strong:


... called into question Prime Minister Stephen Harper's environmental policies."The prime minister does not believe in the science of climate change," Dion said, describing it as "the worst ecological threat that humanity is facing."


.. he said the previous Liberal government proposed a better plan to fight climate change in its last months in power, called "Project Green" -- only to have it axed by the incoming Conservative government. The plan would have cost an estimated $10 billion over eight years, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 270 megatonnes between 2008 and 2012.

"It's very important for people to understand (the report) is not about the last plan that we released on April 2005 - the plan that was killed by Mr. Harper," Dion told Mike Duffy Live. "It's about what we have done the years before. And we agree with what she said. It's why Mr. Martin last year brought his ministers together and came up with a much more compelling plan, that would have helped Canada to reach its Kyoto targets on time."


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Canadian Auditor General calls for action on climate change

In the report released this morning, the Auditor General's Office, which is like the principal's office for the Canadian government, called for a "massive scale up of efforts" to fight climate change.

From the Globe and Mail:

Environment Commissioner Johanne Gélinas, who is part of the Auditor General's Office, says Liberal policies — even the most recent 2005 plan introduced by then Environment Minister Stéphane Dion — would not ensure Canada could meet its targets under the international Kyoto agreement.

"Climate change is upon us, and no matter how you look at it, the stakes for Canada are high," Ms. Gélinas said in a statement. "With its resources and powers, the federal government can make a big difference. But our findings show that it has not been up to the task so far."

"There is a foundation to build on, with motivated and talented public servants and good programs that have made some headway in reducing emissions," Ms. Gélinas said in a statement. "What we need now is a commitment to specific actions with time frames for completing them."


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

California passes climate change legislation

The now Hummer-less Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California officially signed the ambitious new climate change legislation this afternoon. The law calls for California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and to 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050.

Possibly even more significant, Schwarzenegger will probably sign a bill that bars California companies from participating in long-term contracts that involve importing energy from out-of-state sources that do not follow the new greenhouse gas regulations. The bill is aimed at forcing the new coal-burning plants being planned in neighbouring states to adopt carbon capture and storage technology.

Pressure is also building in Canada to impose tougher regulations on the energy industry. The country's Auditor General is about to release a report that criticizes the previous government's Kyoto implementation plan, and calls for the current government to enact more effective legislation aimed at reducing emissions from oil and gas, especially the development in the Alberta tar sands.


Monday, September 25, 2006

From Hummers to Moonbeams

I read with amusement that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has sold his beloved Hummers. All eight. Having signed the most progressive greenhouse gas reduction laws in the US, the Governor decided that owning a fleet of vehicles that get 10 miles per gallon (mpg) was sending the wrong message.

I don't know who bought the cars or what they plan to do with them. But if one's objection to a Hummer is the woeful fuel efficiency, wouldn't the responsible decision be to leave the car in your driveway, rather than sell it, thus ensuring not another drop of fuel enters its 27.5 gallon (104 litre) tank, or its 24 gallon (91 litre) auxiliary tank? Remove the roof and plant some flowers. With eight of them, you could build a botanical garden.

If Gov. Schwarzenegger is in the market for a more efficient vehicle, he could try the 105 mpg Moonbeam, built by Joey Squibb for only $2500 dollars, only half the cost of filling his eight former vehicles with gas (seriously, do the math).


Saturday, September 23, 2006

Water please, hold the bottle

Those of you who know me personally have no doubt heard my rant about the popularity of bottled water in North America. In my opinion, the bottled water industry is based almost entirely on fear mongering about the safety of tap water. Unless you are in a community with no water treatment, drinking bottled water is wasteful, unnecessary, and if anything, more dangerous than drinking tap water. The tap water, unlike the bottled water, is regulated and tested.

The Saturday Globe and Mail has an interesting report about religious groups joining environmental groups in the fight against bottled water. The activists should staple this passage to every bottled water vending machine:

"A one-litre bottle of Dasani brand water, sold at a Toronto supermarket recently for $1.59, retails for about 3,000 times the price of a litre of municipal water from nearby Brampton, where the container was filled. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. filters the municipal water and then adds minerals to improve its taste. Federal product labelling laws do not require bottlers to indicate that their products originally were tap water, but do require companies to say whether it is spring or mineral water."


Friday, September 22, 2006

A change in US climate change policy?

Rumours have been flying for a week or so that the Bush Administration plans to change its tune on climate change, perhaps in January's State of Union address. No one knows for certain whether it will happen at all, or if it does happen, what the change will entail.

The speculation is based entirely on reports from those people that pop up all too often in news reporting today: unnamed sources. Here's the original news story from UK's the Independent, no big fan of the Bush Administration.

17 September 2006 - President Bush is preparing an astonishing U-turn on global warming, senior Washington sources say.

After years of trying to sabotage agreements to tackle climate change he is drawing up plans to control emissions of carbon dioxide and rapidly boost the use of renewable energy sources. Administration insiders privately refer to the planned volte-face as Mr Bush's "Nixon goes to China moment", recalling how the former president amazed the world after years of refusing to deal with its Communist regime. Hardline global warming sceptics, however, are already publicly attacking the plans.

The rethink follows increasing pressure on the White House from Republican governors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the mayors of more than 300 cities, business leaders and Congress. Over the past few days rumours swept the capital that the "Toxic Texan" would announce his conversion this week, in an attempt to reduce the impact of a major speech tomorrow by Al Gore on solutions to climate change.

The White House denied the timing, but did not deny that a change of policy was on its way. Sources say that the most likely moment is the President's State of the Union address in January.

Environmentalists expect the measures to fall far short of what is needed, but say this does not matter. "The very fact that Bush would reverse his position will liberate many Republicans to vote for meaningful pollution cuts," says Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

But Iain Murray, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Mr Bush's chief climate change cheerleader, is deeply alarmed: "We are left with the unpleasant conclusion that the only motivation is political."


Details of new Canadian emissions policy starting to emerge

Today's Globe and Mail reports that the Conservative government in Canada is preparing to release the long-waited new "emissions policy" that will include tougher rules for automobiles, based on California's "stringent" standards.

The Canadian government has been very careful in the use the generic word emissions in public statements this year Greenhouse gas emissions? Or smog-forming emissions? Or both? We are finally starting to get some clarity with this latest leak. Some.

It appears that the new policy will adopt something along the lines of the tough regulations on smog-forming emissions - NOx, VOCs, etc. - enforced by California's Air Resources Board for several years. If so, this is a sensible decision. Whatever you think of air quality concerns, having tougher standards in different states or provinces is ridiculous. Right now, automakers are actually constructing different versions of the same car. The Honda Accord you buy in California (or New York) will have lower smog-forming emissions than one bought in other states or Canada. So the technology exists.

On greenhouse gases, though, the sources quoted in the article are more vague. The Environment Minister has suggested the new policy are looking at a California plan to reduce CO2 emissions from automobiles (ie. via increase fuel efficiency). No details are given.

The California plan called for a 30% reduction, originally by 2016. A collection of eight northeastern states have suggested they may also adopt the rule, although nothing is definite. For a couple years, there have been calls from people on both sides of the border for Canada, the Kyoto signatory, to also join the initiative. The previous government was reluctant to put pressure on the automotive industry and instead adopted a toothless voluntary plan.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Darfur and resilience to climate shocks

Rallies were held around the world on Sunday to demand UN intervention in the Darfur region of Sudan. I had expected to see a large turnout at the New York rally. It was heartening to see that young people made up the majority of the 20,000 that gathered in Central Park. A number of the speakers mentioned that the fraction of young faces in the audience countered the notion that the younger generation doesn't pay attention to what is happening around the world.

As I mentioned in the last post, the ongoing drought in central Africa may have helped fuel the tensions that led to the current crisis in Darfur. The same argument has been made for other conflicts. The logic is that people in places like southern or western Sudan, where there is limited infrastructure (or grain reserves), the people there are less resilient, to use the popular term in ecology, to drought than, say, North Americans.

The comparison is not wrong, just simplistic. First, in reality, there is a distribution of resilience in each region, country or society, regardless of development status (take a look at New Orleans). Climate 'shocks' like floods or droughts tend to hurt the worst off in each place. Second, with the global exchange of people, goods and resources, the resilience of one region influences that of another. North America may be immune from the direct impact of a drought in a place like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, or Darfur, or a major wheat-growing region like Russia or India. However that same drought could inspire military intervention, a shift in crop prices or demand, or a rise in oil prices that will affect North America. That’s why it is important not to treat the various impacts of climate variability and climate change as separate boxes - a drought here, a flood there. More attention needs to be paid to the potential cascading effects of that drought, that flood.


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Global Day for Darfur

I'm veering a bit off of the subject of climate here... As you've probably heard, the Sudanese government has placed a deadline of September 30th for the withdrawl of the African Union peacekeepers from the Darfur region. This Sunday, rallies are being held in cities around the world to call for UN intervention. People attending the rallies are being asked to wear a blue hat to symbolize the need for UN peacekeepers in Darfur.

I’ll be going to the rally in New York (from 2-5 pm, in the East Meadow of Central Park). For information about the plans in your area, check the Global Day for Darfur site. Retired Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN mission in Rwanda, will be keynote speaker at the Toronto rally.

Not that the climate has been irrelevant here. Many experts feel the ongoing drought in central Africa may have played a role in the Darfur crisis, just as the 1990s drought in Afghanistan may have played a role in the rise of the Taliban. In the case of the Sudan, changes in rainfall brought the nomadic peoples into conflict with settled pastoralists. If you are interested in the subject, I recommend this article in the magazine Seed.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

El Nino on the way

There's a mild El Nino event brewing in the Pacific. The forecasters have suspected as much for the past couple months. The latest data (right) showing abnormally warm water in the central and eastern Equatorial Pacific led to the El Nino forecast by NOAA.

This is not expected to be anything like the strong 1998 El Nino event. But we will probably see some of the climate effects of El Nino, including dry weather in Australia and the western Pacific, a milder winter and spring in central North America and wet weather in Florida and the Gulf Coast.

The warming in the central Pacific could impact the reefs there. The coral bleaching event I surveyed in western Kiribati (intersection of the equator and the dateline, right under the orange spot in above map) in 2004 occurred after a very similar build-up of ocean temperatures from July-December. Bleaching is a paling caused by a breakdown of the symbiosis between the coral, the reef-building animal, and the colourful algae that lives in the coral's tissue. If the conditions that cause bleaching persist, like abnormally ocean waters, the corals can die. That's not the end of the story, though. The reefs can recover - the evidence from my colleagues suggests the corals have been returning after the high mortality we measured. The ecological questions are more how the community changes due to a bleaching event, and what happens if the disturbances (ie. the warm water) occur more frequently than in the past.

A couple weeks ago, NOAA Coral Reef Watch put out a bleaching warning for western Kiribati and the U.S. islands in the area (thanks in small part to my ranting). It will be interested to see, if the temperature stress continues to build, how the coral community responds. There is evidence that some corals can acclimate or adapt to warming ocean temperatures, by shifting the symbiosis to more temperature-tolerant algae. This may be an interesting test. Now if only someone wants to fund my research proposal...


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

More on climate change and tropical ocean temperatures

There's yet another new study about the contribution of human-induced climate change to ocean warming in the regions of hurricane development ("tropical cyclogenesis regions"). This one, by Ben Santer and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (check Sept 12), uses the results from a number of different climate model simulations conducted for the upcoming IPCC assessment to estimate the amount of warming caused by natural or background climate variability and by external (human) forcing.

Media coverage of observed climate warming, especially related to hurricanes, tends to suggest that are two possible, but distinct, causes: forcing from the increase in greenhouse gases, or natural climate variability. Critics or skeptics of climate change science are often interviewed and say the observed warming is due to natural variability. This claim sets up a straw man: an assumption that climate scientists think that observed warming is entirely due to greenhouse gases or that the models that climate scientists use do not consider the effect of natural variability.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of the energy in the climate change science community is devoted to using climate models to examine exactly this problem: what fraction of observed warming over the past century can be attributed to natural variability, or to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations? This "climate change attribution" is done not just by running climate models with, and without, human forcings (GHG emissions) and then comparing the results to the historical temperature record, but by also analyzing "control runs" of the models. In a control run, the model is run for hundreds or thousands of "years" to estimate the background climate variability (in the model). The control run is contrasted with observations to gauge ability of the model to represent different "modes" of variability (ie. year-to-year, decadal, multi-decadal). With knowledge of the models' strengths and shortcomings, detailed statistical analysis can then used to tease out the role of natural variability and of greenhouse gas emissions in the observed warming.

If your work involves climate science, or you are just interested in the subject of climate change attribution or specifically in the hurricane issue, I recommend reading the Santer et al paper itself to get a sense of the strengths of this form of analysis. You can also read the nice summary of the subject on Realclimate.


Climate change in the Economist

The latest issue of the Economist has a comprehensive special report on climate change. While a few parts of the report suffers from the same old problems - blurring the line between evaluating the science and evaluating what to do about the science (the intro is just bizarre), the "he said, she said" method of reporting that inevitably gives too much creedence to the few critics of the science, loose use of the word uncertainty - it is on the whole well done.

What really sets this report apart from others that harp about scientific uncertainty is the conclusion: "The uncertainty surrounding climate change argues for action, not inaction."
The lead editorial calls for the introduction of either a carbon tax (more efficient) or a carbon cap-and-trade system (more likely). It then takes aim at the Bush Administration:

"Although George Bush now argues that America needs to wean itself off its dependency on oil, his administration still refuses to take serious action. But other Americans are moving. California's state assembly has just passed tough Kyoto-style targets. Many businesses, fearing that they will end up having to deal with a patchwork of state-level measures, now want federal controls. And conservative America, once solidly sceptical, is now split over the issue, as Christians concerned about mankind's stewardship of the Earth, neo-cons keen to reduce America's dependency on the Middle East and farmers who see alternative energy as a new potential source of energy come round to the idea of cutting down on carbon.

Mr Bush has got two years left in the job. He would like to be remembered as a straightshooter who did the right thing. Tackling climate change would be one way to do that."


Sunday, September 10, 2006

A vegetarian fishery

The novelist Paul Greenberg had a terrific op-ed about sustainable fisheries in last week's NY Times. Take a look, if you haven't already. The key premise behind the popular sustainable seafood guides - that we should eat and farm 'vegetarian' fish - is rarely articulated this well:

"... go vegetarian, in a manner of speaking. Farmed fish have gotten a bad name in recent years — even while our production of them has grown to rival the wild fish harvest, as the Food and Agriculture Organization reported this week. This is mostly because the farmed fish we eat in the West are carnivores. Raising carnivores like salmon requires the capture of wild prey fish that wild fish also consume. By eating farmed carnivores we rob Peter to pay Paul, stealing the food source for wild fish and feeding them to farmed."

That's why farmed tilapia and carp are deemed OK by the Monterey Bay Aquarium seafood guide (and others) but farmed salmon is not. Farming salmon is like using (carnivorous) wolves rather than (vegetarian) cattle as livestock.

Greenberg applies a similar argument to some threatened pelagic (open-ocean) fisheries:

"... don’t eat the big fish. Dining on a 500-pound bluefin tuna is the seafood equivalent of driving a Hummer. Ten pounds of little fish are required to produce one pound of bluefin and all the pollutants contained in a tuna’s prey “bio-concentrate” in a tuna’s flesh, making it a particularly compromised animal, chemically speaking. And because it takes so many little fish to make a big fish, the sea can sustain only a relatively small amount of large fish."


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Pros and cons of the ethanol business

On Friday, the NY Times business section had an informative story about engineering of crops to produce ethanol. It is a good reminder that biofuels are not an immediate solution to the American dependency on oil or the greenhouse gas burden.

As the article points out, the U.S. Energy Department reports that even if entire U.S. corn crop, which is about 40% of the world's corn, were used to produce ethanol, it would only replace 15% of U.S. petroleum use. The key to future ethanol production is likely to be genetic engineering: adding enzymes to corn to aid the conversion of plant starches to sugars (fermented to become ethanol) and improving yields of grasses whose cellulose can be converted to fuel. The article reviews the benefits and some of the dangers of crop engineering, like cross-pollination with wild species (good luck finding non-engineering canola anymore).


Friday, September 08, 2006

A cause for concern

A recent survey reports that 64% of the CEOs of small and medium-sized US businesses are “concerned about global warming”. I would hardly call this cause for celebration. Being concerned is very different from feeling that climate change is a significant problem requiring immediate action.

As the head of Vistage International, the CEO membership organization (talk about an exclusive club) that conducted the survey, said: “The question is whether that concern will translate to the willingness to support legislation and regulatory requirements that impact their businesses."


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Optimism, on one side of the border

There has been no shortage of positive developments in the US climate change and emissions control policy.

You can sense the optimism flowing from California’s decision to enact the most comprehensive greenhouse gas emission reduction policy in the U.S. This state is, after all, governed by the man personally responsible for the creation of the Hummer: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s interest in purchasing a military Humvee led GM to produce the vehicle that became the totem of inefficiency to environmentalists nation-wide.

The cover story in the most recent E / the Environment magazine boasts of all the emission reduction initiatives in U.S. cities like Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco (and also in countries like Iceland, Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic).

With so much movement by individual cities and states, most experts now assume that the next administration in the US – whether Republican or Democrat – will enact a national emissions policy. In a recent speech, Al Gore predicted that the Bush Administration may change their policy on climate change before leaving office.

It is enough to make one optimistic about North America finally attacking climate change.

Make that just America. The Conservative government in Canada is set to announce the new environmental agenda (“Green Plan II”). It will include a much-needed new program to combat smog-forming emissions and air quality. But the CBC reports there may be nothing concrete on GHG emissions for years. The government’s decision to focus on air quality and largely ignore climate change was apparently seconded by focus groups across the country over the summer (were the focus groups asked either/or questions? GHG emissions and smog-forming pollutants come from many of the same sources… it’d be logical to combine the two policies, not play them off one another).

Maybe Californian Robin Williams was right: comedy is acting out optimism.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Investing in efficiency

People like to ask me about environmentally or ‘climatically’ responsible investing, either out of a) genuine interest in supporting companies that are taking action on climate change, or b) the belief that I may have some savvy investment tips (er, given the number of my possessions held together by duct tape, I'd say no).

I did, however, recently come across this interesting study on the concept of climatically responsible investing. It uses a metric originally designed to measure social responsibility to evaluates how six companies, including BP, Shell and a random university, measure up in efforts to combat climate change (pdf).

The study is interesting - and amusing. The university finishes last. Though I suspect it is not the case with the university, the scoring method - relative improvement from each company’s independent starting point – could bias against companies that were already energy efficient.

A similar point can be made about international climate policy. Emissions reductions should be easier in places like the North America, than in Europe and Japan, which were already more energy or GHG-efficient. The fact that emissions reduction policy has been less acceptable in North America suggests that the main obstacle is culture, not opportunity.