Tuesday, October 31, 2006

International Day of Action on Climate Change (Nov. 4)

There will be demonstrations calling for urgent action on climate change in cities around this world this Saturday (Nov. 4). The "International Day of Action on Climate Change" is being timed to coincide with the start of the 12th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Nairobi next week.

The US demonstrations will also focus on the upcoming election. If you're interested in joining, Climate USA has a list of contacts in your city. For a list of demonstrations in Canada, check here.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Emissions rising in many Kyoto countries

The Stern Report (below, or try the 30 pt size headline in the Globe and Mail just maybe trying to send a message to the Canadian government) arguing that the benefits of taking serious action on climate change far outweigh the costs, could not have been released at a more important time.

The latest GHG emissions data from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change finds that emissions from most industrialized countries, including most Kyoto signatories, have increased in the past five years. The graph on the right shows the total GHG emission from 1990-2004 from all industrialized countries (ie. Kyoto signatories plus go-it-aloners like Australia and the US) separating out the EIT ("economy in transition") countries that were members of the former Eastern Bloc. The graph shows that GHG emissions have decreased slightly from industrialized countries since 1990 (3.3%) but largely only because of the dramatic drop-off in emissions after the break-up of the Soviet Union (36.8%). With emissions are now on the rise in most EIT countries like Russia, emission cuts by non-EIT countries (Europe, Japan and, ahem, Canada) is likely the only way to make up the difference between current emissions (3% below 1990) and the overall Kyoto target (5% below 1990).

Will it happen? If so, the leadership will come from Europe, and the Stern Report could play a huge role. Many European countries could be influenced heavily by the Report, the efforts underway in the UK (14% reduction, one of the few success stories) and the pledge of leadership on climate change from soon-to-be British PM Gordon Brown.

Canada, well, not only are reductions unlikely under the current plan, that plan may be influencing the decisions of other countries. Japan is 14% off its Kyoto target (of 6% below 1990 levels) and struggling with the decision to force mandatory emission cuts; as one Japanese official told Reuters, "Japan can meet the target if they implement extremely unpopular mandatory policies, but the question is why they have to when others don't seem to be really serious".

Check out the UN FCCC site for all the data.


British release report on economics of climate change

The British report arguing that the economic benefits of "strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs" was released today. For full coverage, check the BBC. As I mentioned Friday, this is not just another economic study. The British government expects it to influence domestic and possibly international policy.

In a fine display of timing (sarcasm optional, perhaps it was intentional?), the NY Times has a front page story reporting that spending on energy technologies by both government and industry has been falling.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Uncertainty and the new EPA climate change site

The EPA has revamped its climate change web site.

Before you recoil in horror at the announcement, and wonder when the NY Times expose is coming, take a look. I feel the past and future climate change sections lean too much on the wording of a 2001 NRC report cautioning about natural variability in the climate system, especially given more recent reports by the National Academies. Otherwise, it seems reasonable. I'd be curious to hear other impressions.

And, hey, at least the EPA has a climate change site. Environment Canada is still posting this.


UK Report on the economics of climate change to be released Monday

A "stark" report about the economic costs of climate change will be delivered to the Royal Society in the UK on Monday. It is hard to predict how much "play" the report will get here, given the 24-hour coverage of the upcoming elections (or should I say coverage of polls and campaign ads? US election campaigns seem to have officially devolved to something akin to the TV networks battling it out for viewers during sweeps week, more on that later) but the details of the report should be all over the international news.

From the Independent:

In a preview of a report he is to deliver next Monday, Sir Nicholas [Stern] told the Cabinet the world would have to pay 1 per cent of its annual GDP to avert catastrophe. But doing nothing could cost 5 to 20 times that amount. He told them: "Business- as-usual will derail growth."

The massive 700-page report - commissioned by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown - was described as "hard-headed" and "frighteningly convincing". It focused on the economic peril now confronting the world, unless action was taken to combat harmful CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming.

"He left no one in any doubt that doing nothing is not an option," said one Whitehall source. "And he stressed that the need for action was urgent."

His review could be a watershed in overcoming scepticism about the existence of global warming. "It was hard-headed," said another source. "It didn't deal in sandals and brown rice. It stuck to the economics."
Mr Brown believes it could force the oil-dominated White House of George Bush to concede the importance of action to curb climate change. One minister who was present said it destroyed the US government's well known argument that cutting carbon emissions was bad for business.

His report, covering the period up to 2100, warns that climate change could cause the biggest recession since the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. A downturn of that magnitude would have "catastrophic consequences" around the globe, with the poorest countries hit first and hardest, Sir Nicholas told the Cabinet. Insurance analysts, who submitted their evidence for his report, said they feared insurance claims could exceed the world's GDP.

The report itself should be available here.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A rise in the number of dead zones

The latest count of hypoxic or "dead" zones in coastal oceans around the world is up to almost 200, according to scientists at a recent UN Environment Program meeting in Beijing.

As I've mentioned before, these areas of low oxygen are usually caused by excess loading of nutrients by nitrogen (from things like fertilizer). The nutrients cause lots of algae to grow, and when the algae dies and decomposes, much of the oxygen in the water at the bottom is consumed. The lack of oxygen makes life difficult for fish and other organisms living in the deep waters near the coast.

The "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Mississippi River is one of the best known examples. Robert Diaz from the College of William and Mary, who has published surveys of the world's hypoxic zones in the past, reports that hypoxia is now common in Fosu Lagoon, Ghana; the Pearl River Estuary and the Changjiang River, China; the Elefsis Bay, Aegean Sea, Greece; Paracas Bay, Peru; Mondego River, Portugal; Montevideo Bay, Uruguay and the Western Indian Shelf.


The aftermath of coral bleaching

The threat to coral reefs around the world received a bit of (surprisingly rare) press today, thanks to a meeting of the US Coral Reef Task Force in the Virgin Islands.

Reefs across the eastern Caribbean experienced extreme coral bleaching last year thanks to persistently warm water (I'm currently working on the subject). The recovery of corals in the Virgin Islands - where there was 47% mortality last year - and other parts of the Caribbean is one of the issues at the meeting.

While it is good to see news reports about the status of coral reefs, the loose use of the word "died" is irksome. Statements like "X % of coral reefs died" can give the mistaken impression that those coral reefs are gone forever because of that one bleaching event.

Like a forest after a fire, a coral reef can recover. The concern about coral bleaching is not the singular event -- the concern is that such events, or disturbances, may be happening more and more frequently. As the frequency of disturbance goes up, the chance for recovery tends to go down. Throw in all the other local threats, like sedimentation, nutrient loading, destructive fishing practices, etc., and coral reefs are even less resilient to disturbances like bleaching.

In fact, that's the message from a UN meeting in Beijing.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The most fuel efficient cars

I've been too busy lately to keep up the regular posts. I did, however, come across this earlier today.

According to the US EPA, here are the cars with the highest fuel economy for the 2007 model year:

1. Toyota Prius (hybrid-electric)
2. Honda Civic Hybrid
3. Toyota Camry Hybrid
4. Ford Escape Hybrid FWD
5. Toyota Yaris (manual)
6. Toyota Yaris (automatic)
7. Honda Fit (manual)
8. Toyota Corolla (manual)
9. Hyundai Accent (manual) , Kia Rio (manual)
10. Ford Escape Hybrid 4WD , Mercury Mariner Hybrid 4WD

The list from Natural Resources Canada includes Honda Insight hybrid (I don't know why this didn't top the US list, perhaps it is no longer available here?) and the Mercedes Benz Smart Car (not found in the US).

Notice a trend? Only one of the top ten, the Ford Escape hybrid, is American, and not only does it rely on technology purchased from Toyota, it probably would not be ranked so high if the EPA tests simulated the way people actually drive (ie. faster, more erratically and with the a/c cranked). You can't help but wonder if the main reason the American car companies are struggling is that they are building the wrong cars.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Thoughts on Canada's new policy

The Clean Air Act announced yesterday in the Canadian Parliament has been pretty much universally panned. The only support has been from what the press calls the "business community", although a real poll of companies operating in Canada would find many would welcome a policy that will addresses near-term greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

No doubt, many of the critics are being opportunistic. Blustering by members of the previous government about how the Conservatives are ignoring Kyoto is a bit hypocritical, given how emissions grew under the previous government. And, at this point, yelling "Canada should meet Kyoto" is a meaningless pledge required to win support among a certain constituency. I agree with idea behind the Kyoto pledge, that there still be a concerted effort to reduce emissions and engage with the other sigantories. But this late in the game, there's no point at all in making the pledge unless you have a real plan.

We should not let the failures of the previous government give the current government a pass. No matter what, if the authors of this Act thought it would address climate change, if the authors thought the 45-65% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 had any real meaning, don't you think the word climate would find its way into the title, or the language of the act? It is called the Clean Air Act for a reason: to focus people's concern on air quality, not climate. Otherwise it would be called the Clean Air and Safe Climate Act.

The long-term reduction goal itself is fraught with complications. Bear with me here:

1) The target is 45-65% below 2003 levels by 2050, not 1990 levels, the standard used by Kyoto and the UNFCCC. Canada's emissions rose ~24% between 1990 and 2003. So the 45-65% works out to 32-56% less than 1990 emissions. The choice of numbers seems entirely arbitrary. I see no basis, climatically, for these numbers.

2) Reaching that goal would require a 1.35-2.35% annual reduction in GHG emissions. For perspective, reaching the science-based British goal of 60% below 1990 levels by 2050, would require a 2.55% annual reduction. Tough, no doubt.

However, the new plan says there are to be no hard caps 'til 2025. So let's say emissions stay constant until 2025. That means an annual reduction from 2025-2050 of 2.35%-4.20%. Of course, with no hard cap, a growing population and a growing economy, emissions are unlikely to stay constant. Let's say they increase at the rate (~2%/year) observed in the past 15 years. Take note, given average economic growth of 3%/ year, this emissions growth rate implies a continued decrease in emissions intensity. The result is the reduction between 2025 and 2050 must be 4.2% - 5.9% each year.

In other words, setting a cap for 2050, but not starting the reductions until 2025, is ridiculous. This is not a political argument. It is plain-old mathematics.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

I recommend watching this CBC news segment on the California climate policy (produced in light of the Canadian plans). One key to the California policy is that it includes plans to address each major emitting sector of the economy, rather than give breaks to particular industries.


The "Made-in-Canada" plan is announced

From the Canadian Press:

Ottawa — The Conservatives released the centrepiece of their “made-in-Canada” environment agenda Thursday — a Clean Air Act that would cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, but not until 2050. The bill, aimed at dispelling the notion that Tories are soft on the environment, sets no short-term targets for cutting greenhouse emissions. In the long term, it says the government will seek to cut emissions by 45 to 65 per cent by 2050.

In the interim, the government will set so-called “intensity targets” which would require industry to reduce the amount of energy used per unit of production, without placing a hard cap on emissions.
Regulations for large polluters would begin in 2010 and the government is giving itself until 2020 to set national emissions-cutting targets for the pollutants that cause smog.

I've written before about the lunacy of shouting out big long term numbers, whether 65% below 2000 levels by 2050 or 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, just one-up others politically and about the folly of intensity-based plans.

Here we may have both. The only way to guarantee reach the big long-term targets is to also establish real near-term reduction targets and an implementation plan that could meet that target. On first reading, the intensity-based targets for the oil industry appear to imply an increase in emissions. If those targets remain in place for another twenty years or so, as is suggested, reaching the 45-65% reduction target by 2050 would be nearly impossible. More on this later.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Fly me to the moon

One of the most difficult hurdles in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is air travel. Unlike with the automobiles, there are currently no clear alternative fuels or propulsion systems for airplanes. And air passenger miles are expected to double in a decade or two.

So it is not surprising to see environmental groups in countries committed to cutting GHG emissions start doing the math on their government's air travel habit (from the Independent):

The inevitable head-on collision between Britain's climate change and aviation policies moves a step closer today with figures showing the total distance flown by the Government's own ministers and senior officials last year alone is equivalent to 14 return trips to the Moon.

Tony Blair, his cabinet colleagues and their officials clocked up 6.5 million air miles, according to the Cabinet Office's list of flights during the 2005-2006 financial year - and in doing so pumped almost 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, analysis shows.

I'd be curious to see this result for a US election campaign, in which the candidates, especially the presidential candidates, seem to crisscross the country almost daily (are travel logs or schedules readily available?). New York-San Francisco is about ten times the distance of London - Brussels.

At least now some fuel is being saved by cutting out all that evil shampoo and toothpaste that was being carelessly toted onboard.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Support for a hike in gasoline taxes

Raising the gas tax or, quelle horreur, introducing a carbon tax has in the past been dismissed as a radical idea from anti-capitalist forces on the political left.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As a recent NY Times story states, economists from all over the political spectrum are now touting the benefits of a gasoline tax. The list includes Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve (doesn't "the Fed" sound like it is coming soon to a theatre near you, a maverick economist metes out his own form of justice, no, no, not another point in the prime rate).

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw has created a virtual "Pigou Club", named after the economist who first proposed using taxes to correct imperfections in the market, for economists and the like who support increasing gasoline taxes. Check out the diverse list of members.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Cleaner diesel fuel on the way

Leaving the Canadian news aside... the NY Times reported today about the development of a low-sulfur diesel fuel. This new fuel could represent a major advance in reducing smog-forming vehicle emissions and , indirectly, fuel efficiency.

Diesel is a generally a more efficient fuel. Small diesel cars can get over 40 miles per gallon, a level otherwise only achieved by hybrid gasoline-powered cars. The problem is that conventional diesel emits much more smog-forming and pollutants, like sulfur, and particulates. As the article reports, diesel vehicles, despite being vastly outnumbered in the US, produce 43% of the nitrogen oxides and more than two-thirds of the soot from American vehicles. If a cleaner-burning diesel becomes available, not only could it improve air quality, it could lead to development fuel efficient diesel and hybrid-diesel cars.


PM plans 'intensity' alternative to Kyoto

I honestly hoped I would be wrong about the "Made-in-Canada' climate policy. The above headline in the Globe and Mail says it all. Again, I suggest reading my op-ed from earlier this year.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Should Australia be worried about climate refugees?

A new study sponsored by a group of NGOs in collaboration with CSIRO - the Australian science agency - states that Australia should prepare for the regional economic and national security fallout from climate change. A primary concern is providing refuge the possibility of hundreds of thousands or millions of "environmental refugees" from low-lying countries in south Asia and the Pacific. Unlike Australia, New Zealand has already reached agreement with Kiribati, Tuvalu and other Pacific nations to accept people displaced by environmental degradation or climate change. Here's the transcript of a short ABC (the other ABC) interview with one of the study authors.

I've not been able to locate a copy of the study (Australia Responds: Helping Our Neighbours Fight Climate Change) itself - if you find one, let me know.

Australia joined the US as a pariah in the eyes of advocates for international action on climate change when, under PM John Howard, it chose not to sign the Kyoto Protocol. The irony is that Australia had negotiated the right to increase GHG emissions by 8% over 1990 levels (by 2008-2012) under the Kyoto Protocol, and may actually be on pace to meet that commitment despite not signing the agreement.


Friday, October 06, 2006

Going on an energy diet

The House and Home section of yesterday's NY Times had a terrific, hilarious "lazy man's guide to belt-tightening at home". It includes a number of useful suggestions for reducing energy use as home.

Though I did take offense, as a Canadian, to this one passage:

"And I recently bought a flat-screen high-def 37-inch TV, an energy-Hoover you’ll have to pry from my cold, dead hands; if you haven’t seen an N.F.L. game on something like that, my friend, you might as well watch curling."

Let me tell you, as I'm old enough now to admit the truth, curling really does make for riveting television.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Blustering about climate policy in Canada

The Canadian Environment Minister Rona Amborse was 'grilled' yesterday during Question Period about the new climate and air quality policy, according to the CBC. Ambrose failed again to give any specific about the new policy other than "It’s time for a brand-new approach to the environment. This new approach is going to address the real priorities of Canadians in a tangible and accountable way."

The quote and the constant complaints about the former Liberal government's failure to implement an effective Kyoto implementation plan suggests the new policy will have little to do with climate change and international emissions targets, and more to do with what one might call the modus operandi of the current Canadian government: set very achievable goals, and then boast that promises are being met. Maybe that is good politics. It is not good for the climate.

That's why I continue to say watch out for an exotic-sounding but empty "intensity"-based target.

For a foreign take on this issue, try the Washington Post. As the article points out, the new policy may still prove politically divisive, especially if it focuses on emissions from the Ontario-based auto sector and not the Alberta-based oil sector. If so, the Conservative government would fall into similar trap as the Liberals' Kyoto policy, which they gave the auto sector and some industries a pass on emissions reduction. A sensible emissions policy is one that targets industries equally, like the new California policy.


International climate change talks in Mexico

At a gathering in Mexico, representatives of the G20, that is representatives of the self-appointed 'G8' nations and 12 others countries we were deemed worthy of inviting to the party(oh, diplomacy), are chatting about climate change and energy.

According to the BBC, the results are mixed. The countries agree serious action is needed. Rick Samans, head of the World Economic Forum said politicians need to act fast because "We are behind the curve, there is no doubt that we should have acted 10 or 15 years ago" (i think i just pulled a muscle in my rib cage trying to withhold a sarcastic 'oh really?' comment). On the other hand, no promises are being made, and the US, India and Russia appear to be putting little into the conversation.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Warming vs. heating

In his recent book "The Revenge of Gaia", the scientist James Lovelock of Gaia hypothesis fame uses the term global heating rather than the more common global warming. In an interview with the NY Times, Lovelock argued:

"Warming is something that’s kind of cozy and comfortable. You think of a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day. Heating is something you want to get away from."

The use of the word heating has caused debate among the sort of people who like to debate these things. Here are a few thoughts on the issue.

Is heating a more ominous word? I suppose it sounds more severe, more like something that you actively force, or is imposed upon you, than warming. Linguists can argue over that. Either way, Lovelock is advocating the use of the word because of the values he believes it communicates, namely that global warming / global heating / climate change is scary and dangerous. That may very well be true. But should such a conclusion be enshrined in the language used by scientists?

Yes, scientists are lousy marketers. You don't need to remind me of that. I work in a field called biogeochemistry. The only people that would voluntarily assume such a horrific label are scientists. Oh, scientifically, it makes senses. Geochemistry is the chemistry of the earth, so biogeochemistry is simply saying if you want to understand the chemistry of the earth, you have to take the "bio" - life - into account. But it sure ain't pretty.

The thing is, maybe we should be lousy marketers. Our objective is not supposed to be selling our results. Thanks to press releases, news articles, blogs and the like, the marketing of your science is often exactly what happens. It is with exactly that trend in mind that we need to be sensitive about using value-less terms to label our disciplines and our results.

I don't know whether people will respond differently to global heating or global warming or climate change. But I know we should not choose the language based on how people will respond, but which is most accurate (within reason, otherwise scientists will drone on for hours with caveats and confidence intervals).

If the media or activists want to take what by all rights should be called global climate change and call it global warming or heating, they can do so. Scientists? We should stick with the dull explanatory labels, whether it is climate change, or biogeochemistry.