Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The policy that won't die

Before tackling some of the new developments in climate science and climate policy, we've got to battle an old nemesis.

The concept of “emissions intensity” appears to rearing its mathematically twisted head again in Canada. According to yesterday’s Globe and Mail, a draft of the new federal climate policy includes what everyone is referring to as intensity-based targets. I've harped on this many times before, and with some luck, will do so here for the last time.

Emissions intensity is the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions divided by some measure of economic productivity, like GDP. Say your goal is to keep the emissions intensity constant. If GDP goes up, emissions go up. Since inflation causes GDP to rise every year, an intensity-based emissions plan may very well involved an increase in emissions.

That’s not to say there is no value in using intensity-based measures in an emissions policy. Say the country’s emissions are growing – each year, more is expected to be emitted than the last year – because of economic growth. That means at the beginning of emissions controls, simply slowing the growth may be an accomplishment. The problem is that the climate does not care about GDP. So, at some point, the policy has to involve actual reductions in emissions below current levels. The common beef with recent Canadian policy proposal is that point is being set too far into the future.

What bothers me, the reason I keep writing about this, is that the use of emissions intensity so often smacks of politics and marketing. Reducing emissions intensity sounds nice: We’re become less intense. We’re becoming more efficient.

See, in the policy, the emissions intensity “target” could be converted into an estimated emissions target.. Simple. Take the emissions intensity “target” set for industry for whatever year – say 2020 – and multiply by the projected GDP (which was used to estimate the intensity in the first place). That would give you the actual emission target.

This is never done. Why? Because it would lay bare the fact that actual emissions target in the policy is higher than the current emissions. And, that is a fact that the authors and promoters of the policy, regardless of their political stripes, would prefer to hide from the voters.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Business as usual

I spent much of the past seven weeks working with Blue Ventures, a coral reef conservation organization, in Andavadoaka, a pretty remote coastal village in SW Madagascar. Blue Ventures is doing some terrific work monitoring the effect of fishing practices and other disturbances on coral reef health in the region and training both local people and foreign volunteers. The villages in the region are all collaborating to set up a network of Marine Protected Areas – essentially no or limited take zones – to ensure long-term maintenance of fish populations and overall ecosystem health.

Personally, the highlights working with the BV staff and local fisherman to idenitfy candidate MPA sites and learning, through interviews, what some of the local people understand about the life and death of corals. To learn more, I suggest checking out BV’s blog.

While I was gone, there has been lots of activity in the climate world. The “Summary for Policymakers” from the next IPCC report – basically the executive summary of the first section of the report – was released. The strong conclusion about the effect of human activity in the climate was no surprise. I hear that much ado has been made out of the “low” sea level rise predictions. It is important to remember that the IPCC is a consensus document and thus is bound to be a conservative assessment of the science. Due to the difficulty in representing ice sheet processes – see Michael Oppenheimer’s post on this on Real Climate – climate models are not able to predict the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise with enough certainty to be included in the IPCC results. If the recent evidence for accelerated melting in parts of Greenland and West Antarctica turn out to be long-term trends, rather than one or two year anomalies, the sea level rise this century would above the IPCC estimates. Right now, science cannot say with much certainty.

How is the rest of the world responding? The US Congress is leaning towards some form of greenhouse gas legislation; the candidates for 2008 are battling to be the greenest (how about cutting the length of the campaign to save some energy). The EU has pledged a 20% reduction in emissions by 2030 and may raise if other nations agree to meet their bet. The Canadian Parliament has passed a bill forcing the country to comply with Kyoto, though yet again not including an actual plan. British Columbia has gone Schwarzenegger on GHG emissions. NJ Governor Jon Corzine looks to the same. Australia’s banning incandescent light bulbs. Oh right, and about a billion people just watched Al Gore win an Oscar.

The real surprise to me -- there’s a beaver actually living in the Bronx River. Chalk one up for ecosystem restoration.