Saturday, January 26, 2008

Greenhouse gases, meat consumption and the Amazon

The Sunday NY Times has a good story on the global environmental burden of meat production, an issue that's been covered here on and off over the past couple years. Meat production, particularly beef, is responsible for a large proportion of the world's greenhouse gas emissions due to the energy required to grow animal feed, the clearing of land for feed crops, N2O emissions from fertilizer application and both N2O and CH4 emissions from the animals themselves. The graph at right shows the consistent rise in per capita consumption in the Americas and Asia over the past 45 years. Meat production and consumption is expected to continue to rise due to rising demand in China and other parts of Asia.

The demand for animal feed, coupled the demand for biofuels, is being felt most of all in the Amazon, the one large area of "unused" and potentially productive farmland left on the planet. The rate of Amazonian deforestation increased in the last few months, and may increase further in the rainy months to come, when most illegal cutting usually occurs.


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."


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Status of the Coral Reefs of the Caribbean

If you've come across a headline "Hurricanes and Global warming devastating Caribbean coral reefs", here's why. The IUCN and the Global Coral Reef Monitoring network just released The Status of the Coral Reefs of the Caribbean after Bleaching and Hurricanes in 2005, a long-awaited report compiled by dozens of scientists including myself. The report examines the impacts of the events of 2005 and long-term forecast for Caribbean reefs. The latter based in part on our ongoing work on the effect of climate change on coral reefs.

Here is take-home message, from the executive summary:

"This is a pivotal moment for the coral reefs. The world is already committed to some further warming due to past greenhouse gas emissions and the expected emissions from existing world energy infrastructure (Chapter 2). Thanks to more than a century of ‘committed warming’; events like 2005 are expected to occur more frequently by the 2030s. The only possible way to sustain some live coral on the reefs around the world will be to carefully manage the direct pressures like pollution, fishing and damaging coastal developments, and hope that some coral species are able to adapt to the warmer environment. However, a dramatic reduction in
greenhouse gas emissions in the next 20 years will be critical to control further warming and dangerously high CO2 levels that will probably reduce the robustness and competitive fitness of corals and limit the habitats for many other organisms living on Caribbean coral reefs."


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Carbonland continues to shrink

The latest Carbonland vs. States United for Climate map shows more and more states are agreeing to long-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Carbonland continued to shrink thanks to Midwestern Regional Greenhouse Gas Accord, which includes Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the province of Manitoba; an executive order in Florida; and Montana and Utah joining the Western Climate Initiative. Maryland's membership could be solidified any day by a bill before the state legislature.

Nothing has changed on this side of the border. Alberta remains the lone member of Carbonland though one may argue that Ottawa should be considered une île de carbone.

[Update: And, no, this plan won't get Alberta at ticket out of carbonland].

The good news is that, thanks in no small part due to provincial and state pressure, federal legislation in both countries could paint the whole map red. Real federal legislation is inevitable in the US, especially if the Democrats prevail as expected in the fall, and in Canada, especially if the Liberals force an election. Climate change is bound to be a prominent election issue here, so even the emissions intensity loving Conservatives will be forced to propose a real policy that features some type of carbon pricing and possibly even deals with the oil sands.


A bit more discussion on "domain of the gods"

can be found here. I appreciate any and all opinions on how these issues can be addressed in climate change education.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Funding and new transit announcements

Earlier this week, British Columbia announced a massive new public transit plan including over $10 billion for rapid transit lines in my new home of Vancouver. It has raised much excitement but also many questions about who will be paying for it all.

A couple days later, the Globe and Mail reported that Canada will copy the new and relatively meaningless US vehicle mileage standards. Today it rather ignorantly reports the move will increase automobile prices by thousands of dollars (even if it were true that costs have to go up to meet the standards, it would happen regardless of the Canadian decision because prices are driven by the US market).

You get the feeling that Canadians are concerned only about cost of transportation, not the efficiency. For the foreign readers of Maribo, it is important to understand that thanks to Canada's unique federalist system, 95% of the political life in Canada is spent arguing over which level of government should be paying for things. We tend to roll out massive public spending programs or new federal regulations without having secured any of the funding. With programs like the BC transit plan, the hope is that by generating excitement, the level of government announcing the program can guilt the other levels into coughing up some money.

Most of the time, guilting the province or the feds fails. So Canadians are quite skeptical of grand proposals for things like expanding public transit, building new inter-city train lines, etc. If you want to raise the ire a Torontonian, just ask about the waterfront redevelopment plan (the response will begin with "which one?").

On the odd occasion, the guilt approach actually works. We Canucks are, after all, generally apologetic people who hate to disappoint others.

Is this one of those odd occasions? Perhaps we've reaching this nexus of voter concern about climate change, oil prices, urban air pollution and traffic congestion that the every level of government will find a way to contribute at least a decent proportion of the requested funds for the BC transit plan, for Toronto's light rail plan, etc. Don't expect the SkyTrain all the way down Broadway to UBC to appear anytime during, say, the current millennium. And don't expect the auto manufacturers in Ontario to suddenly embrace new fuel efficiency standards. 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.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

International year of the reef, sort of

I began the year writing about coral reefs and the twin threats of rising temperatures and rising pCO2. One reason for that, which I neglected to mention, is that International Coral Reef Initiative has designated 2008 the International Year of the Reef.

There was some hope the UN would also recognize 2008 as the International Year of the Reef. Unfortunately, the UN has already designated 2008 as the International Year of the Potato. Yes, people sure do love Nemo, but apparently he can't hold a candle to Mr. Potato Head.

If anyone has a bootleg Mr. Potato Head where the potato is a massive Porites and the arms and legs are branching corals, let me know.


The generation that will "solve the problem"

At the bottom of a potentially depressing article about school authorities in Montana canceling a talk by climate scientist and lead IPCC author Steve Running out of fear it would be "one-sided" are two wonderful quotes that capture the message I think we scientists need to be delivering to high school and university students.

The first is from an enlightened student:

“I was insulted as a high school student prepared to enter the world I need to hear both sides of the story,” the student, Kip Barhaugh, 17, said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t feel there is another side. Global warming is not a controversial issue, it’s a fact. We need to be prepared to deal with it.”

The second is from Running:

“Our generation caused the problem,” he said, “and I want to talk to high schools because they are the generation that will solve the problem. And we can’t solve the problem without a free discussion.”


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rising CO2 and other reef organisms

A study in last week's Nature Geoscience, the new Nature spin-off journal, sort of like CSI: Geosciences, examined how higher pCO2 concentrations in the ocean could impact not corals, but another group of important calcifying organism on coral reefs: crustose coralline algae.

Wait... algae? Little green plants? Algae is a broad term encompassing all sorts of small plant-like organisms and causes a lot of confusion in casual conversation about coral reefs. It is used to describe the microscopic little dinoflagellates (zooxanthallae) that live in coral tissue and provide corals with food energy and colour. It is also used to describe the fleshy turf or plants that can come to dominate a reef after disturbance like removing the grazing fish, sedimentation, etc. Crustose coralline algae (CCA), the pink-ish layer encrusting on the dead coral skeleton in the centre of the above photo, is a red calcifying algae common on tropical reefs and more poleward coastal ecosystems.

One of CCA's many important ecological roles is being a kind of reef cement, or glue, that the binds fragments of reef together, as in the photo above from Butaritari, Kiribati. The experimental study found that elevated pCO2 concentrations inhibited the growth and recruitment of CCA. This preliminary finding - based on mesocosms conducted in Hawaii with a natural flow-through seawater and CO2-treated seawater - is a reminder that increasing CO2 concentrations could affect a broad array of calcifying organisms that play important ecological roles.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Cheaps cars for everyone?

While I appreciate it is ridiculous for anyone in North America, where the myth of the open road originated and where the average car current gets worse mileage than a 1976 Datsun, to complain about automotive developments in other parts of the world, it is hard not to wonder whether the release of $2500 Nano will be a disaster for the planet, not to mention India's already crowded roads and hospitals, destroying whatever naive hope that the developing world can leapfrog past our car-based culture to an efficient, modern transportation system.

At least the Nano gets 47 mpg (and isn't made out of clay).


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Carbon tax vs. Cap-and-Trade

At the behest of the Canadian government, the National Round Table for the Environment and the Economy completed an important study on the long-term climate policy options for Canada.

The Globe and Mail headline screamed "Panel proposes carbon tax" because of course taxes are scary evil things that make good headlines. It is worth looking at what the report actually says:

The first recommendation:

Implement a strong, clear, consistent and certain GHG emission price signal across the entire Canadian economy as soon as possible in order to successfully shift Canada to a lower GHG emissions pathway...

The second:

Institute a market-based policy that takes the form of an emission tax or a cap-and-trade system or a combination of the two.

In other words, the bottom line of the study, by my reading, is that time, not the ongoing tax vs. cap-and-trade debate, is what matters the most. We need to install an effective carbon pricing policy - whether via a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, or a combination, whatever will work politically or logistically - as soon as possible if we want to achieve the long-term emissions reductions with minimal economic consequences. Yes, the structure of the policy is extremely important, but if we wait to long, any policy will fail to meet the long-term targets.


Sunday, January 06, 2008

What is dangerous?

Last week, I referenced a figure from a recent Science review that brilliantly illustrates the current predicament for the planet and, in particular, the planet's coral reefs.

Those of you who have been following climate science and policy for a while will remember that Article Two of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - the godfather of all climate policy, the precursor to Kyoto, all the COPs, and to Bali, the document that was signed by pretty much every country on the planet even the US - famously called for the:

" stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

A central challenge of climate change science and policy research since 1992 has been defining dangerous . Not just because the word appears in some international agreement, but because it is a useful way for us to determine allowable levels and trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

Notice the important use of term "climate system" rather than climate. This recognizes that the issue is not just the weather and the climate; changes in the oceans, in the planet's ice sheets or in the terrestrial biosphere could be dangerous to the planet and humanity.

Adjectives, of course, are difficult to clearly define. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary takes a big whiff on dangerous with "exposing to or involving danger". The UNFCCC text is more helpful in providing the following as a benchmark:

"such a level [of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations] should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner."

So, most scientific efforts to define "dangerous anthropogenic interference" have focussed on the collapse of major ice sheets (which would presumably threaten the economy), shifts in ocean circulation causing abrupt climate change (ditto), and sometimes debilitating tropical droughts (threatening food production).

What about coral reefs?
The UNFCCC text states that an ecosystem not being able to adapt naturally to climate change is dangerous. As the figure illustrates, corals reefs will be in imminent danger if greenhouse gas concentrations are not stabilized around or below 500 ppm CO2-equivalent because of increased frequency and severity of coral bleaching events and the consequences of CO2-driven changes in ocean chemistry. As it, ocean warming due to climate change has already dramatically increased the likelihood of coral bleaching.

Yet the predicted demise of the world's coral reefs has only been included as an example of dangerous anthropogenic interference in a few studies (e.g., Harvey, 2007; O'Neill and Oppenheimer, 2004).

Why? Pardon the building of a straw man... I can only presume that people think coral reefs are not that vital to humanity. Sure, losing Nemo would be a shame, but it wouldn't be a disaster, like all of Greenland melting into the ocean.

That argument is not only wrong, it betrays a very northern, developed bias in our thinking. Coral reefs provide food, income and shoreline protection to hundreds of millions of people, almost all of whom live in developing countries. For those people, degradation of coral reefs surely would be dangerous.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Another reason to support Obama?

"When you are snorkeling through the coral reefs, you realize that a slight change in temperature or increase in sediment and runoff could end up destroying it all and making it unavailable for your children. That is something you worry about."

- Barack Obama in an interview with Grist


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Temperature and CO2: A new figure for a new year

Last month, Science had a terrific review article on the threat that rising CO2 concentrations and rising temperatures pose to the world's coral reefs. Scientists, alas, are not great marketers. The plight of the world's coral reefs is a tough sell at a time when most North Americans are "holiday" shopping and powering all manner of coloured lights, inflatable Santas and animatronic reindeer (though the review did garner some front page and radio attention the week of publication).

In my mind, the most compelling feature of the paper was this one figure to the left (reprinted here without any particular permission, shhh). It is a simple inversion of the famous 420,000 year record of temperature and CO2 plots from the Vostok ice cores, shown in every climate change course, presentation and documentary. The very same data, plotted a different way: temperature vs. CO2, rather than temperature and CO2 over time.

I hope to see this figure used more often, whether in relation to coral reefs or not, because it clearly demonstrates three crucial points about the planet's current situation:

1. There is warming in the pipeline, like it or not. Today (pt. A) lies far outside the cluster of data points from the Vostok core. Those points represent a rough historical relationship between temperature presuming the climate is at equilibrium. Right now, we are experiencing what climate modelers call the transient response to CO2 forcing. If CO2 concentrations froze now, global temperatures would continue to rise until the climate reached equilibrium

2. That equilibrium point lies outside any experience the planet has had in the past 420,000 years, even without any future increase in greenhouse gas concentrations (as the current CO2 level is unprecedented). A further increase places the planet in an even farther outside the envelope of anything in the "recent" geological record, to use a geologists warped definition of the word recent.

3. Oceanic ecosystems - particularly coral reefs - that are sensitive to both the physical (temperature) conditions and the chemical (pCO2) conditions are already and will continue to experience a thermal and chemical environment not seen for hundreds of thousands of years. As I've said before, if you are a coral, pick your poison. This naturally raises the issue of what constitutes dangerous climate change, a key question tossed about a bit lately (see Climate Progress) that I will return to later.

Andrew Revkin, on his NY Times blog Dot Earth, has been asking what language, if any, can most effectively communicate the urgency of climate change, most recently using the idea of the "elevator speech" (Eli's is good). Is there one figure that tells the story best?