Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Developing a national climate policy

Last year, the UN Human Development Program released a report on how climate change will effect international development and global inequality. The report includes several case studies of industrial nations - including Canada (written by yours truly) and the US - and their progress, if any, towards "carbon neutral" growth.

Here are the general findings of the Canada case study. Implicit in this excerpt is the need for a price on carbon, established via either cap-and-trade, suggested at the time by all parties at the time the report was assemble, or a carbon tax, a political third rail until the introduction of the Green Shift:

Over the past fifteen years, Canada has failed to control growing GHG emissions despite a number of policy pronouncements. With a rapidly growing economy, grounded in oil and gas, and a growing population, achieving carbon neutral growth in Canada appears to be a formidable challenge. However, one should not forget that Canada is a highly educated and innovative nation with a strong history of promoting peace, equality, international development and global environmental protection. Canada also has a strong national interest in mitigating climate change which may already be impacting forestry and its Arctic peoples. A recent example is temperature-driven northward spread of the mountain pine beetle in British Columbia and Alberta that has devastated the Canadian forestry industry and forced the federal government to change its policy on including forests in the national carbon emissions budget.

Canada could achieve carbon neutral growth by shifting the national attention to improving energy efficiency, reducing emissions from energy production and developing new low-carbon technologies. The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an independent advisory body for the federal government, reports that Canada could achieve a 60% reduction in energy-related emissions 2050 through energy efficiency measures and new technologies in energy production. In addition to reducing Canada’s emissions burden, setting the country on this path would also address growing concerns about air quality and produce expertise and technology that could be exported to the world. A plan based on the following five themes would place Canada on the path towards long-term reductions in emissions without sacrificing economic development.

1. Strong leadership from the federal government: Following on the recommendations of Auditor General, Canada’s climate change effort should be centralized, ideally in the Prime Minister’s Office. This could ease integration of emissions reduction goals into all government operations, including energy, environment and international development, and reduce the territorial disputes between government departments and the provinces that inhibited past federal efforts. Though the provincial emissions reduction policies are promising, due to the breakdown of powers and taxation in the federalist system, the federal government must take the lead on implementation of carbon capture and storage technology in the energy sector, automotive fuel efficiency and funding public transit

2. Leverage existing policies. Despite years of relative inactivity on emissions reduction, many useful policy levers do exist. For example, the implementation plan can take advantage of: i) the Canadian Environmental Protection Act for regulating air pollutants, ii) the Energy Efficiency Act for setting residential, commercial and industrial standards, iii) the Wind Power Production Initiative for a framework for a renewable energy portfolio standards, iv) the Income Tax Act for expanding capital cost allowances for energy efficient construction and reducing capital cost allowances for development in the oil sands. Existing municipal and provincial policy initiatives and renewable portfolio standards can help introduce the appropriate forms of renewable energy – like hydro in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia, and wind in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – into each region’s electricity mix.

3. Address the large final emitters (LFEs). To date, no government to has shown willingness to address the LFEs, responsible for almost half of Canada’s emissions. A clear policy signal from the federal government would direct capital investment and provide incentives for companies to develop new technologies. The most effective option may be the proposed cap-and-trade system that features hard emissions targets by sector, limited purchase of domestic and international offsets and the development of a national green investment fund. It would take advantage of existing market forces, provide financial opportunities for Canadian industry and fuel spending in research and development.

4. Empower communities. Canadian cities have shown the ability to reduce emissions through control over urban planning, public transit, energy purchases and building codes. Infrastructure funding from higher levels of government can be directed to proven initiatives like tax credits for retrofitting buildings, mortgage assistance for energy efficiency improvements, expanded public transit, vehicle and road restrictions, waste reduction and landfill gas capture, electricity co-generation and development of renewable energy sources.

5. Promote new technology. Reducing emissions from the oil and gas sector and the transportation sector will depend on technological development, some of which will occur outside the country. Federal policy and infrastructure funding will be needed to promote the development of carbon capture and storage technology to reduce emissions from the oil sands. Although Canada has little direct control over vehicle technology, joining the initiatives by some U.S. states to place limits of carbon emissions from passenger vehicles, and direct U.S. attention to the often overlooked issue of truck fuel efficiency, would expedite the shift to more fuels efficient vehicles.

The shift in national attentions must happen soon to meet a long-term the suggested emissions target. With almost $100 billion in investments in development planned for the next 15 years in the oil and gas sector alone, Canada risks increasing its global atmospheric burden. A binding, long-term federal emissions policy and implementation plan is crucial to encouraging sustainable investment by the private sector, especially in the oil and gas sector.


Monday, September 22, 2008

More opinions on the Green Shift

A few comments from Globe and Mail columnist Jeffery Simpson:

On the Conservative approach:

... the Conservatives have said nothing in the campaign about greenhouse gas emissions, except that they have a "plan," before launching into an attack on the Liberal Green Shift. They do have a "plan," of sorts. It is based on getting GHGs down from a 2006 baseline by 20 per cent by 2020. I and almost everyone outside the Conservative Party do not think the plan will achieve that objective, but we shall see.

In any event, it consists of (a) a series of small programs under the heading "eco" that are designed to get people to use energy more efficiently and to promote non-fossil fuel use, (b) intensity improvements in the emissions produced by larger emitters, (c) payment into a technology fund if emitters do not meet their reductions, (d) tighter vehicle emission standards, and (e) the completely useless ethanol subsidies for farmers to grow more corn. They have also muted the possibility of a national cap-and-trade system.

On the the consequence of failure to support the Liberal Green Shift:

... the policy will not be picked up politically for a long time. In other words, politicians of every stripe will be unwilling to take the political risks involved. It will therefore be like private delivery of health services paid for publicly, something permitted under the Canada Health Act but deemed political suicide by politicians everywhere.

We will therefore settle for a series of rather ineffectual but feel-good policies such as the Conservatives "eco" ones — energy efficiency etc — and intensity targets from which companies can and will escape by paying into a technology fund which will bring benefits perhaps many years from now.

When and if the Americans establish a cap-and-trade system, as Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain have endorsed, we will seek to negotiate joining the U.S. system to make it a North American one.

Similarly, should the Americans adopt tougher vehicle emission standards than those proposed by the Harper government, we will toughen ours.

In other words, the Americans will save us from our own policy incoherence.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Truth and complications: The Green Shift

Read any story, online or in print, about the Liberal Party’s “Green Shift” and you will learn two things. First, that the Green Shift is a “carbon tax”. Second, that it is complicated.

The first is inaccurate. The second is just false.

We could discuss how these memes have spread, who is to blame, and the general warping of reality in modern politician campaigns (say something, anything, enough times and it might become true). I’ll leave that to the political bloggers. Here, let's cover the truth about the Green Shift.

First, the Green Shift is an economic plan. The main feature of the plan is a small shift in taxation from income to carbon-based fuels. Yes, the plan features a carbon tax. It also features income tax cuts, corporate tax cuts, tax credits for green investments, tax credits for rural and northern communities, and tax credits for middle class families. Labeling the Green Shift a carbon tax is defining an economic plan based on one incomplete component; you could just as soon call the Green Shift an income tax cut.

Second, it is not complicated. Here’s how it works. The tax on carbon-based fuels begins at $10 per tonne of carbon, and will increase by $10 a ton until reaching $40 in the fourth year. At the same time, income and corporate tax cuts will return the revenue from the carbon-based fuel tax to consumers and the marketplace. Government revenue will not change.

In fact, the Liberals are so vigilant about the tax shift being revenue neutral that the plan will require the Auditor General to evaluate the revenue every year. If there is a net increase in government revenue, it will be returned to taxpayers.

There you go. That’s essentially the plan. Not complicated.

Now, working out the exact impact on your taxes and your fuel, heat and electricity expenditures requires a bit of math. Of course it does. That is true every time there is a change in the tax code or a change in government.

It is an insult to Canadians to keep calling this too complicated. If anything, the Green Shift is actually simpler than the tax plans put forth by the other parties. The Green Shift integrates all the major tax changes into one plan, one document. It is easy to read and evaluate. The other parties are announcing tax changes one by one, making it difficult to assess the aggregate impact on personal, or federal, finances.

I am not advocating for the Liberal Party or the specifics of the Green Shift. I am advocating for a real, intelligent, honest discussion about reducing Canada's greenhouse gas emissions.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Watching the cryosphere

The Arctic sea ice appears to have reached the minimum extent for this season, short of last year's record. If you just can't wait another eight or nine months for more news about the shrinking cryosphere, never fear. There a several sites monitoring the movement of mountain glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet.

The Extreme Ice Survey has some fantastic still (and time lapse photos) from cameras set up on a few mountain glaciers and in Greenland. And I just got a note from someone at Sermitsiaq, a Greenlandic newspaper about a new web cam that offers the opportunity to "watch as Greenland melts". Be sure to get yourself a comfortable seat, the melting may take a while.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Global NIMBYism

I have a post up on Worldchanging about the opportunity posed by the otherwise silly U.S. debate about offshore drilling. The post was inspired by a random experience in Malaysia a few years ago.

An excerpt:

For years, far too much of environmentalism has been rooted in old-fashioned "not in my backyard" arguments known as NIMBY-ism. It worked when the issues were simply protecting a local park from a new roadway. In a globalized world, with raw resources, goods and services openly traded from Anchorage, Alaska to Zanzibar; from Addis Ababa to Zephyr, North Carolina—with resource extraction and pollution causing global environmental crises (from climate change to transboundary air pollution to global fisheries depletion), we need to think beyond our backyards, and beyond our coasts.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

McCain and Obama positions on climate change

Science Debate 2008 - the proposed televised presidential debate on science and science policy - will not actually happen this election season. The candidates have now both responded to the organizers list of 14 questions about science and science policy.

This written Q&A lacks the unscripted exchange that could, although often does not, occur during an actual live debate. It does at least provide voters with an outline on each campaign`s position on range of important issues related to science, something not happening in the Canadian election. It also spares us the possible spectacle of interviewers testing the candidates knowledge of science; the Palin interview on ABC was like watching a stern high school teacher conduct an oral exam and the student repeat everything memorized during a recent cram session (that should not be necessary, nor is it terribly useful for anyone involved).

The NY Time`s DotEarth suggests we can at least cheer the responses to the question about climate change. Both McCain and Obama both support cuts in steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change.

I was struck by the difference between the opening sentences. The McCain line is particularly disappointing.


We know that greenhouse gas emissions, by retaining heat within the atmosphere, threaten disastrous changes in the climate.

What is striking here is the choice to open with threaten disastrous changes in the climate. Why not open with what the science states: that greenhouse gas emissions are changing the climate, and the changes could become disastrous if left unchecked? The omission of the first clause is very curious. McCain`s opening line fails to recognize that the climate is currently changing, only that it might some day. That is a big difference.

Obsessive nitpicking? Possibly. However, we should keep in mind the words in these prepared statements are chosen very carefully.

For comparison, Obama:

There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively.

This statement is far more direct. Influencing is a bit more subtle than the preferred word changing but not unusual for statements about climate change (perhaps Obama is worried about the issue stealing the change mantle?)

The differences in wording are small, and appear unimportant. But they matter when it comes to federal and international climate policy. Look at the mess made by the Bush Administration`s continued use of aspirational goals rather than targets.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Hurricane Ike's impact on the US, Cuba and Haiti

Hurricane Ike is about to make landfall in Texas. Ike is so broad that it is affecting an area from Mexico all the way to Florida. Though only a category 2-3 storm, Ike may turn out to be one of the most destructive hurricanes in US history. Thankfully, a million or more residents of coastal Texas have left for higher ground.

The immediate concern from such a large storm is the surge, which may top 20 feet in Galveston, Texas. Heavy rainfall may also be a serious concern, and not only in coastal areas. The forecast rainfall in the central and midwestern US, far from the Gulf of Mexico, is also expected cause extensive flooding.

Amidst the U.S. media storm that is likely to follow the actual storm, we may forget about the victims of Ike in Haiti and Cuba [UPDATE: like, for example, worrying about gas prices]. In Haiti, a poor nation with little modern infrastructure and a deforested countryside prone to landslides, Ike and earlier storms have killed a thousand or more people, left hundreds of thousands more temporarily or permanently homeless and destroyed most of the nation's crops. Donations to aid the relief effort can go to the American Red Cross and the Canadian Red Cross, as well as a number of other organizations.

The impact of Ike on Cuba was not quite as severe. Regardless of what one might think about the Cuban government, there is no denying from current and past experience with hurricanes that the centralized system is reasonably effective at dealing with disasters. The difference between the impact of Ike in Haiti, Cuba and possibly the US is a reminder adaptive capacity is as, if not more, important than the physical magnitude of the storm or other "disturbance" event.


Biofuels losing luster?

After all the hubbub, could biofuels turn out to be an example of science leading to sound policy? Legislators in Europe are responding to the evidence questioning the efficiency of biofuels.

From the NY Times:

PARIS — European legislators said Thursday that government goals for using biofuels should be pared back, prompting the fledgling industry to fire back with a campaign warning that alternatives may be no cleaner.

European governments pledged last year to increase the use of biofuels to 10 percent of all transport fuel by 2020, amid expectations that energy derived from crops would provide a low-carbon alternative. On Thursday, the European Parliament’s influential Industry Committee endorsed the general 10 percent target — but added a number of modifications meant to move away from traditional biofuels made from grains or other crops toward other, renewable energy sources.

By 2015, it called for having 5 percent of transport fuels be from renewable sources, with at least a fifth of that amount from “new alternatives that do not compete with food production.” That could include sources like hydrogen or electricity from renewable sources, or biofuels made from waste, algae or non-food vegetation. The lawmakers stuck to the 10 percent target for 2020, but said at least 40 percent of that should be made up of such “second-generation” renewables. But that target would have to be reviewed in 2014.

The lawmakers were reacting to waning enthusiasm for biofuels. Over the last year, scientists and environmental advocates have warned that some biofuels may be more polluting than fossil fuels, and that the diversion of crops to fuel production may be a factor in rising food prices.


Regardless of the reason for climate change

From ABC News:

"Do you still believe that global warming is not man made?" Gibson asked Palin.

"I believe that man's activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming, climate change. Here in Alaska, the only arctic state in our Union, of course, we see the effects of climate change more so than any other area with ice pack melting. Regardless though of the reason for climate change, whether it's entirely, wholly caused by man's activities or is part of the cyclical nature of our planet -- the warming and the cooling trends -- regardless of that, John McCain and I agree that we gotta do something about it and we have to make sure that we're doing all we can to cut down on pollution."

Consider the last sentence. We need to take action against climate change regardless of whether it is caused by humans. That is a very bizarre statement. If the entire scientific community is wrong and climate change was not actually caused by humans, instead, say, by the sun as some skeptics argue, what would you do to stop it? Are we talking about geoengineering? Moving the Earth's orbit? This cannot be what Gov Palin or her advisors were intending to say.

"Certainly can be contributing" is hardly unequivocal support for science. At least the fact that this question was asked, and the tortured wording in the response, confirms that the media expects our leaders to grasp the importance of climate change.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Climate change on the Late Show

Watch this. You might disagree with the specifics or the "we're dead meat" tone. Regardless, it is good to see televisions hosts like David Letterman talk about climate change and talk about it with what seems to be real passion.


Monday, September 08, 2008

Is international climate policy a failure?

A recent post on the Nature blog Climate Feedback comparing the GHG emission reduction targets under various international policies with the recent changes in those emissions. The point includes the figure (right), which shows that international GHG emissions are diverging away from the long-term targets. Naturally this is leading others out in the online echo-chamber to imply that international policy has not worked or will not work (e.g. Prometheus).

No doubt, the world has failed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But this particular glass is half-empty because it has a few cracks.

First, the targets set at the 1988 Toronto Conference and the inaugural 1992 UNFCCC meeting were preliminary goals. At the time, reporting frameworks and institutional mechanisms were not in place. It is debatable whether the targets, especially the Toronto Conference target, belong on the graph.

Second, the other targets applied to only a subset of nations. Only developed countries accepted reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Now, of course, the increase in global emissions since 1990 (the open circles) is obviously the greatest concern to the climate. But if the goal of the figure is to illustrate the efficacy, or lack thereof, of international policy, it makes no sense to plot global emissions against emissions reduction targets for selected nations. Only the emissions reported by developed countries under the UNFCCC (the solid circles) should be compared to the Kyoto target, and the emissions of a subset of those countries should be compared to the EU target. A revised figure (right) gives a different impression.

Rather than use the emissions data to assert that setting reduction targets does not work, one might actually argue the exact opposite. The difference between dark and open circles suggests that emissions growth has occurred mostly only in countries did not set targets. In other words, it is possible, at least from the data, that the target setting made a difference.

There’s one more complication, too. As we all know, the United States, the largest emitter among the developed countries, failed to ratify the Kyoto agreement. Yet the U.S. emissions are included in the total for developed countries (the solid circles). Subtract out the U.S., where emissions have increased by ~16% since 1990, and the countries with targets would appear even closer to the Kyoto target.

This is a very simple analysis. I am not defending the Kyoto Protocol or any other international climate agreements. There are a myriad of problems with the pace of the international negotiations and with the progress on emissions reductions in Europe, in North America, in countries from the former Soviet Union and definitely in China, India and the rapidly industrializing countries. Regular readers know that this blog has been extremely critical of Canada’s lack of effort to meet the Kyoto target, of the U.S. failure to participate in emissions reductions, and of the achingly slow process of setting long-term emissions reduction targets based on scientific analysis of the dangerous impacts of climate change.

Nevertheless, it would simply be incorrect to conclude [from the mix of regional and global data on the original figure] that existing international policies have completely failed, or that a truly global policy, in an emissions target is set for the entire planet, will fail.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Climate and the election (I)

The writ dropped this morning. The Canadian election is on for Oct 14th.

Over the next 38 days, I'll do my best to summarize the pros and cons of each party's climate and energy policies or lack thereof.

If you fear that the tone of this campaign season will descend to, or below, that of the neverending shouting match that is the US election, I offer this half-full glass.

We are, at least, finally fighting an election about how to address climate change and future energy needs. This should have happened many cycles ago.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Elections, elections oh my

For the second time in eight years, both Canada and the US are headed for elections at roughly the same time. Climate change should have been a central issue back in 2000: there was climate change expert Al Gore running against a largely unaware George Bush in the US, and Jean Chretien and the Kyoto-trumpeting Liberals angling for re-election in Canada. But it barely cracked the agenda.

This time around, climate change is much more front and central. But not in the way we, or the planet, needs.

Three examples:

1. On August 29th - four DAYS ago - the following question was posed to Sarah Palin, John McCain's running mate: "What is your take on global warming and how is it affecting our country?". The answer?

A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I'm not one though who would attribute it to being man-made.

Either McCain's team truly did fail to talk to Palin in depth before offering her the job, or her selection is about religious politics, and nothing else. The news organizations and blog are attacking Palin's qualifications for Vice-President, musing about foreign policy experience, governing experience, etc. In 2008, after four IPCC reports and countless summaries of the science by the National Academies of different nations have definitively concluded that human activity is changing the climate, and after leaders of countless nations have stated that climate change is one of, if not the, greatest threat of the 21st century, not "believing" climate change is manmade should alone be a disqualification. And in 2008, this belief, in general, also raise concerns about trusting and evaluating expert judgment, one of the most important jobs of a political leader.

[don't even get me started on teaching creationism in school]

2. Barack Obama is not innocent either. In his acceptance speech, Obama threw a bone to the coal industry by citin "clean coal" as a solution to oil and climate crises. Clean coal, a term promoted by the coal companies, refers to coal-burning plants which emit lower concentrations of air pollutants like sulfur. It has nothing whatsoever to do with greenhouse gas emissions. Experts or regular readers on climate and energy know this. Does the average voter?

3. The Canadian election promises to be equally petty. The Harper Government has attacked revenue-neutral Dion's Green Shift plan as a tax hike and grab. Revenue-neutral. That is not a tax hike. The Liberals, fearing these attacks, are already weakening the plan by providing subsidies for fishers, farmers and truckers. Changes like this are not unreasonable. But they show that the public discourse will be dominated by juvenile and distracting "tax grab"-like arguments rather than the very necessary discussion of how Canada can implement a price on carbon.

How do we change this? We've got only around six weeks in Canada, and only eight weeks in the US, to elevate the discussion.