Category: Environment

Numbers, policy and advocacy

I got into a twitter discussion with Andrew Leach, who writes thoughtfully about energy policy and economics at his blog and occasionally for the globe and mail. The topic of discussion was a number put up by Bill McKibben of stating the following:

By some calculations, the tar sands contain the equivalent of about 200 parts per million CO2

Now this was a throwaway line in an article warning us that the Obama administration was not doing anything to stop runaway carbon emissions from coal and petroleum. But Prof. Leach made the point that this was a bit dishonest because at the current (and future) rate of oil extraction, it would take over 1500 years, and was  ridiculous. But let’s look at the calculation itself. 200 ppm seems like an outrageously large number. After all, the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 393 ppm. Is Bill McKibben actually saying that the taroilsands (I can’t pick on tar vs. oil, and I will campaign for taroil) can contribute half of what’s currently in the atmosphere? That can’t possibly be true. I mean, it is a huge project and all, but still, only 6.5% of Canada’s emissions in 2009.

But, if you follow the mathematics:

  1. 1.75 trillion barrels of bitumen in place , as opposed to the 10% of that deemed recoverable in 2006 assuming 2006 prices and current technology.
  2. One Barrel is approximately 0.5-0.7 metric tons CO2 if you take into account both the production and the combustion. Note that there is a lot of uncertainty in this estimate because most of the data come from the Canadian and Albertan governments, and from the producers themselves, very interested parties. Let’s use the 0.7 for an upper end.
  3. 2.13 GT Carbon emitted adds 1 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere.

This gets us to approximately about 160 ppm. Note that the 0.7 MT of CO2 uses a number for land use that takes into account the current devastation of the boreal forest and peat bog. If all the oil needs to get out of the taroil sands, the land use number would explode and likely account for the remaining 40 ppm. Anyway, a rough calculation puts the 200 ppm number in context.

But it is an unrealistic number, because taroilsands extraction is very energy and water intensive, time consuming, and promises to remain that way. Barring some magic technology that makes cheap energy possible, in which case, we’d just use that and avoid all the mess, we won’t ever get to that number.

To summarize, 200 ppm is a reasonably accurate mathematical calculation that is wildly out of context. Sounds familiar?

The larger point is that advocates of all stripes, politicians, lobbyists, chambers of commerce, industry interest groups, corporations, and organizations pushing against them use numbers to make things sound scary and big. People who rail against government spending routinely talk about Canada’s deficit being in the billions of dollars, but when we look at it as a deficit/GDP ratio, the numbers are under control, and there’s no need to panic. In advocacy, it’s great to find a number that makes a fantastic point, somehow to bring a message home. I am sure you remember this one in the wake of the BP oil mega spill. Businesses do this all the time as well, with much greater success. I’m sure you’ve heard this trope about small businesses being the engine of job creation based on just the gross number of jobs they create. Yes, but they’re also the engine of job destruction because they go under a lot, but we don’t see that often.

As someone who has all their training as a scientist, and who does not like numeric misleading, being an activist/advocate is tricky. You work with people who are (rightly in many instances) trying to fight bad policy, and bad outcomes. The taroilsands are terrible, especially given that we’re cooking the planet and we’re deliberately spending billions of dollars investing in them. Regardless of whether they’re going to be responsible for 20 ppm, or 200 ppm, the trajectory of investing in an especially inefficient fossil fuel extraction when we should be phasing out all fossil fuel use is the big egregious wrong here. You are also trying to influence a public that finds it very hard to put numbers in context. No one will ever see a billion dollars, there’s no perceived difference between a million barrels and a trillion barrels, it’s all big numbers! So, the temptation is to use big numbers to scare people. I can understand how that happens, but I can’t bring myself to necessarily be okay with it. I will tolerate it, I guess, because the corporations, governments who produce the raw data underlying these numbers know what they mean, but distort them continuously to serve their agenda, and the media, some of whom are number literate abet this misleading. So some push back is necessary, but I will roll my eyes when it happens.

On writing

Sometimes, you have to read what you’ve written in order to keep writing. I have not felt like writing at all, except in 140 character snippets. There are lots of people saying lots of things all the time, so who really cares, right? But I came back and read a post or two I had written on this blog, they weren’t half bad.

Consider myself a little more encouraged, I shall write more, soon, no pressure 🙂

Update: Canada's Carbon Targets Survive

In a vote today, the Canadian Parliament voted to keep debate on Bill C-311 alive. The vote was 155-137. This is good news, though the bill likely faces an uncertain future even if it passes parliament, thanks to Canada’s nominated and recently conservative majority senate. It was heartening to see the liberals vote en masse in favour of realistic targets. I am also attaching in verbatim, an email received from Michael Ignatieff’s office this morning on the bill.

On behalf of Michael Ignatieff, I would like to acknowledge receipt of your recent email regarding Bill C-311, The Climate Change Accountability Act.

Mr. Harper is isolated on the environment – he’s behind the provinces and our peer countries when it comes to taking leadership on climate change and the environment, and has undermined international progress at every turn.

The Liberals are taking the Harper Conservatives to task over their failure to commit to a principled environmental policy backed up by real action. We’re calling on the government to immediately put in place a national climate change plan with economy-wide regulations on emissions and strategic investments in renewable and clean energy.

Michael Ignatieff and the Liberal Party are also supporting Bill C-311 as part of our staunch opposition to Mr. Harper’s laissez-faire approach to the environment and climate change. We support its central principle – that Canada needs to take immediate, ambitious action to get us back on track to reducing emissions and improving our renewable energy sources.

We must be clear, however: Bill C-311 is not a climate change plan. It picks targets, but it does not lay out a plan on how Canada can reach those targets. That’s where it comes up short. The Liberal Party has put forward a credible, achievable climate and clean energy strategy that will create jobs and make our economy – and our country – one of the cleanest and most competitive in the world. Canada cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

Thank you for taking the time to write the office of Michael Ignatieff on this important issue.

Canada's only proposed Carbon Targets in Danger

Bill C-311, Canada’s Climate Change Accountability Act, is back in the “news” (no silly, not the media, who have more important things to worry about). I had written about this before the Copenhagen meeting. This bill sets Canada up with greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that would put Canada in a respectable mainstream position, 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. But the Conservatives, in one of their classic legislative gambits, have forwarded the vote for April 14th, Wednesday. If the bill doesn’t pass here, it’s dead, and 4 years of countless committee readings, and multiple votes to pass would be wasted. And Canada will not have any climate change legislation whatsoever.

Serious business, isn’t it? Climate Action has more, including what you need to do (I know, short notice, that’s apparently how important decisions get made around here).

The Liberals hold the key. It was they who voted with the Conservatives the last time to scuttle the pre-Copenhagen vote. As of writing this post, no official word from the Liberals on their position.

A call to Michael Ignatieff’s office, (613) 995-9364 gives me little hope of passage. I was told that the MPs had met, that Mr. Ignatieff would not be voting (apparently, because it’s a private member’s bill, leaders don’t vote, weird). Also, the official position of the party is that because it is a private member’s bill, that every MP would be free to vote on their “conscience”. Given that the Liberal party could not even defend women’s health in a recent whipped vote, I wonder where their conscience is on this.

A call to David McGuinty’s (the Liberal Environmental Critic) Office, (613) 992-3269, elicited the rather helpful response that they would not be commenting on their stand till after the vote.

Of our local MPs, both Denise Savoie (NDP) and Dr. Keith Martin (Liberal) will be voting to preserve the bill, they are on record saying this at a forum on climate change last week. Of course, Gary Lunn (Conservative) is not part of the equation here, pointless.

So, call, call and call away, the Liberals need to hear about this. They don’t appear to understand the most basic rule of opposition politics, you get no points for supporting the government, except from pundits in the mainstream media. Only if you inflict some defeats on the government will the people of Canada take you seriously.

David McGuinty – (613) 992-3269
Michael Ignatieff – (613) 995-9364

As always, remember that it is the Liberals that will be blamed for this bill’s demise, we all know the Conservative position on climate change. The NDP and Bloc Quebecois have voted repeatedly to pass this legislation. It is Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals who will stand in the way of Canada’s environmental progress.

Green Building in India: NOT

There is a buzz about green buildings. But the question is: what does one mean by building green? And how does one design policies to make the green homes of our dreams?Green is not about first building structures using lots of material and energy, and then fixing them so that they become a little more efficient. Building green is about optimizing on the local ecology, using local material as far as possible and, most importantly, building to cut the power, water and material requirements.

via Green buildings: how to redesign | Centre for Science and Environment.

Sunita Narain makes some excellent points about building in India, and how western architecture influenced glass facades, closed buildings, etc. make little sense in India, and how traditional building concepts, optimised for local conditions would make more sense.

Two points:

  1. Traditional buildings are not necessarily optimised for density. To fit a lot of people in a little space, you need to build up. No, not 100s of stories, but fives and tens? It would be interesting to figure out that contradiction. But I’m no architect and I don’t know the answer
  2. The glass facade concrete skyscraper jungle look is associated with aspirational prosperity, ask any affluent Indian what they like about Hong Kong, or New York, or Singapore, and the shiny buildings will figure pretty high on the list after cleanliness and shopping. This is the kind of building associated with modernity and “class”. Making a sealed glass and concrete hell hole work in regions of high heat and humidity without large amounts of energy use for air conditioning is difficult.

It appears, though, that at least some people are thinking about this, as this book, helpfully titled Tropical Sustainable Architecture, would attest to.

Sunita Narain’s editorials for the Down to Earth magazine are always thoughtful, and required reading for anyone interested in India’s development and environmental issues.

Krugman takes on Climate Change Economics

Paul Krugman takes on climate change economics, just read the whole damn thing, but I will summarize so you don’t have to wade through 8 pages.

In what follows, I will offer a brief survey of the economics of climate change or, more precisely, the economics of lessening climate change. I’ll try to lay out the areas of broad agreement as well as those that remain in major dispute. First, though, a primer in the basic economics of environmental protection.

Magazine Preview – Climate Change – Building a Green Economy –

First off, it is well written, aimed at simplifying the economics of pollution so most people can understand, what you’d expect from him!

  1. Basic Economics and how externalities work, and why free markets alone will never solve moral problems of reducing pollution, or providing health care
  2. How the work of Pigou, a 1920s economist is the basis of all all environmental economics, with a small sidetrack on rabbits! This is well written, it captures the essence of what needs to be done with pollution – Simple prohibition is not enough, imposing a fair cost on the pollution works much better
  3. What are command and control, cap and trade, carbon taxes, and what they do. Krugman prefers cap and trade approaches where there is certainty on the pollution. But he stresses (and this is very important) that it is essential to put additional control elements in place, for example, fuel efficiency requirements for cars in addition to just carbon costs, or severe limits on coal fired power plants
  4. He talks about developed, and developing countries, and how to handle increasing emissions in China, India, etc. He postulates a combined carrot and stick policy, where China and India can trade emission permits with the rich countries. His contention is that since the Chinese economy is less efficient, the costs of cutting pollution in China are likely to be a lot lower. The stick involves the imposition of carbon tariffs on imported goods to Europe and the US if China does not play ball. So, the rich countries pass money to the poorer countries to reduce emissions, but impose taxes if they don’t
  5. He thinks that carbon costs should increase quickly rather than slowly
  6. He compares the costs of action to the costs of inaction, no surprise that the costs of inaction are orders of magnitude larger than the costs of action.

Of course, he ends with the caveat that the political will to do this is going to be sorely lacking.

What do I think? While it pretty much encapsulates what I think of as the big picture approach, Krugman hand waves around the many personal changes in consumption, land use, urbanization, localization that all have to occur. All of that is included in “additional command control based changes”. I don’t necessarily believe in Homo Economicus, the rational human who responds to economic incentives. So we will have to, as citizens, agitate forcefully for local actions that set us in the western world up for reduced consumption and increased efficiency. In addition, we have to simultaneously support national level politicians that are serious about climate change and punish the ones that are not, so they can help enact the right national and trans-national policies.

Anyway, all in all, an excellent read.

The glacier melts away in Ladakh


The enormity of climate change and its impact is on everyone’s lips in this cold desert where over 80 per cent of the farmers depend on the snow melt for their needs. Water is almost a luxury now. There is no authoritative study done so far to estimate the impact of receding glaciers in Ladakh, points out Ms Nisa Khatoon, project officer, of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Leh. Scarcity of water has led to people digging bore wells in Leh, which is likely to have an impact on the underwater springs. Ms Khatoon also notes a reduction in pasture lands affecting the migration routes of the Changpas, a nomadic tribe that lives near the lakes in the upper reaches of Ladakh.

The Hindu : Opinion / Op-Ed : The glacier melt.

I seem to remember a certain Environment minister claiming that climate change mitigation policies were irresponsible because they would lead to a small drop in GDP growth in his country. If only the people of Ladakh had this luxury. Believers in reincarnation may wish that Mr Prentice be reborn as a farmer in Ladakh circa 2060, but there may not be any farmers in Ladakh come 2050, nor any glaciers, so I guess that would make him a lonely man!

Picture courtesy Rich Drogpa’s Flickr Photostream, used under a creative commons license

Doom and Gloom on Canadian Climate Change Report

“The conclusions [the report] draws are irresponsible,” said Mr. Prentice in an interview with The Globe and Mail from Kingston, where he was meeting with provincial and territorial environment ministers. Specifically, he said Canadians will not accept the report’s advocacy of emission targets for 2020 that would reduce Canada’s gross domestic product by 3 per cent nationally and 12 per cent in Alberta from business-as-usual estimates.

Climate change report ‘irresponsible,’ Prentice says – The Globe and Mail.

Canada cannot take its national unity for granted and must not, in the service of international obligations, allow itself to be immolated by a government policy of such wrenching dislocation.

Globe and Mail Editorial

Wow, “irresponsible”, “Threat to Canada’s National Unity?” What could we talking about? Surely, not a report that addresses the cost of meeting Canada’s commitments to greenhouse gas reductions by 2020?. A bit of hyperbole from this nation’s great flagship newspaper and the Environment Minister?

The study (English summary) looked at two different scenarios, first the weak sauce 20% reduction from 2006 levels by 2020 proposed by the Canadian government. The reason the Canadian government deliberately shifted the baseline from 1990 (the accepted consensus baseline so comparison can be made easily) to 2006 is that if you calculate what the change from 1990 levels is for the Canadian government proposal, it is actually a small increase, not the 20-25% decrease that is needed to put the world on a stabilization path for <2°C rise in temperature. This is unethical and dishonest, like telling the world that the average Canadian is 4 feet tall (head to knee only). The authors of the report know this is an unacceptably weak proposal and therefore looked at what was actually needed, a 20-25% reduction from 1990 levels. BTW, remember that if someone ever shoots a percentage off for you, ask for the baseline, check if this is standard.

Incidentally, the editorial pages of the G&M has not read its own report, or wilfully ignores all the good news while selectively playing up the bad news, geez, it’s like they have an agenda or something! The good news:

  • Canada CAN meet its climate goals
  • The effect on Canadian GDP growth is modest. Under the required goal of 25% reduction from 1990, GDP growth is about 3% below “business as usual” standards. Note that this year, GDP growth was negative, what percent is that?
  • Alberta, which would “suffer” the greatest reduction from “business as usual” scenarios still leads the country in growth. This is the scenario which the G&M concern trolls as a threat to National Unity
  • Jobs still grow, very few changes from business as usual scenarios
  • Significant Increases in energy costs. But money flows from carbon revenue to defray some of these costs, so actual costs to consumers are modest
  • Massive increases in the efficiency of cars, houses, heating, etc., means lower prices in the long run

Of course, the environmental, social and geopolitical costs of “doing nothing” are not enumerated. Are we prepared to face a world with melting polar ice caps, climate refugees, water wars and anger? Are we willing to take those Canadian flags off our backpacks and put Swedish flags on them? There is also a very good chance of incremental breakthroughs in electric vehicle technologies squeezing the demand out of oil and completely collapsing Alberta’s economy, making this entire decision moot. Things can change quickly, just ask anyone involved in the BC timber industry! My point is that unless you factor in the costs of doing business as usual, any change proposed will not compare favourably. The report alludes to the cost of doing business as usual, a 5-20% LOSS in global GDP over the century. But does not include this into the calculation of the business as usual scenario. Note that none of the changes envisaged here propose anything but “growth”.

The changes required are quite significant.

  • Capture and storage of carbon dioxide from the oil and gas industry and power plants (Ha!)
  • Reduction of “fugitive” emissions from the oil and gas industry and from landfills
  • Increased energy efficiency throughout the economy (e.g., in vehicles and buildings)
  • Increased production of renewable energy (e.g., wind power accounts for 18 per cent of electricity generated in 2020 when meeting the 2°C target)
  • Replacement of fossil fuels by cleaner electricity (e.g., for heating buildings).

When you are near the bottom of the pack when it comes to efficiency and per capita emissions, you do necessarily have to work a little harder. Most of these goals (except the first one which needs a major technological advance) are easily achievable and would put Canada more in line with European countries as far as energy efficiency goes.

What do the words of the mainstream media and the government mean? We are screwed. Canada has NO leadership or commitment to steer away from the cliff. We do not have a powerful enough constituency for climate change. We have a government and polity completely captured by oil interests. We will be dragged kicking, screaming and unprepared into a new, efficient and carbon constrained world. We may still turn out okay because we are a VERY rich country with very few people. But, be prepared for the backlash.

Note, more from the excellent blog greenpolicyprof ‘which makes some of the same points I made, but expands to include coverage of West vs. the Rest issues.

Rally for Climate Change Tomorrow in your Neighbourhood

So, to draw attention to the need to dial CO2 emissions down to 350 ppm, is organizing a series of worldwide events. This one is in my neck of the woods and I plan to be there. Go to the website to find out where yours is and show up. You will be part of the world’s largest climate change rally, 4500 events in 173 countries. Who knows, you might meet an interesting person or two, or the love of your life :-0 (hey, it’s happened before!) is a collaboration of numerous community groups who are coming together to host FutureFest Victoria, a celebration to raise awareness around the number 350. There will be a kids corner with crafts, an art-based community visioning space, main stage music, a flash dance mob, local non-profit and community business tables, organic produce and coffee, topped off with a 350 bike ride downtown. Bring the whole family and come down for a fun and meaningful afternoon. All are welcome!

via FutureFest Victoria |

FYI, the Victoria event is at Centennial Square tomorrow from 12-4.

Why land use is critically important for climate change

That’s the argument from a new paper published in Science today, written by Princeton University’s Tim Searchinger and others. The upshot? Clearing out forests to use the wood for bioenergy clearly has an environmental cost, but that’s simply not accounted for in any of the prevailing climate-change programs. Kyoto, the European cap-and-trade plan, and the House climate bill all treat bioenergy as carbon-neutral; nobody counts the effect of disappearing forests.

via Environmental Capital

In my long blog post earlier this morning, I briefly alluded to the fact that proposed Canadian climate change legislation explicitly excludes land use. Well, bad idea! I am surprised this is being trumpeted as a major new finding, hasn’t it been obvious for at least the last few years that biofuel carbon neutrality is very dependent on how land use patterns change?