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Recent blog posts
Posted on 1 September 2014 by Andy Skuce &
President Obama (BBC) has made it clear that the impact of the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline on the climate will be critical in his administration’s decision on whether the pipeline will go ahead or not. However, different estimates of the extra carbon emissions that the pipeline will cause vary wildly. For example, the consultants commissioned by the US State Department estimated that the incremental emissions would be 1.3 to 27.4 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) annually. In contrast, John Abraham, writing in the Guardian (and again more recently), estimated that the emissions would be as much as 190 MtCO2 annually, about seven times the State Department’s high estimate (calculation details here).
The variation in the estimates arises from the assumptions made. The State Department consultants assumed that the extra oil transported by the pipeline would displace oil produced elsewhere, so that we should only count the difference between the life-cycle emissions from the shut-in light oil and those of the more carbon-intensive bitumen. In addition, they estimated that not building KXL would mean that bitumen would instead be transported by rail, at slightly higher transportation costs. Abraham simply totted up all of the production, refining and consumption emissions of the 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) pipeline capacity and did not consider any effect of the extra product on world oil markets.
Neither set of assumptions is likely to be correct. Increasing the supply of any product will have an effect on a market, lowering prices and stimulating demand (consumption) growth. Lower prices will reduce supply somewhere. The question is: by how much?
An interesting new paper in Nature Climate Change (paywalled, but there is an open copy of an earlier version available here) by Peter Erickson and Michael Lazaruares ,attempts to answer this question. The authors are based in the Seattle office of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).
Posted on 26 August 2014 by Andy Skuce &
The Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is probably the easiest glacier in the world to access by car. It's just a few hundred metres' stroll from the nearest parking lot on the magnificent Icefields Parkway in Alberta. The problem is, the stroll keeps getting longer by about 10 metres every year. Since 1992, the snout of the glacier has retreated about 200 metres, requiring tourists anxious to set foot on the glacier to walk a little further. The glacier has lost about 2 km of its length since 1844 (Geovista PDF).
Posted on 26 March 2014 by Andy Skuce &
The British Columbia Sustainable Energy Association (BCSEA) organizes a series of free seminars on climate change and sustainability issues. BCSEA was founded by Guy Dauncey. On February 11th, 2014 BCSEA held a webinar on the recent work done by the Carbon Tracker Initative. Guy has written a detailed summary of their recent work on the BCSEA webpage.
The seminar starts at 8:30 minutes and a very good Q&A session begins at 39 minutes. The slides that accompany the seminar can be downloaded here.
Posted on 3 March 2014 by Andy Skuce &
An editorial by the Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine, Marcia McNutt, conditionally endorses the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. Her argument is that:
Both of these arguments are wrong; let me explain why.
Pipelines promote production
The Mildred Lake oil-sands plant in Alberta. Note the tailings pond behind the huge yellow piles of sulphur, a by-product of bitumen upgrading. The sulphur may come in handy later for use in solar radiation management. Photo Wikipedia
It should be obvious from the intense lobbying and advertising efforts of Canada's Federal Government, the Alberta Provincial Government and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that the KXL pipeline is a very big deal indeed for those with a stake in expanding oil sands production. Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver accuses his domestic political opponents of putting tens of thousands of Canadian jobs at risk by urging Washington not to approve KXL. At least on this matter, he is right; without new transportation infrastructure, the massive investments that result in growth in oil sands production will be postponed or cancelled. But that's the message provided to a Canadian audience.
Posted on 7 January 2014 by jg & Andy Skuce
While attending the recent AGU conference, some of us were struck by a statistic presented by Professor Richard Alley: On average, a person's contribution of carbon dioxide waste to the atmosphere is forty times greater than their production of solid trash to landfills when measured as mass.
It can be difficult to grasp the huge quantities of CO2 that we emit. It’s an invisible gas with no odour and we are not used to thinking about amounts of gas in terms of mass. But we do have a good sense of how much solid waste we throw out, since we all have to lug our garbage to the curb. If we had to do the same with our greenhouse gases, instead of one can a week, we would have to haul forty.
Every time we see a garbage truck, let’s imagine forty others following it, all taking our carbon dioxide to a dump site. When we hear of municipal politicians struggling to find new landfill sites, imagine the problems we would have finding forty subterranean landfill sites if we ever tried to dispose of our CO2 in the subsurface instead of dumping it freely into the air.
Posted on 31 October 2013 by Andy Skuce &
Hans Rosling is a Swedish medical doctor and statistician who is determined (in his own words) "to fight devastating ignorance with a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand".
Here is a video of him giving a talk on September 28th, 2013 at a public forum that introduced the latest IPCC report. The meeting was hosted by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme in Stockholm.
During the talk he asks a couple of questions, one on how many more children there will be in the year 2100 compared to today and another on what percentage of world energy is produced by solar and wind. I was in the minority that got the first one correct, but only because I had already seen one of Rosling's earlier talks. On the second question, I was among the majority that got the answer wrong. How will you do?
Posted on 25 July 2013 by Andy Skuce &
Stewart Elgie and Jessica McClay of the University of Ottawa have a peer-reviewed article in press in a special issue of the journal Canadian Public Policy. The article is summarized in the report BC’s Carbon Tax shift after five years: Results. An environmental (and economic) success story. The report can be downloaded here and is summarized here.
The results are similar to a previous report that I wrote about in the article BC’s revenue-neutral carbon tax experiment, four years on: It’s working, but updated, with one more year of data. The new data show that the carbon tax is working even better than reported previously.
Fuel consumption per capita has fallen in BC by nearly 19% relative to the rest of Canada; these are just the fuels that are subject to the carbon tax. (Note that the years in these tables begin on July 1, in the previous report, they were calendar years, so the numbers do not match exactly.)
Note that all fuel use for the various types of fuel fell faster per-capita in BC than for the rest of Canada. The one exception is aviation fuel, which is mostly exempt from the carbon tax and showed no differential fall in use in BC.
Posted on 27 June 2013 by Andy Skuce &
British Columbia is the only jurisdiction in North America with a revenue-neutral carbon tax that taxes greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from individuals and businesses alike. The tax was announced in February 2008 and was implemented in July 2008 at a rate of $10 per tonne of CO2, rising in $5 annual increments to the current price of $30/tonne. It is designed as a revenue-neutral tax, meaning that all carbon-tax proceeds collected by the government are returned in the form of income tax cuts and rebates. The tax is now raising over C$1.2 Billion per year, about C$270 per person, and the proceeds are distributed roughly equally between personal and business tax reductions.
People on low incomes get a per-person payment of C$115 annually, and homeowners who live outside the SW of the province can get additional rebates of up to $200 annually. The personal income tax reductions are focussed on earnings below C$75,000. The allocation of carbon tax revenue has to be reported in the annual budget.
A Miss by Myles: Why Professor Allen is wrong to think carbon capture and storage will solve the climate crisis
Posted on 11 June 2013 by Andy Skuce &
(This post was co-written by rustneversleeps and Andy Skuce).
A recent opinion piece in the British newspaper Mail on Sunday by University of Oxford climate scientist Myles Allen argues that the best way to combat climate change is to pass laws requiring fossil fuel producers to capture and sequester a rising proportion of the carbon dioxide emissions that the fuels produce. We argue here that such a policy, with its emphasis on carbon sequestration, would not be successful in achieving the carbon emission reductions that Allen himself advocates—for a variety of political, economic, technological and logistical reasons. A more recent article by Allen in The Guardian covers the same ground.
Nevertheless, Allen’s prescription does succeed in focussing the mind on the scale of the problem that we face in mitigating climate change.
This is a very long post, so here is a clickable summary.
A good starting framework, then... Allen's diagnosis is clear and his framing of targets in terms of cumulative emissions is unabiguous. But his prescription is flawed.
Politics There is no reason to assume a fixed emissions cap schedule would be easier to sell to the public than a carbon tax. Caps would produce greater certainty of longer-term emission reductions at the cost of uncertain economic consequences.
Economics (i): Efficiency Imposing emissions caps without allowing trading through brokers would be very inefficient. It is not clear whether Allen supports or opposes trading.
Economics (ii) Innovation by fiat? Prescribing one form of technology as the principle solution is risky. Nobody can predict how technology will evolve and what problems may emerge in future.
Economics (iii): The information conveyed by prices The cost of one technology should not be used as a basis for carbon pricing. There is a wide range of mitigation options, with highly variable prices, all with variable and uncertain potential to contribute to solutions. Experience in British Columbia shows that even a modest carbon tax can reduce emissions significantly without harming the economy.
Scaling it up to climate relevance Even promoters of aggressive deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) do not envision it as more than a partial contribution to mitigating climate change by 2050.
Timing and feasibility The mass of the CO2 to be sequestered is about double the mass of the fossil fuels themselves. To develop a new industry, from scratch, to capture, transport and dispose of these quantities will involve vast amounts of capital and many decades, even if it were technically possible.
Hazards The magnitude of the CO2 to be sequestered in the subsurface is such that environmental risks from leakage, aquifer contamination and induced earthquakes are likely to be much larger than those from the already contentious shale gas industry. Getting public licence for CCS projects in inhabited areas is likely to be very difficult and time consuming.
Summing up The climate crisis is so vast that we need to throw everything we have at it. Claiming that any single technology will solve the problem can lead to complacency that the fix is simple. It isn't.
Posted on 19 April 2013 by Andy Skuce &
Let's start with two skill-testing questions:
1. If we stop greenhouse gas emissions, won't the climate naturally go back to the way it was before?
2. Isn't there "warming in the pipeline" that will continue to heat up the planet no matter what we do?
The correct answer to both questions is "no".
Global warming is not reversible but it is stoppable.
Many people incorrectly assume that once we stop making greenhouse gas emissions, the CO2 will be drawn out of the air, the old equilibrium will be re-established and the climate of the planet will go back to the way it used to be; just like the way the acid rain problem was solved once scrubbers were put on smoke stacks, or the way lead pollution disappeared once we changed to unleaded gasoline. This misinterpretation can lead to complacency about the need to act now. In fact, global warming is, on human timescales, here forever. The truth is that the damage we have done—and continue to do—to the climate system cannot be undone.
The second question reveals a different kind of misunderstanding: many mistakenly believe that the climate system is going to send more warming our way no matter what we choose to do. Taken to an extreme, that viewpoint can lead to a fatalistic approach, in which efforts to mitigate climate change by cutting emissions are seen as futile: we should instead begin planning for adaptation or, worse, start deliberately intervening through geoengineering. But this is wrong. The inertia is not in the physics of the climate system, but rather in the human economy.
This is explained in a recent paper in Science Magazine (2013, paywalled but freely accessible here, scroll down to "Publications, 2013") by Damon Matthews and Susan Solomon: Irreversible Does Not Mean Unavoidable.
Since the Industrial Revolution, CO2 from our burning of fossil fuels has been building up in the atmosphere. The concentration of CO2 is now approaching 400 parts per million (ppm), up from 280 ppm prior to 1800. If we were to stop all emissions immediately, the CO2 concentration would also start to decline immediately, with some of the gas continuing to be absorbed into the oceans and smaller amounts being taken up by carbon sinks on land. According to the models of the carbon cycle, the level of CO2 (the red line in Figure 1A) would have dropped to about 340 ppm by 2300, approximately the same level as it was in 1980. In the next 300 years, therefore, nature will have recouped the last 30 years of our emissions.
Figure 1 CO2 concentrations (A); CO2 emissions (B) ; and temperature change (C). There are two scenarios: zero emissions after 2010 (red) and reduced emissions producing constant concentrations (blue). From a presentation by Damon Matthews, via Serendipity.
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