Made in Canada Sellout

Ever wonder why the Canadian government keeps saying it's impossible to meet our international commitments to cut greenhouse gases under the Kyoto accord?

The truth is Canada’s ability to comply with Kyoto was quietly killed on December 18, 2002 - just one day after our ratification papers for the global climate treaty were proudly presented to the United Nations.

This shocking betrayal came in the form of a personal letter from then Minister of Natural Resources Herb Dhaliwal to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. It guaranteed such sweeping concessions to the oil and gas sector that complying with Kyoto was virtually impossible without shutting down large sectors of the rest of the economy.

Among other things, Ottawa committed to the fossil fuel sector that they would “set emission intensity targets for the oil and gas sector at no more than 15% below the projected business-as-usual levels for 2010.”

Industrial emitters like the oil sector account for over 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. This quiet corporate give-away meant that the rest of the Canadian economy, namely you and me, would have to cut our emissions by more 40% - assuming we want to comply with international law.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has cheerfully increased their emissions by 47% since 1990, and they are set to double again in the next decade.

But wait, there's more. This letter also committed that the oil industry would pay no more than $15/tonne for greenhouse gas offsets until 2012. What a bargain! A study conducted for the National Climate Change Process estimated the true costs of such offsets are more like $250/tonne.

Given these sweeping concessions to the fossil fuel lobby, complying with Kyoto is now virtually impossible. For instance, we could shut down the entire transportation sector in Canada (a mere 25% of all emissions) and still not meet our Kyoto commitments.

This also creates the convenient situation where those pundits who appose any meaningful movement on climate policy can crow that Kyoto is not doable and never was.

Realistically, the likelihood of Stephen Harper, an Alberta Tory, reneging on this remarkable sellout to the oil industry is vanishingly small. The reason this deal was was so crucial to the oil sector is because the Alberta oil sands development produces such astronomical carbon emissions.

So energy intensive is this bitumen boondoggle, it takes up to 1,500 cubic feet of clean natural gas to produce one barrel of dirty crude. The oil sands now consume 600 million cubic feet of natural gas per day – enough to heat 3.2 million Canadian homes.

The gluttonous appetite of the tar sands for dwindling natural gas supplies is expected to more than triple by 2012. Hence the need for the proposed 1,200 km Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline from the Artic Ocean to Fort McMurray, at a cost of $7.5 billion.

Besides the fact that this outrageously inefficient project creates three times the carbon emissions of conventional oil development, why would it even make economic sense to convert our finite deposits of natural gas into oil? From an energy efficiency point of view, we are turning caviar into Kraft dinner.

The simple answer is that China needs oil to fuel their ballooning love affair with the automobile. There is only so much oil in the world and politicians are falling all over themselves to sell it, even as they publicly spout platitudes about climate change.

``So when Harper rolls out his “Made in Canada” strategy, don’t expect much. We will likely see the usual tough talk minus any deadlines. More cynically, the government spin-doctors will also attempt to deflect attention away from inaction on climate change by talking instead about smog.

This hoary tactic of attempting to confuse the public by talking about smog and greenhouse gases interchangeably is typically reserved for only the most desperate PR situations. That time is now.

If there is a bright side, it’s that this is what early childhood educators would call “a learning moment”. The planet’s life support systems do not fail all at once, or even gradually over time. Our environment is degraded incrementally – bad decision by bad decision. It is important to take note of such milestones. This one happens to be a doosey.

In their pedantic and qualified way, the world’s leading scientists are telling us that climate change is the nothing short of a hair-on-fire planetary emergency. The most recent study was presented last week by James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, showing the Earth has not been this warm in the last 12,000 years.

"If further global warming reaches 2 or 3 degrees Celsius, we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet than the one we know. The last time it was that warm was in the middle Pliocene, about 3 million years ago, when sea level was estimated to have been about 25 meters (80 feet) higher than today," Hansen said.

Assuming we want to avoid that outcome, there are some practical options. While the Canadian oil and gas lobby has been spectacularly successful at bullying our government, their counterparts elsewhere in the world have taken a very different tack.

For instance, British Petroleum in the UK committed in 1998 to reducing greenhouse gas emissions 10% below 1990 levels by 2010 – a target they reached in 2003, seven years ahead of schedule. Thirteen major UK companies including PB and Shell also penned an open letter to Tony Blair urging clear and strong regulation of greenhouse gases, and a long term plan that would further reduce emissions by 60% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Another case in point is California, with a population similar to Canada. Many of us cringed when the “Terminator” became Governor, but Schwarzenegger last month signed a landmark deal that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020, making California the first US state to legislate a cap on emissions.

Regulation of greenhouse gases will come sooner or later, whether industry likes it or not. Business leaders in other countries have taken the long view that it is better to volunteer than be drafted. Governments elsewhere have provided clear goalposts to those industries and got on with the business of governing.

Ottawa can step back from our emerging image as a global climate pariah, and take a leadership role on creating a sustainable future. However, the first step must be to tear up the sweetheart deal with the oil industry.

Mitchell Anderosn is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. A related piece ran on the Tyee on October 4, 2006


The Satellite that Could Save the World

At a time when the Earth’s climate is at the top of practically every nation’s agenda, it might seem perplexing that there’s a $100-million, fully-completed climate-sensing spacecraft languishing in a warehouse in Maryland.

The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) was supposed to be delivered five years ago to the L1 Lagrangian point—a gravity-neutral parking spot between the Earth and the Sun 1.5 million kilometers away that affords a continuous, sunlit view of the planet.

From that lofty vantage, DSCOVR would beam back our first-ever measurements of the entire planet’s energy balance and reflectivity, known as albedo. This is critical data for calibrating climate change models and monitoring the progress of global warming. Yet the mission was quietly killed this year, so the satellite remains sitting in a box at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Could the decision to kill DSCOVR have anything to do with the politics of climate science? For years, Republicans have claimed the need for more data before acting to curb global warming. A letter President Bush wrote to four Republican senators in March 2001 (after DSCOVR’s endorsement by a National Academy of Sciences review panel) referred to “the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change.”

More recently, in a 2005 briefing, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan asserted that “there is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the science of climate change.” Dr. Kevin Trenberth, Head of the Climate Analysis Section at National Center for Atmospheric Research, said, “It is as if the administration prefers to continue to hide behind lack of definitive data as an
excuse for lack of action and leadership.”

According to Dr. Jonah Colman, who does climate modeling at Los Alamos National Laboratory, “the availability of DSCOVR for inter-comparison between other measurements” would reconcile discrepancies in data from low-earth orbit satellites. “Albedo is incredibly important,” he added. “It can change quickly, and we currently do not have a direct method for measuring it. DSCOVR would have given us that.”

Project leader Dr. Francisco P. J. Valero, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, describes the mission as “an urgent necessity.” Dr. Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, is even more blunt about the importance of DSCOVR’s data: “Not knowing may kill us.”

If we’re interested in understanding how climate changes and how to predict what’s going to happen next, DSCOVR would appear to be a crucial undertaking. So what happened? The loss of the Columbia shuttle certainly didn’t help, but the real killer of this project seems to have been partisan politics.

Back in 1998, Al Gore championed a probe that would broadcast real-time images of Earth to the Internet at the relatively cheap cost of $20 million. Named Triana (after the sailor on Columbus’ voyage who first spotted the New World), Gore hoped the probe would foster greater awareness of the fragility of the planet. The idea had come to him in a dream.

After peer review, the mission was upgraded to allow the spacecraft to continuously monitor the energy budget of the entire planet—the first one ever with this capability—making it a much more credible mission The name was later changed from Triana to DSCOVR—likely in the hope of jettisoning the Gore-dream political baggage.

Republicans didn’t buy it. In 1999, GOP Congressmen put the project on ice, dubbing it the “Goresat,” a “multimillion-dollar screen saver.” Dick Armey, then House Majority Leader quipped, “This idea supposedly came from a dream. Well, I once dreamed I caught a 10-foot bass. But I didn’t call up the Fish and Wildlife service and ask them to spend $30 million to make sure it happened.”

Lost in the partisan grandstanding was the critically important science behind DSCOVR. In January 2006, NASA quietly canceled DSCOVR altogether, citing “competing priorities.”

Many in the scientific community are incredulous that such an important mission might be lost to rank partisanship. “Gore favored it,” says Dr. Park. “This administration is determined that a Gore experiment is not going to happen. It’s inconceivable to me.” The director of public information for the American Physical Society, Dr. Park says, “I probably talk to more physicists than anyone else in the country. They all think this is tragic.” Climate analyst Trenbeth said, “It makes no sense to me at all either from an economic or a scientific viewpoint. That leaves politics.”

The Ukrainian government offered to launch DSCOVR free of charge aboard a Tsyklon II rocket, the most reliable launch vehicle in the world. France made a similar offer using one of its rockets. But NASA’s response so far has been “no thanks.” Not helping matters, Congress recently raided the NASA budget to the tune of $568.5 million for 198 non-peer reviewed “Congressional interest items”—otherwise known as pure political pork.

DSCOVR is not entirely dead yet. The NOAA is considering bankrolling the launch because DSCOVR could better warn of solar storms, protecting expensive communications satellites. Until then, assuming it’s not stripped for parts, DSCOVR will remain in a box at Goddard until a change in the political winds sends it to its rightful place at L1.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran in the August/September issue of SEED Magazine.