Harper's Climate Performance

Stephen Harper seemed positively grumpy last week as he described the implications of his government actually doing something about global warming.

In a year-end interview with CBC, Harper said "As soon as you're dedicated to actually reducing emissions, that imposes costs on the economy...Once we start [and] these things start biting, the criticism we're going to be getting is that we're doing too much."

Harper seems like a man bragging to his neglected wife that if he ever made love to her, she might die from exhaustion.

In fact, the Harper Conservatives have done so little on climate change that the short-term economic implications are the least of our worries.

Under his watch, Canada is the only signatory to Kyoto that openly abandoned commitments to reduce carbon emissions. The same week he was elected, he committed to the US a five-fold increase in production at the Alberta tar sands.

Not surprisingly, Canada’s carbon emissions have skyrocketed under the Harper regime - even more so than under his liberal predecessors. He also worked hard behind the scenes at the Commonwealth conference in Nairobi and the UN climate conference in Bali to ensure the final agreements had no binding emissions targets.

Rather than bemoaning the economic downsides of reducing carbon emissions, Harper should be embracing the opportunities they create. A recent study from the University of California at Berkley projected that Schwarzenegger’s efforts to wean California off fossil fuels would create 17,000 jobs and add $60 billion to the state gross domestic product by 2020.

Of the course the other side of the debate ignored by Harper is the enormous cost to the economy of doing nothing about global warming. The findings of such studies range from gruesome to apocalyptic.

Last year, former chief economist of the World Bank Sir Nicholas Stern released his seminal study on the economic implications of climate change. He found that ignoring climate change could shirk the world economy by 20%. By instead choosing to act now, we could avert this calamity for a cost of only 1% of world GDP. I’m no economist but that that seems like a bargain to me.

More recently, Harvard University economics professor Martin Weitzman developed an economic theory to calculate the cost to the economy of far greater (but plausible) temperature increases than those considered by Stern.

The paper is not yet published by the scuttlebutt is that the news is not good. According the New Scientist Magazine, "When you take into account extreme temperature rises... [Weitzman] says, they dominate all other options and effectively demand that investment aimed at stopping them be made now".

I realize that Mr. Harper is not a big reader but I am sure those studies are available should he choose to peruse them. As an economist himself, he might find them enlightening.

So before Stephen Harper starts bragging about his eventual performance around climate change, he should take some advice from Elvis Presley: a little less conversation, a little more action...

This ran on DeSmog Blog on December 22, 2007.


Bad News for Big Coal

The dirtiest of fuels is taking a beating this week. Yet another proposed coal plant in the US was canceled due to concerns about carbon dioxide emissions.

In October, the Kansas Department of Health rejected a coal generating plant due to concerns about climate change. Then another coal plant proposal was nixed in Washington State based on worries about the carbon impacts to the atmosphere.

It seems this regulatory shift around carbon emissions has not been lost on the coal mongers of the world.

The cancellation this week happened in Wyoming - the number one producer of coal in the US with proven reserves of 62 billion tonnes. Rocky Mountain Power decided to pull the plug on their two proposed new generating plants due to uncertainties about future regulation about carbon emissions.

Dave Eskelsen, spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power, told the Casper Star Tribune:
“The situation the company finds itself in now is a significant amount of uncertainty about what climate change regulation might do to the cost of coal plants. Coal projects are no longer viable.”

Mr. Eskelsen may not like it, but he is right. This latest string of coal plant rejections is rooted in a significant decision from the Supreme Court this spring that carbon dioxide should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. After years of using the atmosphere as a dumping ground for CO2, coal plants must finally account for this long-externalized cost.

State governments and power producers know that cleaning up coal would be almost impossible and very expensive. Coal releases more carbon than any other fuel and is responsible for about 40% of the six billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in the US each year.

There is loose talk about carbon sequestration at generation plants but existing technology is unproven and would cut deep into the bottom line that is driving coal’s expansion in the US market. The shift from regulators to consider emissions and climate change could be the beginning of the end for Big Coal in the US.

While the decision to cancel the latest coal plants in Wyoming is good news, there is still a long way to go. Wyoming currently cranks out more carbon dioxide in eight hours from coal generation that the entire state of Vermont in a year.

But as they say, the longest journey begins with a single step. The decisions in Kansas, Washington and now Wyoming are definitely a step in the right direction. For state governments and generating companies to be taking a hard look at carbon emissions from coal plants is bad news for the dirtiest of fuels.

This was published on DeSmog Blog on December 19, 2007


Bisphenol A and MEC

Toques off to Mountain Equipment Co-op for choosing to ditch toxic plastic bottles.

Its not every day that a major retailer voluntarily looses a profitable product line to protect their customers. MEC did just that by announcing last week that they have pulled from their shelves all polycarbonate plastics suspected of leaching dangerous levels of bisphenol A (BPA).

BPA is a hormone mimicking compound or “endocrine disruptor”. The human body mistakes BPA for estrogen, meaning that it can have serious human health implications even in miniscule concentrations.

Emerging research has linked BPA with breast and prostate cancer and a range of other human health impacts including reduced levels of testosterone in men to early onset puberty in girls.

Bisphenol A is also one of the most highly produced chemicals in the world – over five million pounds a year. It is used in everything from cans to plumbing and is now very difficult to avoid.

While the scientific community is becoming increasingly forceful in their statements about the dangers of this ubiquitous chemical, regulators as usual are bringing up the rear. Health Canada is still studying the issue and is scheduled to make a determination on BPA in the spring of 2008.

The other important piece of this story is why MEC was even able to make this decision. Most large publicly traded companies are hobbled by the imperatives of the profit motive and often become answerable only to their investors. Dropping a profitable product line like BPA bottles without being forced to do so by regulators would be a unthinkable for most other retailers.

In contrast MEC is a co-op. This means that that they are answerable to their membership – all 2.6 million of them. Many of these members were becoming increasingly vocal about why their co-op was exposing the membership to suspected carcinogens when safe alternatives are available. If the directors and upper management had not made this decision, the membership might have made it for them.

Because of this fundamental difference in their corporate DNA, co-operatives such as MEC and VanCity Credit Union are much more able to make principled decisions than companies competing in the same sector. The difference shows.

MEC sells over $220 million on merchandise a year and is one of the largest sports retailers in Canada. They also give 1% of their sales to wilderness conservation efforts – over $2 million in 2007. VanCity has over $12 billion in assets and gives 30% of their profits back to the community in various granting programs.

These are not irrational acts. Holding egalitarian values builds loyalty with both customers and employees. VanCity was recently voted the best employer in Canada by Macleans Magazine. Retaining skilled workers in a tight labour market is simply good business.

So to it seems is happiness. Feeling good about the place you shop or work is not generally included in most economic bean-counting. However, one job-place study found that almost 20% of employees had quit a previous job due to stress.

Being a co-op gives these businesses competitive advantages as well. While MEC is highly successful business, their membership decided that they should also be a non-profit. That means that any surpluses must either be reinvested in company or returned to the membership through dividends. When was the last time you got mailed a cheque from any other place you shop?

MEC can also charge lower prices than their competition because they do not have to siphon off 10-15% of their profits for their investors.

Likewise, VanCity is not captive to the rapacious greed typical of many publicly traded financial institutions. This means they can provide better service, and refrain from nickel and diming their customers with the laundry list of audaciously creative service charges designed to enrich their investors. This year the Royal Bank reported a record-busting profit of over $5.5 billion. Where did all that money come from? Have a look at you bank statement.

Cooperative business models like MEC and VanCity are becoming increasingly important for achieving positive change in society. Non-profit advocacy will always be needed but transforming our economy into something that resembling democracy is arguably even more pressing. Lord knows the economy is not going to go away. We need to change how it operates.

A company like MEC ditching dangerous products like BPA plastics is an example of that change. In making this decision, they will force other retailers to take a hard look at carrying polycarbonate products.

So toques off to MEC. It makes me feel better about all the dough I spend on gear there.

This piece ran nowhere.


Stroumboulopoulos and Bjorn Lomborg

The street cred of resident CBC hipster George Stroumboulopoulos took a big hit this week.

The Former VJ and current host of CBC’s The Hour invited well-known climate change apologist Bjorn Lomborg onto his show for a friendly chat and a chance to plug his latest book “Cool It” – a polemic about how there are far bigger fish to fry than tackling global warming.

Lomborg has long been the darling of the anti-kyoto crowd, being better looking and hipper than the likes of F. Fred Singer or Patrick Michaels. The difference however is that at least those two "climate skeptics" have scientific training. Lomborg’s academic background? Political science.

His first book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” was so offensive to the scientific community that Scientific American published a ten-page evisceration authoured by four actual researchers.

Lomborg tried to refute this critique on his website but apparently knew so little about science that he sent a blanket email to his supporters pleading for help. It read:

“Naturally, I plan to write a rebuttal to be put on my web-site. However, I would also love your input to the issues -- maybe you can contest some of the arguments in the Scientific American, alone or together with other academics. Perhaps you have good ideas to counter a specific argument. Perhaps you know of someone else that might be ideal to talk to or get to write a counter-piece."

John P. Holdren, one of the Scientific American authors noted “It is instructive that [Lomborg] apparently did not feel he could manage an adequate response by himself. (In this, at least, he was correct. But he could not manage it with help, either.)”

The Danish Committee for Scientific Dishonesty also received a whack of complaints about Lomborg's book. After investigating, they concluded:

"the publication is deemed clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice…there has been such perversion of the scientific message in the form of systematically biased representation that the objective criteria for upholding scientific dishonesty ... have been met".

As always it is instructive to follow the money. Lomborg’s current book tour is being sponsored by the Fraser Institute – which has itself been funded by Exxon Mobil. In 2003-04, Exxon shelled out $120,000 to the Fraser Institute - in part to pay for their anti Kyoto work.

None of this seems to stop the media from continuing to provide Lomborg a soapbox. The decision by Stroumboulopoulos to invite Lomberg on the show to plug his book is particularly gross given that yesterday was the ten-year anniversary of the Kyoto Accord. The UN climate negotiations in Bali hang in the balance as we speak.

It’s bad enough that to this day the CBC does not yet have a dedicated show on the environment on either TV or radio. It sucks worse that our national broadcaster is providing friendly airtime to the likes of Lomborg.

Your cred’s in the crapper over this one George.

This piece ran nowhere.


Oil Sands and Carbon Caps

If you owned a distillery, you would probably not favour prohibition. So it is little wonder why Prime Minister Stephen Harper is opposing binding emission targets at the UN climate negotiations in Bali.

Harper’s adopted province of Alberta is home to the second largest oil reserves in the world, and the good times are just starting to roll.

For decades, the tar sands have been far too expensive and energy intensive to turn a profit. But with crude oil prices pushing $100 a barrel, the oil patch boys are looking at some serious returns on their investment.

The tar sands have about 175 billion barrels of extractable reserves based on oil prices from 2005 – already long out of date. With break-even costs around $28 a barrel, oil companies may rake in over $12 trillion in profits over the lifespan of the tar sands.

This of course makes the unlikely assumption that world oil prices will remain below $100 a barrel decades into the future. With peak oil upon us, eventual profits may be much higher.

So too might the extractable reserves. 175 billion barrels represents only 11% of the known 1.6 trillion barrels of tarry oil that underlie more than 12% of the Alberta landmass.

Beyond mere money looms the energy imperatives of Canada’s thirsty neighbor to the south. With the US embroiled in a costly and unpopular war in Iraq, George Bush committed in his state of the union address in 2006 to end his country’s addiction to Mideast oil.

What he did not intimate to his country or ours was that the slack was to be made up not from conservation but from the Alberta tar sands –now deemed to a national security objective of the US government.

The same week that Harper took office in 2006, Canadian officials helpfully committed to a five-fold increase in tar sands production during secret meetings with their US counterparts in Huston Texas - one week prior to Bush’s address to the nation.

Which brings us to carbon caps. Plan A for Harper, Bush and oil companies is for tar sands development to continue at full tilt boggie until all the oil is gone. The only thing that might conceivably prevent that from happening is binding international emissions targets.

The conflict between carbon caps and the tar sands is simple. Production and downstream emissions for Alberta synthetic crude are around 638 kg carbon dioxide per barrel - considerably higher than conventional oil.

Based on extractable reserves of 175 billion barrels, the tar sands will eventually contribute an incredible 112 billion tonnes of CO2 to the planet’s atmosphere.

Released all at once, they would single handedly bump atmospheric CO2 concentrations close to 400 ppm. It’s hard to imagine meaningful global emissions targets that would not limit the development of the oil sands.

Keep all that in mind as Harper trots out his bizarre position during the UN climate negotiations this week in Bali. He is almost alone among world leaders in insisting that there be no binding emission targets until every country in the world signs on.

One exasperated diplomat at the Commonwealth conference last month described Mr. Harper’s position as “a perfect recipe for making sure nothing happens”.

This is not a surprise. Simply put, Harper, Bush and their oil industry supporters have far too much to lose if the Bali negotiations succeed.

This was published on Desmog Blog on December 7, 2007.

Was DSCOVR Killed By Office Politics?

NASA’s resistance to launching the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) is certainly puzzling. They spent $100 million on the spacecraft. It’s finished. Two other countries and another US government agency have offered to launch it at no cost to NASA. Yet it still remains in a box.

Maybe NASA is simply cash-strapped because they have been forced to spend billions on pet political projects like the International Space Station or Bush’s manned mission to Mars.

Or maybe the Whitehouse and their oil industry backers didn’t want the climate “debate” resolved just yet.

But perhaps the real reason that DSCOVR remains Earth-bound is something much more mundane than that: office politics.

NASA, like any large institution, has some serious inertia around changing the way things are done. The important challenge of calculating the energy budget of the planet is a good example.

After spending literally billions of dollars on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, NASA scientists still cannot resolve a significant discrepancy in the “reflected flux” of our planet.

Simply put, the amount of energy retained by Earth is the amount of energy received from the Sun, minus the amount radiated back into space in the infrared spectrum.

The first factor – the amount received from Sun - is the total energy hitting the Earth minus the amount reflected back by clouds, ice and other shiny surfaces. This measurement of “shininess” is called albedo.

Without knowing the ever-changing albedo, it is impossible to have a precise idea of how much the planet is warming up, or what is causing it. It is like trying to figure out how many people have come into a nightclub with out counting them at the door.

Therein lies the internal embarrassment for NASA. Scientists are supposed to have the answers – especially around hot button issues like climate change. Yet a paper published last year in the prestigious journal Nature demonstrated that NASA still had a glaring discrepancy in the planet’s energy balance of 4-6 watts per square metre – that is roughly two to three times the effect of atmospheric CO2.

The Low Earth Orbit researchers have had a pretty good kick at the can but they still can’t make the numbers add up. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Such “weird” phenomena are often the very things that precede scientific breakthroughs.

That’s why DSCOVR is so important. It would be observing our planet at the same time as existing LEO satellites – but from a distance of 1.5 million kilomteres away. This new perspective might help resolve this interesting problem.

DSCOVR would also compliment and help calibrate existing satellite measurements. Many of these LEO satellites cost billions and have a limited lifespan. Some of satellites in A-Train array may be lost by 2009 – adding to the urgency of getting DSCOVR launched so it can do coincident measurements of the Earth before these expensive satellites fall from the sky.

More than that, DSCOVR would be able to simultaneously monitor the energy output of the Sun while measuring temperature changes on Earth. This would almost immediately lay to rest the argument often trotted out by climate change deniers that any warming of the planet is due to fluctuations in the Sun.

Here’s the rub: if DSCOVR ever made it to L1 and did a better job at measuring the temperature of our planet, it might threaten the funding or reputations of well-established scientists that have hitched their academic wagon to low Earth orbit observations.

Could it be that the satellite that could save the world remains Earth-bound due to nothing more than academic jealously?

As they say, “never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.”

This piece was published on Desmog Blog


The Tar Sands and Climate Change

You can’t practice abstinence while running a brothel. Yet politicians of almost all stripes talk simultaneously about developing the Alberta oil sands while getting serous about reducing carbon emissions. Sound like a crock? It is.

Beyond arcane terms like “emissions trading” and “carbon credits”, climate change is actually very simple: Every time we extract ancient carbon out of the ground and burn it we are making climate change worse. The more you burn, the worse it gets.

Bearing in mind that simple truth, how much extractable oil is in the Alberta oil sands? That is one area where industry and environmentalists agree. It’s a lot – about 175 billion barrels. That is second only to the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Beyond this massive storehouse of ancient carbon, the additional problem with the oil sands is that is takes a colossal amount of energy to extract and refine the extremely low-grade tar deposits that cover more than 20% of the Alberta landmass.

The oil sands are mostly rock and sand – only 12% is bitumen. This tar must then be upgraded at enormous energy cost to synthetic crude.

That process consumes about 700 million cubic feet of natural gas each day – enough to heat over 3.7 million Canadian homes. That massive waste of finite and comparatively clean natural gas is expected to triple in the next eight years.

Of course there is no point in creating synthetic crude oil unless you are eventually going to burn it – that is what the oil business is all about. These “downstream” emissions are four times as great as the carbon released during oil sands production.

Doing the math a rather stark picture emerges. The average production and downstream emissions of Alberta synthetic crude add up to around 638 kg of carbon per barrel. Multiply that by the total extractable oil reserves and you get a rather large number.

When all the Alberta oil sands have been extracted, upgraded and burned, they will result in the release into the Earth’s atmosphere of around 112 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is equivalent to all fossil fuel and industrial emissions worldwide combined over a period of more than four years.

The planet’s atmosphere is a finite system. It currently contains about 3000 billion tonnes of CO2 – about 35% above pre-industrial levels.

If all the carbon from the development of the oil sands were released at once it would single handedly increase atmospheric CO2 concentration from the current level of 384 ppm to 400 ppm.

Some scientists believe that there is a one in five chance that a carbon level of 400 ppm this century would lead to catastrophic changes. In fact we are on track to reach that milestone by 2015. The oil sands alone would put us beyond that potential tipping point.

Of course, none of this cuts much ice with either politicians or the public. There is an oil boom going on in Alberta – end of story. Even here in Canada, there seems to be almost no discussion about the eventual need to leave this dangerous substance in the ground.

Consider this thought experiment: imagine the political likelihood of any government in Ottawa attempting to shut down of the oil sands. Recall what happened when Trudeau brought in the comparatively mild National Energy Program in the 1980. Thirty-seven years later, Albertans have neither forgotten nor forgiven that perceived transgression into their sacrosanct industry.

Nor would the US be indifferent if Canada presumed to leave our own oil reserves in the ground. In fact, George Bush committed in his 2006 state of the union address to end his country’s addiction to mid-east oil. What he did not intimate to his country or ours was that the shortfall was to be made up by Canadian oil from the oil sands – now deemed to a national security objective of the US government.

That same week in January 2006, Stephen Harper helpfully committed Canada to a five-fold increase in oil sands production during secret meetings held in Huston Texas between US, Canadian and industry representatives immediately after he took office.

Then there is a small matter of money. While oil companies love to whine about their onerous taxes, the fact is that they are now making astronomical profits. The break-even production costs of the oil sands are about $28 a barrel. World oil prices are now close to $100 a barrel. Royalties to the government are as low as 1% and a new regime will not come in until 2009. Not a bad gig.

Assuming the oil remains at only $100 a barrel for the next few decades (highly unlikely), oil companies can expect to reap more than $12 trillion in profits over the lifespan of the oil sands. The oil industry is already the largest industrial sector the world has ever seen - worth more than $8 trillion in sales annually. That is almost five times larger than the next biggest industry: cars.

Keep all that in mind when Stephen Harper trots out his bizarre position during the UN climate negotiations this week in Bali. He is almost alone among world leaders in insisting that there be no binding emission targets until every country in the world signs on. One exasperated diplomat at the Commonwealth conference last month described Mr. Harper’s position as “a perfect recipe for making sure nothing happens”.

All this is a good example of how far political and public discourse has to go to deal meaningfully with this planetary emergency. Try to imagine some future reality where we collectively commit standing armies to known oil reserves – not to facilitate their extraction - but to ensure that it never is. That is what it might eventually take to prevent global catastrophe.

Given the pell mell development of the Alberta oil sands, we instead have a very good idea of how much and how fast the world’s fossil fuel deposits will be extracted and burned - all of it, and as fast as possible.

The chemistry of the atmosphere doesn’t care what disingenuous political posturing happens this week in Bali. Climate change is very simple. The more you burn, the worse it gets. We ignore that simple truth at our peril.

This piece ran on The Tyee on December 4, 2007.