Emissions out of control

By Katherine Palmer Gordon, October 2014

A recent scientific report implies we are close to a point of no return on climate change. UVic’s Dr Tom Pedersen weighs in.

Last August, a draft report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), leaked to the news media, set out some cold, hard facts about global warming.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times to 400 now. The rate at which emissions are rising has never been higher. In 2013 alone, the concentration of carbon dioxide increased by nearly 3 parts per million.

Scientists say planetary emissions must be reduced by 40 to 70 percent by 2050 to keep global temperature increases to tolerable levels and minimize infrastructure damage and coastal erosion associated with rising sea levels. But the report also points out that accumulated emissions to date will continue to have a negative impact for centuries to come, even if all emissions were to cease today. 

The media reacted in apocalyptic terms: “Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem,” observed the New York Times. In Mother Jones, journalist James West asked gloomily: “How many synonyms for ‘grim’ can I pack into one article? [The IPCC report] confirmed, yet again, the grim—dire, frightful—reality that we face if we don’t slash our global greenhouse gas emissions, and slash them fast.”

But Dr Thomas Pedersen, executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, a solutions-based research network hosted by UVic, has a different take. While the internationally recognized authority on ocean chemistry believes a “full frontal assault” on emissions is necessary, he also believes the future doesn’t have to spell drastic climate failure: “When the final official version of the IPCC report comes out it is no doubt going to set out some grim facts. But I doubt the IPCC is going to suggest we should all throw up our hands and surrender,” says Pedersen. “They are also going to talk about mitigation efforts that are underway.” In that respect, Pedersen ardently believes, there is “a very good story to tell.”

Not every good story has a happy ending, of course. According to both the IPCC and UK-based Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, current mitigation efforts—investment in renewable energy and improved public transportation infrastructure, for example—are nowhere near enough. Any emission reductions being gained by such initiatives are being dwarfed by rocketing greenhouse gas emissions on other fronts. China is a good example of that.

With its vast heavy-industrial economy, China frequently gets blamed for rising global emission rates. But Pedersen says that China is also doing more than almost any other country to produce clean energy. In August, the Chinese government announced the country will bring in a national carbon trading system in 2017. “They’ve already had seven pilot emission trading schemes in place for nearly two years, in five cities and two provinces with populations comparable to Canada’s, and the schemes are already showing good results in emissions reductions with no economic dislocation.” 

Moreover, China’s investment in renewable energy is the highest in the world, according to Pedersen. “President Xi Jinping has stated that Chinese coal consumption will not be allowed to increase past 2030, when it is anticipated to peak. So China now has by far the highest rate of installation of solar-voltaic capacity and wind turbines, and households are installing solar-thermal systems for domestic hot water production on rooftops across the country. China is also building more nuclear plants and hydro dams than any other country in the world.” There are downsides to the two latter initiatives that can’t be ignored, acknowledges Pedersen. “But the point is that China is trying to do the right thing,” he insists. “They’ve acknowledged something has to be done.”

That is indeed good news. The bad news: Sometimes trying to do the right thing may simply not be enough. 

Pedersen admits that China is also “by far” the world’s largest consumer of coal. And the US Energy Information Administration estimates that China’s use of petroleum liquids will double from 2010 to 2040. An even greater increase in use of natural gas is predicted. 

He also acknowledges that China’s efforts in the renewable energy sector will merely “blunt” the leading edge of its emissions: “It’s not going to compensate for the rise in its use of coal and other fuels.”

By comparison, in 2011, Germany adopted a policy called “Energiewende,” or Energy Transition, aiming by 2050 for greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 80-95 percent; for hydroelectricity, solar, and wind power to supply 60-80 percent of the country’s energy demand; and for electricity efficiency to be improved by 50 percent. 

Like China, it’s a good news/bad news story, albeit for different reasons. On the emissions front, the prognosis for a happy ending is good. Three years after the introduction of Energiewende, renewable energy now accounts for 27 percent of Germany’s power supply. Thanks to high demand, the cost of wind and solar power has been reduced by 70 percent in the last five years. A proliferation of small renewable energy cooperatives has emerged across the country, some of them meeting 100 percent of local need. Germany has also become a global leader in the export of clean energy technology, and is the biggest manufacturer of wind turbines in the world.

The results of the transition remain mixed, all the same. Germany has discovered that the rapid success of the renewable energy sector—in part due to generous government tariffs paid to renewable energy producers—has made significant inroads into the profitability of conventional energy utilities. With little time to adjust, their financial viability is seriously threatened. Some utilities are facing closure. That could, ironically, be seriously detrimental to the success of renewable energy ventures: At least in the medium term, it remains vital to ensure that back-up conventional energy is available to fill the gaps when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind isn’t blowing—or people might reject renewables as highly inconvenient. 

Germany has also made a misstep, in the opinion of Pedersen and like-minded climate experts, in deciding to phase out nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. That decision was made for the wrong reason, says Pedersen: “The problem with Fukushima wasn’t the fact that it was a nuclear power station in the way of a tsunami; the problem was that the reactor was badly-designed,” he explains. “The result has been a massive increase in coal imports to make up for it. That’s led to progress in meeting emissions reduction targets in the country coming to a standstill.”  

All the same, Pedersen believes Germany is still “well on the way” to meeting its 2050 goals. “If the lessons Germany has learned along the way are taken into account, overall Energiewende is still a good model for rest of the world to follow.”

ONE OF THE KEY CHALLENGES to reducing manmade greenhouse gas emissions remains the relatively low cost of fossil fuels in most countries, resulting in profligate use of oil, gas, and coal worldwide. 

Pedersen is a big fan of aggressive carbon pricing as a way to discourage fossil fuel use: “Economists have quantified the cost of damage from carbon emissions arising from the extraction, processing, and use of fossil fuels to be about $200/tonne of carbon dioxide emitted. But we aren’t paying that price for the damage we’re causing, or anywhere near it. We’re essentially getting a free ride, and we’re using it wastefully. That needs to change.” 

Many countries have imposed some form of carbon tax or emissions trading system to discourage fossil fuel use, but not at the level Pedersen suggests is required. Nonetheless, in BC, he credits the 2008 provincial carbon tax for the fact that the province is leading the way in Canada in its emissions reduction efforts: “The province’s per capita fossil fuel use, relative to the rest of Canada, has declined by 19 percent since 2008.” He thinks there can be only one driver responsible for that: “That’s the carbon tax.” 

He also acknowledges, however, that the secret to the success of the tax is that it was designed to gain acceptance by the general public by avoiding sticker shock. We pay just $30/tonne of carbon dioxide emitted: “The tax was introduced at a very low rate and has only gradually increased to its current rate of seven cents/litre at the pump. It was also intended to be revenue neutral, so was tied to income tax reductions at the same time.” 

Despite the low rate, Pedersen remains an admirer of the tax: “If the BC-style carbon tax were to be adopted worldwide, I think we would see similar declining consumption globally, and that would be significant. But,” he adds, “the price of energy has to go up to the real cost of using carbon, so that there’s a real incentive to stop using the atmosphere like an open sewer and a real stimulus to invest in renewable energy instead.”  

 

IT'S ONE THING TO MAKE FOSSIL FUELS more expensive. The price tag on renewable energy—perceived to be much greater than that of fossil fuels—is also, however, a significant factor at play here. Germany is out of pocket $140 billion (US) to date in implementing Energiewende. The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has also estimated that implementing measures to limit emissions over the next 15 years could cost up to four trillion US dollars. 

But let’s put those costs into perspective. For a start, pricing carbon appropriately, as Pedersen advocates, would make renewable alternatives much more competitive with fossil fuels. Even in the absence of that, the Global Commission has also pointed out that the four trillion dollar cost of building and supporting renewable energy infrastructure only exceeds that of fossil fuel infrastructure requirements by a factor of five percent. 

A hot off-the-press Global Commission on the Economy and Climate report delivered to the United Nations in mid-September also states that aggressive action on emissions reductions would be a boon to prosperity and not the economic show-stopper some perceive it to be. Co-author Lord Nicholas Stern says: “Reducing emissions is not only compatible with economic growth and development, if done well it can actually generate better growth than the old high-carbon model.”

The Global Commission also reports that the cost of renewable energy itself has plummeted over the last three decades. “The cost of a photovoltaic cell, for example, has come down more than 100-fold since the mid-1970s,” agrees Pedersen. “In 1976, solar cell capacity cost $70/watt. Today it costs 70 cents/watt. I can’t name any other energy or fuel source that has dropped that much and it hasn’t bottomed out yet.” 

That’s despite the fact that in addition to an absence of a truly equalizing carbon pricing system, the renewable energy sector  doesn’t enjoy the kind of subsidization that the fossil-fuel industry relies on for profitability, estimated by the Global Commission to be worth $600 billion a year worldwide. The International Monetary Fund pegs Canada’s share of those subsidies at $34 billion (including tax incentives and externalized costs of burning fossil fuels). The Pembina Institute recently calculated all direct federal subsidies at $711 million—not including provincial ones, or external costs, or “reclamation liabilities.” The latter are estimated to be $12 to 20 billion in Alberta alone.

 

ALBERTA'S NEW PREMIER, former Conservative MP Jim Prentice, has unequivocally stated that market access for Alberta’s oil and gas—including through BC—is the highest priority for his government. The federal government has given a green light to the construction of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, anticipated to carry 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen daily from Alberta’s oil sands to Kitimat, BC for export to Asia. It is expected to do the same with Kinder Morgan Canada’s application to twin its Trans Mountain Pipeline, tripling its capacity to 890,000 barrels of dilbit daily to the Port of Vancouver. Both projects will, of course, increase global emissions.

In the meantime BC’s own government continues to beat the LNG drum. Touted as a much cleaner-burning fuel than oil, BC’s LNG nonetheless is a potentially significant contributor to emissions volumes. Alberta’s Pembina Institute has estimated that carbon pollution from the scale of LNG development envisioned by the BC government could reach 73 million tonnes per year by 2020, equivalent to nearly three-quarters of the projected emissions from Alberta’s tar sands, and 30 million tonnes above BC’s 2020 climate target. In 2012, by comparison, Canada’s entire greenhouse gas emissions volume was 699 million tonnes. That means BC’s LNG production, if fully implemented, would add up to more than ten percent of Canada’s emissions volume.

In the face of the known increase in emissions all these proposed pipelines represent, isn’t it critical to prevent their construction if we’re to have any chance of meeting BC’s 2020 emissions reduction targets? 

Selling Canadian oil to Asia will also do nothing to help global emissions reduction efforts. In 2013, the Stockholm Environment Institute analyzed the effect on global manmade emissions of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The Institute concluded that pipeline—which would transport up to 830,000 barrels of dilbit daily, with 181 million tonnes of associated carbon emissions attached to those barrels—would impact the global oil market by increasing supply, decreasing prices, and thereby increasing global oil consumption. 

The impact would be modest—that volume represents less than one percent of daily global oil production (86.8 million barrels per day in 2013)—but the Institute nonetheless concluded that “the problem of carbon pollution could be significantly exacerbated” by proceeding with the Keystone project.

Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain represent more than one and a half times the volume of Keystone XL. If these pipeline projects go ahead, will there be a similar correlated impact on oil prices in Asia? Pedersen doesn’t think so: “The impact would be minimal at best. It’s a matter of scale.” He points out that the combined volume of the two pipelines still only amounts to 1.6 percent of current world oil production. “That’s not going to have an impact on price or consumption. It’s just too small in proportion to overall supply.” What’s really required, says Pedersen, returning to his mantra, is carbon pricing to drive a reduction in demand. “It’s the only way to do it,” he insists. 

Fair enough: Raise the price, people stop buying, and look for alternatives. But doesn’t that also mean that reducing the price (even with a tax) by increasing supply will have the opposite effect, as the Stockholm Environment Institute concluded? And even if the impact of the two pipelines seems small in the global context, when all the other negative environmental impacts associated with the two pipelines are thrown in the mix—emissions associated with extraction of dilbit, construction of the pipelines, and tanker traffic, let alone consumption of the product, the resultant lag in shifting to renewables, and the potential for leaks and spills—it’s understandable that many British Columbians will still stand in their way. 

The IPCC has stated that we must leave the vast majority of all known fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. They didn’t exempt Canada’s or BC’s reserves.

 

THE GLOBAL COMMISSION on the Economy and Climate’s September report echoes a key conclusion of the draft IPCC report: Current levels of investment in renewable energy and other anti-emissions efforts are nowhere near enough. 

The other glaring problem is a lack of the kind of leadership required to implement the necessary global shift away from fossil fuel dependency to renewable energy and alternative ways of living. “The first step that needs to be taken is for every government worldwide to actively and vigorously recognize that human activity is driving climate change,” Pedersen acknowledges. “They need to recognize that reality has the potential to cause large scale global damage and act to prevent it, now.”

We still can overcome the grim prognosis expressed in the IPCC report, says Pedersen, if all global leaders take aggressive steps to combat rising emissions. 

Unfortunately, Canada is missing in action in that respect: “It’s shameful. [Prime Minister] Harper was in the Arctic in September and not once was climate change mentioned. It’s reprehensible and irresponsible.” By comparison, he says, he felt encouraged at a recent carbon conference in Bogotá, Colombia, “because all the South and Central American countries were there and they are all committed to reducing emissions.” Pedersen believes that’s a worldwide trend. 

Judging by results in China and Germany, however, half-hearted efforts won’t do. “What’s needed,” Pedersen acknowledges, “is a full frontal international assault on climate change.”

Katherine Palmer Gordon is the author of six books of non-fiction, including several BC Bestsellers and a Haig-Brown prize-winner. Her most recent book is We Are Born with the Songs Inside Us: Lives and Stories of First Nations People in British Columbia.