Monthly Archives: March 2007

Even in great big Canada, we might not have enough room

Corncob BobA Library of Parliament report on biofuels douses some cold water on the idea that Canada could produce enough ethanol for our own transportation needs:

Global production is still too small and the need for raw materials is still too high for biofuels to have a significant impact on the fuel market and be able to compete with fossil fuels.

The energy yield from ethanol or biodiesel depends on the feedstock used. For instance, one hectare (ha) of sugarcane grown in Brazil produces almost twice as much ethanol as the same area of corn grown in Canada. It would take slightly less than 2 ha of wheat or 0.6 ha of corn grown in Canada to run a car entirely on biofuel for one year,(3) while 0.3 ha of sugarcane grown in Brazil would provide enough biofuel for the same level of consumption.

By using 16% of its total corn production in 2006, the United States replaced 3% of its annual fuel consumption with biofuels. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), if 100% of the total U.S. corn production were used, that figure would rise to 20%.

According to an article in the New Scientist, Canada would have to use 36% of its farmland to produce enough biofuels to replace 10% of the fuel currently used for transportation. Brazil, by contrast, would need to use only 3% of its agricultural land to attain the same result.

The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association disputes all this figuring, but you’d expect it to. It’s likewise worth noting that the CRFA’s executive director, Kory Teneycke, is a former adviser to Mike Harris and Preston Manning, according to his CRFA bio, and its “press secretary” is Phil von Finckenstein, a former press aide to Stockwell Day. None of which means anything by itself, of course, but there are more connections between the biofuels industry and Canada’s governing Conservatives than a mutual love of corn.

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Charging polluters in the Port of Vancouver

Container terminal in VancouverFrom the Vancouver Sun:

Starting April 1, ships that meet a gold standard of emission controls will pay $0.057 per gross registered tonne [to put in at the Port of Vancouver], down from the previous fee of $0.077. Ships without any discount will see their fees rise to $0.097 per GRT. Ships that can attain a silver or bronze ranking will be charged $0.067 and $0.077 per GRT respectively.

“The differentiated rates … are designed to provide a wide variety of technology and fuel options to vessels in order to promote and build awareness around a number of alternative emission reduction practices,” the Vancouver Port Authority said in a news release. “The gold air emission standard is at a level that will be attained by leading-edge vessels, while the bronze standard is designed to be achievable by many vessels that currently call in the Port of Vancouver.”

The Sun reports that the difference between the gold standard and no standard could be about $2,600 for a typical container ship, and quotes a shipping-industry spokesman saying he doesn’t expect the incentive to shape up will be enormous, but it might provide a critical extra push for companies that already considering upgrading their vessels.

This is an obvious and smart move for the Port Authority, a federal institution with a lot of autonomy. Pollution from vessels docking in Vancouver is a major issue in the Lower Mainland, and one federal regulators can’t do a whole lot about, given the international (indeed, in an era when landlocked countries can have shipping registries, practically a-national) character of the shipping industry. But Vancouver’s a very desirable port, and it can certainly say hey, if you want to use our facilities, you have to pay up for the pollution you leave behind.

Dropping the fees for ships that meet the higher standard is particularly important — they deserve a reward, at the same time as slackers are being punished.

Photo from the Vancouver Port Authority website.

Economic thinking about the environment

Unlike me, Mark Thoma is an actual economist, and he’s got a great post on his Environmental Economics blog taking apart the idea that environmentalism and economics are at odds. It doesn’t lend itself to quoting, but he offers up the example of Central Park in New York City, a major public amenity to which you really can assign an economic value. Even if a lot of individual economists do focus on the short-term effects of public policy on GDP, say, that doesn’t mean an economist’s approach — which is, after all, about figuring out how human beings actually behave, rather than how we wish they would — is worthless for thinking about the environment. Thoma:

We had to fight to get economics courses into our environmental studies program here, and that is common across programs. It’s better than it once was, but communication between the two groups could be further improved. I think environmentalists have trouble trusting that economists are interested in something other than maximizing GDP at the expense of the environment, and here is resistance to the idea that certain things can be assigned a value. There are other problems as well including the fact that economists have been very poor ambassadors of their profession.

Should we pay for land protection?

A Senate committee on rural poverty holds a hearing near Brockville, Ont.:

Geri Kamenz, president of the OFAGeri Kamenz, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and a farmer from the Spencerville area, urged the committee to consider “strategic investments” in areas beyond basic food production, such as developing ingredients for alternative fuel sources.

Guaranteed farming income would be a “abject failure” but he added that government should pay farmers to preserve plants, animal life and water sources on their properties, rather than simply be legislated to do so, he said.

This last point strikes me as elemental fairness. If you own a piece of property and the government adds new restrictions on what you can do with it, for the common good, the common good owes you some consideration back. As it is, when new regulations come in that would, say, expand the areas considered protected wetlands, it’s very directly in landowners’ interets to destroy the wetlands in question before they get protected.

It’s all very nice for those of us who live in cities to talk about restricting people’s uses of their property in places we don’t live, but we should be willing to put our money where our mouths are.

I wonder, in fact, whether some kind of ongoing payment out of the common weal might make sense, rather than the one-time compensation you sometimes hear kicked around. After all, we want it to make economic sense for landowners to actively protect sensitive land that’s in their custody. If you could actually make a profit on creating new wetlands and whatnot, we might see a whole new kind of green entrepreneurship.

Some people from local landowners’ associations — in Ontario, these are the groups that blockade highways to complain about regulations and demand more subsidies — raised an interesting objection to the supply-management quotas to which all the major political parties swear fealty:

Others argued that supply management and other regulation was keeping farmers from making a living.

“We need to have the ability to market directly to the consumer,” said Jacqueline Fennell, president of the Leeds and Grenville Landowners Association and a Spencerville-area dairy farmer who is trying to open a raw milk cooperative.

Raw milk is also regulated for health reasons — seems to me it’s OK as long as consumers know that they’re getting something unpasteurized and with no scientifically proven nutritional advantage over the regular stuff, but the government disagrees — but Fennell’s argument makes sense. You buy a share of the provincial quota for tens of thousands of dollars on the assumption you’ll sell into the existing food-processing system in one way or another, which makes all kinds of experimentation even more financially risky than it would normally be.

Prince Charles’s “hypocrisy” on the environment

Charles and Camilla in PhiladelphiaThis is London has twin stories about the flying habits of two well-known guys: John Travolta and Prince Charles. Both fly quite a bit (Travolta actually pilots himself, and lives in a house where he can park planes as though they were cars), and the both say that people should live less polluting and wasteful lives.  This is London suggests their words might not be wholly compatible with their deeds.

On Travolta:

“It [global warming] is a very valid issue,” Travolta declared. “I’m wondering if we need to think about other planets and dome cities.

“Everyone can do their bit. But I don’t know if it’s not too late already. We have to think about alternative methods of fuel.

“I’m probably not the best candidate to ask about global warming because I fly jets.

“I use them as a business tool though, as others do. I think it’s part of this industry – otherwise I couldn’t be here doing this and I wouldn’t be here now.”

Such prolific mileage means that, over the past 12 months, he has accumulated around 800 tonnes of carbon emissions.

According to a recent study by the government-funded Carbon Trust, this means he boasts a carbon “footprint” nearly 100 times that of the average Briton, who is responsible for 10.92 tons of Co2, from his flights alone.

It’s not clear how Travolta came to say these things. Probably somebody asked him about them, since the mag says he talked about this on the red carpet at the U.K. premiere of his new movie, and he answered off the top of his head. Seems to me that saying “hey, people should fly less even though I acknowledge I fly a lot myself” is better than saying “hey, I’m rich and I can do what I want, so screw the rest of you.”

The case of Charles is more problematic. This is London jerks him around for flying from London to Scotland when he could have taken a train or something, but concedes that Camilla has recently had a hysterectomy and was flying with a nurse on board, so I’m prepared to forgive him that. Maybe they shouldn’t have gone to Scotland at all under the circumstances, but I won’t lose any sleep.

There is a more interesting case, though:

Charles vowed last December to “substantially” curb his reliance on gas-guzzling transport in favour of scheduled flights and train travel.

And a month later he turned down a private jet and took 20 members of his staff business class on a British Airways jet to New York to collect an award marking his environmental awareness.

In his speech, Charles said climate change “was a war we simply have to win”. And he was applauded when he added: “It is surely the duty of each and every one of us to find out what we can do to make the situation better.”

Nonetheless green campaigners and Environment Minister David Miliband said he could have accepted the award by video link.

Hmmm. The BBC says that the award was only one event in a tour that took the Prince of Wales to New York City and Philadelphia for two or three days, and was undertaken with the approval of the Foreign Office. They did royal things — visiting schools and charities, attending a major musical performance, giving out awards themselves. The prince visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a reasonably major deal for the heir to the British crown if you look at it on the grand scale of history (though admittedly Edward VII visited when he was the prince of Wales in 1860, when I suppose it was a really major deal). A lot of Americans presumably came away from their encounters with him, however distant they were, liking Britain just a little bit better.

These are things you can’t do by video link.

Moving the physical presence of the Prince of Wales from place to place is the life’s work of Charles Windsor; his personal contribution is his informed decision-making about which causes and organizations to grace with his attention. He doesn’t do anything — but he points out people who do, and by bringing them attention, encourages their work.

Even in republics, that job is considered important: distributing the physical presence of the President of the United States is a major responsibility of whoever holds the office — that’s why George W. Bush was in that classroom on the morning of 9/11, and why he went to the smoking ruin of the World Trade Center a couple of days later, and why he threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium a scant couple of weeks after that. The children would have been read to, the wreckage cleared, the pitch thrown out, without Bush’s participation. But ceremony and symbolism matter. Sometimes the boss, even if he’s only the boss by convention and doesn’t do very much personal bossing himself, has to go.

It’s certainly worthwhile for someone in Charles’s position to think carefully, or pay somebody to, about how to maximize the efficiency of his trips, both as a technical matter of technology — can he sleep on the train rather than flying in and sleeping when he gets there? — and to maximize the usefulness of each trip. I can’t see calling the guy a hypocrite for doing his job, though.

Duelling clean-air acts

Peace TowerThe stakes have gone up again in Parliament’s consideration of legislation on greenhouse gases and smog. The toothless Clean Air Act the Tories introduced last fall is emerging from the House of Commons environment committee on Friday:

The opposition introduced more than 50 amendments to the bill, while the Conservatives did not introduce a single amendment.”It’s now in the hands of the prime minister to decide whether he is going to abide by the will of the committee and, ultimately, the will of Parliament,” Liberal MP David McGuinty told CBC News Wednesday.

“What we have done is put Humpty Dumpty back together again in a way that perhaps the prime minister might not like it.”

The government could either accept the changes in the bill as proposed by the committee or use them to trigger an election call, according to the Canadian Press.

McGuinty said the bill now includes much of the clean air plan proposed by Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion.

It went in there in the first place to appease the NDP and head off an inconvenient confidence vote.

The National had Conservative MP Mark Warawa complaining about the loads of new taxes he said would have to be imposed, and a clip of Environment Minister John Baird saying he was extremely unhappy about the the changes.

I haven’t seen them — the committee worked into the evening and hasn’t officially presented its marked-up bill yet — but it does seem that Baird’s in a tough spot. If the environment committee has indeed modified the bill to reflect the Liberal party’s air-pollution plan (and the Liberals are boasting that it does), Baird’s already on record saying the Liberals’ proposals would be weak and ineffective.

The Liberals’ plan has tough short-term deadlines, but relies heavily on market mechanisms to achieve its goals, and it’s minus virtually all of the interventionist nonsense Dion talked about during the Liberal leadership campaign, such as having the federal government invest in and profit off the same emissions-trading system it’s supposed to regulate. It’s more or less what I’d have thought a serious Conservative plan might look like.

So where are the Tories on this? Baird left open the possibility of treating the committee’s mutated version of the Clean Air Act as a confidence measure. So once again, the expectations of the as-yet-hidden Conservative climate-change plan rise.

Talking to Sam Shaw

The Citizen‘s editorial board had a sit-down today with Sam Shaw, the president of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, an Edmonton institution that produces thousands of skilled workers for the oilpatch and its spinoffs (among other industries).

You can hear the recording for yourself here (and ones with David Suzuki and Stéphane Dion and Elizabeth May, too).

Shaw had a couple of interesting things to say that are relevant here. We asked him about the state of environmental engineering and technology education in Canada these days — where they’re doing particularly interesting research, and so on. Naturally he cited his own school, but he also observed that environmental and ethical considerations are decreasingly seen as niches, and increasingly integrated into the regular curriculum. So you’re not, as you might think, getting oilpatch engineers who are trained exclusively to drag up as much bitumen as possible and forget everything else, going head-to-head in regulatory processes with other engineers who’d rather they didn’t do any exploitation at all.

I don’t know that I buy that this is universal, but it’s a positive development that a guy like Shaw thinks it’s really important.

We also got him off on a bit of a tangent about the practicality of fuel cells (this starts around the 53-minute mark of the MP3), in which he pointed out that we as a culture are very likely to rethink our business and distribution models to incorporate green technology. So for instance, one of the many things holding back fuel-cell cars is that hardly anybody’s prepared to sell hydrogen at the roadside to power them (the West Coast’s “Hydrogen Highway” being the only even nominal exception). But maybe the technology for mass-market cars that run on rechargeable fuel cells will involve plugging them in at home to recharge rather than refilling them with “charged” hydrogen at a pump — maybe the gas-station model is entirely the wrong one to consider.