Category Archives: carbon

Oilsands not a good candidate for carbon capture

Turns out that carbon-capture is not the panacea for Canada’s oilsands that certain politicians have been saying, according to a briefing note (marked “secret”) obtained by the CBC:

Little of the oilsands’ carbon dioxide can be captured because most emissions aren’t concentrated enough, the notes say. For efficient capture, there must be a high concentration of CO2 coming out of a smoke stack.

“Only a small percentage of emitted CO2 is ‘capturable’ since most emissions aren’t pure enough,” the notes say. “Only limited near-term opportunities exist in the oilsands and they largely relate to upgrader facilities.”

The Canadian and Alberta governments are spending about $2.5 billion on developing carbon capture and storage, and the oilsands generally come up as the first reason for spending the money.

This doesn’t mean that carbon-capture and storage is a useless technological innovation, just that it’s of negligible use in the oilsands, which are extremely energy-intensive. CCS can be of some help in reducing emissions from upgraders — where sandy tar mined from the ground gets turned into flowing oil — but that’s only part of the production process. The upgraders on the drawing board now, which are likely to get built eventually even if they’re on hold till the economy recovers, are planned to meet pretty high standards, which is a mixed blessing. It’s good that they’re efficient and relatively low-pollution, but they’re not going to be low-hanging fruit in the hunt for emissions reductions.

The oilsands are an environmental nightmare. No getting around it.

Paul Martin’s the best you’ve got?

When we call Joe Clark, John Turner, Kim Campbell and Paul Martin “former prime ministers,” it is technically true. But, I mean, come on…

Four former prime ministers – Kim Campbell, Paul Martin, Joe Clark and John Turner – and leaders in academia, science, business and the environment have united to demand the federal government do much more to deal with climate change.

The diverse group, which also includes students, steelworkers and authors, is expected to release a statement in Toronto Tuesday calling for “steep cuts” in Canadian greenhouse gas emissions and deployment of “climate-safe technologies at a staggering rate.”

While the group claims to be non-partisan, it is clearly dissatisfied with the Conservative government’s performance on what many consider the most pressing issue facing the planet.

These were really, really, really bad prime ministers. Only Martin actually won an election and that was another technicality — he really just sort of notched an election along the Liberals’ long decline. In fact, the secondary members of the group

Stephen Bronfman, the Hon. David Peterson, Prof. David Keith, Katherine Giroux-Bougard, National Chairperson, Canadian Federation of Students, Prof. Andrew Weaver from the IPCC and the University of Victoria, Ken Neumann, National Director for Canada, United Steelworkers, Kashmere Dahliwal, President of North America’s largest Sihk temple and Dr. Marlo Raynolds from the Pembina Institute

— while a somewhat random collection of luminaries, probably collectively shine brighter than the most embarrassing living losers in Canadian politics.

Which is a shame, because the group’s signature policy recommendation, that some sort of policy be adopted that prices carbon at not less than $30 a tonne, ought to be taken seriously in the public debate.

Kyoto and IPCC kind of OK after all, Tories suggest

Saturday the federal Tories published the draft version of the first set of rules needed to make their climate-change plan work. These, on — deep breath! — how to devise and formally submit a system for measuring your emissions reductions if you’re a major industrial greenhouse-gas emitter, took over a year to produce and there are two more sets of rules to go before the system can kick in. With a deadline of 2020 to cut absolute emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels, the delays are getting Kyoto-esque.

Nevertheless, I notice two interesting things about the proposed rules.

The government proposes to fast-track emissions-reduction measuring systems that have already been approved under several existing authorities, such as Alberta’s, France’s, California’s … and the Kyoto Accord:

The Fast Track eligibility list will include about 30 external protocols that meet the following criteria:

  • the protocol is a complete document (i.e., not a seed document) that has been approved for use by the Clean Development Mechanism, Alberta’s Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, the California Climate Action Registry, the Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme in New South Wales, France’s Offset System, or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative;

Likewise, the government is referring people to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for some best practices on how to measure, for instance, the greenhouse-gas effects of changing land uses (that is, basically, growing forests to sequester carbon dioxide).

It’s interesting that the government rejects the targets agreed to in the Kyoto Accord and recommended by the IPCC, but supports the science underlying other elements in the treaty and advice from the UN panel.

A second thing that’s made even clearer from the new document is that this really is about heavy industrial emitters whose fundamental business process — smelting iron, generating electricity, whatever — are big emissions sources. It’s smokestacks here, not tailpipes. Mom-and-Pop shops are not considered part of the problem under these regulations, but they’re also not considered part of the solution. That is, the only people big emitters are going to be able to buy credits from are other big emitters that have cleaned up their acts. Small companies with clever ideas and entrepreneurs whose whole business model is to create and sell offsets need not apply, except perhaps as consultants to the existing emitters.

That’s the way you’d do it if your goal is to stick it to industry (and its customers and workers), and it matches the rhetoric the government has been using since the general outline of the plan came out a year ago last April. It’s not the way you’d do it if your goal is to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in the most economically efficient way possible.

Freeman Dyson and irrational optimisim

Via Sullivan, here’s a Freeman Dyson essay (in the form of a twin book review) contemplating technological solutions to the climate-change problem. It is dense and complex and elegant, which makes it easy to miss the fact that its central message is dangerously whacked-out.

The first book the renowned physicist, mathematician and futurist (who’s 84 now, and thus has lived long enough to have to account for some of his predictions) contemplates is economist William Nordhaus’s economic study of various greenhouse-gas mitigation plans, A Question of Balance. Sir Nicholas Stern’s turns out to be very expensive, according to Nordhaus’s model; Al Gore’s is, too. The Kyoto Accord, had it been implemented, would have been slightly profitable. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s proposals would be slightly more than slightly profitable, yielding a global economic benefit of $3 trillion compared to business as usual.

But by far the most appealing option is something Nordhaus calls the “low-cost backstop,” which in his models produces a net global profit of $17 billion. The only problem, one that appears not to bother Dyson, is that it’s a fantasy — the “backstop” is any hypothetical technology that could solve the climate-change problem without incurring significant cost, details left as an exercise for the reader. Indeed, Dyson’s complaint is that Nordaus doesn’t actually provide details:

The main deficiency of Nordhaus’s book is that he does not discuss the details of the “low-cost backstop” that might provide a climate policy vastly more profitable than his optimum policy…  Concerning the possible candidates for a low-cost backstop technology he mentions in the sentence I previously quoted—for example, “low-cost solar power”—Nordhaus has little to say. He writes that “no such technology presently exists, and we can only speculate on it.” The “low-cost backstop” policy is displayed in his tables as an abstract possibility without any details. It is nowhere emphasized as a practical solution to the problem of climate change…

[I]f we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” as a low-cost backstop to global warming.

Yes, and if Grandma had wheels, she’d be a bus. But, writes Dyson:

I consider it likely that we shall have “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Ah. Well that’s all right, then.

Look, I’m as big a fan of science and engineering as the next guy, and I do believe they’ll play a major role in sorting out the mess we’re digging ourselves deeper into. I don’t think the catastrophist branch of climate-change thought gives human resourcefulness and ingenuity enough credit. But there’s a vast chasm between respecting the power of scientific advancements and assuming that just around the corner lies science so advanced it’s indistinguishable from magic.

Yet Dyson’s piece leads a writer as smart as Andrew Sullivan to say that it’s the most “helpful” thing on the subject he’s read in weeks.

He’s not as dogmatic as some climate worriers and persuasive, I’d say, in arguing that only technology can solve this problem (and government may not help much). But the possibility of genetically-modified carbon-eating trees is what really struck home[.]

The central point Sullivan takes from the piece, that science will provide the answers — possibly in the form of carbon-sucking trees — and politics but the nudge in the right direction, is important. The danger, however, is that people who don’t want the nudging to happen will assume that science is on the case and if only we wait a bit, it’ll supply all the solutions we need on a silver platter.

We’ve seen the effects of high gas prices on consumer and corporate behaviour, and from an environmental standpoint, they’re encouraging. But there’s no connection between those high prices and the climate-change problem. If everyone dials down the rhetoric in the Middle East and just calms the hell down a little, we’ll see the prices fall, and all the incentives to use less fuel and devise alternatives will fade again.

Dyson’s described his many prognostications thus:

When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science.

So let’s hope we get the trees and sort this whole mess out forthwith. But let’s not bet on it.

Two ways to be disingenuous about your greenhouse-gas plan

Spotty posting lately — paid work’s been running me ragged. But here’s a superb post from Paul Wells, looking at how the Tories’ carbon-cutting policy matches up with the Liberals‘.

The Conservatives can’t have it both ways: their plan is only stronger than the Liberals’ if it is applied in such a way as to impose onerous deadlines and real costs on emitters. So they can’t claim their plan is tougher at the same time as they complain about the costs of Dion’s.

Of course, when I use phrases like “can’t have it both ways” and “they can’t claim,” I mean they certainly will claim and they probably can have it both ways. This is the evolving John Baird Two-Step, which the minister has rehearsed in a few interviews this summer: Why put up with the nasty cost of the Liberal tax scheme, when you can have the much tougher, more responsible Conservative plan instead?

This analysis strikes me as taking the Conservatives’ plan much too seriously. It’s been well over a year since the policy was announced — where’s the implementation plan? Perhaps the Tories thought there’d have been an election by now, sending everything back to Square One, but no such luck.

The approach here seems to be to promote a ridiculously tough policy that you have no intention of actually putting into practice. That way you can really have it both ways.

Canadians support a carbon tax … for British Columbians

Hard to make sweeping conclusions based on a poll asking Canadians at large about one province’s policy for its own people, but I’ll go as far as calling this encouraging:

When told that the government of British Columbia had recently introduced “a carbon tax on fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” 72 per cent of those surveyed in the poll said that this was a positive step versus 23 per cent who thought that it was a negative step. The poll surveyed 1,009 Canadian adults across the country between April 29 and May 9, 2008 and is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Jason Doud, a research analyst at McAllister, said he’s not surprised at the results since his firm’s recent polls have consistently revealed that Canadians are more concerned about the environment than other issues.

“The support for B.C.’s carbon tax is fairly uniform across Canada,” he said. “Six out of 10 people definitely support it when you look at the numbers.”

The “Green shift”

Enfin, the federal Liberals have taken the curtains off their green tax-shifting policy (PDF). It might not be too late to recover from the months they’ve spent defending a thing they wouldn’t tell anybody about against attacks that couldn’t definitively be said to be absurd, given that the thing being attacked was a near-cipher.

But now the real thing is out there, and it seems to me it’s more or less as billed: a tax on high-emission fossil fuels that’s high enough to make a difference (eventually working out to $40 a tonne of carbon dioxide), if not as high as tough environmentalists might like ($50 a tonne is generally the low end of credible estimates of what a carbon tax should be, and they go as high as $150 a tonne), counterbalanced by cuts to personal and corporate income taxes and enhancements to programs that send money to people at the bottom of the economic scale who pay few taxes or none at all.

As the CBC reports:

The plan offers the following personal income tax cuts in compensation as people pay more for heating costs, food and other items:

  • A 1.5 percentage point rate reduction for the lowest tax bracket (the first $37,885 of taxable income), to 13.5 per cent from 15.
  • A one percentage point rate reduction for the second-lowest tax bracket ($37,885-$75,769), to 21 per cent from 22.
  • A one percentage point rate reduction for the bracket between $75,769 and $123,184, to 25 per cent from 26.

Dion also unveiled a number of tax credits he said would help out families. He said that the plan, by the fourth year, would include a new refundable child tax credit worth $350 per child per year.

The Liberals would also introduce a new guaranteed family supplement that would provide $1,225 to low-income families with children under 18.

As well, the plan would include a green credit worth $150 every year for every rural tax taxpayer, beginning in the first year of the plan.

I’m not going to pretend I think it’s a great plan, so filled with politically necessary exceptions and loopholes is it. The extra rebate for people living in rural or far-North areas, for instance, is pure pandering, and so’s the decision not to add more taxes to gasoline. Yes, it’s already heavily taxed, but not for this reason. If we’re levying green taxes, gas shouldn’t get a pass because we’re already taxing it to pay for roads and so on.

The collection of ways the Liberals’ plan sends money to the poor is fiddly and smacks of opportunism: funding favourite programs rather than finding the most efficient and simplest ways to get money back to people.

So it’s flawed. Maybe because it can’t be perfect and still stand any chance in hell, but all the same: flawed.

Rather than taking it on on those grounds, though, the opposition (including the government, though in the case of the Tories I’m not the first to say that they seem to like acting as if they were still on the other side of the aisle) is continuing the screamfest as if nothing had changed — as if there weren’t an actual thing on the table to discuss now.

The New Democrats are just blithering. Says CP:

NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair said nothing in the plan compels emission reductions. He characterized Dion’s carbon tax as “a fine” on industry for continuing to pump out unlimited increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

This is technically true but is a meaningful criticism only if you don’t believe that money affects people’s choices. Which, given that we’re talking about the NDP, is indeed the case, though why they’re so worked up about the advantages the rich have over the poor, I’m no longer sure. Also, why they aren’t calling for repeals of fines as presumably meaningless punishments for crimes.

The Conservatives, supposedly the party with policy smarts, are the most disappointing. Says Canwest:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper led the flood of negative reaction. “They’re so bankrupt intellectually that the only policy idea they can come up with is to impose a new tax on energy prices at a time when energy prices are a national and global problem. That is their only idea?” said Harper during an appearance in Huntsville, Ont.

“Mr. Dion’s policies are crazy. This is crazy economics. It’s crazy environmental policy.”

It is self-evidently not the Liberals’ only idea, but what the heck. Even if it is, it’s supported by a who’s-who of economists and environmental thinkers, left and right alike. Even the American Enterprise Institute supports tax-shifting in principle, and they’re nuts (but in the Tories’ direction, I mean, not the NDP’s). The C.D. Howe Institute, Don Drummond of TD, Tom freaking D’Aquino of the richie-rich CEOs’ association. They’re all on board. This is an idea the Conservatives should have stolen.

But now that they’ve sent Jason Kenney out to dump all over the thing, they’ve definitively boxed themselves in. Never. Policy innovation? Forget it.