Category Archives: climate change

Taking stock

Obama speaks

Obama speaks

(Credit: “obama,” Flickr/BohPhoto)

Wow. Lots has changed since I was last blogging here something like as often as I want to, back before the Canadian federal election ate my life. That kicked off at the beginning of September; since then the markets have spiralled downward, the prices of oil and of gas have tanked, a serious recession has apparently begun, the Canadian Conservatives have been re-elected and named a new cabinet, and, oh yes, the Americans elected Barack Obama.

The landscape has clearly changed. Some observations:

  1. The crashing price of energy — oil is down more than 50 per cent from its high last summer — indicates dramatically reduced demand for the stuff. Environmentally speaking, this is good: the slower we burn through the supply, the less urgent will be efforts to exploit marginal deposits of it. But it’s also a clear indicator of dramatically reduced economic activity, which means people as a whole are poorer. There’s a serious policy problem: When fuel was expensive, critics said we couldn’t afford cockamamie plans to make it more expensive — by taxing it — to encourage the use of alternatives. Now it’s cheaper, but critics say the economy can’t take any more shocks, such as a tax on fuel. There will never be a comfortable time for market-oriented policies that make any kind of energy more expensive.
  2. If we’re lucky, though, people won’t soon forget how unpleasant it was to take out second mortgages to fill the tank and won’t flock back to SUVs they don’t need. I’m not terribly optimistic on this point, though: we had the energy crisis of the 1970s and the SUV came along anyway.
  3. The downturn should, however, create opportunities for entrepreneurs with the best kind of green ideas: those that help the planet while making the economy more productive. Efficiency is a lot more appealing in bust times than in booms. And the downturn should also kill off some of the sillier children of the recent green boomlet, such as bogus carbon-offset programs.
  4. With a weaker economy, the make-work argument for green policies (that aggressive government action to promote green technology will “create jobs”) appeals to a lot more people. Obama’s platform promises five million new green-collar jobs, for instance. More jobs may be a happy byproduct of sound environmental policy, but making them a deliberate economic end is asking for trouble.
  5. In the same vein, rumour that Obama is considering making Robert F. Kennedy Jr. the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unsettling. I have no idea whether Kennedy is a capable administrator who can head a large government entity; I do respect his vigour and enthusiasm in fighting traditional pollution, especially of waterways. The question is whether the EPA will be the point agency on climate change in an Obama administration or whether the issue will be seen as essentially an economic/industrial matter and be handed to an appropriate cabinet officer. I hope that’s what happens.
  6. In Canada, the environment portfolio’s just been given to Jim Prentice, who was most recently the minister of industry. He’s also considered Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most quietly competent ministers. We’ll have to see whether what Harper’s after from him is quiet or competence. I hope Prentice is in the job to steal the best parts of the Liberals’ “Green Shift” plan. Harper could safely do that pretty much immediately, since its author, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, is resigning in disgrace over the election results as soon as his busted party can pick a successor.
  7. By the way, poor Stéphane Dion. A very good man in a very wrong job.

Regular blogging resumes. Thanks for your patience.

We’re still spewing

Didja see this? Apparently not in any Canadian news source, at least as far as Google News is aware.

The Global Carbon Project posted the most recent figures for the worlds’ carbon budget, a key to understanding the balance of carbon added to the atmosphere, the underpinning of human induced climate change. Despite the increasing international sense of urgency, the growth rate of emissions continued to speed up, bringing the atmospheric CO2 concentration to 383 parts per million (ppm) in 2007.

That’s at the very upper end of the projections made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Pretty much a worst-case scenario. And Canada looks ready to give a majority government to a party that wants to do absolutely as little as it can possibly get away with on the subject.

I’m just sayin’.

The Green Shift isn’t central: Dion

This is one of those semi-gaffes that sinks campaigns.

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said today that his Green Shift plan featuring a controversial carbon tax is not a major part of his election platform.

“You have said it was but never me,” Dion told reporters.

His surprise declaration follows by a day campaign appearances in the Toronto area where he failed to mention it once in his speeches.

Dion released the Green Shift plan in June in Ottawa with great fanfare. It proposes to tax fossil fuels while cutting taxes for lower and middle income Canadians.

“I have always said it was an important policy for Canada. I strongly believe it would be good for Canada,” he told reporters.

You can see what he’s getting at. Dion and the Liberals aren’t just running on the Green Shift. They do actually have a bunch of other ideas and proposals, which they’ve been trickling out as the campaign progresses, as parties will.

But that’s not what he said, and what he said is that the platform plank that he’s allowed everybody to believe is central to the Liberal campaign is not, in fact, central to the Liberal campaign.

I suspect this is a mortal wound.

An environmental policy, this ain’t

Cutting taxes on diesel is not what you’d call “green.”

Stephen Harper pledged Tuesday that a re-elected Conservative government would halve a federal tax on diesel fuel. The prime minister is expected to contrast the move with the carbon tax on diesel fuel that is a centrepiece of the Liberal party’s Green Shift plan.

The Tories will take to two cents per litre the four-cents-a-litre excise tax. The Tories say that would cost the federal treasury $600 million a year.

As Stephen Gordon writes, “it takes two serious and pressing problems – the deteriorating fiscal situation and greenhouse gas emissions – and makes them both worse.”

Seven places hit by global warming

Short, sharp, worth a look. Though, as one of the commenters points out, it’s not the Earth that’s in trouble. It’ll be fine. It’s people who are getting screwed.

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.