Category Archives: greenhouse gases

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.

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The environmental consequences of the Canadian election in four words

Climate change fixes dead.

(Every intention of resuming blogging in earnest, but not yet. Need time to recharge.)

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’.

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.

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.

Fixing the climate-change problem is still affordable

But the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets.

Severe adverse effects from climate change can be avoided at a reasonable cost but only if politicians stop talking and start acting, a major report from PricewaterhouseCoopers said today.

Updating a study it first did two years ago, the accountancy firm said that inaction on reducing carbon emissions in the interim means the necessity for action has become even more urgent than before. It called on leaders of the Group of Eight leading economies, particularly the United States – the world’s largest per capita polluter – to commit themselves to firm timetables for emissions reductions at next week’s summit in Tokyo.

It estimated the cost of a 50% reduction in global carbon emissions by 2050 at around 3% of global economic growth, at the top of the 2%-3% range it estimated in 2006. This is slightly higher than the upwardly revised figure of 2% estimated by Lord Stern recently but PwC stresses that its forecasts are broadly in line with Stern and both are affordable.

Meanwhile, progress continues at the usual rate.

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.