Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The plan to protect New Orleans and the Gulf Coast

Back to the Gulf Coast... The NY Times earlier this week that US Army Corps of Engineer Plans to build a costly and complicated systems of levees and mechanical barriers, and to replenish offshore barrier islands in an effort to protect the Gulf Coast has come under fire from scientitst.

How's this for a quote:

“The most shocking thing to me is that they would even consider some of the things that they are considering,” said Robert J. Young, new director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, a project of Duke and Western Carolina universities.

At a special session about the corps’s proposals at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in October, Dr. Young said his fellow scientists “were just stunned.” Dr. Young, who helped organize the session, added, “I saw mouths dropping open at the scale of proposed coastal engineering.”


Reducing emissions at an airport near you

There was a full page ad in Monday's NY Times for the new Boeing 747-8 praising the aircraft's fuel efficient engines, and Lufthansa for buying a few.

The ad, if not the plane, seemed to represent a major shift. Not long ago, airlines and aircraft builders would highlight the only the comfort, the leg room, of new planes. Now it is all about marketing energy efficiency and re-branding (oh, I loathe that term, why not just call the public cattle?) your company as clean and green.

For the airlines, though, it will need to be about more than marketing. The Associated Press reports that airlines flying in Europe will be specifically included in a greenhouse gas emissions trading program. The European airlines have come out in favour of the decision, because it easier on them than the alternative, higher airline taxes. The program will apply to all internal flights beginning in 2011, and all flights in and out of Europe by 2012, thus influencing U.S. and other foreign carriers as well.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Supporting renewable energy in Mexico

A guest post from my colleague Jason West about his work in Mexico:

While living in Mexico City a few years ago, I started the Solar Mexico initiative as a collaboration with the Mexican Foundation for Rural Development, a Mexican nonprofit, to support renewable energy projects in rural communities of Mexico which lack electricity and running water. In 2004, I installed five household solar electric systems, subsidized through private donations, which will continue to provide electricity for five Mexican families that earn less than $5 per day (see pictures, a pdf).

They are very basic household solar electric systems which provide families a few hours of electricity every night to run lights, a radio, or a small television. The system has a 35 Watt solar panel, and a battery which charges up each day for the families to use at night. Each system costs about $600, and we ask the families to pay 20% of that – given that the solar panels are expected to last for 25 years or more, it’s a pretty good deal. It was great to see families turn on electric lights in their own homes for the first time, and to see what a big improvement this can bring to their lives.

Now I am planning another trip to Mexico, at the end of January, and am trying to raise money. I hope to raise $1500 in December, which together with money already raised, will subsidize six household solar electric systems. Tax-deductible donations can be made on the Solar Mexico site.

I’ve also been interested in exploring other renewable technologies. I bought several flashlights that charge when you shake them, and those work well, but the families in Mexico complain that they are not very bright. I also worked with a non-profit in DC to arrange demonstrations of a solar “Hot Pot” cooker, which will cook food using only solar energy. This technology is an affordable way to avoid taking wood from the desert environment, while reducing labor and indoor smoke from cooking fires. The demonstrations apparently went well, and I hope to evaluate their use on this trip to Mexico, before subsidizing more demonstrations in other villages.


If you have any comments or ideas, you can contact Jason at


Friday, December 15, 2006

The ongoing recovery in New Orleans

Almost 16 months after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, many parts of New Orleans are still putting the pieces together. I spent part of Thursday cleaning up yards in the Lakeview neighbourhood with the Beacon of Hope Resource Center.

Lakeview is adjacent to the 17th Street Canal levee, one of three levees that breached during Katrina. This NASA image from after the storm shows the Canal stretching into the city from Lake Ponchotrain (middle-left), and the flooding of the neighbourhoods (to the right).

For a sense of the scale of the flooding, you only have to see the yellowish line along the outer walls of many of the remaining homes that marks the maximum height of the floodwaters.
Few of the residents of this area returned to New Orleans after the storm. The old neighbourhood was now a patchwork of empty streets full of abandoned and badly damaged homes. The eerie quiet was interrupted only by the sound of sound of houses being razed and debris being removed.

Denise Thornton and the founders of the Beacon of Hope wanted their old neighbourhood back, but found little help from the government. So they started on their own, raised money for equipment to clean up yards, remove dead tress, replace storm drains and gut old houses, one by one. Thanks to outside donations and support from the United Way, the grassroots clean-up organization is now expanding to other parts of the city.

From a distance, it is hard to truly appreciate not just the physical, but the social devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. The clean-up effort not only makes life more palatable for those that are there now, but it may encourage others to return. This is not just about the comfort of seeing people walk by your house or some lights on down the street; with so few people in these neighbourhoods, the property tax base has collapsed, making it even harder for the city to provide any services to the community.

If you’re in New Orleans, give the volunteer coordinator, Liz Widener, a call. They appreciate when out-of-towners spend even half a day (like me) removing weeds, debris and mowing lawns. If you want to plan a special trip to volunteer, they can even get you a discount at a local B&B.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The hurricane season

I’m in New Orleans for a meeting. Naturally, it has me thinking about hurricanes, climate change, and just how toxic the subject has become.

The 2006 Atlantic cyclone season came and went with far fewer storms than originally forecast. Why? El Nino conditions caused greater upper-level wind shear, slowing hurricane development and helped divert the storms that did develop safely into the middle of the Atlantic. This was relief for many coastal dwellers in the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic seaboard.

It should also be a cautionary tale for everyone out there talking about the threat posed by climate change.

Hurricane Katrina and the devastating 2005 hurricane season provided a legitimate opportunity to raise concerns about the possible future effects of climate change. Not because those events were caused by climate change, or that the overpopulation of vulnerable coastal areas is a huge, separate problem, but because some research suggested it was the type of event that could occur more frequently in a warmer climate.

Hurricanes have become a rallying cry for the greenhouse gas reduction movement – just look at the posters for An Inconvenient Truth. The 2006 hurricane season was promoted like the upcoming fall television season. As I remarked back in June, the press covered “opening day” of the hurricane season, a loose date not exactly etched in the climate’s schedule, as if we were all awaiting the opening pitch of the baseball season, and all the balls had been juiced.

It was crazy. Not because there is serious uncertainty in the science relating hurricane intensity and climate change (see the recent statement from a WMO meeting on tropical storms). But because even if future warming in the tropical Atlantic does increase the likelihood of more intense storms, there will still be weak hurricane seasons. Just like even if the planet warms by several degrees, there will still be cold days.

Everyone forgot the basic rule, the difference between weather and climate. You just can’t lean on an individual event, or an individual season, for proof of climate change. It is a house of cards. Your argument is doomed to collapse.

That doesn’t mean people should stop talking about hurricanes. It is important to continue to study and discuss the effect of climate change on hurricane intensity. Climate models can be used to investigate how warming could alter the probability of individual events like more powerful storms or storm seasons. Depending on those results, individual storms or storm seasons can continue to be legitimately seen as examples of events that some research suggests may be more common in the future.

But those working to promote concerns about climate change must not fall into trap of looking at individual storms or storm seasons as the smoking gun for climate change. It has emotional appeal - but it is fundamentally bad science. Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 Atlantic cyclone season did not end the “debate” about climate change, nor did the weak 2006 Atlantic cyclone season reignite the “debate”. Let’s not reduce it to that.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Warming and ocean biology

A research article in last week’s edition of Nature found that recent ocean warming has decreased “primary” productivity, the productivity of phytoplankton (e.g. algae), in the ocean.

This important result may seem counterintuitive. If the ocean is warmer, wouldn’t algae grow more? So I thought it warranted more of an explanation that was offered in some of the press coverage.

The trend is driven largely by changes at low latitudes where the ocean is “stratified”. There, a layer of warmer, less dense surface water sits above colder, heavier (saltier) water. The thermocline (or pycnocline) you hear about is the zone of steep temperature (or density) change between the two layers. Because of the layers have different densities, they don’t mix very well. Think oil and water, although not nearly that extreme.

The nutrients that phytoplankton require for growth are more abundant in colder, deep waters. That’s why most of the world’s greatest fisheries are in regions of upwelling. For example, think of the cold, productive Pacific off the S. American coast. El Nino got its name from a periodic warming of surface waters that hurt fishing catch. During an El Nino event, a shift in air pressure and surface winds advects the warm surface waters from the central Pacific towards to the South American coast. This increases stratification and decreases upwelling of colder, nutrient-rich waters that promote phytoplankton productivity and, in turn, the fishery.

So, in the case of climate-forced warming of the ocean, the surface warming causes greater stratification and further inhibits mixing. That means fewer nutrients, and less phytoplankton production.

The inverse is expected to occur in high latitude, less stratified, parts of the ocean (it’s cold at the top too!). There, temperature and light limit growth more than nutrient availability, so warming is expected to increase productivity.

In the Nature study, the group of scientists compared estimates of productivity derived from satellite measures of ocean colour to sea surface temperature. As was expected, there was an inverse relationship between temperature and productivity in the stratified ocean.

There’s only ten years of data -- the instrument has only been on the satellite for ten years – much too short to define a clear long-term trend in one direction or the other. The first three years there was a decrease (increase) in temperature (productivity) largely because of shift from El Nino to La Nina conditions in the Pacific; afterwards, there was an increase (decrease) in temperature (productivity). What is important for climate change research, however, is that the study appears to confirm theory and the results of previous studies using climate and ocean ecology models. It gives us an idea of one central response of ocean biology to any long-term climate warming that may occur.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Last word on James Inhofe

From the Washington Post, falling or at least lightly pressing against its (the media's) own sword:

"The last hearing on global climate change chaired by Sen. James M. Inhofe provided an excellent and public tutorial on why Americans should be grateful that it was, in fact, his last. The departing chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has occupied a unique perch from which to take action on climate change. Instead, he has used his time at the committee's helm to cast spurious doubts on the problem even as the scientific consensus about its reality and severity has gelled. Last week, the Oklahoma Republican held a hearing to denounce the real villain in the debate: the media.

The press, it was claimed, has hyped climate change hysterically. It has ignored dissenting scientific voices. And it has sought to advocate for climate-change policy, instead of just reporting on the science. And this is the grave national problem -- not rising sea levels, melting ice caps, loss of habitats or shifts in oceanic currents -- that warrants the attention of the senator's committee.

Mr. Inhofe's complaints are meritless. If anything, media coverage of global warming has tended toward excessive caution. Scientific alarm at the concentration of greenhouse gases predates the current media attention to the subject. Many media organizations, in a quest for balance, have given climate-change skeptics far more ink and air time than justified by the support their position carries among reputable climatologists. But even debating the merits of Mr. Inhofe's charge acquiesces to changing the subject -- which all along should have been how to craft reasonable policy to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Democratic leadership on this issue should bring a welcome change. While some Republicans support strong action on climate change, they have been stymied by the White House and by congressional leadership that has insisted on debating basic science that is no longer the subject of serious dispute. It's a little like debating the future of the space program by holding hearings on whether the earth is actually round. It's long past time to move on to something useful."

Here, here.


Friday, December 08, 2006


I wanted to put a plug in for the terrific website Worldchanging. The site is all about solutions, the ideas and the technologies that will help build towards a more sustainable world.

I'll be contributing some cross-border thinking and examples to the new Worldchanging Canada "local" edition, launched a few weeks back. Take a look when you have the chance.

You may also be interested in the site's very well-received book Worldchanging: A Users Guide for the 21st Century.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

A modest proposal

A few months ago, Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen published an essay in the journal Climatic Change proposing that the world could eject sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere, sort of a gaseous solar shield, could combat global warming.

Sulphate particles, emitted by burning of coal and many other activities, reflect incoming solar radiation. They are though to have offset some of the expected warming over the past century.
The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1992 emitted 10 Tg of sulphate (10 million metric tons) into the stratosphere, and helped cool the planet by 0.5 degrees C the following year. Crutzen's proposal would effectively be creating a small Pinatubo every year.

So, a scientific meeting was held, a talk was given at the UN meeting in Nairobi and now the 'geoengineering' proposal has developed some life in the scientific community and in the media.

I think we should come down out of the stratosphere. This should be seen as a modest proposal, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, that's all. It demonstrates the type of drastic action that could be necessary if serious action is not taken to slow greenhouse gas emissions. It is a reasonable alternative only in the worst case scenario.

Let’s not forget all those anthropology, paleoclimate or paleoecology classes. Large injections of aerosols or particles into the atmosphere in the past (from volcanic eruptions) had devastating impacts on life, from massive famines to species extinctions. The year after the eruption of Krakatoa – and after Mt Pinatubo – was popularly referred to as the year without a summer.

We'd have to be supremely confident in model results to embark on this scale of planetary experiment. We're not just talking about turning the thermostat down a notch. We're talking about altering stratospheric chemistry, solar radiation, ozone concentrations, and cloudiness, which would together radically alter ecosystem function across the planet.

This is the solution to climate change? Maybe there is a danger in is using the same type of thinking that got you into a problem to get you out the problem.

Most of all, I'm concerned about the effect that discussing these geoengineering proposals on policy. It sends the erroneous message that there is one magical solution to climate change, that if we wait long enough, the scientists will invent some pill the planet should put under its tongue.


Monday, December 04, 2006

A win for the environment?

There are a lot of ways to interpret the result of Canada’s Liberal party leadership vote this weekend. The choice of former Environment Minister Stephane Dion, whose dog is actually named Kyoto, for leader will be considered by many a victory for the environment. To be more precise, it will be considered a recognition on the part of Liberal delegates that “environmental” issues (you know I hate that term), especially climate change, should be central to the party platform and will be prominent in voter’s minds come the next election.

No doubt, it is ironic that Dion is seen as the champion of climate change and the environment, given that his government failed to implement an effective Kyoto plan and allowed greenhouse gas emissions to rise. As the Globe and Mail reports, this is not lost on the opposition parties:

Minutes after his victory, opposition politicians tried to tag Mr. Dion for being part of the Liberal Party during the sponsorship scandal and for wrapping himself in green despite the fact that greenhouse-gas emissions rose under his watch.

My guess is that tactic will not work. Few truly blame Dion for the Liberal party's past failure on climate change. Dion is well regarded, in Canada and even moreso around the world, for trying to promote the need for national and international action on climate change (despite opposition within Canada and within his own party) and for his strong role as chairperson of the UN climate meetings in Montreal last fall. His victory will be rightly seen by the international community as evidence that Canada is still serious about addressing emissions, despite the weak policy forwarded by the current government.


Thursday, November 30, 2006

Role of environment in Canadian leadership battle

The Liberal party of Canada is choosing a new leader this weekend. In the past week, the buzz has been about a motion before the House of Commons calling the Quebecois a "nation" within Canada. As has happened in the past, the argument about Quebec's place in or deal with Canada has devolved into a debate about linguistics (what is a nation? what's the difference between a Quebecois and a Quebecker, other than the french-english translation?).

Chantal Hebert, columnist for the Toronto Star, makes a point about the issue that should be dominating this weekend's leadership vote:

The environment, not Quebec's arrangement with the rest of Canada, has dominated the public discourse this fall; an overwhelming number of voters currently disapprove of [PM] Harper's performance on the issue. It is the calling card of the Green party and it stands to be the sleeper issue in the next election.

As of today, the Liberals would be well-advised to spend as little time as possible enshrining their status as an endangered species in Quebec and as much time as possible supplying their party with oxygen on the environment.

After all, it is not as if the Liberal record on the environment was that much more commendable than the party's standing in Quebec.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Upcoming AMS statement on climate change

The American Meteorological Society, the professional organization for many atmosphere and ocean scientists, is preparing a statement about climate change that presumably will be released at the annual meeting in January (?).

The current draft is a reasoned summary of the scientific evidence, and how that evidence should be interpreted and used. Since the organization is US-based, the climate change impacts of the paper tend to focus on the US (Alaskan permafrost, western water concerns). I'd like to see more mention of the sensitivity of the planet's ecosystems to climate variability and change, and examples of ecological impacts of past and projected future climate change (species migration, coral reefs, etc.). But that is less the mandate of AMS than other scientific organizations.

For a very direct summary of the evidence for human influence on the climate, I suggest reading the amicus brief (jump down to page 16 of the pdf) filed by 15 top scientists for the Supreme Court case. Thanks to Realclimate for the link.


Climate change before the US Supreme Court

Following on yesterday’s post about the possibility for action on climate change in the US:

The US Supreme Court began hearing arguments today in a case about whether the EPA is required to regulate CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act (see yesterday’s strong NY Times editorial). The suit was filed by a bunch of states and environmental organizations after the Bush Administration chose not to enforce any CO2 regulations.

From my understanding of the case, the court could effectively decide one of four ways.
i) The EPA must regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act (because of the potential deleterious impacts of climate change)
ii) The EPA has the option to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act
iii) CO2 does not fall under the Clean Air Act but could be regulated otherwise
iv) The EPA does not have jurisdiction to regulate CO2, as there is not sufficient evidence to support the need for CO2 emissions controls.

The unlikely Door #1 would radically alter the status of emissions control in the US. It’s most likely the court decision, expected in the spring, will be along the lines of Door #3. Though that would technically be a losing verdict, it would strongly advance the argument for emissions policy.

There’s one thing that makes this case risky: the chance, albeit small, that the court meanders close to Door #4. This would not only make federal emissions controls unlikely, it could be used to argue against state policies or international agreements.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Calls for climate change legislation in the US

The organization Environment New Jersey is calling for Governor John Corzine to pledge to reduce the NJ's greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by the year 2050. It is also encouraging NJ legislators to support the federal Safe Climate Act (supported by Rep. Waxman of California) that would cut emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. If you're interested in joining the campaign, check the organization's website.

For those of you not in the Garden State, the NJ initiative calls attention to the many proposed emissions policies being advanced at the state and federal level in the US. The above chart, courtesy of the World Resources Institute, shows the myriad of different proposed bills before both federal houses (hard to read this version, go to their site for an original). Add the many proposed and signed state agreements, like those in California, Oregon, the New England states, etc.), and the chart becomes unreadable.

The point is this: Although federal action seems unlikely in the next two years, given the, er, reticence of the current administration in the White House, that should not be mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm in the US for legislation addressing climate change. States are already passing legislation. The momentum means that every serious 2008 presidential candidate, whether red, blue or purple, will announce their intention of passing some form of federal legislation.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Carbon tax" in the US?

Neglected in the initial media excitement over the Democratic sweep in the U.S mid-term elections was a local ballot initiative in the city of Boulder, Colorado.

Voters there approved what is essentially a carbon tax. The new tax is based on the home energy use (ie. $per kWh) and the revenues will go to the city's Environmental Affairs Office. The city council is hoping it will help Boulder reduce its GHG emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by the year 2012, a goal based on the Kyoto Protocol.

Similar initiatives exist in Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas. Small steps in a few liberal communities, sure. But you have to start somewhere.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

The final word from Nairobi

Snippets from the UN FCCC final report:

"At the meeting, activities for the next few years under the 'Nairobi Work programme on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation' were agreed. These activities will help enhance decision-making on adaptation action and improved assessment of vulnerability and adaptation to climate change.

Another important outcome is the agreement on the management of the Adaptation Fund under the Kyoto Protocol. The Adaptation Fund draws on proceeds generated by the clean development mechanism (CDM) and is designed to support concrete adaptation activities in developing countries.

The CDM permits industrialized countries, which have emission targets under the Kyoto Protocol, to invest in sustainable development projects in developing countries that reduce greenhouse gas emission, and thereby generate tradable emission credits. The Conference recognized the barriers that stand in the way of increased penetration of CDM projects in many countries, in particular in Africa.

Parties welcomed the "Nairobi Framework" announced by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which will provide additional support to developing countries to successfully develop projects for the CDM. Rules were finalized for the Special Climate Change Fund. The fund is designed to finance projects in developing countries relating to adaptation, technology transfer, climate change mitigation and economic diversification for countries highly dependent on income from fossil fuels.

At Nairobi, Parties also adopted rules of procedure for the Kyoto Protocol’s Compliance Committee, making it fully operational. The Compliance Committee, with its enforcement and facilitative branches, ensures that the Parties to the Protocol have a clear accountability regime in meeting their emission reductions targets.

Talks on commitments of industrialized countries for post-2012 under the Kyoto Protocol advanced well, with Parties reaching agreement on a detailed work plan spelling out the steps needed to reach agreement on a set of new commitments.

'We are seeing a revolutionary shift in the debate on climate change, from looking at climate change policies as a cost factor for development, countries are starting to see them as opportunities to enhance economic growth in a sustainable way,' said Yvo de Boer. 'The further development of carbon markets can help mobilize the necessary financial resources needed for a global response to climate change and give us a future agreement that is focused on incentives to act,' he added.

Brazil put forward a concrete proposal for an arrangement to provide positive incentives to reduce deforestation emissions in developing countries. This proposal will be discussed at a meeting in March next year. 'The spirit of Nairobi has been truly remarkable,' Conference President Kibwana said. 'Let us now use the momentum of this conference to carry this spirit forward and jointly undertake the kind of concerted action we need for humankind to have a future on this planet.'

The next round of negotiations under the Kyoto Protocol and talks under the United Nations Climate Change Convention will be held in Bonn, Germany in May 2007."


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"Out of step, out of arguments and out of time"

Say what you will about the effectiveness of the United Nations in recent years, but it was comforting to hear Secretary-General Kofi Annan use such clear language about the science behind climate change:

"This is not science fiction. These are plausible scenarios, based on clear and rigorous scientific modelling. A few diehard skeptics continue trying to sow doubt. They should be seen for what they are: out of step, out of arguments and out of time."

The comments came during a speech about the new "Nairobi Framework", a new UN effort to help nations in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world participate in the Clean Development Mechanism (of the Kyoto Protocol)


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Rating performance on climate change

A German organization has released their latest "Climate Change Performance Index", evaluating the accomplishments of the 56 top GHG-emitting countries.

The final rankings lie somewhere on the mildly amusing - thoroughly depressing continuum, depending on your nationality, your level of cynicism.

Top marks went to Sweden, the UK, Denmark, Malta (who knew?) and Germany, in order. The US (53rd) and Canada (51st) actually managed to score lower than Iran. It could be worse: we both beat China, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Of course, what do you expect when the Environment Minister (in Canada) has the temerity to utter the statement "We're on track to meet all of our obligations under the Kyoto Protocol but not the target". At least admit you failed the test. Don't try to weasel a good grade for penmanship.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Canada faces "grilling" over Clean Air Act

It is one thing when the national media jumps all over a controversial government decision, especially one that hurts that country's international reputation. That is expected from your own media (e.g. Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail). It is another when the international newspapers and wire services do too. The aftermath of the Clean Air Act announcements, the international response to Canada's seeming abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol, the Env't Minister's decision to not attend some climate meetings in Nairobi, and the response from the opposition parties to the Conservative government decisions has been all over the international news (try Reuters, for one).

The irony is that the Conservative government (say that they) chose not to push for near-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or to even attempt to meet the Kyoto commitments because they felt that climate change was not a big issue to Canadian voters, but by doing so, they have essentially made climate change into a big issue. Now, climate change and emissions policy could be a deciding factor in a spring election.

The Clean Air Act is more than just bad policy - it is bad politics.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

As the corn turns

Last week, I was at an EPA symposium about nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River Basin. Although the seminars had titles like “Nitrogen Processing in Flow-Controlled Backwater Systems of the Upper Mississippi River” and “Nitrogen Removal Capacity of Entire River Networks—Interactions of Geomorphic, Hydraulic and Biological Factors”, the same subject kept cropping up:


In 2004, the production of corn-based ethanol reached 3.4 billion gallons – or 2% of all U.S. gasoline by volume – by far the highest in history. The Energy Policy Act calls for ethanol production to more than double, to 7.5 billion gallons, by the year 2012. Since energy independence is likely to be one of the only areas of agreement between the Bush Administration and the newly Democratic Congress and Senate, it would not be surprising to see an even more aggressive policy emerge in the next couple years.

Every passing mention of the inevitable expansion of corn-based ethanol production brought sighs from many of the participants.

Why? First, most of the people I spoke with agree with the conclusion that the energy derived from corn-based ethanol is, at best, only slightly greater than the energy required in production. It may be net energy loss. Second, the participants of the Symposium have for the most part been working on the difficult challenge of reducing nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River Basin. Increasing the production of the fertilizer-intensive crop will make it even more difficult to goal of shrinking the nitrogen-fuelled “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

To meet the 2012 ethanol goal, corn production is bound to increase [the only other option is to meet the goal purely by diverting corn grain away from feed or exports – not impossible, but less likely given the financial incentive to expand production]. That will require either the conversion of existing croplands to corn or the cultivation of existing croplands to corn.

The total area of croplands is unlikely to change significantly – it hasn’t in the past century. The best croplands were identified long ago. The change over the century has been in what crops are grown on those lands. Right now, around 2/3s to 3/4s of US croplands are devoted to just three crops: corn, soybeans and wheat.

So the thought it is that the extra corn production will come either at the expense of some other crop or at the expense of croplands currently left uncultivated. Some at the meeting suggested that farmers will replace soybeans with corn. Others, myself included, dismiss that notion: soybeans have been expanding for fifty years in the US and are too valuable crop to abandon (for ecological and economic reasons). It is more likely that either land devoted to other crops or lands contained within US Conservation Reserve Program – essentially farms are paid to leave some croplands fallow – will be used to expand corn production. Unless there is a major change in the production practices, the addition of more corn cultivation does not bode well for the nitrogen cycle.

The one reasonable argument for expanding corn-based ethanol production is that creating a market for biofuels will spur research on more efficient fuels. Thanks to market forces, corn-based ethanol may pave the way for a sensible form of biofuel production: either the “cellulosic” ethanol from high yielding grasses like switchgrass (that require no fertilizer) or biodiesel from oil-crops like soybeans, rapeseed or canola. If so, let’s hope the transition does not take too long.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Bon nuit, Senator Inhofe

We should all rejoice at one change brought about by Tuesday's US election.

Thanks to the Democrats victory in the Senate, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe will no longer be head of the Senate Environmental Public Works Committee. Inhofe is famous for calling global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and openly supporting the dubious conclusionns of those termed climate 'skeptics' over actual scientific assessments, including those conducted by his own government. He actually received a score of zero from the League of Conservation Voters.

Forget feelings about politics, about climate science, or about environmental issues: it was an insult to American people to have someone who displayed outright contempt for science and reason, as head of a committee whose very decisions depend on scientific expertise.

Inhofe is being replaced by Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, who has stated that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of this century, a swing so far in the other direction it will give Senate watchers whiplash.


Monday, November 06, 2006

UN Climate conference opens

From the Associated Press: "At the opening of a two-week United Nations conference on climate change, the negotiator, Harlan Watson, also told reporters that the United States was voluntarily doing better at restraining the emission of such gases than some of the countries committed to reductions under the Kyoto Protocol."

Although the actual metric Watson uses - annual emissions increase over only one year - is totally ridiculous ("oh officer, I was only going 60 mph", when in fact you were driving 85 mph for three hours and slowed down a minute ago upon spotting the police car), he does have a point. US greenhouse gas emissions have grown 16% since 1990, hardly a point of pride, but slower than Kyoto signatories New Zealand (21%), Ireland (23%), Canada (27%), Portugal (41%) and Spain (49%).

Watson also confirmed that US policy on climate change is unlikely to change under the current administration. Maybe some of candidates in tomorrow's mid-term election will respond to his statement, or at least mention this week's UN conference. It has to garner some attention: including both houses of congress, all the state assemblies, state comptrollers, state attourney general and dog catchers, I'd say there are roughly 6.7 million people on the ballots here tomorrow.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Legality of ignoring the Kyoto Protocol

As a number of Canadian news outlets are reporting, Dr. Roda Verheyen, LL.M. (London), a Canadian attorney, has written a legal brief contending that Canada already is or will be legally breaching the Kyoto Protocol and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by not making any "demonstrable progress" on GHG emissions reduction.

It appears to be a strong argument, though I am not the right judge of a legal document. If it is found to be true, keep in mind:
i) Canada, while among the worst offenders, would not be alone in breaching the Protocol. Spain's GHG emissions are 49% over 1990 levels.
ii) There are no immediate legal or financial penalties at the moment. Breach of the Protocol is supposed to mean tougher emissions cuts in the next agreement. Politically, that seems an unlikely way to engage a country that has made no progress; if you blow the first target, it is that much harder to meet the next one. The only certain impact (of a legal judgment) would be a (further?) dent in Canada's green, internationalist image.

If you are interested in a copy of the brief, let me know. It is too large to post.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Shifting perceptions of climate change?

A survey by MIT political scientists found that American attitudes about climate change have shifted substantially in the past three years. The respondents listed climate change as the top "environmental" concern, and 60% felt action was warranted.

Surveys of public opinion on climate change often have little real world value; you can care about the issue without endorsing any real action on that issue. What I like about the MIT approach is that they go a step further, asking how much people would be willing to pay to "solve global warming":

In 2003, people were willing to pay on average $14 more per month on their electricity bill to "solve" global warming. In 2006 they agreed to pay $21 more per month--a 50 percent increase in their willingness to pay. Could $21 make a real difference? Assuming 100 million U.S. households, total payments would be $25 billion per year. "That's real money," said Herzog. "While it cannot solve the whole problem, it can certainly make significant strides."

Now, if only we could drop the label "environmental". In my mind, the only way the level of concern and the willingness to pay will substantially increase is if we stop characterizing climate change as another "environmental" problem. The reason is not just marketing or politics. The label doesn't make sense (on this issue, or many others, I'll save the full argument for later).

Climate change is about people. It is about human decisions, how they may change the climate, and how those changes may affect not just the natural world, but how it will affect us and the resources on which we depend. It invokes concerns about things like energy production, food production, water availability, fundamental societal needs. It's time to stop presenting climate change as a problem that affects only some nebulous other we refer to as the environment.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Canadian government forced to review climate policy

From the CBC:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has agreed to send the government's Clean Air Act to a special committee for review following a threat by Jack Layton to topple the government over the issue.

The bill, which all opposition parties had said they would vote against, will now go through the unusual step of being reviewed by an all-party committee before second reading.

'Our real goal here is to get some results,' says NDP Leader Jack Layton. At the committee, it's expected to be overhauled by critics who say it doesn't do enough to slow climate change.

In English: The Canadian PM leads a minority government. The leader of a pro-environment opposition party threatened to put a "no-confidence" motion before the Parliament (about the clean air act). In that case, were the government loses the vote (the opposition parties all vote against the government, there would have to be an election.

It is , as a Liberal party claims, a "stunt" by the NDP leader. However, it could at least lead to some reform in a tooth-less policy.


Tuesday, October 31, 2006

International Day of Action on Climate Change (Nov. 4)

There will be demonstrations calling for urgent action on climate change in cities around this world this Saturday (Nov. 4). The "International Day of Action on Climate Change" is being timed to coincide with the start of the 12th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Nairobi next week.

The US demonstrations will also focus on the upcoming election. If you're interested in joining, Climate USA has a list of contacts in your city. For a list of demonstrations in Canada, check here.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Emissions rising in many Kyoto countries

The Stern Report (below, or try the 30 pt size headline in the Globe and Mail just maybe trying to send a message to the Canadian government) arguing that the benefits of taking serious action on climate change far outweigh the costs, could not have been released at a more important time.

The latest GHG emissions data from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change finds that emissions from most industrialized countries, including most Kyoto signatories, have increased in the past five years. The graph on the right shows the total GHG emission from 1990-2004 from all industrialized countries (ie. Kyoto signatories plus go-it-aloners like Australia and the US) separating out the EIT ("economy in transition") countries that were members of the former Eastern Bloc. The graph shows that GHG emissions have decreased slightly from industrialized countries since 1990 (3.3%) but largely only because of the dramatic drop-off in emissions after the break-up of the Soviet Union (36.8%). With emissions are now on the rise in most EIT countries like Russia, emission cuts by non-EIT countries (Europe, Japan and, ahem, Canada) is likely the only way to make up the difference between current emissions (3% below 1990) and the overall Kyoto target (5% below 1990).

Will it happen? If so, the leadership will come from Europe, and the Stern Report could play a huge role. Many European countries could be influenced heavily by the Report, the efforts underway in the UK (14% reduction, one of the few success stories) and the pledge of leadership on climate change from soon-to-be British PM Gordon Brown.

Canada, well, not only are reductions unlikely under the current plan, that plan may be influencing the decisions of other countries. Japan is 14% off its Kyoto target (of 6% below 1990 levels) and struggling with the decision to force mandatory emission cuts; as one Japanese official told Reuters, "Japan can meet the target if they implement extremely unpopular mandatory policies, but the question is why they have to when others don't seem to be really serious".

Check out the UN FCCC site for all the data.


British release report on economics of climate change

The British report arguing that the economic benefits of "strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs" was released today. For full coverage, check the BBC. As I mentioned Friday, this is not just another economic study. The British government expects it to influence domestic and possibly international policy.

In a fine display of timing (sarcasm optional, perhaps it was intentional?), the NY Times has a front page story reporting that spending on energy technologies by both government and industry has been falling.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Uncertainty and the new EPA climate change site

The EPA has revamped its climate change web site.

Before you recoil in horror at the announcement, and wonder when the NY Times expose is coming, take a look. I feel the past and future climate change sections lean too much on the wording of a 2001 NRC report cautioning about natural variability in the climate system, especially given more recent reports by the National Academies. Otherwise, it seems reasonable. I'd be curious to hear other impressions.

And, hey, at least the EPA has a climate change site. Environment Canada is still posting this.


UK Report on the economics of climate change to be released Monday

A "stark" report about the economic costs of climate change will be delivered to the Royal Society in the UK on Monday. It is hard to predict how much "play" the report will get here, given the 24-hour coverage of the upcoming elections (or should I say coverage of polls and campaign ads? US election campaigns seem to have officially devolved to something akin to the TV networks battling it out for viewers during sweeps week, more on that later) but the details of the report should be all over the international news.

From the Independent:

In a preview of a report he is to deliver next Monday, Sir Nicholas [Stern] told the Cabinet the world would have to pay 1 per cent of its annual GDP to avert catastrophe. But doing nothing could cost 5 to 20 times that amount. He told them: "Business- as-usual will derail growth."

The massive 700-page report - commissioned by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown - was described as "hard-headed" and "frighteningly convincing". It focused on the economic peril now confronting the world, unless action was taken to combat harmful CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming.

"He left no one in any doubt that doing nothing is not an option," said one Whitehall source. "And he stressed that the need for action was urgent."

His review could be a watershed in overcoming scepticism about the existence of global warming. "It was hard-headed," said another source. "It didn't deal in sandals and brown rice. It stuck to the economics."
Mr Brown believes it could force the oil-dominated White House of George Bush to concede the importance of action to curb climate change. One minister who was present said it destroyed the US government's well known argument that cutting carbon emissions was bad for business.

His report, covering the period up to 2100, warns that climate change could cause the biggest recession since the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. A downturn of that magnitude would have "catastrophic consequences" around the globe, with the poorest countries hit first and hardest, Sir Nicholas told the Cabinet. Insurance analysts, who submitted their evidence for his report, said they feared insurance claims could exceed the world's GDP.

The report itself should be available here.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A rise in the number of dead zones

The latest count of hypoxic or "dead" zones in coastal oceans around the world is up to almost 200, according to scientists at a recent UN Environment Program meeting in Beijing.

As I've mentioned before, these areas of low oxygen are usually caused by excess loading of nutrients by nitrogen (from things like fertilizer). The nutrients cause lots of algae to grow, and when the algae dies and decomposes, much of the oxygen in the water at the bottom is consumed. The lack of oxygen makes life difficult for fish and other organisms living in the deep waters near the coast.

The "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Mississippi River is one of the best known examples. Robert Diaz from the College of William and Mary, who has published surveys of the world's hypoxic zones in the past, reports that hypoxia is now common in Fosu Lagoon, Ghana; the Pearl River Estuary and the Changjiang River, China; the Elefsis Bay, Aegean Sea, Greece; Paracas Bay, Peru; Mondego River, Portugal; Montevideo Bay, Uruguay and the Western Indian Shelf.


The aftermath of coral bleaching

The threat to coral reefs around the world received a bit of (surprisingly rare) press today, thanks to a meeting of the US Coral Reef Task Force in the Virgin Islands.

Reefs across the eastern Caribbean experienced extreme coral bleaching last year thanks to persistently warm water (I'm currently working on the subject). The recovery of corals in the Virgin Islands - where there was 47% mortality last year - and other parts of the Caribbean is one of the issues at the meeting.

While it is good to see news reports about the status of coral reefs, the loose use of the word "died" is irksome. Statements like "X % of coral reefs died" can give the mistaken impression that those coral reefs are gone forever because of that one bleaching event.

Like a forest after a fire, a coral reef can recover. The concern about coral bleaching is not the singular event -- the concern is that such events, or disturbances, may be happening more and more frequently. As the frequency of disturbance goes up, the chance for recovery tends to go down. Throw in all the other local threats, like sedimentation, nutrient loading, destructive fishing practices, etc., and coral reefs are even less resilient to disturbances like bleaching.

In fact, that's the message from a UN meeting in Beijing.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The most fuel efficient cars

I've been too busy lately to keep up the regular posts. I did, however, come across this earlier today.

According to the US EPA, here are the cars with the highest fuel economy for the 2007 model year:

1. Toyota Prius (hybrid-electric)
2. Honda Civic Hybrid
3. Toyota Camry Hybrid
4. Ford Escape Hybrid FWD
5. Toyota Yaris (manual)
6. Toyota Yaris (automatic)
7. Honda Fit (manual)
8. Toyota Corolla (manual)
9. Hyundai Accent (manual) , Kia Rio (manual)
10. Ford Escape Hybrid 4WD , Mercury Mariner Hybrid 4WD

The list from Natural Resources Canada includes Honda Insight hybrid (I don't know why this didn't top the US list, perhaps it is no longer available here?) and the Mercedes Benz Smart Car (not found in the US).

Notice a trend? Only one of the top ten, the Ford Escape hybrid, is American, and not only does it rely on technology purchased from Toyota, it probably would not be ranked so high if the EPA tests simulated the way people actually drive (ie. faster, more erratically and with the a/c cranked). You can't help but wonder if the main reason the American car companies are struggling is that they are building the wrong cars.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Thoughts on Canada's new policy

The Clean Air Act announced yesterday in the Canadian Parliament has been pretty much universally panned. The only support has been from what the press calls the "business community", although a real poll of companies operating in Canada would find many would welcome a policy that will addresses near-term greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

No doubt, many of the critics are being opportunistic. Blustering by members of the previous government about how the Conservatives are ignoring Kyoto is a bit hypocritical, given how emissions grew under the previous government. And, at this point, yelling "Canada should meet Kyoto" is a meaningless pledge required to win support among a certain constituency. I agree with idea behind the Kyoto pledge, that there still be a concerted effort to reduce emissions and engage with the other sigantories. But this late in the game, there's no point at all in making the pledge unless you have a real plan.

We should not let the failures of the previous government give the current government a pass. No matter what, if the authors of this Act thought it would address climate change, if the authors thought the 45-65% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 had any real meaning, don't you think the word climate would find its way into the title, or the language of the act? It is called the Clean Air Act for a reason: to focus people's concern on air quality, not climate. Otherwise it would be called the Clean Air and Safe Climate Act.

The long-term reduction goal itself is fraught with complications. Bear with me here:

1) The target is 45-65% below 2003 levels by 2050, not 1990 levels, the standard used by Kyoto and the UNFCCC. Canada's emissions rose ~24% between 1990 and 2003. So the 45-65% works out to 32-56% less than 1990 emissions. The choice of numbers seems entirely arbitrary. I see no basis, climatically, for these numbers.

2) Reaching that goal would require a 1.35-2.35% annual reduction in GHG emissions. For perspective, reaching the science-based British goal of 60% below 1990 levels by 2050, would require a 2.55% annual reduction. Tough, no doubt.

However, the new plan says there are to be no hard caps 'til 2025. So let's say emissions stay constant until 2025. That means an annual reduction from 2025-2050 of 2.35%-4.20%. Of course, with no hard cap, a growing population and a growing economy, emissions are unlikely to stay constant. Let's say they increase at the rate (~2%/year) observed in the past 15 years. Take note, given average economic growth of 3%/ year, this emissions growth rate implies a continued decrease in emissions intensity. The result is the reduction between 2025 and 2050 must be 4.2% - 5.9% each year.

In other words, setting a cap for 2050, but not starting the reductions until 2025, is ridiculous. This is not a political argument. It is plain-old mathematics.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

I recommend watching this CBC news segment on the California climate policy (produced in light of the Canadian plans). One key to the California policy is that it includes plans to address each major emitting sector of the economy, rather than give breaks to particular industries.


The "Made-in-Canada" plan is announced

From the Canadian Press:

Ottawa — The Conservatives released the centrepiece of their “made-in-Canada” environment agenda Thursday — a Clean Air Act that would cut greenhouse gas emissions in half, but not until 2050. The bill, aimed at dispelling the notion that Tories are soft on the environment, sets no short-term targets for cutting greenhouse emissions. In the long term, it says the government will seek to cut emissions by 45 to 65 per cent by 2050.

In the interim, the government will set so-called “intensity targets” which would require industry to reduce the amount of energy used per unit of production, without placing a hard cap on emissions.
Regulations for large polluters would begin in 2010 and the government is giving itself until 2020 to set national emissions-cutting targets for the pollutants that cause smog.

I've written before about the lunacy of shouting out big long term numbers, whether 65% below 2000 levels by 2050 or 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, just one-up others politically and about the folly of intensity-based plans.

Here we may have both. The only way to guarantee reach the big long-term targets is to also establish real near-term reduction targets and an implementation plan that could meet that target. On first reading, the intensity-based targets for the oil industry appear to imply an increase in emissions. If those targets remain in place for another twenty years or so, as is suggested, reaching the 45-65% reduction target by 2050 would be nearly impossible. More on this later.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Fly me to the moon

One of the most difficult hurdles in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is air travel. Unlike with the automobiles, there are currently no clear alternative fuels or propulsion systems for airplanes. And air passenger miles are expected to double in a decade or two.

So it is not surprising to see environmental groups in countries committed to cutting GHG emissions start doing the math on their government's air travel habit (from the Independent):

The inevitable head-on collision between Britain's climate change and aviation policies moves a step closer today with figures showing the total distance flown by the Government's own ministers and senior officials last year alone is equivalent to 14 return trips to the Moon.

Tony Blair, his cabinet colleagues and their officials clocked up 6.5 million air miles, according to the Cabinet Office's list of flights during the 2005-2006 financial year - and in doing so pumped almost 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, analysis shows.

I'd be curious to see this result for a US election campaign, in which the candidates, especially the presidential candidates, seem to crisscross the country almost daily (are travel logs or schedules readily available?). New York-San Francisco is about ten times the distance of London - Brussels.

At least now some fuel is being saved by cutting out all that evil shampoo and toothpaste that was being carelessly toted onboard.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Support for a hike in gasoline taxes

Raising the gas tax or, quelle horreur, introducing a carbon tax has in the past been dismissed as a radical idea from anti-capitalist forces on the political left.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As a recent NY Times story states, economists from all over the political spectrum are now touting the benefits of a gasoline tax. The list includes Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve (doesn't "the Fed" sound like it is coming soon to a theatre near you, a maverick economist metes out his own form of justice, no, no, not another point in the prime rate).

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw has created a virtual "Pigou Club", named after the economist who first proposed using taxes to correct imperfections in the market, for economists and the like who support increasing gasoline taxes. Check out the diverse list of members.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Cleaner diesel fuel on the way

Leaving the Canadian news aside... the NY Times reported today about the development of a low-sulfur diesel fuel. This new fuel could represent a major advance in reducing smog-forming vehicle emissions and , indirectly, fuel efficiency.

Diesel is a generally a more efficient fuel. Small diesel cars can get over 40 miles per gallon, a level otherwise only achieved by hybrid gasoline-powered cars. The problem is that conventional diesel emits much more smog-forming and pollutants, like sulfur, and particulates. As the article reports, diesel vehicles, despite being vastly outnumbered in the US, produce 43% of the nitrogen oxides and more than two-thirds of the soot from American vehicles. If a cleaner-burning diesel becomes available, not only could it improve air quality, it could lead to development fuel efficient diesel and hybrid-diesel cars.


PM plans 'intensity' alternative to Kyoto

I honestly hoped I would be wrong about the "Made-in-Canada' climate policy. The above headline in the Globe and Mail says it all. Again, I suggest reading my op-ed from earlier this year.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Should Australia be worried about climate refugees?

A new study sponsored by a group of NGOs in collaboration with CSIRO - the Australian science agency - states that Australia should prepare for the regional economic and national security fallout from climate change. A primary concern is providing refuge the possibility of hundreds of thousands or millions of "environmental refugees" from low-lying countries in south Asia and the Pacific. Unlike Australia, New Zealand has already reached agreement with Kiribati, Tuvalu and other Pacific nations to accept people displaced by environmental degradation or climate change. Here's the transcript of a short ABC (the other ABC) interview with one of the study authors.

I've not been able to locate a copy of the study (Australia Responds: Helping Our Neighbours Fight Climate Change) itself - if you find one, let me know.

Australia joined the US as a pariah in the eyes of advocates for international action on climate change when, under PM John Howard, it chose not to sign the Kyoto Protocol. The irony is that Australia had negotiated the right to increase GHG emissions by 8% over 1990 levels (by 2008-2012) under the Kyoto Protocol, and may actually be on pace to meet that commitment despite not signing the agreement.


Friday, October 06, 2006

Going on an energy diet

The House and Home section of yesterday's NY Times had a terrific, hilarious "lazy man's guide to belt-tightening at home". It includes a number of useful suggestions for reducing energy use as home.

Though I did take offense, as a Canadian, to this one passage:

"And I recently bought a flat-screen high-def 37-inch TV, an energy-Hoover you’ll have to pry from my cold, dead hands; if you haven’t seen an N.F.L. game on something like that, my friend, you might as well watch curling."

Let me tell you, as I'm old enough now to admit the truth, curling really does make for riveting television.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Blustering about climate policy in Canada

The Canadian Environment Minister Rona Amborse was 'grilled' yesterday during Question Period about the new climate and air quality policy, according to the CBC. Ambrose failed again to give any specific about the new policy other than "It’s time for a brand-new approach to the environment. This new approach is going to address the real priorities of Canadians in a tangible and accountable way."

The quote and the constant complaints about the former Liberal government's failure to implement an effective Kyoto implementation plan suggests the new policy will have little to do with climate change and international emissions targets, and more to do with what one might call the modus operandi of the current Canadian government: set very achievable goals, and then boast that promises are being met. Maybe that is good politics. It is not good for the climate.

That's why I continue to say watch out for an exotic-sounding but empty "intensity"-based target.

For a foreign take on this issue, try the Washington Post. As the article points out, the new policy may still prove politically divisive, especially if it focuses on emissions from the Ontario-based auto sector and not the Alberta-based oil sector. If so, the Conservative government would fall into similar trap as the Liberals' Kyoto policy, which they gave the auto sector and some industries a pass on emissions reduction. A sensible emissions policy is one that targets industries equally, like the new California policy.


International climate change talks in Mexico

At a gathering in Mexico, representatives of the G20, that is representatives of the self-appointed 'G8' nations and 12 others countries we were deemed worthy of inviting to the party(oh, diplomacy), are chatting about climate change and energy.

According to the BBC, the results are mixed. The countries agree serious action is needed. Rick Samans, head of the World Economic Forum said politicians need to act fast because "We are behind the curve, there is no doubt that we should have acted 10 or 15 years ago" (i think i just pulled a muscle in my rib cage trying to withhold a sarcastic 'oh really?' comment). On the other hand, no promises are being made, and the US, India and Russia appear to be putting little into the conversation.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Warming vs. heating

In his recent book "The Revenge of Gaia", the scientist James Lovelock of Gaia hypothesis fame uses the term global heating rather than the more common global warming. In an interview with the NY Times, Lovelock argued:

"Warming is something that’s kind of cozy and comfortable. You think of a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day. Heating is something you want to get away from."

The use of the word heating has caused debate among the sort of people who like to debate these things. Here are a few thoughts on the issue.

Is heating a more ominous word? I suppose it sounds more severe, more like something that you actively force, or is imposed upon you, than warming. Linguists can argue over that. Either way, Lovelock is advocating the use of the word because of the values he believes it communicates, namely that global warming / global heating / climate change is scary and dangerous. That may very well be true. But should such a conclusion be enshrined in the language used by scientists?

Yes, scientists are lousy marketers. You don't need to remind me of that. I work in a field called biogeochemistry. The only people that would voluntarily assume such a horrific label are scientists. Oh, scientifically, it makes senses. Geochemistry is the chemistry of the earth, so biogeochemistry is simply saying if you want to understand the chemistry of the earth, you have to take the "bio" - life - into account. But it sure ain't pretty.

The thing is, maybe we should be lousy marketers. Our objective is not supposed to be selling our results. Thanks to press releases, news articles, blogs and the like, the marketing of your science is often exactly what happens. It is with exactly that trend in mind that we need to be sensitive about using value-less terms to label our disciplines and our results.

I don't know whether people will respond differently to global heating or global warming or climate change. But I know we should not choose the language based on how people will respond, but which is most accurate (within reason, otherwise scientists will drone on for hours with caveats and confidence intervals).

If the media or activists want to take what by all rights should be called global climate change and call it global warming or heating, they can do so. Scientists? We should stick with the dull explanatory labels, whether it is climate change, or biogeochemistry.


Saturday, September 30, 2006

Emissions (or energy) intensity

A snippet of the upcoming Canadian GHG and smog-forming emissions plans (Globe and Mail):

In a separate interview with CTV Newsnet, Ms. Ambrose said the plan would include financial penalties.
Oil industry sources said yesterday the Tories intend to set standards to reduce "energy intensity" in the sector, an approach that would reduce emissions for every barrel produced. That approach, which is favoured by the Alberta government and the industry, would see emissions continue to rise as oil-sands development booms, but would slow the pace of the growth.

Any regulation is better than the current situation. But the intensity trick is what I've been warning about for months (Toronto Star):

Since the days of the Canadian Alliance, Harper and colleagues have opposed the Kyoto limits on greenhouse gas emissions. They preferred the approach of the United States, which refused to sign any international climate agreement under the pretence that it could hurt the economy. The new "Made in Canada" plan is expected to be based upon the current U.S. government policy that the Bush administration adopted in 2002 after rejecting Kyoto... It is worth examining the problem with a U.S.-style policy...

The economy, expressed as GDP, grows at roughly 3 per cent a year. The compound interest function on your calculator will show that this average annual growth rate works out to 34 per cent growth over a 10-year period. The stated target is to have the GHG intensity — the emissions divided by the GDP — be 18 per cent lower in about 10 years. Since the GDP will have increased by 34 per cent, the greenhouse gas emissions can actually increase by 10 per cent over those 10 years. The proposed reduction in intensity is actually an increase in total emissions.

Proponents will argue that this is still an improvement over business-as-usual. If the greenhouse gas intensity remains constant over the 10 years, the total emissions would increase by 34 per cent. In that sense, the reduction in intensity could represent some progress. It would not save the planet from the disastrous implications of climate change but it would be better than nothing.

Actually, no. The catch is that the greenhouse gas intensity of the U.S., of Canada, and of virtually every industrialized country has been decreasing for years as our economies become more productive and our technology improves. How much? Here's the funny coincidence. In the U.S., the greenhouse gas intensity decreased by about 18 per cent between 1990 and 2000.

In other words, the Bush administration climate policy is just a statement about staying the course. It does absolutely nothing to address climate change. Canadians should be wary of any similar Conservative policy that uses words like greenhouse gas intensity and claims to address both the economy and the climate. When the announcement is made, have a calculator handy.


Friday, September 29, 2006

Fallout from the auditor general's climate change report

After reading the news this morning, I looked at my old Globe op-ed on climate change policy, published before the 2004 election (the Martin minority). With the Liberals and Conservatives in mind, I wrote that try as you might to ignore it, climate change is one issue that will not go away, so you'd better come up with a plan.

Well, here we are. Still bickering after all these years.

The Conservative government is keeping quiet on whether any of the recommendations in the Auditor General's report are addressed in the greenhouse gas component of the new Made-in-Canada plan (to be released next week). Most likely, the answer is no. Instead, their focus has been on the auditor general report's well-founded criticism of the previous Liberal government's plan and on Stephane Dion, the former environment minister and now Liberal leadership candidate. Dion's rebuttal has been strong:


... called into question Prime Minister Stephen Harper's environmental policies."The prime minister does not believe in the science of climate change," Dion said, describing it as "the worst ecological threat that humanity is facing."


.. he said the previous Liberal government proposed a better plan to fight climate change in its last months in power, called "Project Green" -- only to have it axed by the incoming Conservative government. The plan would have cost an estimated $10 billion over eight years, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 270 megatonnes between 2008 and 2012.

"It's very important for people to understand (the report) is not about the last plan that we released on April 2005 - the plan that was killed by Mr. Harper," Dion told Mike Duffy Live. "It's about what we have done the years before. And we agree with what she said. It's why Mr. Martin last year brought his ministers together and came up with a much more compelling plan, that would have helped Canada to reach its Kyoto targets on time."


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Canadian Auditor General calls for action on climate change

In the report released this morning, the Auditor General's Office, which is like the principal's office for the Canadian government, called for a "massive scale up of efforts" to fight climate change.

From the Globe and Mail:

Environment Commissioner Johanne Gélinas, who is part of the Auditor General's Office, says Liberal policies — even the most recent 2005 plan introduced by then Environment Minister Stéphane Dion — would not ensure Canada could meet its targets under the international Kyoto agreement.

"Climate change is upon us, and no matter how you look at it, the stakes for Canada are high," Ms. Gélinas said in a statement. "With its resources and powers, the federal government can make a big difference. But our findings show that it has not been up to the task so far."

"There is a foundation to build on, with motivated and talented public servants and good programs that have made some headway in reducing emissions," Ms. Gélinas said in a statement. "What we need now is a commitment to specific actions with time frames for completing them."


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

California passes climate change legislation

The now Hummer-less Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California officially signed the ambitious new climate change legislation this afternoon. The law calls for California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, and to 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050.

Possibly even more significant, Schwarzenegger will probably sign a bill that bars California companies from participating in long-term contracts that involve importing energy from out-of-state sources that do not follow the new greenhouse gas regulations. The bill is aimed at forcing the new coal-burning plants being planned in neighbouring states to adopt carbon capture and storage technology.

Pressure is also building in Canada to impose tougher regulations on the energy industry. The country's Auditor General is about to release a report that criticizes the previous government's Kyoto implementation plan, and calls for the current government to enact more effective legislation aimed at reducing emissions from oil and gas, especially the development in the Alberta tar sands.


Monday, September 25, 2006

From Hummers to Moonbeams

I read with amusement that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has sold his beloved Hummers. All eight. Having signed the most progressive greenhouse gas reduction laws in the US, the Governor decided that owning a fleet of vehicles that get 10 miles per gallon (mpg) was sending the wrong message.

I don't know who bought the cars or what they plan to do with them. But if one's objection to a Hummer is the woeful fuel efficiency, wouldn't the responsible decision be to leave the car in your driveway, rather than sell it, thus ensuring not another drop of fuel enters its 27.5 gallon (104 litre) tank, or its 24 gallon (91 litre) auxiliary tank? Remove the roof and plant some flowers. With eight of them, you could build a botanical garden.

If Gov. Schwarzenegger is in the market for a more efficient vehicle, he could try the 105 mpg Moonbeam, built by Joey Squibb for only $2500 dollars, only half the cost of filling his eight former vehicles with gas (seriously, do the math).


Saturday, September 23, 2006

Water please, hold the bottle

Those of you who know me personally have no doubt heard my rant about the popularity of bottled water in North America. In my opinion, the bottled water industry is based almost entirely on fear mongering about the safety of tap water. Unless you are in a community with no water treatment, drinking bottled water is wasteful, unnecessary, and if anything, more dangerous than drinking tap water. The tap water, unlike the bottled water, is regulated and tested.

The Saturday Globe and Mail has an interesting report about religious groups joining environmental groups in the fight against bottled water. The activists should staple this passage to every bottled water vending machine:

"A one-litre bottle of Dasani brand water, sold at a Toronto supermarket recently for $1.59, retails for about 3,000 times the price of a litre of municipal water from nearby Brampton, where the container was filled. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. filters the municipal water and then adds minerals to improve its taste. Federal product labelling laws do not require bottlers to indicate that their products originally were tap water, but do require companies to say whether it is spring or mineral water."


Friday, September 22, 2006

A change in US climate change policy?

Rumours have been flying for a week or so that the Bush Administration plans to change its tune on climate change, perhaps in January's State of Union address. No one knows for certain whether it will happen at all, or if it does happen, what the change will entail.

The speculation is based entirely on reports from those people that pop up all too often in news reporting today: unnamed sources. Here's the original news story from UK's the Independent, no big fan of the Bush Administration.

17 September 2006 - President Bush is preparing an astonishing U-turn on global warming, senior Washington sources say.

After years of trying to sabotage agreements to tackle climate change he is drawing up plans to control emissions of carbon dioxide and rapidly boost the use of renewable energy sources. Administration insiders privately refer to the planned volte-face as Mr Bush's "Nixon goes to China moment", recalling how the former president amazed the world after years of refusing to deal with its Communist regime. Hardline global warming sceptics, however, are already publicly attacking the plans.

The rethink follows increasing pressure on the White House from Republican governors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the mayors of more than 300 cities, business leaders and Congress. Over the past few days rumours swept the capital that the "Toxic Texan" would announce his conversion this week, in an attempt to reduce the impact of a major speech tomorrow by Al Gore on solutions to climate change.

The White House denied the timing, but did not deny that a change of policy was on its way. Sources say that the most likely moment is the President's State of the Union address in January.

Environmentalists expect the measures to fall far short of what is needed, but say this does not matter. "The very fact that Bush would reverse his position will liberate many Republicans to vote for meaningful pollution cuts," says Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

But Iain Murray, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Mr Bush's chief climate change cheerleader, is deeply alarmed: "We are left with the unpleasant conclusion that the only motivation is political."


Details of new Canadian emissions policy starting to emerge

Today's Globe and Mail reports that the Conservative government in Canada is preparing to release the long-waited new "emissions policy" that will include tougher rules for automobiles, based on California's "stringent" standards.

The Canadian government has been very careful in the use the generic word emissions in public statements this year Greenhouse gas emissions? Or smog-forming emissions? Or both? We are finally starting to get some clarity with this latest leak. Some.

It appears that the new policy will adopt something along the lines of the tough regulations on smog-forming emissions - NOx, VOCs, etc. - enforced by California's Air Resources Board for several years. If so, this is a sensible decision. Whatever you think of air quality concerns, having tougher standards in different states or provinces is ridiculous. Right now, automakers are actually constructing different versions of the same car. The Honda Accord you buy in California (or New York) will have lower smog-forming emissions than one bought in other states or Canada. So the technology exists.

On greenhouse gases, though, the sources quoted in the article are more vague. The Environment Minister has suggested the new policy are looking at a California plan to reduce CO2 emissions from automobiles (ie. via increase fuel efficiency). No details are given.

The California plan called for a 30% reduction, originally by 2016. A collection of eight northeastern states have suggested they may also adopt the rule, although nothing is definite. For a couple years, there have been calls from people on both sides of the border for Canada, the Kyoto signatory, to also join the initiative. The previous government was reluctant to put pressure on the automotive industry and instead adopted a toothless voluntary plan.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Darfur and resilience to climate shocks

Rallies were held around the world on Sunday to demand UN intervention in the Darfur region of Sudan. I had expected to see a large turnout at the New York rally. It was heartening to see that young people made up the majority of the 20,000 that gathered in Central Park. A number of the speakers mentioned that the fraction of young faces in the audience countered the notion that the younger generation doesn't pay attention to what is happening around the world.

As I mentioned in the last post, the ongoing drought in central Africa may have helped fuel the tensions that led to the current crisis in Darfur. The same argument has been made for other conflicts. The logic is that people in places like southern or western Sudan, where there is limited infrastructure (or grain reserves), the people there are less resilient, to use the popular term in ecology, to drought than, say, North Americans.

The comparison is not wrong, just simplistic. First, in reality, there is a distribution of resilience in each region, country or society, regardless of development status (take a look at New Orleans). Climate 'shocks' like floods or droughts tend to hurt the worst off in each place. Second, with the global exchange of people, goods and resources, the resilience of one region influences that of another. North America may be immune from the direct impact of a drought in a place like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, or Darfur, or a major wheat-growing region like Russia or India. However that same drought could inspire military intervention, a shift in crop prices or demand, or a rise in oil prices that will affect North America. That’s why it is important not to treat the various impacts of climate variability and climate change as separate boxes - a drought here, a flood there. More attention needs to be paid to the potential cascading effects of that drought, that flood.


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Global Day for Darfur

I'm veering a bit off of the subject of climate here... As you've probably heard, the Sudanese government has placed a deadline of September 30th for the withdrawl of the African Union peacekeepers from the Darfur region. This Sunday, rallies are being held in cities around the world to call for UN intervention. People attending the rallies are being asked to wear a blue hat to symbolize the need for UN peacekeepers in Darfur.

I’ll be going to the rally in New York (from 2-5 pm, in the East Meadow of Central Park). For information about the plans in your area, check the Global Day for Darfur site. Retired Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN mission in Rwanda, will be keynote speaker at the Toronto rally.

Not that the climate has been irrelevant here. Many experts feel the ongoing drought in central Africa may have played a role in the Darfur crisis, just as the 1990s drought in Afghanistan may have played a role in the rise of the Taliban. In the case of the Sudan, changes in rainfall brought the nomadic peoples into conflict with settled pastoralists. If you are interested in the subject, I recommend this article in the magazine Seed.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

El Nino on the way

There's a mild El Nino event brewing in the Pacific. The forecasters have suspected as much for the past couple months. The latest data (right) showing abnormally warm water in the central and eastern Equatorial Pacific led to the El Nino forecast by NOAA.

This is not expected to be anything like the strong 1998 El Nino event. But we will probably see some of the climate effects of El Nino, including dry weather in Australia and the western Pacific, a milder winter and spring in central North America and wet weather in Florida and the Gulf Coast.

The warming in the central Pacific could impact the reefs there. The coral bleaching event I surveyed in western Kiribati (intersection of the equator and the dateline, right under the orange spot in above map) in 2004 occurred after a very similar build-up of ocean temperatures from July-December. Bleaching is a paling caused by a breakdown of the symbiosis between the coral, the reef-building animal, and the colourful algae that lives in the coral's tissue. If the conditions that cause bleaching persist, like abnormally ocean waters, the corals can die. That's not the end of the story, though. The reefs can recover - the evidence from my colleagues suggests the corals have been returning after the high mortality we measured. The ecological questions are more how the community changes due to a bleaching event, and what happens if the disturbances (ie. the warm water) occur more frequently than in the past.

A couple weeks ago, NOAA Coral Reef Watch put out a bleaching warning for western Kiribati and the U.S. islands in the area (thanks in small part to my ranting). It will be interested to see, if the temperature stress continues to build, how the coral community responds. There is evidence that some corals can acclimate or adapt to warming ocean temperatures, by shifting the symbiosis to more temperature-tolerant algae. This may be an interesting test. Now if only someone wants to fund my research proposal...