Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Friedman - Dumb as we wanna be

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman has a great op-ed on the farce that is US energy policy (I get the sense a book is coming). In addition to timely remarks on subsidies for wind and solar, he calls Clinton's and McCain's promise to cut the federal gas tax for the summer what it really is: political pandering.

Sadly, the phenomena is neither new nor unique to the US. This is what I wrote in a Globe and Mail op-ed about the 2004 federal election in Canada:

The disappearance of prominent environmental issues at election time is hardly a new phenomenon. In the battle for votes, everyone longs to appear green, but will not advocate any policy that might be perceived, correctly or not, as damaging to the voter's wallet.

This election in particular has fallen prey to the opportunistic notion that scoring a favourable headline in the morning paper on the issue of the day is more important than presenting an integrated vision for the country. The result is fragmented political platforms in which environmental issues are the big losers.

The high price of gasoline provides a perfect opportunity to promote the need for higher automotive fuel efficiency, more funding for public transit, and reduced smog in our cities. These are issues of interest to all Canadians; dealing with them would help reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the debate focuses entirely on which party can deliver lower gas prices.

The price of gas has doubled since I wrote that column. Yet outside of Obama (and maybe the Greens in Canada), the political response remains the same.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

The pine beetle and carbon cycle feedbacks

An important study from in last week’s Nature concluded that the mountain pine beetle infestation that have devastated the forest industry out here has also converted western Canadian forest from a carbon sink to a carbon source. In the simplest possible terms, the beetles kill the trees, decreasing carbon uptake (photosynthesis) and increase carbon loss (decomposition). This is not a new suggestion. The Kurtz et al. paper is, however, the most complete accounting to date.

A lot of people are labelling this a ‘positive feedback’ from climate change (e.g. like how warming melts sea ice, which reduces reflection of solar radiation, which accelerates the warming). The logic is that warmer weather promotes the beetle outbreak, which releases carbon from the forest, which further warms the climate.

The assertion appears correct. But be wary of the hyperbole. Not all positive feedbacks are made equal. There are only so many pines, the beetles can only do so much damage. At some point, they run out of trees to eat, and the infestation recedes. As the authors of the Nature study have said, the betters have almost eaten themselves out of house and home. And re-forestation initiatives could return the forests to being a carbon sink.

The type of positive feedback that should be included in carbon cycle assessments? Yes. Runaway positive feedback that will send the atmosphere to 1500 ppm? Probably not.

There is a sadly ironic policy twist to the beetle infestation. For one, the forests now might pump out more carbon than the entire BC economy, throwing a wrench into regional GHG reduction agreements. The Canadian government lobbied hard to include forest carbon sinks under the Kyoto process, under the expectation that our boreal forest would provide a big carbon credit and reduce the need to address emissions themselves. Safe to say, that stance has softened in recent years.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Patience, my friends

It has been an unseasonably cool spring here in British Columbia. Frosts in the Okanagan Valley have damaged the fruit crops. Skiers are fuming that the ski areas are sticking to previously scheduled closing dates, despite ample snow depths.

On Saturday morning, I awoke to the sight of snow. The flurries caused much consternation in coastal city. Never mind that the snow was only a dusting, even by the the standard of this mutant, ever-green corner of Canada.

So, naturally, the questions came: "What happened to global warming?"

By now, with daily coverage of climate change, pretty much everyone understands, that climate is the long-term average of the weather. Most of understand, on principle, that one warm day, and one cold day, does not a trend make, or break. Yet, whenever the mercury dips, for a day, a week or a month, doubts about climate change resurface in paper, on the web and in casual conversation.

The tendency among scientists and the environmental community is to blame the climate ‘skeptics’. And they are playing a part. Just look at the ridiculous op-eds about ice ages and global cooling. The only redeeming value of the recent global cooling meme is that it provided a timely case study for my Global Climate System class o
n how climate science gets twisted in the press (balance quotes from scientists with quotes from skeptics, giving the impression of a debate; flaunt impressive sounding professional affiliations; exploit minor uncertainties in the science to cast doubt on the general, long-proven conclusions).

We can’t just blame the skeptics. In a few short years, our information culture has shifted from the morning paper and the nightly news to a 24 hour online and cable news and entertainment circus. Our impatience for information has elevated small fluctuations in the weather or the stock market or the polls to the level of breaking news.

The US presidential campaign is exhibit A in this circus. There has been plenty of air time and blog space to fill during those long gaps between the Democratic primaries. With no important events to discuss, the media and the followers of the election dissect every word in every speech given by the candidates and their surrogates like forensic scientists. The candidate’s use of a single word at a single event gets elevated to a scandal along the lines of Watergate. The candidates themselves are forced to respond to the faux scandals and upticks in daily tracking polls rather than the core issues.

This exact same phenomenon plagues the coverage of climate change. We're now analyzing the release of each month's global temperature data as if one month could provide some statistically meaningful insight on the long-term picture. These monthly episodes of CSI: Climate only lead to a sequence of confusing headlines and misguided op-eds. Remember February’s “Coldest winter since 2001” episode? It was followed by “Second warmest March in history”. Stay tuned for April.

Do we all need to stop and breathe a little bit?
Reporting and blogging the breaking climate news - whether last month's climate data or the results of a new scientific study - without providing context distracts us from the massive body of scientific evidence supporting climate change and the observed long-term warming trend (and seven years is not long-term!). It also sets unrealistic expectations that every month will set a temperature record, that every new study will conclude climate change is more dangerous than the last study did.

Just like the US Presidential campaign, we risk being led into arguments about minutia rather than a much-needed conversation about the great challenges that lie ahead.

There is an undeniable warming signal. The climate is warming and it will continue to warm long into the future unless we drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is no reputable counter argument.

There is, however, also undeniable climate noise, variability in climate from year to year that has existed for time immemorial.
The noise matters to our lives. It is what we experience day to day, month to month. We need to pay attention to the noise. But you don’t listen for the noise when twisting a dial in search of a radio station. You listen for the signal.

If only we could use our impatience in talking about climate change, and apply it to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Signs your climate policy is weak

Chinese participant Su Wei [at Paris meeting on climate change] said it was good news that Bush was talking about emissions at all. But he added, "to take measures to slow down the increase in emissions is not enough." CNN


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

US President Bush speaks about climate change

There is a lot to parse in today's speech, including more of this false dichotomy between emissions policy and technology policy (try the Ecogeek drinking game). I've included the full text after the bump. [Dot Earth has a breakdown of the speech]

US President's stated goal is to stop greenhouse gas emissions growth by 2025.

Let's put that the goal in perspective. If emissions continue to rise (from 2006 levels) at the rate since 1990 (0.88%/year), the U.S. 2025 emissions will be 8363 Mt CO2-eq or 36% above 1990 levels. If we assume a emissions grow at only half that rate, the 2025 emission will be 7691 Mt CO2-eq or 25% above 1990 levels. These are the blue lines in the graph.

The little green line? The US Kyoto target.

When US President Bush speaks about climate change - as he did at the APEC summit and the last G8 summit - the world is left arguing whether some action is better than no action at all. It is tempting to say the mere fact that the US President felt it necessary to deliver a speech on climate change and to announce new goals related to climate change could be seen as a step forward.

The problem here is that the step is so small as to be inconsequential, and it sets a dangerous precedent. Today's statement implies the US that by 2025 - almost 15 years later - the US will still be 35-46% off the old Kyoto target. Will think European countries will be happy? [That's a no] Does this sets a good precedent for China and India?

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Welcome. Thank you all for coming. I particularly want to thank members of my Cabinet for joining me here today in the Rose Garden.

Tomorrow represents — representatives of the world’s major economies will gather in Paris to discuss climate change. Here in Washington, the debate about climate change is intensifying. Today, I’ll share some views on this important issue to advance discussions both at home and abroad.

Climate change involves complicated science and generates vigorous debate. Many are concerned about the effect of climate change on our environment. Many are concerned about the effect of climate change policies on our economy. I share these concerns, and I believe they can be sensibly reconciled.

Over the past seven years, my administration has taken a rational, balanced approach to these serious challenges. We believe we need to protect our environment. We believe we need to strengthen our energy security. We believe we need to grow our economy. And we believe the only way to achieve these goals is through continued advances in technology. So we’ve pursued a series of policies aimed at encouraging the rise of innovative as well as more cost-effective clean energy technologies that can help America and developing nations reduce greenhouse gases, reduce our dependence on oil, and keep our economies vibrant and strong for decades to come.

I have put our nation on a path to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of our greenhouse gas emissions. In 2002, I announced our first step: to reduce America’s greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent through 2012. I’m pleased to say that we remain on track to meet this goal even as our economy has grown 17 percent.

As we take these steps here at home, we’re also working internationally on a rational path to addressing global climate change. When I took office seven years ago, we faced a problem. A number of nations around the world were preparing to implement the flawed approach of Kyoto Protocol. In 1997, the United States Senate took a look at the Kyoto approach and passed a resolution opposing this approach by a 95 to nothing vote.

The Kyoto Protocol would have required the United States to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The impact of this agreement, however, would have been to limit our economic growth and to shift American jobs to other countries — while allowing major developing nations to increase their emissions. Countries like China and India are experiencing rapid economic growth — and that’s good for their people and it’s good for the world. This also means that they are emitting increasingly large quantities of greenhouse gases — which has consequences for the entire global climate.

So the United States has launched — and the G8 has embraced — a new process that brings together the countries responsible for most of the world’s emissions. We’re working toward a climate agreement that includes the meaningful participation of every major economy — and gives none a free ride.

In support of this process, and based on technology advances and strong new policy, it is now time for the U.S. to look beyond 2012 and to take the next step. We’ve shown that we can slow emissions growth. Today, I’m announcing a new national goal: to stop the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

To reach this goal, we will pursue an economy-wide strategy that builds on the solid foundation that we have in place. As part of this strategy, we worked with Congress to pass energy legislation that specifies a new fuel economy standard of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, and requires fuel producers to supply at least 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022. This should provide an incentive for shifting to a new generation of fuels like cellulosic ethanol that will reduce concerns about food prices and the environment.

We also mandated new objectives for the coming decade to increase the efficiency of lighting and appliances. We’re helping states achieve their goals for increasing renewable power and building code efficiency by sharing new technologies and providing tax incentives. We’re working to implement a new international agreement that will accelerate cuts in potent HCFC emissions. Taken together, these landmark actions will prevent billions of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere.

These objectives are backed by a combination of new market-based regulations, new government incentives, and new funding for technology research. We’ve provided billions of dollars for next generation nuclear energy technologies. Along with the private sector, we’ve invested billions more to research, develop and commercially deploy renewable fuels, hydrogen fuel cells, advanced batteries, and other technologies to enable a new generation of vehicles and more reliable renewable power systems.

In 2009 alone, the government and the private sector plan to dedicate nearly a billion dollars to clean coal research and development. Our incentives for power production from wind and solar energy have helped to more than quadruple its use. We have worked with Congress to make available more than $40 billion in loan guarantees to support investments that will avoid, reduce, or sequester greenhouse gas emissions or air pollutants. And our farmers can now compete for substantial new conservation incentives to restore land and forests in ways that help cut greenhouse gases.

We’re doing a lot to protect this environment. We’ve laid a solid foundation for further progress. But these measures — while these measures will bring us a long way to achieving our new goal, we’ve got to do more in the power generation sector. To reach our 2025 goal, we’ll need to more rapidly slow the growth of power sector greenhouse gas emissions so they peak within 10 to 15 years, and decline thereafter. By doing so, we’ll reduce emission levels in the power sector well below where they were projected to be when we first announced our climate strategy in 2002.

There are a number of ways to achieve these reductions, but all responsible approaches depend on accelerating the development and deployment of new technologies.

As we approach this challenge, we face a growing problem here at home. Some courts are taking laws written more than 30 years ago — to primarily address local and regional environmental effects — and applying them to global climate change. The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were never meant to regulate global climate. For example, under a Supreme Court decision last year, the Clean Air Act could be applied to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. This would automatically trigger regulation under the Clean Air Act of greenhouse gases all across our economy — leading to what Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell last week called, “a glorious mess.”

If these laws are stretched beyond their original intent, they could override the programs Congress just adopted, and force the government to regulate more than just power plant emissions. They could also force the government to regulate smaller users and producers of energy — from schools and stores to hospitals and apartment buildings. This would make the federal government act like a local planning and zoning board, have crippling effects on our entire economy.

Decisions with such far-reaching impact should not be left to unelected regulators and judges. Such decisions should be opened — debated openly; such decisions should be made by the elected representatives of the people they affect. The American people deserve an honest assessment of the costs, benefits and feasibility of any proposed solution.

This is the approach Congress properly took last year on mandatory policies that will reduce emissions from cars and trucks, and improve the efficiency of lighting and appliances. This year, Congress will soon be considering additional legislation that will affect global climate change. I believe that Congressional debate should be guided by certain core principles and a clear appreciation that there is a wrong way and a right way to approach reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Bad legislation would impose tremendous costs on our economy and on American families without accomplishing the important climate change goals we share.

The wrong way is to raise taxes, duplicate mandates, or demand sudden and drastic emissions cuts that have no chance of being realized and every chance of hurting our economy. The right way is to set realistic goals for reducing emissions consistent with advances in technology, while increasing our energy security and ensuring our economy can continue to prosper and grow.

The wrong way is to sharply increase gasoline prices, home heating bills for American families and the cost of energy for American businesses.

The right way is to adopt policies that spur investment in the new technologies needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions more cost-effectively in the longer term without placing unreasonable burdens on American consumers and workers in the short term.

The wrong way is to jeopardize our energy and economic security by abandoning nuclear power and our nation’s huge reserves of coal. The right way is to promote more emission-free nuclear power and encourage the investments necessary to produce electricity from coal without releasing carbon into the air.

The wrong way is to unilaterally impose regulatory costs that put American businesses at a disadvantage with their competitors abroad — which would simply drive American jobs overseas and increase emissions there. The right way is to ensure that all major economies are bound to take action and to work cooperatively with our partners for a fair and effective international climate agreement.

The wrong way is to threaten punitive tariffs and protectionist barriers, start a carbon-based global trade war, and to stifle the diffusion of new technologies. The right way is to work to make advanced technology affordable and available in the developing world — by lowering trade barriers, creating a global free market for clean energy technologies, and enhancing international cooperation and technology investment.

We must all recognize that in the long run, new technologies are the key to addressing climate change. But in the short run, they can be more expensive. And that is why I believe part of any solution means reforming today’s complicated mix of incentives to make the commercialization and use of new, lower emission technologies more competitive. Today we have different incentives for different technologies — from nuclear power, to clean coal, to wind and solar energy. What we need to do is consolidate them into a single, expanded program with the following features.

First, the incentive should be carbon-weighted to make lower emission power sources less expensive relative to higher emissions sources — and it should take into account our nation’s energy security needs.

Second, the incentive should be technology-neutral because the government should not be picking winners and losers in this emerging market.

Third, the incentive should be long-lasting. It should provide a positive and reliable market signal not only for the investment in a technology, but also for the investments in domestic manufacturing capacity and infrastructure that will help lower costs and scale up availability.

Even with strong new incentives, many new technologies face regulatory and political barriers. To pave the way for a new generation of nuclear power plants, we must provide greater certainty on issues from licensing to responsible management of spent fuel. The promise of carbon capture and storage depends on new pipelines and liability rules. Large-scale renewable energy installations are most likely to be built in sparsely populated areas — which will require advanced, interstate transmission systems to deliver this power to major population centers. If we’re serious about confronting climate change, then we have to be serious about addressing these obstacles.

If we fully implement our new strong laws, adhere to the principles that I’ve outlined, and adopt appropriate incentives, we will put America on an ambitious new track for greenhouse gas reductions. The growth in emissions will slow over the next decade, stop by 2025, and begin to reverse thereafter, so long as technology continues to advance.

Our new 2025 goal marks a major step forward in America’s efforts to address climate change. Yet even if we reduced our own emissions to zero tomorrow, we would not make a meaningful dent in solving the problem without concerted action by all major economies. So in connection with the major economies process we launched, we’re urging each country to develop its own national goals and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Like many other countries, America’s national plan will be a comprehensive blend of market incentives and regulations to reduce emissions by encouraging clean and efficient energy technologies. We’re willing to include this plan in a binding international agreement, so long as our fellow major economies are prepared to include their plans in such an agreement. We recognize that different nations will design different strategies, with goals and policies that reflect their unique energy resources and economic circumstances. But we can only make progress if their plans will make a real difference as well.

The next step in the major economies process is a meeting this week in Paris — and I want to thank my friend, President Sarkozy, for hosting it. There, representatives of all participating nations will lay the groundwork for a leaders’ meeting in conjunction with the G8 summit in July. Our objective is to come together on a common approach that will contribute to the negotiations under the U.N. Framework Convention of global climate once the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. This approach must be environmentally effective and economically sustainable.

To be effective, this approach will — this approach will require commitments by all major economies to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. To be economically sustainable, this approach must foster the economic growth necessary to pay for investments in new technology and to raise living standards. We must help countries in the developing world gain access to the technologies, as well as financing that will enable them to take a lower carbon path to economic growth.

And then there will be the major economies leader meeting in July — that’s the one I’ll be going to — where we will seek agreement on a long-term global goal for emissions reductions, as well as an agreement on how national plans will be part of the post-2012 approach. We’ll also seek to increase international cooperation among private firms and governments in key sectors such as power generation, auto manufacturing, renewable fuels, and aluminum and steel.

We will work toward the creation of an international clean technology fund that will help finance low-emissions energy projects in the developing world. We’ll call on all nations to help spark a global clean energy revolution by agreeing immediately to eliminate trade barriers on clean energy goods and services.

The strategy I have laid out today shows faith in the ingenuity and enterprise of the American people — and that’s a resource that will never run out. I’m confident that with sensible and balanced policies from Washington, American innovators and entrepreneurs will pioneer a new generation of technology that improves our environment, strengthens our economy, and continues to amaze the world.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Food prices and the use of corn

The rise in food prices is finally garnering serious attention from the media and from world governments. The latest NY Times piece has this precious quote from Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa:

“You make ethanol out of corn,” he said. “I bet if I set a bushel of corn in front of any of those delegates, not one of them would eat it.”

Never mind the fact that a bushel is more than 25 kg of corn, Sen. Grassley (in claiming that the diversion of corn for ethanol is not affecting food prices) rather accidentally describes the exact problem. We don't eat the corn. In the U.S., the majority of the subsidized crops corn and soybeans (~75% in our most recent look at the economic data) are used for animal feed. And it is the rise in demand for meat, together with biofuel demand, high oil prices and droughts overseas, that is driving up food prices.


The practice of shark finning

Last week, Andrew Sharpless wrote a Gristmill post about legislation before the US Congress that will tighten the restriction on selling shark fins. I was initially reluctant to comment, as the legislation is outside my area of expertise. But, as someone that has spent a lot of time in boats with indigenous fishermn in the tropics, I can say with confidence that we should support any effort to stop the practice of shark 'finning'. And not only for the obvious reason - the effect on shark populations and marine ecosystems - but because, from what I've seen, it can hurt the local fishing communities as well.

The one argument I've heard (in the Pacific, in Madagascar, and here at home) in defense of cutting off the fins and leaving the sharks to die is that the prized fins fetch a high price and provide the fisherman in impoverished areas with a solid source of income. My informal observations in the field - these are anecdotal comments, so should be read with caution - suggest there is little basis for that argument. Only the middlemen or the distributors seem to be getting rich off the practice.

The fishermen I've met who are encouraged to take shark fins end up fishing only for shark fins rather than engaging in their customary subsistence fishing or small income fishing practices. Catching sharks often means going farther, which costs more, and means being away from family for multiple days. They only see a fraction of the money fetched in the end by the seller of a fin, because the fishermen - we're talking about people in small villages in places like Madagascar - have no personal access to the market for shark fins (Asia) and have no leverage. There's not enough space in the boat, so even if the fishermen wanted to take the entire shark back for food, they can't. Add in the fact that the local shark populations are being depleted, and the destructive practice also turns out to be bad business for the local fishers.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

The new Al Gore presentation

Gore delivered a "new" slideshow at the TED in March (thanks to James H for this). He finally addresses the gaping hole in the slideshow that anchored An Inconvenient Truth: namely, that we need to do more than change a few lightbulbs to slow climate change.

Here, in addition to expounding on recent ice data and emissions trajectories, he touches on the need for policies that place a price on carbon. Hallelujah. "Place a price on carbon" should be on the tip of every candidates tongue, north and south of the border.

Take a look:

Any thoughts on the new message? Or, to don my scientist hat again, his use of the ice data?


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

More on Earth Hour participation

The new poll reports that the majority of Canadians think Earth Hour should happen more often. One third of respondents said Earth Hour should be a monthly event, 10% said a weekly event, and 12% said the hour of darkness and quiet should be a daily event.

Almost half (46%) of the respondents participated in Earth Hour. The participation split partly along political lines: Green party (69%), Liberals (64%), NDP (58%), the Conservatives (53%) and the Bloc Quebecois votes coming in last (39%). Maybe that result also suggests where the Greens, rising in the poles, are getting those votes?


Growing ethanol on conservation lands

One of the assumptions in our recent paper on the impact of increasing corn ethanol production on the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone is that farmers could start to plant crops on land enrolled in a federal conservation program.

The latest data shows that may be happening. The area of U.S. croplands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program decreased from by 2.12 million acres since July of last year (using February data), a drop of 6%. The NY Times reports that the drop was caused by high commodity prices, driven in part by the ethanol boom.

Farmers sign a ten-year contract when entering land in the CRP. As it stands, that land cannot be returned to cultivation until the contract expires. It is worth remembering that, despite the headlines and echoing blog posts, the area of CRP lands had been increasing for the past ten year, reaching an all-time high last year. This recent drop does not negate those changes. So the real question is what happens to the 9.5 million acres of land for which the contracts expire in the next three years.


Saturday, April 05, 2008

Do the IPCC scenarios underestimate future emissions?

A commentary in this week's Nature by Roger Pielke Jr. and colleagues about whether the future scenarios used by the IPCC underestimate future emissions has caused all sorts of fits, defenses and sighs. The journal itself went so far as to include rebuttals from climate and energy experts in the same issue.

One of the causes of the furor is Pielke's reputation. The lead author's previous writings stressing adaptation to climate change give some the impression he is either climate skeptic/denier or a Lomborg-esque "delayer" (and drive many other people crazy). This is the problem with applying broad labels, especially ones with, intentional or not, serious historical overtones.

Let's be fair: Pielke (and his colleagues) don't question the basic science behind climate change, rather whether we should spend more effort on mitigation or adaptation. Like many, I'm troubled by some of the pro-adaptation arguments, both because of the particular way the science is interpreted in those arguments, and in the way that they can create soft bigotry of low expectations (we can't reduce emissions, so we won't reduce emissions). But, it is not like Pielke et al. ever argue that cosmic rays are to blame or that CO2 was higher in the mid-1800s.

The basic premise of the commentary is that all of the future scenarios used by the IPCC presume there will be substantial technological advances in the future, and that without that assumption, emissions would actually be much higher. The authors calculate how much future emissions are "reduced" in the scenarios by the technology assumption by comparing with a case in which technology is effectively frozen over time. The result is some big numbers.

The argument comes down to rates of technology change, measured here by the emissions "efficiency" of energy production, and whether we just naturally become more efficient. Graphs of declining energy intensity (energy/GDP) or emissions intensity (emissions/GDP) over the past century show that we're now producing far more "stuff" per unit of energy and per unit of emissions. That happened naturally, without any emissions or climate policy.

Pielke and colleagues argue the energy intensity cannot continue to drop as such rates, especially with the growth of China, and that's where the scenarios used by the IPCC go wrong. Either way, the real issue, I would think, is not the energy intensity but what's buried within it, the "GHG intensity".

If you look at the energy intensity plot, it is clear that the energy intensity improvements in the past have happened from producing more "stuff" (GDP) per unit of energy, not from emitting fewer GHGs per unit of energy. In other words, there's not been much advance in the GHG intensity. In fact, it is currently decreasing because so much GDP is being produced by coal burning in China.

Under a business-as-usual scenario, it is reasonable to assume the world will keep trying to produce more stuff per unit of energy, so energy intensity would continue to fall. That's the "technological advance" the authors of the scenarios supposedly assumed. One can -- and should -- debate the numbers. But the basic assumption the world would go in that general direction without prompting by policy follows from history. Under a mitigation scenario, I'd think the reduction in emissions should come more from producing far fewer emissions per unit of energy (or from dramatically cutting energy use), because we'd already naturally be trying to produce more per unit of energy.

In the end, whether one agrees with the logic of the commentary or not, or whether one likes the tone, it is hard to figure out what the take-home message of such an argument should be for policy. The authors are members of the Breakthrough Institute, which arguments in favour of funding new energy technologies, without much mention of climate change or emissions targets. The paper and the Institute present their arguments set up a false dichotomy between technology and climate or emissions policy, as if talking about climate change distracts us from developing new energy technologies, or other in the community think we can magically reduce emissions without any technological advances. I've argued about this before. There's no reason that a technology policy and emissions targets have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, the entire purpose of the binding emissions targets is to force things like the development of cleaner energy technologies.

At least the commentary has people talking about these issues. That we can all support.


Friday, April 04, 2008

Tax AND trade in British Columbia

British Columbia has announced a cap and trade system aimed at reducing GHG emissions from the large final emitters. Details are still in the works. The Globe and Mail reports that some industries have already expressed concern.

The province's philosophy is sensible. Rather than get mired in the ongoing tax vs. cap-and-trade debate, try 'em both. The policies are by no means mutually exclusive: the tax will address consumers and the cap-and-trade system will address industry. Done well, the two pronged approach could be more equitable and more effective than many other proposed policies.


Thursday, April 03, 2008

The effect of Earth Hour

Leaving aside the debate about the value of eco-gimmicks like l'heure de terre, you have to be impressed, or at least surprised, by the level of participation.

Check out the drop in electricity demand in these cities between 8-9 pm last Saturday:

Christchurch, NZ 13.1%
Canberra, Aus 11.4%
Melbourne, Aus 10.1%
Toronto 8.7% (from typical for that time)
Syndey, Aus 8.4%
North Vancouver 7.0%
Port Coquitlam, BC 6.7%
London, Ont 5.9%
Ottawa 4.0%
Vancouver 3.4%

Seems that parts of the Commonwealth really took this initiative to heart.