Waxman-Markey climate change bill

Democrats in the American House of Represenatives released a 648-page climate change and energy bill today. The bill is centred around a cap-and-trade system that is intended to reduce American greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 2005 levels by 2020, and to 83% below 2005 levels by 2050. Other provisions include “a nationwide renewable electricity standard that reaches 25 percent by 2025, new energy efficiency programs and limits on the carbon content of motor fuels, and requires greenhouse gas standards for new heavy duty vehicles and engines.” Overall, the targets are a bit tougher than the ones in the Obama platform were, though this is much more of an opening offer than a final draft. One huge issue which the bill does not yet specify is whether emissions credits will be auctioned or simply given away. Obama’s platform included a very clear call for 100% auctioning, which would be ideal from an environmental perspective.

It will be a long road from introduction through negotiation in both houses towards eventual ratification, and this bill may not make it. Even getting the bill out of the committee Waxman chairs may be a challenge. That being said, it is urgently necessary for a price on carbon to be established and for reductions to begin. Hopefully, legislators will be far-thinking enough to speed that process along, while also establishing a regulatory framework that can be built upon during the coming years and decades.

Rethinking abstinence

City skyline graffiti

Given the character of the modern world, it seems sensible to re-evaluate some of our assumptions. For instance, the importance of sexual abstinence. Arguably, it derives from three considerations: the danger of pregnancy, the risk of disease, and the social concept of sin. In modern society, good tools are available for dealing with all of these. Among them, hormonal birth control systems, condoms, and atheism. Arguably, much of the case for sexual abstinence has vanished.

Contrast that with the (barely existent) public case for reproductive abstinence. Given that society is grossly unsustainable, we don’t even have evidence that the number of people currently alive can continue to live at the level of material welfare they do. Despite this, most governments push fertility. There is parental leave, there are often tax breaks for marriage and having children, and house ownership is encouraged through public subsidy.

Perhaps the world would be a better place if governments became significantly more lax in their efforts to discourage sexual abstinence, while simultaneously shifting towards encouraging reproductive abstinence. Given the degree to which our gross over-use of the natural resources and adaptive capacities of the planet is threatening the future of the human species, it seems quite rational, in the end. Obviously, governments with some respect for personal liberty cannot actually curtail reproduction. Of course, they couldn’t curtail sex either. The idea is to shift from efforts in the latter area to efforts in the former one. That need not involve anything too restrictive: just making sure that those who don’t want children have the tools required to avoid it, while reducing the degree to which society at large helps finance the reproduction of those who choose to undertake it.

April climate summit in Washington

Apparently, President Obama has announced a summit of world leaders to discuss climate change, to occur in April as partial preparation for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in December. The summit will include Canada, the US, China, India, and twelve others.

Quite possibly, it will offer a useful glimpse into the national positions being adopted for Copenhagen, and the possibility of a strong agreement emerging there. Arguably, the most important issue is the degree of bilateral cooperation likely to emerge between the US and China. If they can agree to something that is acceptable for the European Union and Japan, everybody else might fall into line.

Oil sands, game theory, and jobs

Clothes for sale, Toronto

If we are going to prevent catastrophic climate change, every major country in the world will need to have policies that put a price on carbon and encourage the transition to a low-carbon economy. If the range of estimates for safe concentrations is approximately right (350 – 550ppm, very broadly), such policies will need to be in place within a period of years to, at most, decades. In such a world, projects like Canada’s oil sands would be enough to make the state permitting them an international pariah. It seems quite legitimate to expect harsh trade sanctions against a state that is so blatantly ignoring the need for the world to cut emissions, once many other states have seriously begun to do so. Given that I don’t think Canada has the stomach to be another North Korea, it seems like we would eventually give in to pressure to bring our policies in line with those of the United States and our other allies and trading partners.

As such, there are two possible long-term outcomes that can be envisioned. Either catastrophic climate change will occur or Canada will be forced to cut emissions like everybody else. In the former case, I suppose our current climate policies are not hugely relevant. If the rest of the world doesn’t get its act together, human civilization will probably snuff itself out. In the latter case, further investment in the oil sands will just increase the medium-term economic losses associated with the abandonment of the project. Such investment will also make it more and more politically difficult for the government of Alberta to support sane climate policies, turning it into more and more of an active ‘spoiler’ in domestic climate change negotiations between different levels of government.

Unfortunately, the ‘bite’ in this analysis doesn’t come into effect for some time, probably beyond the political horizons of most Canadian policy-makers today. As a further consequence, it is very hard to get people to take such long-term considerations into account. That being said, if a large majority of Canadians came to understand the issue in these terms – that we are pouring effort into a project that will ultimately need to be abandoned – the political landscape might shift considerably. The discussion may then be less about jobs now versus climatic stability in the future, and more about directing the ongoing development of the economy towards jobs that will still be viable in ten years, instead of ones that will be extinguished along any effective path to a sustainable future.

Studio experimentation IV

In preparation for some ongoing photo projects, I have been experimenting with different kinds of two-strobe arrangements. Andrea very kindly volunteered herself as a subject. We tried different umbrella arrangements (both shoot-through and reflective), background lights, rim lights, and some ceiling bouncing. I was firing my 430EX II using my radio triggers and using the optical slave on my LP120. While the latter flash has a longer cycling time than the 430, that can be counterbalanced somewhat by using it as a fill light at a lesser output level.

In keeping with my approach for this series, the photos on Picasa are not digitally altered.

Next, I want to try taking some portraits in an interesting outdoor environment around sunset, balancing ambient and flash light. The mill near Chaudiere Falls would probably offer some interesting backdrops.

Spring cycling

Shamrock leaves

Today was an example of the best cycling weather Ottawa provides: bright and a bit cool. With a light jacket, slow periods in the shade were comfortable. With more ventilation, hard runs out in the sunshine were.

Crisscrossing the city, I managed to pick up one of my favourite mushrooms (Pleurotus eryngii) for dinner. They aren’t terribly flavourful, but I like the texture and they fry up most enjoyably with butter and garlic. I also got fancy bread in the Glebe and black bean dip for it in the Byward Market. I got a good bit of reading done, and I got some of my first real cardiovascular exercise since fall. Cycling along the canal provides a nice illustration of the power of sunlight. The areas that get sun for a fair period each day are entirely clear, while areas of northern exposure still have nearly a metre of snow and ice piled upon them.

Spring is certainly a dramatic transition in Ottawa. Judging by the number of square centimetres of exposed skin getting exposed to sunlight today, as much vitamin D was probably produced in the last 12 hours as in the preceding 12 weeks.

Flash practice

Now that I have two strobes, the accessories required to use them, and the relevant theoretical knowledge from Light: Science and Magic, I need to start getting some more practice in flash lighting of various subjects, in different lighting circumstances. I am curious about situations in which my strobes are basically the only source of light, as well as about those where they are supplementing available ambient light (with the balance established by varying shutter speeds and flash power).

Portraits are my top priority.

Renewables, land, and trade-offs

Distorted keys

Whether it is solar power, wind farms, dams, or biofuel crops, renewable energy tends to be land-intensive. Indeed, that is one of the major reasons for which improving efficiency in sectors like buildings and vehicles is some important. Improving their efficiency can allow us to reduce our fossil fuel use, both out of concern for climate change and in response to their inevitable depletion, while engaging in the decades-long project of deploying the kind of renewable infrastructure we are going to need to power human civilization in the future. If we want to have an acceptable balance between areas used for energy generation, those used for all other human purposes, and those where nature is meant to be dominant, we will need to improve the efficiency of both our energy production and our energy use.

There are many trade-offs to be considered. For instance, the best sites for wind farms and solar facilities are often far away from centres of energy demand. That establishes a trade-off between producing power at the best sites and managing losses across long distances. While there is a lot of excitement about highly distributed forms of electrical generation, it may well prove to be the case that the most economically and ecologically sound approach is based on big renewable facilities linked to cities through efficient transmission systems, such as high voltage direct current (HVDC) lines.

There are also ecosystem trade-offs: dams block rivers, biofuel plantations are generally sterile monocultures that can lead to deforestation, and solar facilities crowd the dessert. That being said, fossil fuel extraction certainly causes harm to ecosystems, a well. There is direct harm from both deliberate actions (open pit oil sands extraction, coal mining, etc), near-term indirect harm from accidents like oil and coal ash spills, and the potentially massive long-term harm associated with climate change. Indeed, that final issue alone may be a strong justification for converting large amounts of land towards renewable energy generation; in that way, ecosystem harm can be made to occur in a planned way within large but controlled spaces, rather than globally and chaotically as the consequence of temperature increases, precipitation changes, and ocean acidfication.

Dams and climate change

Emily Horn, looking sad with some skulls

In the past, environmental groups have often opposed hydroelectric projects, both in the form of large dams and smaller run-of-river projects. Now, I think the seriousness of climate change overrides past objections about destroying habitat and disrupting ecosystems in rivers. While we should definitely take cost-effective measures to reduce the harmful impacts of dams (for instance, removing trees from the area that is to be flooded), I think we need to accept more dam construction as a necessarily part of moving to a sustainable low-carbon economy.

Dams have virtues as a consistent source of energy for electrical generation. Their variable output also means they can be used to balance out production from sources like wind farms and solar facilities. With pumped hydroelectric storage, dams can also save energy at times when production exceeds demand, and do so in a way that is reasonably efficient.

Climate change impacts also support the call for more dams. The loss of glaciers and snowpack mean that natural water flows are going to become more variable. More and larger dams could help to smooth that out, as well as compensate for how our current hydroelectric infrastructure will face challenges as a result of decreased summer water flow.

Climate change is making many people re-think nuclear power, a source of electricity with a lot more black marks against it than hydroelectricity has. As such, I think we should be glad that many past attempts by environmentalists to block dams have failed, and we should strive to support their further development where suitable sites exist.

Visiting Vancouver in summer 2009, by land?

In the past, this blog has featured some discussion of trans- and inter-continental travel by means other than aircraft. This summer, I am thinking about actually giving it a try, going from Ottawa to Vancouver by train. If I could take two consecutive weeks off work, the three-day journey in each direction wouldn’t be excessively long in comparison with my time in Vancouver. It would also give me the chance to see quite a bit of Canada from ground level.

Given that wireless internet access is available on the trains, and I am actually quite good at working while on them, the time need not even be terribly unproductive. The biggest drawback of the train is the outrageous expense of the sleeper cars. Going in a two-berth room with a stranger would cost more than $3000, round-trip. By contrast, traveling in an ordinary seat would probably be under $700, with the Sierra Youth Coalition 40% discount. While I definitely cannot shell out three grand for the trip, I am also not sure whether I could tolerate three days of trying to sleep in a semi-reclining chair, eating whatever I brought along with me, and hunting for laptop-charging electrical outlets in cars designated for richer people.

While the train would be aesthetically appealing, I am not opposed to considering other lower-carbon options. Some kind of ride-share, for instance, could be interesting as well. It would also probably be a lot cheaper, though it would probably take significantly more than three days each way.