A Canadian coal phase-out

Both The Globe and Mail and The New York Times are reporting on recent comments from Jim Prentice, Canada’s minister of the environment, about phasing out coal-fired electricity in Canada:

“The concept is that, as these facilities are fully amortized and their useful life fully expended, they would not be replaced with coal.”

That is certainly necessary, but may not be sufficient to achieve Canada’s domestic emission reduction targets. Indeed, if the world as a whole is to get onto an emissions path consistent with avoiding dangerous climate change, it will probably be necessary to scrap some existing coal plants before the end of their working lives.

About 18% of Canada’s current greenhouse gas emissions are from coal-fired electricity, with facilities in Ontario (about 25% of the total), Alberta (about 47%), Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick.

Limiting total historical human emissions

Osterer's sign

The BBC recently published an article that goes together well with two of my earlier posts. Like my post on how many greenhouse gasses humanity can safely emit and my post on the (absent) long-term future of the fossil fuel industry, it highlights how preventing catastrophic climate change obliges humanity to keep a significant proportion of all available fossil fuels in the ground. The BBC piece cites an article in Nature which argues that we must leave 75% of the remaining fossil fuels untouched, if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.

What this highlights is how the world has two great stocks of carbon, between which humanity is generating an ever-increasing flow: (a) the stock of fossil fuels, containing carbon dioxide that hasn’t been in the atmosphere since the Eocene period 30 – 50 million years ago, and (b) the stock of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere, trapping ever-more energy from the sun. If we are to live in a world without massive disorder, displacement, and upheaval by the end of the century, we need to start closing the spigot from (a) to (b), even though it will mean leaving a lot of usable fuel underground.

That will take more restraint than humanity has been able to muster for any collective project so far.

Transnational activism and the 2005 Gleneagles summit

Claire Leigh, a friend of mine and colleague from the Oxford M.Phil program, has published an article based on her thesis in Cosmopolis: Independence and transnational activism: lessons from Gleneagles. It may be of particular interest to the many readers of this blog who are interested in effecting political change through civil society, protest, and mass action.

The full text doesn’t seem to be available on the site, but those whose universities have print or electronic subscriptions to journals may be able to access it.

Climate risk ‘pyramid’ from US polling data

Graffiti murals in the ROM

Back during the 2008 election, many eyes were glued to fivethirtyeight.com: the statistics-oriented website of a baseball analyst turned electoral statistician. A couple of days ago, the man who runs the site posted an interesting diagram based on polling data about climate change (n=2,164). Basically, it shows that ever-decreasing numbers of people expect harm from climate change, the closer to them it would appear. For instance, more people expect it to harm plants and animals than people, and more people expect it to harm those in developing countries than those in the US.

All told, I think the trend is an accurate reflection of the most likely outcomes from climate change. It seems highly likely, for instance, that future generations will suffer more than this one. Nonetheless, the chart does a good job of demonstrating just how hard it is to get people to accept immediate sacrifices in order to protect long-term climate stability: they are not fully exposed to the risks, and they have ample opportunity to fob them off on others, so as to avoid making changes in how they live their own lives and how the political and economic systems in their states operate.

While I think the pyramid is basically correct when it comes to the relative magnitude of harm that will likely occur in each area, what it doesn’t convey is that the absolute level of harm would still be unacceptable, across the board, in the absence of strong climate policies. Continuing to emit greenhouse gasses at present levels until the end of the century will almost certainly cause massive harm to those living in the United States and other rich countries. It may not be as bad as the harm that would be visited on future generations and poorer countries, but it is more than serious enough to justify devoting a significant fraction of society’s resources to building a carbon neutral future.

There is some more discussion of the pyramid over at ZeroCarbonCanada.

Emissions permits for new entrants

One proposed element for a cap-and-trade system is holding back some permits for ‘new entrants.’ Basically, this would mean preemptively grandfathering emissions from certain types of new facilities. Depending on how it was done, it seems like it could be either environmentally beneficial or harmful. If the overall cap for any year is set below the level of emissions last year, on a downward trajectory compatible with stabilizing concentrations at a safe level, reserving some credits for new entrants would force other firms to bid for fewer permits, raising prices and increasing the number of mitigation activities that are worth undertaking. Conversely, if this is used as an excuse to increase the cap, it might impede the transition to a low-carbon future.

There is also the issue of complexity. It seems likely that special treatment for new entrants will lead to weird Enron-style accounting trickery. The more complicated a carbon pricing scheme becomes, the easier it is to do hidden favours, and the harder it is to transparently assess what is going on.

Cap-and-trade by the EPA

Blue bike, red rack

According to a legal analysis from the Institute for Policy Integrity (PDF), the Waxman-Markey bill currently holed up in a Congressional committee isn’t the only way the United States might get a cap-and-trade system in the next year or so. In the wake of the recent ‘endangerment finding, the IPI analysts conclude that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sufficient authority under the Clean Air Act to create a cap-and-trade system all by itself, without Congressional input:

If Congress fails to act, President Obama has the power under the Clean Air Act to adopt a cap-and-trade system that auctions greenhouse gas allowances. President Obama also has the power under the Clean Air Act to implement an executive agreement at the international level, rendering Senate approval of a climate treaty unnecessary. EPA’s first priority must be to meet its legal obligations without impeding the work being done in Congress. But if Congress fails to act decisively, then putting those powers to use will be an essential stop‐gap to avoid complete inaction on climate change.

While the threat is unlikely to be realized (the EPA would probably feel like they are overstepping themselves), it might be a useful stick with which to drive action in Congress. The Republicans on the relevant committee are all resolutely opposed to Waxman-Markey, but might find their thinking altered in the event that cap-and-trade became an inevitability, with the option of either their involvement in design or their total sidelining.

Incidentally, the fact that not a single Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee is considered likely to support the bill demonstrates what a dinosaur party they really are. The world is finally starting to move on climate change mitigation, with the United States playing a critical role in that development. To simply make themselves into obstacles – denying the science and obstructing the political process – demonstrates that the Republican leadership just doesn’t have a handle on what is arguably the most critical issue of the contemporary era.

DIY waste heat capture

We have discussed the issue of waste heat before, in the context of both incandescent lightbulbs and the cogeneration of heat and power. For those interested in a more hands-on treatment of the subject, there are instructions for building a thermoelectric unit which allows you to charge electronics using waste heat from appliances. The same page also shows how to make a LEGO car powered by electricity produced using the heat from a small tea candle.

Using this system while heating your house doesn’t make a lot of sense, but similar devices may have some practical value inside buildings that are being cooled or outdoors. Of course, the cost and complexity of the thermoelectric unit also demonstrates why a lot of waste heat goes uncaptured, since it is cheaper to use more electricity or fuel than to improve system efficiency.

The origin of swine flu

Fixed-gear bicycle derailleur

I am curious about the origin of the swine flu currently radiating out from Mexico. The CDC thinks it arose from one individual who was superinfected with both human and swine flu varieties, which then exchanged genetic information.

It certainly would not surprise me if this was simply the latest monster disease to emerge from the factory farming of meat. Packing together unhealthy, antibiotic-marinated animals in proximity with human workers is pretty much the most efficient possible incubator for novel pathogens. While it must be acknowledged that even the most responsible forms of agriculture raise risks of disease evolution and transmission, the characteristics of contemporary factory farming make it much more likely. A notable previous example is MRSA: a disease that seems to have emerged from pig farms in the Netherlands, and which now kills more people per year in North America than AIDS does.

[Update: 4 May 2009] Two updates: Firstly, the text on the Wikipedia page for swine flu no longer includes the text about the CDC I mentioned in my original post. The older Wikipedia text is available here.

Secondly, there is now an article in Newsweek that affirms a link between factory farming and the swine flu epidemic. According to the article: “This virus has been evolving for a long time, no doubt aided in its transformation by the ecology of industrial-scale pig farming in North America.”

[Update: 5 November 2009] Six months after the outbreak started, it appears that not much effort is being put into discovering exactly where the virus came from, or how it passed into the human population.

More disclosure for Canadian mining

Pigeons eating

Due to a recent federal court ruling, a long-standing disclosure exemption for the mining industry has been repealed. Previously, mining firms were not obliged to determine and disclose the toxic compounds present in their waste rock and tailings ponds. Apparently, environmental groups have been seeking to get rid of the exemption for sixteen years. American firms have had to obey similar disclosure rules for a decade now.

Data going back to 2006 will be made available on Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI).