We usually count climate pollution badly

2012-05-18

in Canada, Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

As far as the atmosphere is concerned, it doesn’t matter if an extra molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2) comes from a recently-felled tree, from a molecule of methane in burned natural gas, from oil burned in an airplane, or from a coal-fired power plant. Regardless of the source, it adds to the already-dangerously-large stock of CO2 in the atmosphere.

This is one reason why commenters miss the point when they say things like: “the oilsands were responsible for seven per cent of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, while the entire oil and gas sector produced 22 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gases in the same year”. While these figures may be accurate, they convey the false notion that these are the only sources of CO2 we need to worry about and that reducing these numbers is adequate for solving the climate problem.

What matter is how much fossil fuel we burn in total across history

These figures only take into consideration the emissions that arise from the process of producing oil and gas. For instance, there is the natural gas that gets burned to make bitumen liquid enough to be processed and transported. The figured do not include the emissions that result when these fuels are burned. This is where most of the pollution actually happens and it is inevitable. Even if carbon capture and storage (CCS) was completely free and available today, it wouldn’t be possible to capture the pollution from vehicles, and that is where most of the oil from the oil sands ends up.

The key factor that will determine how much climate change the planet experiences is how much CO2 gets added to the atmosphere. Burning coal, oil, and gas inescapably contributes to that stock, which is already dangerously large. As such, Canada cannot ignore exports when it considers how to bring its economic activity in line with what the planet can withstand. The entire coal, gas, and oil industries need to be phased out in a rapid way. At the same time, we need to develop whichever carbon-neutral energy sources will sustain us in the future: some mixture of renewable forms of energy like wind and solar, biomass, and nuclear power.

Warming begets further warming

It is important to remember that the indifference of the climate to the source of CO2 molecules extends beyond direct human activities. If we warm the planet so much that the Amazon dries out and becomes grassland, the huge volume of CO2 currently stored in the rainforest will be added to the atmosphere. Similarly, if we warm the permafrost to the point where it melts and releases its gargantuan content of methane (a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, though shorter-lived), we will have another large dollop of warming to deal with, and an increased chance of catastrophic outcomes like the disintegration of the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica.

Based on the evidence we have from millions of years of climate data, we know that the climate can be prone to violent swings when provoked. Push it a little bit and perhaps it will naturally return to about where it was before (‘pushing’ here means releasing greenhouse gas pollution). Push it enough, however, and it can tip over into a very different state, like a Coke machine tilted to the point where it falls over. All of human civilization has taken place during times of relative climatic stability. If we radically destabilize the climate, the consequences for human beings everywhere will be dire.

Our choice

To a very large degree, Canadians are missing the point about climate change. It isn’t a matter of deciding whether growth in the oil sands is pushing up the Canadian dollar in a way that hurts manufacturers. It also isn’t a matter of deciding what sort of small carbon tax would make Canada’s emissions acceptable. If we are to preserve a habitable planet for the people who will follow us, all signs indicate that we must get serious about the process of phasing out fossil fuels. Either humanity has a future or the global fossil fuel industry does – not both. That is very unwelcome news in a country that stands to make billions of dollars from fossil fuel exports, but it is the situation in which we now find ourselves.

We can choose to ignore the fact that what we are doing threatens the future habitability of the planet. We can also choose to bet that some future technology will allow us to solve or counteract the climate problem. If we make such choices, we should be entirely clear about what we are doing. If we accept the reality of climate change but choose to plow on heedlessly anyway, we should accept that we are entering into a suicide pact with countries like China and the United States that are doing the same thing. Neither has shown itself to be at all capable of moderating its demand for fossil fuels, and Canada is providing an increasing share of the oil, gas, and coal that fuels their frightening emissions.

If we choose to bet on technological salvation, we should similarly recognize that we are placing bets with lives that are not our own. We are saying that whether people in future generations inherit a planet that permits human prosperity or a planet in which civilization struggles to endure depends on whether some magic new technology appears in time to correct our mistakes – mistakes we now fully understand, but which we have so far refused to stop making.

Every barrel of oil we dig up and burn is another dangerous dart we are hurling at random at the people of the future – people who are already going to suffer substantially from the damage we have already done. We don’t need to choose that kind of irresponsible and selfish behaviour. We can turn our energy instead to building a zero-carbon energy system and an efficient society. Such a society will have a shot at long-term prosperity, which is something that cannot be said for societies that depend on fossil fuels that are ever-more scarce and which are destroying the planet.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Maxine May 20, 2012 at 3:33 pm

What a provocatively thoughtful article. It is the most clearly presented of arguments I have ever read! Thank you.

. December 10, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Abandoned wells can be ‘super-emitters’ of greenhouse gas

Princeton University researchers have uncovered a previously unknown, and possibly substantial, source of the greenhouse gas methane to Earth’s atmosphere. After testing a sample of abandoned oil and natural gas wells in northwestern Pennsylvania, the researchers found that many of the old wells leaked substantial quantities of methane. Because there are so many abandoned wells nationwide (a recent study from Stanford University concluded there were roughly 3 million abandoned wells in the United States) the researchers believe the overall contribution of leaking wells could be significant.

The researchers said their findings identify a need to make measurements across a wide variety of regions in Pennsylvania but also in other states with a long history of oil and gas development such as California and Texas.

. September 1, 2019 at 7:59 pm

It is what is happening below ground that most worries ecologists and climate scientists. Many of the Siberian and Alaskan fires are burning carbon-dense peat soils, which would normally be waterlogged. Peat fires produce much more carbon dioxide and methane from the combustion of carbon that has been locked in the ground for hundreds or thousands of years. Burning soil therefore eliminates important carbon sinks that cannot be replaced on any useful timescale.

This in turn sets in motion positive feedback loops which are not accounted for in the climate projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate researchers do cite the possibility that global warming will thaw Arctic permafrost, releasing large amounts of stored greenhouse gases. But if fires in the region become more common, that could have even bigger consequences. The emissions from this year’s fires make it more likely that the conditions will be met for peat to ignite again in coming summers, producing ever more emissions, and so on. Under these conditions, “I am convinced that it will actually be wildfires that will release much faster and bigger amounts of carbon,” rather than melting permafrost, says Mr Rein. The fires also produce a fine black soot known as black carbon which, if dropped on the Arctic sea ice by favourable winds, will darken its surface, making it more likely to absorb sunlight and melt. This decreases the reflectivity of the region as a whole (blue water absorbs more solar energy than white ice) and further increases Arctic warming.

. December 13, 2019 at 2:04 pm

Australia’s bushfires have emitted 250m tonnes of CO2, almost half of country’s annual emissions

Exclusive: forest regrowth can reabsorb emissions from fires but scientists fear natural carbon ‘sinks’ have been compromised

. December 24, 2019 at 1:43 pm

At least 60 countries and over 100 cities have promised to get to “net zero”. The trouble is that few account fully for the emissions created by products that are consumed within their borders but produced outside them.

Inevitably, since production-based measures make rich countries look good (they also flatter small states that do little manufacturing), most have picked this methodology for their carbon targets. None of the 19 countries in the Carbon Neutrality Coalition have net-zero targets that explicitly aim to reduce consumption (carbon footprints are considered in another part of France’s legislation). Likewise New York’s net-zero target is production-based—helpful, since it is a state without much heavy industry. It is for this reason, among others, that Greta Thunberg, a teenage climate activist, told Britain’s Parliament in April that its climate goals amounted to little more than “creative carbon accounting”.

The gap between national consumption and production measures comes from the emissions that are embedded in cross-border trade. Such emissions make up a quarter of the global total. Scientists began to pay more attention to them as China became a manufacturing powerhouse following its entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Its factories were powered by coal, the fossil fuel that emits the most carbon per unit of energy.

Purdue’s data show that cars and car parts exported by China are responsible for nine times more CO2 per dollar than those exported by Germany. Mathieu Poitrat Rachmaninoff, an analyst at Newton Investment Management, notes that on average about half of the lifetime emissions from an electric vehicle come from making the battery. A medium-sized battery made in renewables-rich Sweden emits around 350kg of CO2. For coal-reliant Poland, that figure is over eight tonnes.

To cut emissions, it is therefore necessary to look closely at products’ provenance. Sometimes the conclusions are counter-intuitive, as the tomatoes in New Covent Garden Market demonstrate. British tomatoes are grown in heated glasshouses and thus require three times more energy than sun-blessed Spanish ones. Even accounting for transport, local tomatoes are responsible for more emissions. Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University points out that a British apple bought in June has typically been in chilled storage for nine months. Keeping it cool for that long emits about as much carbon as shipping an apple from New Zealand.

In the long run the only answer is for all economies, including manufacturing-heavy ones, to shift towards cleaner sources of energy. Trade deals could be used to encourage exporting countries to cut emissions, says Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform, a think-tank in London. The EU is considering a carbon “border-adjustment” tax—higher tariffs on goods from countries that do not meet the eu’s environmental standards. America’s trade deals already allow for penalties on countries that fail to meet their commitments under the Paris climate agreement of 2015—though President Donald Trump shows little interest in using them. The trade deal struck in June between the eu and Mercosur, a South American trade bloc, could be blocked by eu member countries, or meps, unless Brazil does more to protect the Amazon rainforest.

As decarbonisation gets under way in rich countries, emissions embedded in imports will loom larger. Finding ways to curb them will be tricky. But they will become harder to ignore.

. July 3, 2020 at 2:57 pm

In total, 54 per cent of UK consumption emissions are emitted inside UK borders, while a surprising 46 per cent are emitted in the countries that we import food and goods from. The large amount of emissions from new oil, gas and coalfields that UK banks and the government fund in other countries around the world are not included in either statistic – and it is estimated that 15 per cent of global fossil fuel financing comes from the UK.

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