Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Economic Case Against the Tar Sands, Part 1: Why Our Best Future Economic Indicator is 2 Degrees Celsius

2 degrees Celsius is fast becoming the most critical number of the 21st Century. It is the number on which economic decisions are going to have to be based on as we move deeper into the decade. As an economic target, it is more important that GDP growth, more important than the unemployment rate. That’s because if our economic activity takes us past 2 degrees Celsius, it could very well be game over for the economy – and human industrial civilization as we know it.

2 degrees C represents the amount of warming which the Earth can likely tolerate without triggering positive feedback loops which risk taking us into a runaway climate change scenario. The best available science suggests that if the global average temperature rises about 2 degrees C, it is quite likely that northern permafrost in Siberia and Canada will melt, releasing vast quantities of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, which has the potential as acting as the impetus for an abrupt shift in global climate.

A Science-based Case for Global Economic Health

The perils of the changing climate we are experiencing today are well established. More heat in the air means more humidity – which leads to more intense weather events, such as microbursts and their attendant flash flooding. Trapped heat is also melting glaciers, some of which feed our major river systems – used as a drinking water source by billions. Arctic sea ice continues to melt, causing a rise in sea level which contributes to storm surges (such as the one experienced by New York and New Jersey during hurricane Sandy). All of this has been happening with an average annual global temperature rise of only 0.8 degrees from pre-industrial levels.

Beyond 2 degrees Celsius of warming, in a world which experiences substantial methane release, the changes brought about will be catastrophic. The multiple systems failures expected in this scenario could very well lead to global economic collapse. The breakdown of the global food system alone could lead to starvation for billions. Food system breakdowns on a local scale almost always lead to political unrest. It is not beyond the realm of probability to suggest that the same would likely happen on a global scale.

Already the costs of climate change have been estimated to be $40 billion annually for Canadians by the year 2050 (source: National Roundtable on Environment and Energy – document no longer available on government website)– and that’s not taking into consideration the possibility of abrupt climate change brought on by events triggered by blowing through the 2 degrees Celsius threshold. This may be because scientists have been very firm in their warning that the 2 degrees Celsius barrier is one which we dare not pass through. In fact, many are now suggesting that the barrier itself may be too liberal – and that it would be better to target only 1.5 or 1 degrees Celsius of warming.

Why Staying on Target Won't Work

Getting warming under control will require a massive reduction in fossil fuel use. At Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, international leaders acknowledged the importance of the 2 degrees Celsius threshold, and pledged to reduce carbon emissions. When all of the pledges were ultimately calculated, it was determined that the world would be on target to a 3.5 to 4.2 degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures. And that’s only if emissions reductions targets were actually achieved.

At Copenhagen, Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged that Canada would reduce its emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. This emission reduction target actually represents a rise in emissions of about 3% from 1990 levels, which Canada had previously committed to under Kyoto. Nevertheless, this new target represented a better outcome for emissions than a “business as usual” approach. And Canada has seen a small reduction in emissions over the past several years, thanks largely to Ontario, which has closed coal generating stations, and which has experienced a significant loss in manufacturing jobs thanks to the economic downturn.

The Threat Posed By the Tar Sands

One industrial project, however, threatens to overwhelm gains in emissions reductions from all other sectors in Canada. The expansion of the tar sands industrial enterprise is already eclipsing those gains made by Ontario and the other provinces, as production continues to ramp up. At current rates of increase, it is certain that because of the tar sands, Canada will fail to meet our watered-down emissions reduction target, barring probably a significant global economic collapse.

When new transport capacity in the form of pipelines are added into the mix, the rate of tar sands industrial expansion is increased significantly – as will be the carbon emissions from the enterprise. Bringing any one of several bitumen pipelines online in the next decade will facilitate the circumstances for expansion.

What We Know

To recap, here’s what we know:

1) Warming must be held at 2 degrees Celsius – or we risk experiencing economic catastrophe brought on by runaway climate change.

2) The only way to avoid blowing through the 2 degrees C barrier is to vastly reduce fossil fuel emissions.

3) At Copenhagen in 2009, global leaders pledged to reduce emissions – but only by enough to hold warming at catastrophic levels of between 3.5 and 4.2 degrees.

4) Canada’s watered-down emissions reduction pledge of 17% below 2005 levels will not be met, based on current trends – thanks to the expansion of the tar sands industrial enterprise already underway.

5) Bitumen pipeline expansion will only increase fossil fuel emissions.

Accordingly, How We Must Act

Based on what we know, let’s work backwards and determine what we must do:

1) Prevent the increase of fossil emissions from the tar sands by constraining tar sands growth through the prohibition of new transport capacity.

2) Work with the international community to develop and meet emissions reduction targets which ensure that the 2 degrees C threshold is not broached.

3) Invest heavily in renewable energy production and distribution systems to replace fossil fuels and carbon-based energy and transportation systems.

There isn’t any other realistic alternatives to the logic model outlined above – not if we’re going to do what we can to prevent a global economic catastrophe thanks to runaway climate change triggered by positive feedback loops from warming beyond the 2 degrees C threshold.

Keep the above in mind throughout 2014 as debate rages about what Canada ought to do with regards to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Line 9 reversal pipeline proposals, and Kinder-Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline proposal. Keep it in mind as well as President Obama continues to dither on a decision related to the Keystone XL pipeline. Greenlighting any of these pipeline proposals will be a violation of Item No. 1, above, under “What we Must Do”. The facts are well known, and the logic model is sound.

National Energy Board - A Bogus Environmental and Economic Assessment Process

Yet, Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) recently came to the conclusion that building the Northern Gateway pipeline would be in Canada’s best economic interest. For me, it is absolutely impossible to understand how the NEB could have possibly come to that conclusion, based on the facts outlined above. The long-term economic interests of Canada, and the world for that matter, can only be served by holding warming at 2 degrees Celsius. Decisions which facilitate more fossil fuel emissions will only quicken the pace of warming and the attendant global economic collapse.

The 21st Century's Defining Industrial Project

As difficult as it may be, we really don’t have any choice but to begin the process of abandoning all fossil fuel energy enterprises, and begin working on what is sure to be the 21st Century’s greatest industrial achievement: the construction of a renewable distributed energy systems. The foundations for these systems are already being laid, but at a maddeningly slow pace thanks to our continued investments in fossil fuel expansion. Investing in fossil fuels at this time in our history is a massive misallocation of public (and private) resources which we can no longer tolerate.

Our political leaders don’t seem to be getting the message – or if they are, they are too timid to speak openly and honestly to the voting public about the coming economic crisis and the need for change.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll explore what Canada can do to play its role in preventing the coming crisis.

Note: While I have written specifically about Canada’s tar sands, I have to acknowledge that the tar sands are only one piece of the global energy puzzle which must be wound down in order to avoid climate catastrophe. Globally, the use of coal carries a significant risk for the climate – and yet, we continue to invest in coal. Natural gas, too, often touted as “clean” is anything but – and yet, massive investments in new extraction and transport technology are being made throughout the world. My focus on the tar sands was not to suggest that preventing its expansion would save the planet from climate catastrophe – it won’t. Instead, it is one significant major industrial project over which we Canadians have control – and if we are to do our part, it is one enterprise on which we must act.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)


The Mound of Sound said...

2C only postpones catastrophic climate change for a decade or two at best. It's an arbitrary ceiling set back a decade ago. Recall that, in 2007, the IPCC, relying on the 2C orthodoxy, predicted the Arctic would be ice free in summer by 2100. Last month the U.S. Navy moved that timetable up by a staggering 84 years to 2016.

gamutalarm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gamutalarm said...

(Sorry for the repost.) Great write-up. We need you in Alberta! Cheers-

Sudbury Steve said...

@MOS - I certainly have my doubts that 2C is the right target from a climatic perspective. However, it is the only target which the broader international community has been able to agree on at this point, so it is invested with some merit (even if perhaps not based on today's "best available science").

An interesting story out today from Australia about computer modelling of clouds which is now leading scientists to suggest that we're en route to 4C of warming by 2100 - and that would clearly be catastrophic. Here's a link: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/dec/31/planet-will-warm-4c-2100-climate

Sudbury Steve said...

@gamutalarm - thanks for the feedback. Unfortunately, I don't think that I'm going to find myself in Alberta on a permanent basis any time soon. If I did, I've have to change my handle ("Alberta Steve" just sounds kinda creepy and Harper-ish, don't you think? I guess I could be "Edmonton Etienne", but my french language skills just aren't there yet.

All of that being said, I might be working my way out to your province later this year, depending on what the Green Party decides to do with our General Meeting. We were in Sidney, B.C. in 2012, and Toronto in 2010. I think we may find ourselves in Calgary in 2014 - just a hunch.