Thursday 28 March 2013

Why carbon neutrality is a delusion

Here is a link to my brief report written in 2011 entitled "BC’s Carbon Neutral Public Sector: Too Good to be True?"  explaining why carbon neutral government is a delusion and what to do about it. 

*Please note, this document takes between 10-20 seconds to load and you will first get a blank screen.  The file will then load to that screen.  Thanks for your patience! 

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Government directive to muzzle last words of NRTEE

Yesterday I received a bizarre letter sent to a list of undisclosed recipients - presumably people who had been members at some time, like me, of Canada's National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE). 

When Stephen Harper's government announced the upcoming closure of the NRTEE, Minister John Baird defended this by saying that the advisory body should stop calling for a carbon tax. (In fact, it called for cap-and-trade, like the Harper government at one point, but never for a carbon tax - I have read every one of its reports in this area and contributed to a few.)  So the Harper government's desire to kill this 25 year old advisory body, originally created by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, is understandable - unconscionable, but understandable.

Now it seems they even want to prevent access to some of the final material produced by the NRTEE, in this case the reflections written by past chairs and a retrospective essay by Bob Page, the last chair. It's difficult to imagine a more controlling and mean-spirited attitude.

If you feel as I do, please let other people know about this.  Here is the letter:

Dear colleagues;

We are writing to follow up on our parting email of a couple of weeks ago. At that time we advised you of an initiative we had underway to transfer a legacy NRTEE website to Sustainable Prosperity, who were to host the site under an NRTEE domain name, in a static manner going forward, to ensure Canadians had ready web access to this valuable body of work.

This plan has now changed. We were directed in writing by the Minister on Friday March 22nd that we were not to proceed with the transfer of the NRTEE domain name to Sustainable Prosperity, but to transfer it to Environment Canada along with the contents of our external website. He advised us that Environment Canada then intends to make the information publicly available. At this time it is not clear how this will be accomplished in the very limited time remaining before we close our doors March 28th.

At the same time we were instructed that no new content was to be added to the website. In an email from Environment Canada’s legal services unit in advance of the formal notification from the Minister, it more specifically referred to not uploading the Reflections document (from past Chairs and CEO’s) onto the website. Neither the Reflections document nor the retrospective essay on the Round Table by Dr. Bob Page had been uploaded to the web at the time of the Minister’s notification, nor have they been since.

We cannot provide any explanation for this decision – none was provided in the letter or subsequent discussions with the Department.

We apologize for the fact this communiqué is in English only but the NRTEE is in the very final stages of preparing to close its doors and translation was not possible.

As we had made this undertaking to you all, we felt it important to clarify the change in circumstances and direction going forwards. As the NRTEE goes permanently off-line tomorrowmorning we will not be able to acknowledge any replies you might make to this email.

Once again, thank you for all your support over the years.

Sunday 24 March 2013

Media and climate delusion

In my March 15, 2013 op-ed in the Vancouver Sun I described how promoters of carbon polluting investments and their allies avoid mentioning global warming when trumpeting the benefits of their favorite new coal mine, oil pipeline, tar sands project, coal port expansion, shale gas development, or natural gas liquification plant. My suggestion was that a paper like the Sun should provide a public health disclaimer underneath such articles that says: “The author has declined to explain that, according to scientists, this project would contribute to a climate catastrophe for you and your children.”

I was going to say that surely this is what the paper would do when publishing an op-ed by a tobacco company executive who was encouraging children to smoke. But then I realized that the paper would simply refuse to publish such an article. It would claim that it was not in the business of helping people profit at the expense of public health, especially of the vulnerable.

Some day papers like the Sun will also take this approach to article submissions by promoters of carbon polluting projects. Unfortunately, it is likely to be much too late for a lot of people and other living things, especially the vulnerable – unless, that is, more of us start to demand more from the Sun and other mainstream media.

The Sun editorial of March 21 is a good place to start. In an article entitled “Open port crucial to a healthy economy,” the Sun’s editorial board chastises Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson for opposing expanding coal and oil exports from Vancouver’s harbor with the facile argument that this will hurt our economy. Note that they never ask what is being exported. All that seems to matter is the volume of exports. Presumably if the exports were cigarettes destined for children, or landmines, or heroin, or plutonium, or carbon-laced fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, it would not matter. In fact, never do the Sun’s editors even try to explain why Gregor Robertson might oppose coal and oil exports, except to ridicule him for promoting Vancouver as a green city. They avoid mentioning global warming, but make a big deal about Vancouver losing trade to other ports.

In my March 15 op-ed I deconstructed this “climate delusional” strategy, and this March 21 editorial provides a perfect illustration. No doubt there will be many more like it. But if you agree with me that this is an incredibly harmful and irresponsible bias of this newspaper, there are things you can do. For one thing, you can write a letter to the editor explaining that you will soon drop your subscription and will encourage others to do the same if the paper is unwilling to qualify its carbon pollution jingoism with an honest and consistent depiction of the scientifically-determined global health implications of continuing on this path. And you might ask for similar action from the people who are nearest and dearest to you – the very ones you would personally discourage from smoking.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Can McKibben and Nocera both be right?

In a March 15 op-ed in the New York Times, Joe Nocera described a coal gasification plant that the Summit Power Group plans to build in Odessa, Texas, starting this summer. The gasification plant would reduce greenhouse gas emissions perhaps as much as 90% by capturing the resulting CO2 and using it to (1) produce fertilizer and (2) inject into declining oil reservoirs in a process called “enhanced oil recovery.”

Nocera supports this as an important step for addressing climate change. He asked Bill McKibben if he supports the project and quotes McKibben’s response: “the worst possible thing to do with it [CO2] is to get more oil above ground. It’s time to keep oil in the earth, not to mention gas and coal.”

For Nocera, this suggests that McKibben is not thinking clearly, so he ends his article with, “To me, at least, his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem. The enemy is not fossil fuels; it is the damage that is done because of the way we use fossil fuels.

In my view, they are both right – and both wrong. I don’t know the whole quote Nocera had to work with from McKibben, but it should have said something like the following.

“Yes, humanity should focus on carbon pollution, not on ceasing all use of fossil fuels. We must be driving carbon pollution rapidly toward zero, but if that can occur while still using fossil fuels, that’s fine. Maybe as a first step, some CO2 will be used for enhanced oil recovery. But a rapidly growing share of carbon from fossil fuel use must end up as liquid CO2 in deep saline aquifers or as solid carbon that can never be allowed to reach the atmosphere. If this is not feasible, then the use of fossil fuels must decline rapidly.”

And Nocera should have said something like the following.

“I understand why McKibben is reluctant to allow much use of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery because he has done such an excellent job of explaining how close we are to surpassing our carbon budget for preventing harmful levels of global warming. But, while governments dither we should support projects that get the fossil fuel industry working in the right direction.”

And both should have said in unison, “People should read Mark Jaccard’s book, Sustainable Fossil Fuels (CambridgeUniversity Press, 2005), which explains the likely role of fossil fuel use in a world in which humanity rapidly reduces its greenhouse gas emissions while providing much-needed energy for even the poorest on the planet.”

Friday 15 March 2013

How we can counter the delusional tactics of the carbon polluters

by Mark Jaccard
Originally published in The Vancouver Sun March 15, 2013

Over the past year, readers of The Vancouver Sun have been bombarded with op-eds, columns and editorials that argue British Columbians should accept carbon-polluting projects like the Northern Gateway oil pipeline, but that never explain how to prevent the climate disaster these would cause. The writers of these articles consistently ignore two glaring realities.

First, scientists agree that carbon pollution from burning coal, oil and natural gas must start declining in this decade if we are to limit the global average temperature increase to 2 C, a critical threshold in terms of preventing intensified storms, droughts, ocean acidification, ecological destruction and human suffering. The world's leading politicians, including Stephen Harper, agree that we should not surpass two degrees - which is why he committed Canada to emission reductions of 17 per cent by 2020 and 65 per cent by 2050 (targets that are unachievable with expanded production of oilsands, coal and shale gas).

Second, carbon pollution in the atmosphere is a global "tragedy of the commons." Since virtually all countries must reduce emissions to prevent a disaster, proponents of the next carbon-polluting project argue that theirs is small relative to the total, which is true no matter how big, and that stopping theirs won't help since others will go ahead, which is self-fulfilling if everyone follows this logic. (Likewise, the fishers who devastated the Atlantic cod argued that each was only a small contributor and, in any case, would be replaced by others if they stopped.)

What is sad and frightening is that the writers of these articles seem to lack the moral conscience and logical honesty to address these two critical realities of the global warming threat and our causation of it. Instead, they exhibit what Ayn Rand once called, "not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know."

Proponents and supporters of carbon polluting projects focus exclusively on the jobs, wealth and tax revenues from projects x, y and z. They talk about how each project is essential and unavoidable. If they talk about the climate at all, it is to point out that each contributes only a small per cent of global emissions. They never talk about how we should act to avoid the tragedy of the commons from global warming, because to do so would undermine their project.

But the simple reality is that more carbon pollution equals more global warming. We have to stop extracting carbon from the earth's crust for ourselves and other countries. Then, we should join with leading jurisdictions, like California and several European countries, to use trade measures as necessary to pressure Alberta, China and others to reduce their pollution. There is no other way to tackle this extremely difficult global problem.

Imagine if this newspaper's editors refused to be complicit in the deceit and delusion, and asked every writer advocating an investment that increased carbon pollution to explain what B.C. should be doing to help humanity avoid sleepwalking over a climate cliff. If the writer would not explain, the paper could follow the article with a public health disclaimer, such as "The author has declined to explain how the increased carbon pollution he or she is proposing would not lead to a climate catastrophe for ourselves and our children - as found by scientists."

Of course, the newspaper is unlikely to play this role. But you can. Every time you see an article promoting more carbon pollution here and abroad, ask yourself if the author explains how this project can occur in a world that prevents global warming. If the author does not explain, ask yourself why.

When you hear, "We need this project for the economy," you might ask, "You mean we need extreme storms and ecological destruction - that we could not have a thriving economy if we ran our vehicles on electricity and biofuels or generated electricity from renewable energy?"
When you hear, "We need to be good neighbours to Alberta," you might ask, "You mean we need to help our neighbours get rich while devastating the planet?"

When you hear, "The Chinese will just get the carbon polluting fuels from someone else," you might ask, "You mean it's better for our children that we help the Chinese increase carbon pollution rather than discouraging China and other polluters in a peaceful, responsible manner?" When you hear, "The oilsands and other polluting projects will be developed no matter what we do," you might ask yourself, "Does this person have me and my children's best interests in mind?"

Tuesday 12 March 2013

US politicians should reject the Keystone pipeline

By Mark Jaccard
Originally published in The Hill on March 13, 2013

As a Canadian energy and climate economist, I have first-hand experience with the magician-like techniques of the Canadian government and petroleum industry as they try to double the output of our highly polluting tar sands. Politicians in Washington should be wary, especially if they are sincere in wanting to spare us and our children from an increasing barrage of Katrinas, Sandys and droughts.

Magicians use slight-of-hand to distract us from what they are really doing. The fossil fuel industry and its allies have spent a lot of money to bombard us with messages about the jobs and tax benefits of increasing carbon pollution via this or that fossil fuel project. Count how many times they explain how this carbon pollution is consistent with what scientists say and politicians promise in terms of avoiding devastating climate change. Of course, they don’t explain. That is the art of deception on which magic is based: to get you looking the wrong way. If you were to look the right way, you would see that we cannot be expanding fossil fuel infrastructure today and keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius (3.7 Fahrenheit). That infrastructure – all of it – must be stable or contracting.

But my Canadian government and the tar sands industries who want Keystone argue that somehow, miraculously, increasing carbon polluting infrastructure will not increase carbon pollution. (George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth has nothing on these guys.) They argue that even without Keystone Alberta tar sands would be developed to the same extent. So you might as well approve Keystone – so the argument goes.

But this is simply not true. Tar sands production is currently about 2 million barrels per day. At this level it already has trouble getting to market, which is why tar sands producers must accept a lower price for their oil – which is good news for U.S. gasoline purchasers, but not for investors hoping to expand tar sands.

Keystone would help tar sands producers expand output by 50 to 100 percent. Without it, output would stay constant. But this is where the magicians offer their next deception. They claim that even without Keystone tar sands production would increase because the oil would simply be shipped to China via a Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia. You might as well build Keystone and keep the oil from going to China, so the magicians argue.

In fact, the likelihood of this is slim – and getting slimmer every day. The reason is British Columbia. My province is the Canadian, and perhaps the North American, epicenter of two important social movements – environmentalism and rights activism by aboriginal peoples.

British Columbia has North America’s only real carbon tax, with all of its revenues returned as income and corporate tax cuts. And our electricity policy is the toughest in North America, allowing no fossil fuel power without carbon capture and storage. It is no surprise that polls consistently show that a majority of British Columbians oppose Northern Gateway.
Our provincial election is in May, and the opposition party, which is well ahead in the polls, has promised to prevent the project if it forms the next government.

British Columbia’s aboriginal peoples are proud, organized and active in defending their land and coast. Court rulings have made it extremely difficult to develop resource and infrastructure projects without their support, and almost all the tribes along the proposed pipeline route and on the coast are adamantly opposed to Northern Gateway. They have promised lengthy court battles and even civil disobedience should anyone try to build it.

The odds against Northern Gateway are huge. Without it and Keystone, there is no tar sands expansion, no increase in carbon pollution. Stopping Keystone will hinder tar sands expansion; believing otherwise is nothing more than a magician’s delusion.

If U.S. policy makers don’t want to lock-in a Sandy-Katrina future for our children, rejecting Keystone is one of the most obvious and easiest steps.

(Link to original article)

My article in The Walrus is now available to everyone

There has been considerable interest in the "Accidental Activist" article I recently wrote for the The Walrus magazine. Please take a look and if you think it's of value, pass it on to your networks. Thanks.

Here's the link to a PDF of the article as well.

Saturday 9 March 2013

The right questions to ask about releasing more carbon pollution

It gets so frustrating watching the steady flow of op-eds, editorials, and columns (not to mention all of the advertisements) extolling the benefit of putting more carbon pollution into our atmosphere – without ever mentioning the extent to which this increases the risk that global warming will exceed the "safe" threshold of 2 degrees Celsius. Thus, it is so encouraging to see Pete McMartin of the Vancouver Sun finally asking the right questions. 

Wednesday 6 March 2013

The incredible logic of planetary destruction – rationalizing a new oil refinery on the B.C. coast

Media tycoon David Black says he wants to protect the B.C. marine environment he loves from an oil spill that could result from tankers shipping bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to China and other overseas markets. To this end, he just announced that he has the necessary financial backing for his proposed oil refinery at Kitimat, which would convert bitumen into gasoline, diesel and other refined petroleum products.

His logic is that a spill of gasoline and diesel would be less harmful to the marine environment than bitumen. Presumably this is true.

But like any school child, Mr. Black must be aware that we need to stop investing in facilities and infrastructure that put carbon pollution into the atmosphere – whether that occurs here or in China. Long lived investments, like his proposed refinery and the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would feed it, last many decades. Yet, scientists tell us repeatedly, and with increasing urgency, that global emissions need to start falling in this decade to have any chance of not increasing temperatures more than 2 Celsius above pre-industrial levels – a tipping point that is likely to unleash storms, droughts, epidemics and eventually significant sea level rise.

Mr. Black does not talk about how we prevent this catastrophe. This is not surprising – because his proposed refinery is not part of a healthy path for the planet and our children. The healthy path requires investments that produce zero-carbon electricity and biofuels for our vehicles, that prevents export of fossil fuel products to anyone who burns them to release more carbon pollution, and that combines with other leading jurisdictions to apply trade measures to pressure such countries to stop polluting.

And here is the biggest irony of all. Mr. Black justifies his proposal by his desire to protect the coastal marine environment. But this requires that he close his eyes (and distract the rest of us with baubles of jobs and tax revenue) to the effect that carbon pollution has on the oceans. Report after report from marine scientists track how rising CO2 concentrations in the oceans are killing sea life, starting with scallops and other acid-sensitive organisms. Mr. Black and his project would help advance the very destruction he claims he wants to avoid. The logic is astounding. And yet no one in the mainstream media is talking about this.

Monday 4 March 2013

Climate and Voting – the environmental, social justice and survival issue of our times

British Columbia, where I live, will have a provincial election in May 2013. By a strange set of circumstances, BC voters have a rare opportunity, for the second provincial election in a row, to significantly influence the global climate struggle with their vote. Ironically, this means switching their vote from what it was in 2009 – it can’t get more non-partisan than that!

In 2009, the NDP opposition crassly promised if elected to kill in the cradle North America’s only true carbon tax, even though they had previously argued for its implementation. Many climate-concerned voters, who might have normally voted for the Greens or the NDP, voted for the governing Liberals in order to save the tax. During the campaign, I joined with experts from a diversity of ideological perspectives to try to convince people to vote strategically in our first-past-the-post system, hoping to ensure the NDP would lose swing ridings and not form government. (The NDP often emphasizes its concern for social justice, but sometimes seems to forget that climate change is one of humanity’s greatest social justice issues – just ask someone from Bangladesh, or a similarly vulnerable poor country, who understands the human implications of climate change.)

The Liberals just barely won the election and the carbon tax was saved, a victory that was even more significant than we thought at the time – since the global financial crisis soon blunted climate policy initiatives in most, but not all, jurisdictions. Today, the tax stands symbolically as the only significant carbon tax in North America, representing a model for future policy efforts. Policy advisors study the tax, the New YorkTimes writes about it, even Republican politicians have talked favorably about it. Preventing the NDP from destroying the tax was the most critical outcome of that election. The struggle was stressful, but successful.

In this election, however, the roles are reversed. The reason is the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

Recent papers in Science and Nature on our global carbon emission limits – summarized in Bill McKibben’s article inRolling Stone – explain what many of us have known for at least two decades. Humanity cannot develop our massive unconventional oil resources while at the same time preventing the 2 C temperature increase that scientists believe could destabilize the climate, perhaps leading to runaway global warming. In Canada, this means that we cannot be expanding production levels and transport infrastructure for Alberta’s tar sands. This does not mean shutting down the tar sands tomorrow. With existing production facilities and pipeline infrastructure, its operation would continue for decades. But it cannot be expanding with new major developments and additional pipeline capacity. As McKibben points out, the math is ridiculously simple – and terrifying.

This means that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the US and the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the BC coast should not be built. They would allow tar sands production to double from its current level of 2 million barrels per day.

The past three decades have shown that the vast majority of politicians have proven adept at expressing great concern for the threat of global warming, while not actually committing to policies that would stop or reduce emissions growth. The governing Liberals in BC, for example, have said they still believe in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, yet promote rapid expansion of shale gas production and new coal mines. They express “concerns” about Northern Gateway, yet refuse to promise to stop it if re-elected in May. We all know what this means.

In contrast, the opposition NDP has promised to kill the project. And believe me, a provincial government that wanted to kill a project like this would be able to do it – even if the federal government had the jurisdiction to approve its construction and had already done so.

The NDP is leading in the polls, but that does not mean they will win the election. The Conservatives have all but collapsed, which will mostly help the Liberals. And the Greens are still capturing a large share of voter interest, which will mostly hurt the NDP. Meanwhile Liberal supporters pound away with personal attack ads – a strategy that has worked well for Stephen Harper in election after election – and one wonders if some desperate oil patch money is behind this. The election outcome is definitely not a foregone conclusion.

All of this sets the stage for well-meaning people concerned about climate to make a tragic mistake this May – by voting Green in ridings where it could have ensured the election of an NDP member instead of a Liberal. (We must never forget how Ralph Nader’s Green candidacy helped George Bush just barely defeat Al Gore.)

In my view, this election is, and should be presented by people concerned about climate, as a referendum on Northern Gateway, and we should be encouraging individuals to vote NDP in any riding where the NDP has a chance of defeating the Liberal candidate, even if that individual would prefer to vote Green in an electoral system with proportional representation. The only riding where I am suggesting climate-focused people might vote Green is in the Victoria riding where climate scientist Andrew Weaver has an excellent chance of winning (hence not a wasted vote) and would be supporting an NDP or Liberal government where it did the right thing and hounding it where it did not. (For example, both the Liberals AND the NDP are too bullish on shale gas and LNG exports – a subject for a future blog.)

At this point, the prevention of Northern Gateway would be a (second) unique occasion in which British Columbian voters would be able to influence the broader struggle to stop global warming with one X on a ballot. Its cancellation would embolden activists and average citizens to realize that the tar sands and other carbon polluters can be stopped and would contribute to a rethinking of climate policies and emission reduction efforts in the two biggest carbon polluting countries in the world: the US and China.