Monday, May 28, 2007

Specific numbers - the cost of carbon

I just read an article that says Air Canada is offering a "carbon offset", where you can pay for the carbon dioxide your flights generate, to a company called

I've read a bit of the site, and it seems kind of light on facts (as in "How much of my money actually goes to the carbon offsetting prices?" "Well, we can't say exactly because the price of carbon, as a commodity, is constantly fluctuating. But we have very low overhead, so a lot of your money goes where it should." Still, it's an interesting idea. What I'm most interested in is the fact that they've done estimates of how much carbon dioxide gets emitted per person on a flight. According to ZeroFootprint, an Air Canada flight from St. John's to Vancouver will take about 0.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions, per person. The cost to offset 1 tonne of CO2 emissions appears to be $16.00

By contrast, they say that the average person's share of emissions per year is 20 tonnes.

So... According to this calculation, we ought to be able to offset our total carbon emissions for an annual cost of $320 each. less than $1 per day. This seems a little bit low, considering the hand-wringing over how impossible it's going to be for us to deal with climate change.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Specific Numbers - Canada's Kyoto Targets

According to Environment Canada, on the 25th, Canada submitted its annual national greenhouse gas inventory for 2005. Why there's a year and a half lag before we submit numbers, I'm not sure, but at least it gives us something to go on. So here's how we're doing.

As of 2005, we were 1/3 above our Kyoto targets. In total, we emitted 747 million tons. Kind of makes the 1 ton challenge seem less significantl (this was the ad campaign with Rick Mercer in it about a year ago, where we were encouraged to reduce emissions by 1 ton per person.) If everyone did reduce their emissions by 1 ton we'd make a cut of about 30-35 megatonnes.

By contrast, in 1990, we had emitted 596 megatonnes. Our Kyoto targets are 563 megatonnesby 2012.

So, why have greenhouse gases gone up by 25% since 1990? THe standard answer is "economic growth", as we've grown at around 3% per year most years (total increase of 50%). But it's becoming widely acknowledged that this economic growth is mainly benefitting those who are already well off. Wages aren't rising, and in fact I saw a statistic recently that said that wages have fallen by 12.5% for males in the workforce over the past 30 years (not sure whether this is in dollar terms or inflation adjusted, but even if it's inflation adjusted it's a bad figure). So how are we better off, with this 25% increase in energy use? Would it be so bad to go back to how things were in 1990, for most people? I don't remember mass anarchy and economic collapse (although to be fair the early 90's was a significant recession). And yet the government says that the Kyoto targets are unattainable because they would lead to negative economic consequences that are too severe to bear.

One interesting thing in these statistics: the greenhouse gas emissions have been basically stable since 2004 (total increase of 0.3%), while the economy grew. Reasons: Katrina hurt the oil and gas sector, and we've had warmer than average winters. So it's not sustainable and it will be interesting to see what the 2006 and 2007 figures come out as, since of the 150 megatonnes increase ince 1990 137 came from the oil and gas sector and the transportation sector.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Quick Facts

Ok, haven't had as much time as I would have liked to work on this, but since it's a hobby sometimes other things get in the way :) Did manage to pick up the answer to one of the questions I posed in the last post, though. Currently we're about about 425 parts per million (PPM) of CO2, or 0.0425% of our atmosphere is CO2 right now. In order to meet the IPCC goals of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees we'll have to keep that to around 650-700 PPM over the long term. I recall from high school biology that whenever that book was published (I took the course in 1997 or 1998, so the figure is probably from around 1995) the atmospheric concentration was at 0.03%.

In other news, I've heard from a like minded co-worker (no confirmed written source) that they're predicting this summer will be a few degrees above normal. Which makes limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees over the long term seem highly unlikely.

Friday, May 4, 2007

After the rant comes the action

Ok, after 1 day, I feel like I need to do an update. Not that many people are going to read this, because right now it's limited to my messenger list, but still. I saw an article today that got me even more concerned. It's currently available at, and if it becomes unavailable and someone wants it I've got it saved. It's about how Canada's environmental policy stacks up against the standards set be the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its most recent report, which is due to be published tomorrow (CTV got an advance copy). Among the things it says:

- The conservative government's plan isn't nearly enough (knew that - their plan is to reach the Kyoto target 13 years after Kyoto accord's deadline, in 2025 ish.)
- If we take really strong action now, the target the IPPC is setting is that we'll be able to limit climate change to 2 degrees celsius. (Ok, but what does that mean? Here it comes...)
- Assuming we can do that (which seems unlikely since several major emitters aren't on-board), climate change will leave 1/3 of the world's population (2 billion) with water shortages, and threaten 1/5 to 1/3 of the world's species with extinction.

Think about that for a second. If we do manage to get things under control and stabilize the climate, the best case scenario is that we get to watch as 20 to 30% of all life on earth dies. Not our kids, or our grandkids. Us. And this isn't from some lunatic fringe hippie environmentalist group who makes a habit of chaining themselves to trees, it's a group of thousands of scientists from around the world, many of whom come from places that have an interest in disputing the science. So it's credible.

So what can ya do? I'm not quite sure, yet. But there are two things I'm going to do, to start off with:
I'm going to see exactly how hard it is to meet the 20-30% initial reduction targets that everyone seems to be throwing around at the moment (the EU has set itself a target of 20% by 2012, I think, and will increase it to 30% if the US and China agree to cut). I think my current electricity consumption is about 250-350 kilowatt-hours per month, but I'm going to get out my power bills and figure out exactly what it is, and then see if I can mange to reduce it by 20%. It's going to be tough, because I already know where most of my electicity goes, and mostly it's not things I can cut. Plus I haven't had to heat my condo much at all because the people below me seem to be toasty warm, but I will probably have to air condition it this summer. But I'll find a way, and keep a log here of how it goes.
I'm going to learn about this. Right now there are some things I know, but a lot more I don't know, and I think it would he helpful if lots of people knew more. There are thousands of pages of IPCC reports and other information available, but so far there doesn't seem to be a clear place where I can find answers to questions like:
- How much greenhouse gases can the earth handle, and how is this changing over time as the CO2 level changes, and we cut down forests?

Side note: Two components of the earth's ecosystem are actually helping us out at the moment - trees are growing at a faster rate because of the increased CO2 availability (although cutting down the rainforests isn't helping...), and the ocean is absorbing hundreds of millions of tons of CO2. The fact that the ocean is doing that may be a bad thing, though. Ever see the video of a tooth in a glass of coke? Well, the tooth melts like that because dissolving carbon dioxide into water makes it acidic (apparently), and the same thing is happening to the oceans. Unfortunately, plankton have hard shells, which they kind of need. I think they're sort of like like really tiny shrimp. In any case, their shells can't stand the acid, and so they're dying. Very bad, because plankton are the base of the food chain in the ocean, like plants are on land. I just hope that this is only happening in some climates (I read about it in the ocean off Newfoundland, and I think this is the first study of the issue because I've never heard of it before about a month ago) and that hopefully there are some species of plankton that can stand it.

Next question: Where are the greenhouse gases coming from? I've heard roughly 1/3 each from transportation, residential use, and industrial use, but I've also heard that gases other than CO2 are more potent greenhouse gases (methane, from agriculture, for example, traps about 10x more heat than CO2) and are also more actively traded on this "carbon trading market" the international community is trying to set up (an industrial gas that I can't pronounce currently accounts for the majority of all trading in this market, but comes from under 30 factories, by a few large companies). I'd like to learn things like: how much CO2 comes from developed vs. developing countries, and what will happen as the emerging economies develop? If that's a problem, how should we as citizens of developed economies be pushing our governments to act? Is it enough for us to recycle, take mass transit, and buy energy efficient appliances, or will our standard of living have to take a real hit in order to fix this? How much of a difference does living in a multi-unit dwelling make? It's much better on the envirnoment than a suburban detached home, by the way, I have that on good authority from an urban planner friend of mine, and I've heard the same from several other sources. How much investment as a % of GDP should go into research and development of new technologies, what will that mean for us as consumers, and what promising technologies are close to commercialization that might help? From a government policy perspective, what's the best way to go about changing people's behaviour? (The carbon trading system actually seems like a good way to go about it, which I think I'll go into in another blog entry). How much difference does buying locally produced food make? How much of the electricity I use comes from oil, coal, nuclear, hydro, and wind? (I know in NB it's a mix of all of the above, but I don't know the porportions) How is the mix changing over time, and how much does it have to change in order for us to get where we need to get to? How much do each of these electricity sources cost? (In California, wind power started out being much more expensive than other sources, but with the increase in the price of oil and better technology, it's now the low-cost alternative, and there's a backlog of customers waiting to sign up). If we treat CO2 the same way we would other pollutants, how much should companies have to pay for cleaning it up? (The conservative government's regulations will let companies buy a kg of CO2 emissions for $15-20, the IPCC reccommends a price level of between $30-55 to achieve the goals they've set out in their most recent report, and I was just listening to a piece of fiction that suggested it might be $2000 per ton in 2050. I'm one of those sci-fi junkies who likes my fiction to be realistic. $2000 seems a little high, but it made me realize I don't really know).

Anyway, point being, I'm going to take some action myself and also get informed, and then condense the mass of information that's out there into something I can actually understand, and post what I find out and how my energy conservation efforts go up here.

And with that, I'm going to end what I intended to be a short entry, and go to bed.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A rant about today's climate conference

Ok, just need to vent about world events for a second here.

There's currently a climate change conference on in Thailand, and I was listening to a BBC report about what's going on there. According to the report, the scientific community has drawn up a strongly worded statement warning of "dire consequences" if action is not taken immediately to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Super. Now, of course, you'd expect some countries to object to this, such as those who sell oil or whose economies are heavily dependent on it. Saudia Arabia has objectedto the wording and is trying to get it watered down on the basis that "environmental concerns may reduce consumption of oil in the future".

Really? Wow. Thought getting that said was the entire point of the conference. I understand of course that vested interests will want to skew the scientific results in whatever way serves their needs. But this goes beyond emphasizing the scientists who say things that serve your interests. Speaking of who's interested in this issue, fun fact: China will overtake the US as the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter later this year, several years ahead of schedule. Currently the US emits 21% of the world total, so China must be around that as well. Basically Saudi Arabia, the US and China (the news story didn't mention anyone else, but if Saudia Arabia speaks for OPEC that represents about 40% of both oil production and consumption) have collectively said "we don't want the scientists to say this, because it's not in our interests to listen." Not "We don't want this to be worded so strongly because the debate about this issue has not been resolved" which is what they were all saying last year, when the previous climate change report was revised to say that the science was 90% certain, instead of the 99% many countries were pushing for.

Now, if people who are running countries (let's assume for a second that this requires them to be reasonably intelligent) can use this type of logic, I've been gypped. Apparently, instead of working hard enough to get through university in a reasonable length of time, I could have just said "I think I'll chill out here and party for a few years, rather than starting work". And then when the parents said "there will be serious consequences for that", I could have simply responded by saying "it's not in my interest for you to state things so bluntly that I feel pressured to take some action, so I suggest you reconsider your position, and revise what you're saying so it's less definitive". Man, it would have been a fun few years...

The fact that this kind of behaviour is going on on a worldwide scale is worrying. Since even the poeple who have a direct interest in disputing the science of global warming have given up doing so and are now resorting to more direct pressure, the debate really is over, and it's time to grow up and get to work.