Saturday, May 21, 2011

Climate Change-Peak Oil Feedback Loops

From The Harbinger:

Mike Flannigan, a University of Alberta wildland fire professor and Canadian Forest Service researcher, told the Globe & Mail that climate change was one of the causes of the forest fire that burned down 485 homes and businesses in Slave Lake, Alberta Canada. “I think it’s consistent with what we expect from climate change. We’ve already seen increases in fire activity in Canada,” he said. The boreal forests are warming and drying out; lightening strikes start 35% of fires; and the pine bark beetle is attacking and killing the weakened trees, making them more vulnerable to fire. Thus far in 2011, 264,000 hectares of forest have burned in Alberta, three times the 2010 total.

A further consequence of climate change is, paradoxically, that the forest fires caused the shut down of oil production from the tar sands, Canada's chief source of carbon emissions and climate change. The Globe & Mail reports that "nearly 150,000 barrels of oil-equivalent production has been halted amid a massive string of blazes in the oil patch that has threatened some energy infrastructure and created major logistical hurdles for many crude operators. . . With roughly 150,000 barrels of shuttered crude production, Alberta companies are losing more than $10-million per day in revenue. . . For Alberta, that translates into roughly $1.7-million per day in lost royalties, a tally that adds to the significant blow already faced by a province that has committed $50-million toward massive rebuilding costs after the fires."

And again, paradoxically, climate change has also caused a reduction in the demand for gasoline in the United States, Canada's chief importer of tar sands oil. Massive flooding of the Mississippi River has actually shut down parts of the highway system and forced people to cut back on their driving.

Fadel Gheit, a senior oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. Inc, sites three causes of the US drop in demand for gasoline:

"First, the price of gasoline has stretched above the psychological breaking point for American drivers – hovering around $4 (U.S.) per gallon – prompting motorists to leave the car keys at home. Second, several major centres are suffering from massive floods, making highways impassable, again hampering driving habits. States in the Mississippi River Delta are staring down the threat of record floods as water spills over the banks of powerful rivers, with some Interstates closed and cities under water. Southeastern Missouri and southern Illinois have also been hit, and earlier this spring parts of northern states including Minnesota and North Dakota were under water. Third, a soft economy is once again hurting oil demand, Mr. Gheit said."

This is an unexpected confluence of the twin crises of climate change and peak oil: oil production is causing climate change, which is in turn creating climate conditions that are shutting down the production and consumption of oil. It is an ecological feedback loop of global proportions that has become directly observable.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

UN population projection: 2010 update

The UN recently released its 2010 Revision of World Population Prospects (press release, access to data). The update projects that the current world population of close to 7 billion will reach 9.3 billion by the middle of this century and 10.1 billion by 2100. Stated another way, global population is expected to increase by 1/3 in the next 40 years.

Not surprisingly, the news has precipitated another round of quasi-Malthusian musings: Can the planet support 10 billion people? This is certainly a legitimate question, but the focus on the global picture -- which really hasn't been significantly affected by the update -- obscures the real news in the update.

As the Economist notes:
The most dramatic changes are national, not global. America's population, now 310m, is likely to rise to 400m in 2050 and 478m in 2100. China's is forecast to fall by 400m between now and 2100. Russia’s population is now 142m; Afghanistan’s slightly more than a fifth of that; Niger’s barely a tenth. But by 2100, Afghanistan is forecast to have the same population as Russia (111m) and Niger will be larger. Such forecasts need to be taken with a bucketload of salt: tiny shifts in today’s birth rate extrapolated over 90 years produce huge changes. But the general picture is probably right. Sub-Saharan Africa’s current population, at 856m, is little more than Europe’s and a fifth of Asia’s. By 2050 it could be almost three times Europe’s and by 2100 might even be three-quarters of the size of Asia. By any measure, Africa is by far the fastest-growing continent.

The most eye popping element is the rapid decline in China's population -- the result of the one child policy playing itself out over time. Two major lessons come to mind: 1) major transformations to social systems can be consciously planned and implemented when there is the political will but 2) successful implementation plays itself out in a span of decades rather months. In other words, such transformations are much harder in social systems dominated by quarterly-returns and the horse race politics of seemingly constant elections.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The new realities of Canadian climate policy

A few days ago a Canadian tweeted "A Royal wedding, tornadoes of the century, Osama is dead and we have an election. My head is going to explode!"

Well, the election has come and gone and, as Brian Walsh has noted, the results aren't particularly good for climate policy.
What does the Canadian election mean for environmental and climate policy? As it turns out, nothing very good. I'll explain why in a second, but first of all, there's something you need to know about Canada. Americans like to picture Canada as a progressive, friendly, extremely green and Kyoto Protocol-signing sort of country—and in many ways it is. But the truth is, Canada is also a petrostate. The country has 175.2 billion barrels of oil in reserves, third-most in the world, and it produces 2.6 million barrels of crude oil a day. When we think of foreign oil in the U.S., most of us imagine a Saudi sheik or a Venezuelan despot, but the single biggest supplier of foreign oil to the U.S. is our friendly neighbor to the north. And thanks to the growth of oil sands (or tar sands, depending on how polluting you consider them), petroleum and fossil fuel energy in general has only become more important to the Canadian economy, moving the country's power center to the West, where politicians like Harper hail from.

So Harper's clear victory means you can expect more industry-friendly policies from the now ruling Conservative Party, which is a little bit like Republicans-lite. That also means that Canada will continue its antagonism on the global climate stage, where it has long since abandoned any possibility of meeting its Kyoto carbon reduction targets, not that it was going to happen anyway. (Harper, back in a 2002 letter, referred to the Kyoto Protocol as a "socialist scheme.") Like his ideological counterpart George W. Bush, Harper doesn't seem to have much interest in dealing with climate change or energy, aside from the oil and gas that has helped Canada thrive recently. His position was in stark opposition to the opposition NDP, which offered more support for clean energy and—importantly—was ready to offer a carbon cap-and-trade program. But the Conservatives argued—in very familiar language—that carbon pricing would be increase energy prices and be a drag on the economy. Last night—in a possible example of what Roger Pielke Jr.'s "iron law of climate policy"—the Conservatives won, meaning that for now, carbon pricing in Canada is even less likely than it will be in the U.S.

Canadian climate policy analyst George Hoberg has some suggestions on how to cope.
Nonetheless, the results are in and we need to adapt to the new reality. I recommend focusing on three core strategies:

1. Build a much broader and deeper climate action movement outside the formal political process, focusing on youth. The root cause of the failure of the climate movement is the inability to mobilize sufficient public pressure on government. This effort needs to be intensified.

2. Put pressure on Stephen Harper to deliver cost-effective policies that have a realistic prospect of achieving their near term target of a 17% reduction in greenhouse gases below 2005 levels by 2020. The silver lining in a Harper majority is that he is a man of Alberta, and the leader most likely to be able to convince the oil patch and the Government of Alberta of the need to act. If he is going to be Canada’s Nixon, let him be like Nixon going to China and deliver Alberta and its industry on climate action. We need to promote an effective national dialogue and steer Harper away from his platform’s peculiar focus on command and control regulations and towards a cost-effective strategy to meet his platform’s emission reduction targets. He won’t do this without strong political mobilization (see strategy 1).

3. The one bright green lining in the blue Tory storm is the election of Elizabeth May to the Green Party of Canada’s first seat in the House of Commons. This position will give Ms. May a distinctive opportunity to focus attention on the cause of climate action. This voice of commitment will need support.