PICS Climate News Scan - February 4 2016

PICS Climate News Scan

Global climate news analyzed for British Columbia

PICS summarizes and analyzes the major climate-change related science, technology, and policy headlines each week, and shows how these advances are directly relevant to the BC provincial and the Canadian federal governments and more generally to businesses and the public. The scan brings cutting-edge climate science to the discussion, with a focus on solutions. The scan is produced by PICS, with some content provided by the Sauder School of Business Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing. Access to some referenced articles may require a subscription, paid or free, and appropriate links are provided. To provide content feedback or suggestions, please email To be added to the distribution list click here.

All News Scans

February 04, 2016

Stories this week:

  • Pipeline bunfight kicks off between politicians, comedians
  • First steps towards Canada’s national climate strategy
  • Eat more beef, produce fewer emissions?
  • Military experts warn climate a ‘threat multiplier’
  • Nova Scotia rapidly shifting to renewables


Pipeline bunfight kicks off between politicians, comedians

Fresh controversy over the construction of oil pipelines has kicked off as the federal government has announced new environmental assessment procedures for all extractive projects, from natural gas to mining.

Liberal Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre announced his city’s opposition to the construction of the proposed Energy East pipeline that would transport oil sands bitumen from land-locked Alberta through Quebec to an export terminal in Saint John, New Brunswick. Coderre spoke on behalf of 82 municipalities within the Montreal Metropolitan Community representing some 12 percent of the Canadian population. He said that the cost of any oil spill outweighed the money construction of the pipeline would bring to the Montreal region. The project is expected to deliver $2 million in economic returns to the area, while according to Coderre the cost of cleaning up an oil spill ranges from $1-10 billion.

Coderre’s statement angered western political leaders left and right. The New Democrat Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley, Saskatchewan’s conservative leader Brad Wall and centre-left Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi all spoke out against Coderre, arguing that the pipeline is a national project.

“Tens of billions of dollars in revenues, to be shared among all provinces, are at stake over our access to more markets for our oil,” said Premier Notley. The Alberta leader has gambled that her province’s tougher climate policies, including a plan to close all coal-fired power plants, will engender a broader social licence amongst the public to support or at least tolerate pipeline projects.

Notley was backed by Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, who has also overseen the shuttering of her province’s coal plants. Wynne had earlier expressed concern over the Energy East pipeline, but according to press reports of off-record commentary from her officials, her administration has been convinced by Edmonton’s decision to cap oil sands emissions and the federal government’s efforts to strengthen environmental assessment of extractive industries.

While in Davos, Switzerland for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau backed Notley in the dispute. “I’m feeling very good about our capacity to get our resources to market in a responsible and environmentally sustainable way,” he said, adding that he was “solidly in one camp on this one.”

On Wednesday, the federal government unveiled two additional environmental review mechanisms covering pipeline construction, liquefied natural gas terminals and mining proposals.  The reviews will take into account “upstream” greenhouse gas emissions produced both in the extraction process and in processing.

The controversy over pipelines spilled out into the cultural arena this week as well, with popular Newfoundland comedian Rick Mercer using his CBC television show to accuse Coderre of not considering the national interest, and his Quebec counterpart, Jean-René Dufort, who goes by the name Infoman, pointing out that British Columbia and the United States are also against pipeline expansion through their territories. Meanwhile in Davos, Trudeau called on film star and climate campaigner Leonardo diCaprio to tone down his “inflammatory rhetoric” about Alberta’s oil sands.


First steps towards Canada’s national climate strategy

Canada’s federal environment minister Catherine McKenna met with her provincial and territorial counterparts last weekend to discuss the challenge of meeting the country’s international climate change obligations—the first such gathering in ten years.

The closed-door meeting in Ottawa was intended to lay the groundwork for higher-level conclave between the prime minister and 13 premiers in March where a national climate strategy is expected to be hammered out.

While no conclusions were released to the press, after the meeting, McKenna told reporters that carbon pricing, green infrastructure and adaptation measures were all discussed. More specifically, she said that the federal government is committed to infrastructural spending on electric vehicle charging stations, public transit and new transmission lines to deliver clean electricity to new markets.

In the absence of a coordinated national strategy, the provinces have taken a number of different approaches, from BC and Alberta’s carbon taxes to Ontario and Quebec’s emissions trading, to Saskatchewan’s emphasis on demonstrating the commercial viability of carbon capture and storage (CCS). The new Liberal government hopes to weave together a national game plan that allows the country to play its part in keeping global warming well below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. However, in what may be a softening of the Liberal Party’s election promise of delivery of a national carbon price McKenna said it was too early to say whether such a policy that all provinces and territories had to incorporate into their legislation would be necessary. Saskatchewan’s environment minister Herb Cox is opposed to such a measure.

The meeting came amid the release of Access to Information documents that reveal the scale of the emissions-reduction challenge. The federal government analysis shows that Canada’s emissions are on track to hit the equivalent of 766 megatonnes of carbon dioxide (Mt CO2eq) by the end of the decade, far above the 622 Mt CO2eq that the previous Conservative government pledged would be achieved by 2020. In 2030, Canada is likely to hit 816 Mt CO2eq, well above the 524 Mt CO2eq it has pledged to achieve by that time.  And this is just the mid-range projection, based on moderate economic growth. Better than expected economic growth would mean emissions hit 786 Mt CO2eq by 2020 and 870 Mt CO2eq by 2030.

The projections are based on the state of Canadian policies as of last September, and do not take into account Alberta’s new climate policy that seeks to curb oil sands expansion and shutter all its coal-fired power plants, or Ontario’s cap-and-trade policy that has yet to be rolled out. However, these actions are still not enough to reach the stated targets.

The scale of the emissions reduction necessary by 2030 would mean Canada would have to eliminate all the greenhouse gas emissions from cars, trucks and the heating of buildings. In recent months, PICS has released reports on how British Columbia, and potentially the rest of the country, can work to electrify its transport fleet and encourage retrofitting of homes via innovative policy solutions that have proven to work in other jurisdictions.


Eat more beef, produce fewer emissions?

Beef often gets a bad rap as far as climate change is concerned. It has been described as the ‘Hummer of food’ because while it represents just 30 percent of meat consumption in richer countries, it produces 78 percent of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the livestock sector.

The bulk of those emissions are from cows belching out methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and from fertilizer, from manure, and from transporting the animals. But emissions also come from the transformation of rainforest into grazing land. Some four fifths of Amazonian deforestation that has occurred since the 1960s was performed to provide pastureland for farm animals, primarily cattle.  

But two new papers out this month looking at beef production in Brazil, the world’s second largest producer, and Canada, the world’s eighth largest, suggest that the picture is a little more complicated.

The first, appearing in Nature Climate Change, notes that since 2005, beef production has expanded while emissions from the sector have declined. The paper in part links the trend to Brazil’s successful crack down on the razing of forest for agricultural production.

The only way to service the growing demand for meat in the face of restrictions on land use has been to ramp up productivity—also known as ""sustainable intensification". The concept applied to the Brazilian beef sector involves better management of grasslands and pasture restoration through mechanical and chemical treatment of the soil.

This in turn boosts the uptake of carbon by grasses and raises the stock of carbon stored in the soil. The researchers modelled what would happen should demand for beef decline, and found that the incentive for improved pasture management dissipates. In turn, grasslands deteriorate, organic matter is lost and soil carbon stocks are reduced. However the good news does have an upper limit. The scientists ran their model up to 2130 and found that increases in demand for beef drives decreases in emissions only until 2057. At which point, the situation reverses, and the grassland sequestration of carbon no longer offsets emissions from the increased animal numbers.

The Brazilian findings echo those of an Agriculture Canada study also out in January and appearing in Animal Production Science that found GHG emissions from Canada’s beef sector declined 15 percent per kilogram of beef from 1981-2011.

The result largely comes from farmers increasing the kilograms of meat delivered per hectare via improving the growth rate of calves, genetics and better nutrition. Other improvements include upgraded reproductive efficiency—decreasing the number of cows needed to produce the same number of calves—higher quality forage, and enhanced grass management, permitting more carbon sequestration.

Eagle-eyed readers may note that while the Brazilian researchers declared themselves to have no financial conflicts of interest, the Canadian study was part-funded by the industry-financed Beef Cattle Research Council. One of the authors, veterinary science specialist Tim McAllister, told the Scan that his employer is the government of Canada, not cattle ranchers.

“When we started this work, we were completely unaware of what the outcome would be and were prepared to publish and report the findings regardless of that outcome,” he said.  


Military experts warn climate a ‘threat multiplier’

Political instability in the developing world accompanied by mass migration are amongst the main growing threats to global security, according to an 80-page report published this week by the secretariat of the Munich Security Conference, a meeting of military strategists, political leaders and other defence specialists that has been mounted annually in the German city for five decades.

Global warming is placed up with Islamic fundamentalism, pandemics, and cyber attacks in the document.

The authors describe climate change as a “threat multiplier” for most societies, both in rich and poor countries. “An increase in extreme meteorological events, droughts, and land degradation as well as the sea-level rise can and do exacerbate political fragility and resource disputes, increase economic hardship and mass migrations, and magnify ethnic tensions and civil strife,” the report reads.

The paper also notes that economic costs associated with climate change have also been rising in recent years, quoting the Germany-based insurance giant Allianz, which found that nine of the ten largest ever insured flood losses occurred in the past 15 years. The authors argue that such losses are only expected to increase, particularly in Asian coastal cities. While in 2005, the top ten cities exposed to coastal flooding were all in Japan, the Netherlands and the United States, by 2070, eight of the top ten will be in Asia.

As long ago as 2010, the Canadian government was aware of the problem and published a briefing note on the implications of climate change-driven migration and the country’s responsibilities under domestic and international law. The document was revised in 2013 in the wake of data showing that rising sea levels “exceeding our worst expectations” could result in many low-lying south Pacific islands becoming uninhabitable, pushing hundreds of thousands of their citizens to become refugees “decades ahead of schedule.” In total, the document assessed the likely total climate migrants to number 200 million by 2050—two thirds the population of the United States. For comparison as of 2011, the number of globally displaced refugees according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was 10.5 million. 

“Considering the sheer number of climate migrants expected in the coming years, even a small fraction seeking to resettle in Canada could constitute a large number relative to Canada’s current intake of new residents,” the document concluded.

The paper states starkly that Canada’s current inland refugee system does not recognize climate migrants. However, if political leaders decided that they did want to extend refugee-type protection to climate migrants, then the authors reckon that legislative changes would not necessarily be required. Regulatory changes or policy direction alone would be enough.

“It seems certain that climate change will be the source of additional pressure on Canada’s humanitarian immigration program to expand, perhaps substantially, in the coming decades, the paper concludes. “Canada has an opportunity now to plan an orderly and effective response to the coming crisis.”


Nova Scotia rapidly shifting to renewables

Wind followed by hydro, tidal and biomass contributed more than a quarter of Nova Scotia's power in 2015, the still-highly coal-dependent province's power authority says.

Renewable sources of energy accounted for 26.6 per cent of the province's power last year, according to new data from Nova Scotia Power.

It's another step forward in the province's plan to have 40 per cent clean power by 2020. That's up from just nine per cent in 2007. The utility currently estimates that renewables may supply 47 per cent of the province’s electricity by 2020.

Unlike British Columbia, which already gets more than 90 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources—largely hydro—Nova Scotia has raced to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels to power its electricity grid.   

Coal currently accounts for 55 per cent of all electricity generated in the province, according to Nova Scotia Power statistics. Alberta, for comparison, also gets around 55 per cent of its electricity from coal.

Nova Scotia hopes to bring that figure down to 45 per cent by 2020, while bringing gas-fired production down to three per cent of the energy mix by that year. Currently, natural gas accounts for 13.8 per cent of electricity generation.

Hydro, wind, biomass and clean energy imports are expected to make up the difference, growing to 22, 18, seven and five per cent, respectively. The hydropower would come from a transmission line to the controversial Muskrat Falls dam in Labrador, which has gone over budget at a time when power demand is falling.

"No other utility in Canada has made this rapid of a transition,” said Nova Scotia Power vice president Mark Sidebottom said.  “In 2020, we will have a greater percentage of our electricity coming from renewables than Germany, which is often recognized as a world leader in renewable energy."

The province set another record on a breezy night in June last year when, for one hour, 50 per cent of all power in the province was generated by wind.  

Nova Scotia Power attributed the record to a new 34-turbine wind farm, the largest in the province. However, the record was set at night, when electricity demand is roughly half the daytime average, highlighting the need for better storage capacity or sources of energy that are not as intermittent as wind. 

Photo credits (in order of appearance): CBC, Pembina Institute, Fred Davis, IHH, Dennis Jarvis

Authors: Leigh Phillips (PICS) Jonny Wakefield (S3i)

Editors: Sybil Seitzinger, Robyn Meyer (PICS), Karen Taylor (S3i)