PICS Climate News Scan - March 10, 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 dlp@uvic.ca. To be added to the distribution list click here.

All News Scans

March 10, 2016

Stories this week:

  • Have China’s emissions peaked?
  • Premiers’ climate declaration already facing provincial grumbles
  • Northern hemisphere briefly pierces 2°C warming
  • Alberta says no hydro-power deal without pipeline to coast
  • UBC constructing wooden high-rise building

Energy

Have China’s emissions peaked?

China’s greenhouse gas emissions may have peaked in 2014, according to research from the London School of Economics, well ahead of Beijing’s 2025 target.

The analysis, which will appear in the journal Climate Policy later this month, attributes the result to the country’s economic slowdown, its effort to shift from a heavy-industry-based to service-focused economy, and its record-setting build-out of clean energy infrastructure.

Looking at data from 2014 and 2015, climate policy analyst Fergus Green and renowned environmental economist Nicholas Stern conclude that it is “just possible” that China’s emissions will fall modestly from now on, “implying that 2014 was the peak”.

If they do however grow above this point, they are likely to grow much more slowly and a peak would still be “highly likely” some point before 2025.

The emissions turnaround is a remarkable development. From 2002 to 2013, China’s annual emissions climbed 8 percent on average, overtaking the United States (US) as the biggest emitter in 2006. As of 2013, China was responsible for 28% of global emissions, more than the US and European Union together, with even per-capita emissions 45 percent above the global average.

China enjoyed GDP growth of 10.5 percent per year on average from 2000 to 2010. Heavy industry, and the largely coal-fired energy that services it, was responsible for the lion’s share of emissions over this period. Since then, the government has worked to shift away from exports and boost domestic demand for consumer items and services—commodities whose light industrial production consume much less energy than heavy industry. As a result, the authors predict a reduction of energy intensity (meaning the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP produced) of over four percent over the next ten years. This shift means that primary energy consumption growth will slow to 1.8 percent a year, down from an average of 8 percent growth from 2000-13.

The economic slowdown is the second major part of the picture, drooping to 7-8 percent in the last few years—growth rates that any country would still be jealous of, with an official forecast of 6.5-7 percent for 2016. Weaker economic activity has reduced emissions, as it did in the European Union after the 2007-08 economic crisis.

And finally, China has built out colossal amounts of clean energy infrastructure, with 22 gigawatts of hydroelectric capacity built just in 2014, 21 GW of wind power, 11 GW of solar and 5 GW of nuclear. As of the end of that year, the non-fossil-fuel-based energy consumption reached 11.2 percent. Beijing aims to achieve energy from non-fossil sources to hit 15 percent by 2020, a figure that according to Green and Stern “is likely to be significantly beaten”.

For comparison, the Canadian energy consumption figures in 2012 were 28.1 percent non-fossil (hydroelectric 13%, nuclear 9.8%, wind and other renewables 5.3%), according to National Resources Canada. 

Policy

Premiers’ climate declaration already facing provincial grumbles

The first ministers’ meeting in Vancouver ended last week with a broad agreement between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the premiers on the need to move forward on national carbon pricing.

But the Vancouver Declaration on Clean Growth and Climate Change, which all the premiers agreed to, was light on details about what a national carbon-pricing scheme would look like or whether there will be a minimum rate.

While Ottawa initially seemed prepared to impose a minimum Canada-wide carbon price of $15 per tonne if the premiers failed to agree, Trudeau eventually yielded to a much more ambiguous commitment to adopt “a broad range of domestic measures, including carbon pricing mechanisms adapted to each province’s and territory’s specific circumstances.” And that will come only after an additional six months of further discussion.

During this time, working groups will be tasked with assessing four areas related to climate change: clean technology, innovation and jobs; carbon pricing mechanisms; specific mitigation opportunities; and adaptation and climate resilience. The process will be managed by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment.

The premiers are planning to meet again in October to finalize a national strategy to begin to be implemented in early 2017. Federal environment minister Catherine McKenna said that at that time new climate targets are to be unveiled that go beyond those submitted to the United Nations ahead of last year’s Paris climate summit.

Trudeau presented Thursday’s agreement as a sign that “we have agreed to carbon pricing mechanisms right across the country,” according to the Globe and Mail. But Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, the loudest critic of a national carbon price, signed off on the declaration telling reporters he was confident that his carbon capture and storage efforts would be counted as a pricing mechanism.

“If there is a notion that this is some sort of licence to pursue a national carbon tax,” he told reporters, “I will be in disagreement with that.”

Within days of the declaration, Trudeau was hit by comments even from the premiers of two provinces committed to carbon pricing, who cautioned against efforts to go further than current targets just yet. Both Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, who is set to introduce a provincial cap-and-trade scheme, and BC premier Christy Clark told the CBC that their two provinces were not on track to meet the targets that are already in place.

Climate policy watchers privately cautioned however against a pessimistic take on the summit’s grumbles. It is the first time a prime minister has sat down with his provincial and territorial counterparts to craft a national climate policy. In addition, apart from the three territories that are unhappy with a national carbon price, Saskatchewan is the only province without an existing pricing scheme or plans for one. Moreover, the province heads into elections in April, with the premier unlikely to be very accommodating towards a discussion of a tax increase ahead of the polls. 

Science

Northern hemisphere briefly pierces 2°C warming

February 2016 looks likely to have been the most abnormally warm month since humanity started measuring global temperatures in 1880, according to unofficial data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This comes just one month after official data from NASA showed January to have hit the same ignominious record. The month before that, it had been December 2015 that was in top spot.

Depending on which baseline temperature is used, initial estimates for global average temperatures for February put the month at between 1.15°C and 1.4°C above normal. Look at specific areas and the numbers are much more stark—for instance, in February, parts of the Arctic reached more than 16°C above normal.

Researchers normally do not publically comment on such data until the official figures are released, which usually occurs in the middle of the following month. But alarm bells were set off when for two days, once on 1 March and then again on 3 March, the temperature anomaly across the northern hemisphere hit two degrees, first noted by meteorologist and Slate columnist Eric Holtaus.

Now, this mark is not permanent, and current projections project it will be many years before we start seeing such an average temperature enduring globally.

But two degrees is the global guardrail recommended by scientists above which dangerous effects from the warming begin to kick in, and 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century is the target agreed internationally last December in Paris.

According to temperature analysis by NASA scientists, average global temperatures have increased by 1 degree Celsius since 1880, with two thirds of that increase since 1975. But these new records keep bumping up close to our agreed 1.5 and 2°C upper bounds.

And researchers worry about something called CO2 ocean-atmospheric thermic inertia—in other words, resistance of the system to ‘get moving’, which means it takes about 40 years for the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions we have pumped into the atmosphere to take effect. This means that the warming we’re experiencing right now is the delayed product of all the GHGs pumped into the atmosphere up to the mid 1970s.

We’ve basically doubled our emissions since then, so all that doubling has yet to work its way through. This means that to achieve the 1.5°C target, negative emissions —figuring out how to suck them back out of the atmosphere—will increasingly have to be on the table. 

Part of the reason for this big uptick in temperature is that the 2015-16 El Niño event—the extended period of warmer Pacific sea surface temperatures—ties the 97-98 El Niño period, the strongest on record. And this bumps temperatures up globally for a few months.

However, El Niño only sits atop manmade warming. Also, much of the ‘slowdown’ in global warming that has been experienced since the turn of the millennium that we have reported on recently has come from vast quantities of heat being taken up by the Pacific, heat that researchers believe is now being released from the waters of the planet’s largest ocean.

Society

Alberta says no hydro-power deal without pipeline to coast  

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said this week that her land-locked province is not interested in purchasing hydroelectric power from its western neighbour if it cannot get an oil pipeline built to the coast.

The province’s NDP government has committed to phasing out coal-fired power plants in Alberta by 2030. More than half of the province’s electricity currently comes from coal.

“We’re not necessarily going to have that much demand for that much electricity if we can’t find someone to sell our product to,” Notley told reporters in Fort McMurray, home to the country’s oil sands industry, which has been seeking new pipeline connectivity to both west and east coasts. 

Meanwhile, working in the opposite direction, BC energy and mines minister Bill Bennett said his province was not interested in receiving fresh federal funds for clean energy projects in the province, as it is already largely depending on clean hydroelectricity. Bennett made the comments in the wake of a federal government announcement of $5.4 million for renewable-energy projects servicing the province’s First Nations as part of its delivery on an election commitment to infrastructure spending.

What BC wants instead, according to Bennett, is cash from Ottawa for a new $1-billion transmission line so that it can sell surplus power to Alberta.

“We can see an opportunity for both jurisdictions to benefit from the sale of our clean electricity to them,” BC Energy Minister Bill Bennett told the Vancouver Sun last month.

However, the proposed deal is far from settled.

 “We’ll do what’s best for Albertans and Alberta’s economy,” Alberta energy minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd kicked back in a statement last week. “We won’t be buying more power if we can’t get our resources to market.”

Furthermore, any cross-border power agreement is already facing controversy even in BC.

Vancouver-Kingsway MLA and former BC NDP leader Adrian Dix suggested such a deal would be used to justify construction of the controversial Site C hydroelectric dam in northeastern BC, which has faced protests from locals and First Nations over the flooding of agricultural lands and culturally significant sites.

The response from the BC government to Alberta’s rebuff has since worked to cool tensions, with Bennett saying he was open to a quid pro quo of pipeline access in return for a hydroelectric deal.  

“We in BC are not opposed to other Canadians getting their products to the west coast at all,” Bennett later told reporters. “I think we can work through this and find a way to do business together.”

Solutions

UBC constructing wooden high-rise building

The University of British Columbia is constructing one of the tallest buildings in the world made mostly of wood.

Due to be completed in 2017, the 18-storey Brock Commons student residence is part of a small but growing transformation in high-rise building construction, employing new types of super-strong and fire-resistant wood products. Floors, ceilings, frames, stairwells and even elevator shafts are constructed from wood in these new buildings. By using these state-of-the-art wood products, they can replace carbon-intensive concrete and steel while sequestering carbon in the building itself over the long term. UBC says the emissions reduction from using wood for this one building will be equivalent to taking 480 cars off the road for a year.

Wood product technology has undergone something of a revolution in recent years, with bonding processes that produce large, thick plywood-like panels that have a strength that approaches that of steel. The increased strength permits architects to design highrise buildings with confidence. Vancouver architect Michael Green told the CBC that technical studies he has performed demonstrate that the 110-storey Empire State Building could be rebuilt today with wood.

PICS’s five-year Forest Carbon Management project is currently assessing the potential for substituting wood products for other carbon intensive ones.

Lead researcher Werner Kurz explains that greenhouse gas mitigation in the forestry sector can be achieved via combination of two routes: reducing our carbon sources, and enhancing our carbon sinks.

As trees grow, they draw down carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. If they are burnt or die, that CO2 is released back. But if a felled tree can be turned into a useful product, that carbon is stored instead of released. And the longer lived that product is, the longer that storage lasts. In this way, a short-lived pulp or paper product isn’t as good a carbon sink as a long-lived wood product.

In addition, the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions from steel and cement production comes from the chemical processes that turn iron ore into iron and limestone into lime, not just the fossil fuels used in combustion. This means replacing that fossil fuel combustion with some cleaner source of heat is not enough. So a key goal of the global clean-economy transition has to be either finding a way to scrub steel and cement production of these emissions, or figure out how to replace them. Substitution with these new wood materials might just be the trick.

Kurz and his colleagues have found that on average, we avoid two tons of carbon emissions for every one tonne of carbon used in such wood products. This means there is more climate change mitigation potential in swapping traditional structural building materials with these new products than there is almost any improved forest management strategy. There is also more mitigation potential from these new ‘super-wood’ materials than from use of much shorter lived forestry products such as paper, bioenergy, packaging or wood panels.

They’re basically the best thing to come out of the woods.

Photo credits (in order of appearance): Remko Tanis, Canada's Premiers, NOAA, Dave Cournoyer, Acton Ostry Architects

Authors: Leigh Phillips (PICS), Jenny Tan, Arman Kazemi (S3i)

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