PICS Climate News Scan - March 24, 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 24, 2016

Stories this week:

  • Global CO2 emissions decouple from economic growth
  • Better French wine from global warming
  • Federal Liberals unveil green stimulus budget
  • Ex-analyst with climate sceptic think-tank to head BC’s climate push
  • Alberta’s oil sands workers bid to create clean energy jobs

Energy

Global CO2 emissions decouple from economic growth

Global carbon dioxide emissions stalled for the second year in a row in 2015, despite an expanding economy over that period, according to the International Energy Agency, suggesting a possible decoupling of emissions from economic growth.

Total CO2 output stood still at 32.1 billion tonnes last year, with no effective increase since 2013. Meanwhile global GDP grew by 3.4 percent in 2014 and 3.1 percent in 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The figures come from IEA preliminary data for last year released this week, a result executive director Fatih Birol called “surprising but welcome”. A more detailed explanation from the global energy watchdog into why this is happening is expected in June. Initial scrutiny of the numbers has led its analysts to suggest that the key has been the role played by the build-out of renewable energy infrastructure. Last year, some 90 percent of new electricity generation came from renewable sources, with more than half of this coming from wind.

China and the United States, the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, both enjoyed a decline in CO2 emissions. China’s emissions fell by 1.5 percent, due to the government’s efforts to decarbonise electricity production and to shift its economy toward less carbon-intensive industries. At the same time, other economies in Asia and the Middle East saw increases in emissions, while Europe also suffered a modest uptick.

The dry numbers hide what is a remarkable turn-around. All other downturns in emissions growth in the past have coincided with global economic weakness. The IEA has been tracking CO2 emissions since 1975, and only in the early 1980s, 1992 and 2009 did emissions stall or decline.

The IEA conclusions differ slightly from those of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, when they looked at global greenhouse gas (GHG) output last December, noting that it grew only a half a percentage point last year. Their report however considered the full gamut of GHGs, and not just CO2.

Canadian emissions have been on a modest upswing since 2009, according to data released last April by Environment Canada (now Environment and Climate Change Canada). All greenhouse gas emissions—again, not just from carbon dioxide—climbed 1.5 percent in 2013—the last year for which figures are available. In 2009, the Canadian government signed the Copenhagen Accord at that year’s UN climate talks in the Danish capital, committing itself to reductions of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Canada is currently three percent down on 2005, and on course to deliver no reductions on 2005 at all. Environment Canada said that rising emissions in the oil and gas sector are primarily responsible for the rise, even as Ontario has sharply cut emissions from its electricity production by shuttering its coal plants. The increase in the oil and gas sector has been driven both by oil sands production and an increasing complexity in the production of conventional oil, according to the ministry.

Policy

Federal Liberals unveil green stimulus budget

The first federal budget of Canada’s Liberal government elected last November includes a raft of green infrastructure spending aiming to give the country’s flagging economy a jolt, including billions directed at the clean energy transition.

Finance minister Bill Morneau unveiled a stimulus budget on Tuesday, projecting a $29.4 billion deficit for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Ottawa is setting in play $2 billion over two years to establish a Low Carbon Economy Fund, whose monies will be distributed to provincial and territorial governments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, over $1 billion is to be provided over the next four years to support the transition to a clean-energy economy, including in forestry, fisheries, mining, energy and agriculture.

The budget document said that further details about the funding will be provided in the coming months. But a number of projects were described, with some directly climate and energy related, while others are environmentally minded but not necessarily associated with efforts focussed on global warming.

Specifically, the government has set aside $62.5 million till the end of 2017 to support the build-out of electric vehicle charging points and hydrogen and natural gas refuelling stations.

Some $130 million over five years will back clean technology research and development, including $50 million for Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), a government green innovation fund for environmentally-minded start-ups, and $82.5 million for Natural Resources Canada to support research, development and demonstration of clean energy technologies. The budget document highlights SDTC backing in the past supporting biofuels, bioplastics and other biomaterials. Some clean tech outfits grumbled that they had been expecting much larger sums to be announced, including loan guarantees that would improve the ability of smaller and newer green enterprises to access credit.

Climate-policy watchers note that efforts at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is often emphasised by governments at the expense of measures adapting to global warming. But Ottawa is to distribute $518 million to municipalities to strengthen infrastructure in the face of climate change as well to support their emissions reduction efforts. The federal government is also to begin discussions with cities and towns to identify the best electricity infrastructure projects.

Another $129.5 million is to fund federal departments and agencies to build the science base to inform decision-making around adaptation to climate change, and $40 million is to be spent on integrating climate resilience into building design codes. Some $574 million is to be spent over two years on energy efficient building retrofits and renovations.

Upgrading public transport infrastructure receives one of the biggest supports: some $3.4 billion over three years. However, as the distribution of this cash will be based on ridership levels, the lion’s share will go to the country’s largest cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, with less to be supplied to mid-sized cities such as Victoria or Halifax.

Science

Better French wine from global warming

Climate change may produce better French wine and produce it more often? That is the enjoyably surprising conclusion of climate scientists in a paper published this week in Nature Climate Change.

In many of the world’s cooler wine-growing regions such as France, years that have produced higher quality wines have typically been associated with the conditions that lead to earlier ripening and thus earlier harvest dates—those years that experience warmer temperatures with above-average early–season rainfall and late season droughts. This ensures that the grape plant has sufficient heat and moisture to grow and mature early in the year, while the dry conditions later on encourage the plant to focus less on vegetative growth and invest more in fruit development. However, if there are warmer temperatures accompanied by heavy summer downpours, the rainfall can reduce the heat that helps the fruit develop.

The researchers tracked more than 400 years’ worth of harvest data from western Europe, and combined this information with wine quality ratings of vintages over the past century. They found a strong overall trend towards substantially earlier harvests. Since 1980, warming temperatures have meant hotter summers but even without an accompanying drought, winemakers are harvesting their crop early. Grapes no longer need both warmer temperatures and drought.

“The relationship between harvest timing and drought has broken down,” say the researchers. This is because now even robust summer rains are not enough to reduce the heat needed to produce better grapes.

Taken together, this all means that harvests are happening much earlier than historically, and these early harvests are happening more often. This does not mean that all wine-producing regions will be better off. California for example may experience greater temperature extremes than France.

In 2013, PICS helped fund the production of agricultural adaptation advisories for BC’s key farming regions, including forecasts and recommendations for the Okanagan valley, one of Canada’s two main wine producing regions. Working alongside farmers to produce the assessments, researchers concluded that increased temperatures and extreme heat events are more likely but manageable for grape growers. Heavy downpours are also more likely, and these random and infrequent events are much harder on crops. An expected increase in known pest and disease outbreaks will be manageable up to a point, but the arrival of new types of pests and disease poses a problem due to uncertainty, as do changes to the growing-season length. Warmer spring temperatures can encourage earlier ‘bud break’ when in BC there is still a high risk of frost. However, overall, the shift in conditions may benefit soft fruits and grapes and improve their suitability

Solutions identified out of this research include the need to develop an effective collective monitoring, surveillance and response systems for pests and diseases, along with investment in water storage and infrastructure for the drier, hot summers ahead.

Society

Ex-analyst with climate sceptic think-tank to head BC’s climate push

As the British Columbian government’s public consultation on the next steps of its climate change strategy comes to a close this week, Premier Christy Clark has ruffled feathers by appointing a former policy analyst from a climate denying right-wing think-tank to head its climate push.

Fazil Mihlar, a former Vancouver Sun associate editor and until most recently, assistant deputy minister for the BC Ministry of Natural Gas Development, has been installed as deputy minister, Climate Leadership. His role will be to oversee creation of the government’s new climate strategy and engage with the public, industry, environmental groups and other levels of government with respect to its implementation.

In his previous job, he was in charge of the Oil and Strategic Initiatives Division, which encourages development of the oil industry in the province.

But in addition to his fossil-fuel sector experience, the province’s new climate chief is raising eyebrows for his work from 1994 to 1999 as a policy analyst for the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute, a right-wing think-tank that denies the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

On a page on its website answering the question “Is the atmosphere warming abnormally?” the think-tank’s director of natural resource studies, Kenneth Green, gives this response: “Given that we have so little hard data about past climate conditions, the most intellectually honest answer to this question is maybe and even that answer is meaningless.”

“Given that fluctuating and spotty temperature record, one can create the impression that the temperature is rising, falling, or staying the same simply by changing the start and end points of the period being examined,” Green continues.

Instead, there “lies a climate cooling potential that could cancel out the theoreticized warming potential of the greenhouse gases altogether.”

The institute is funded in part by the oil-sector billionaire Koch brothers, who are perhaps best known for their spending millions on efforts to discredit climate scientists.

Mihlar himself co-authored a paper that recommended the government eliminate the province’s “cumbersome and time-consuming” environmental assessment act because it “deprives the provincial economy of higher levels of economic activity.”

The move comes as submissions from the public on the province’s Climate Leadership Plan close this Friday (25 March). Citizens have the opportunity to offer feedback via the web on the recommendations that were first unveiled last October by an advisory group of prominent climate science, energy policy and industry figures. Earlier this month, PICS hosted an expert panel discussion in Vancouver to familiarise the public with the options that are on the table. A video recording of the event is available on Simon Fraser University’s website.

Solutions

Alberta’s oil sands workers bid to create clean energy jobs

A coalition of Alberta oil sands workers is reaching out to government and corporate representatives to help unemployed colleagues transition to the alternative energy sector.

The new group, which calls itself Iron and Earth, hopes to provide the conditions for thousands of pipe fitters, ironworkers, scaffolders, boilermakers and other labourers who depend on the Canadian oil and gas sector to move to more reliable work in Canada’s developing green energy sector, following the global downturn in oil prices.

On Monday, organizers formally launched an initiative asking the Alberta government to invest in their “Solar Skills” project. Their goal is to get the government to commit to retraining 1,000 oil and gas specialists for work in the solar sector.

"We're a group of oil sands workers who see incredible opportunity to transition our skills to the renewable energy industry," founder Lliam Hildebrand told reporters at the launch of the pressure group.

In addition to the demand for retraining, Hildebrand is looking for the province and corporate sponsors to commit to putting 100 solar installations on public buildings, starting in the fall.

“We have the skills to build the renewable energy infrastructure required for Canada to meet their climate target," he said. “That will open up a huge amount of opportunity for us if we can start diversifying our energy grid and it would ensure that we are less vulnerable to price fluctuations."

The Canadian oil sands shed more than 100,000 jobs as a result of policy uncertainties and the drop in crude oil prices last year, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Organizers behind Iron and Earth believe their program will provide job security to a vulnerable workforce, while helping Alberta achieve its goal of 30 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

Alberta’s environment minister, Shannon Phillips has tasked her officials to meet with the group to discuss options.

Photo credits (in order of appearance): Ryan T, Liberal Party of Canada, Al Maynard, Allan Harris, Shell

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

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