PICS Climate News Scan - March 3, 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

March 03, 2016

Stories this week:

  • IEA: Canada needs to boost its clean energy R&D
  • Ottawa wants national carbon price despite provincial opposition
  • Global warming slowdown is real after all
  • North American grasslands more productive, but it’s not all good news
  • Electric vehicles in BC may now drive in HOV lanes



IEA: Canada needs to boost its clean energy R&D

The International Energy Agency has warned that Canada should provide more federal and provincial funding for clean energy technologies and innovation if it is going to be able to meet the 2030 climate target it set for itself last year.

The global energy body released its 2015 review of Canada’s energy policies this week, the first of its kind since 2009.

In one respect, Canada does very well compared to many other advanced economies, as it has a low-carbon electricity generation mix with over 75 percent of its electricity coming from non-emitting sources, mostly hydro and nuclear. Yet at the same time, the country maintains one of the most energy-intensive economies on the planet. This is largely due to the oil and gas sector, its highly energy-intensive resource extraction and processing for exports, as well as the country’s large geography requiring carbon-spewing transport. Finally, the country is very cold in the winter, pushing up demand for more energy for heating.

According to the report, emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector increased by 14 per cent between 2005 and 2013, and the country was the fifth-largest crude oil and fourth-largest natural gas producer in the world as of 2014.

Canada’s overall energy consumption has increased by two per cent over the past decade, the report states. At the same time, energy-intensity (energy consumed per unit of GDP produced) has decreased by 20 percent. This is because a number of energy-intensive industries, particularly metals, paper, print and pulp, have slashed their energy consumption while still increasing production as a result of more efficient processing techniques.

However, in May 2015, Canada announced it would cut greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. So the IEA report argues that the government now needs to up its ambition for industry in particular and set clear timetables for reducing emissions from these producers if it is to meet this goal. The authors also found that energy research and development funding has been on the decline since 2009, and dropped from $1.34 billion in 2013-14 to $941.9 million in 2014-15. However, the IEA says that Canada has the foundation to be a clean-energy technology leader internationally. “In order to capitalise on these opportunities, policy action needs to focus on strengthening the public and private energy RD&D (research, development and demonstration).”

The report also cautioned that Canada needs to adapt to falling oil and gas prices, brought on partly by the boom in shale gas development in the United States. And it said that Canada may yet become a leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, but not before the end of the decade.

Planned LNG projects in British Columbia have been beset with delays largely due to collapsing gas prices. LNG prices in Asia a year and a half ago were roughly $20 per million British Thermal Units, but this figure has plummeted to just $5, according to the agency. Demand is weak as the Chinese economy falters while Europe and the US stagnate. Meanwhile, the market is fully supplied with LNG from the US and Australia up to 2020.

“Securing investments for new export facilities in Canada remains a challenge, as global LNG markets are well supplied,” the report states.

“Our numbers show that there is room for Canadian LNG after 2020,” Fatih Birol, IEA executive director told reporters. “I believe Canada can play a very important role in the Asian LNG markets, especially if they can continue to put pressure on the cost of production.”


Ottawa wants national carbon price despite provincial opposition

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced stiff opposition over his government's carbon pricing plan from some premiers at this week's two-day meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts in Vancouver. The meeting was intended to begin hammering out a national climate strategy.

Five provinces already impose a price on carbon, or have plans to do so. However, the federal government wants a national carbon price with a floor of $15 a tonne.

Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall has been the most outspoken opponent of the plan, as his government favours a technological solution, capturing carbon from smokestacks and burying it underground (carbon capture and storage, or CCS). Yukon premier Darrell Pasloski likewise is opposed, saying that a carbon tax would make it even more expensive to live in his territory. They were joined by Nova Scotian leader Stephen McNeil, who says that his province’s investment in hydroelectricity is sufficient.

The premiers as a group have put together a list of projects such as building retrofits that it wants the federal government to pay for. Federal officials said that the government is willing to consider such suggestions and continue discussions, but will impose a national carbon price unilaterally if the premiers do not reach an agreement.

Trudeau did however bring his cheque-book to the summit. Ahead of the meeting with premiers, he announced a fresh $125 million in clean infrastructure and tech spending.

Some $75 million of the sum is to be spent supporting municipalities adapting to climate change effects, and $50 million is to be spent on overhauling building and infrastructure codes.

He made the cash announcements while addressing the opening session of the Globe clean tech conference in Vancouver, a major international gathering of green-tech inventors, investors, major corporations and non-governmental organisations.

In his speech, he noted that while 2015 was the most successful year ever for investment in renewable energy, with some $367 billion spent internationally. “Nearly half of that was invested in the US and China alone,” he said. “But on that measure, Canada has fallen behind."

The comments referenced fresh data from Clean Energy Canada, based at Simon Fraser University, which released a report on the state of play in renewable energy on Monday. The authors found that while renewable energy is booming almost everywhere else, in Canada last year, investment in the sector declined by 46 percent from 2014. 

Trudeau also used the occasion to defend oil and gas pipelines, saying that fossil fuels, processed as cleanly as possible, have a role in the interim to pay for the construction of a new clean energy economy.

“The choice between pipelines and wind turbines is a false one,” he said. “As we continue to ensure there is a market for our natural resources, our deepening commitment to a cleaner future will be a valuable advantage.”


Global warming slowdown is real after all

The long-standing tussle between scientists over the so-called hiatus in global warming since the start of the millennium has erupted once again. A group of prominent climate scientists this week has argued that the slowdown is real and not just an artifact of inaccurate data.

A gap between the rate of warming predicted by models and a lower rate of warming tracked by observations has for some time now been trumpeted by sceptics as proof of their position denying that the climate is changing.

A variety of explanations for the apparent hiatus or pause have since been offered by researchers. A decrease in solar radiation, higher amounts of particulates from volcanic eruptions and the predominance of La Niña events in the Pacific—a regular cooling of surface ocean waters along the western coast of South America. Taken together, researchers concluded the world was still warming, but more heat was being taken up by the world’s oceans. The concept of a hiatus was thought to be decisively put to bed last summer when US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers corrected for errors in data. Once these were taken into account, they said, the slowdown disappeared when compared to the last 50 years of the 20th Century. They calculated warming between 1950 and 1999 to be 0.113 °C per decade, barely distinguishable from the 0.116 °C per decade rate of warming appearing since 2000.

This week, in a commentary appearing in Nature Climate Change, researchers led by John Fyfe of the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis of Environment, part of Environment and Climate Change Canada and based at the University of Victoria, say that the slowdown is still there in the corrected data after all and that the NOAA researchers misinterpreted their data by choosing an unrepresentative baseline period against which to compare the slowdown. The analysis was first presented by Fyfe last October at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions. (Video of the event is available here)

In their commentary, they note that after the Second World War, there occurred what researchers call ‘the Big Hiatus’ from 1950 to 1972 when no warming occurred despite increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. During this period, particles in the air from industrial sources known as sulphate aerosols reflected sunlight back into space, producing a cooling effect that roughly offset the warming from increasing GHGs. However, once government regulations forced industry to stop emitting sulphate aerosols in order to improve air quality, this ‘lid’ on global warming was lifted.

Because of this, Fyfe and his colleagues argue that it is better to avoid comparison of the slowdown with changes during the ‘big hiatus’ as done by the NOAA researchers. Rather, they argue that it is better to use the 1972-2001 period as a baseline against which to compare the last 15 years. When they do so, they find that the planet warmed 0.170 °C per decade over this time, a much higher rate than over the last 15 years.

They are keen to stress that the slowdown does not imply a slowdown in the rate of human-caused warming. Decade-to-decade changes in surface temperature reflect ‘natural’ changes superimposed on a background of human-caused warming. It is these natural changes that, as a result of investigating explanations for the slowdown, the scientific community has become much better at explaining—and potentially predicting—shorter-term variations in temperature from one decade to the next.


North American grasslands more productive, but it’s not all good news

Grasslands from Canada down through to Mexico are set to be more productive by the end of the century in worst-case climate scenarios, according to new research, but the growing season will be broken up into two parts, presenting significant challenges to farmers and ranchers.

The findings, published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, are another example of how the ecosystem response to climate change can sometimes be counterintuitive, and why adaptation to changes needs to be front and centre of any policy strategy.

A team of Harvard biologists developed a coupled model of both the hydrology and vegetation to predict the day-by-day changes in the proportion of area covered by green grasslands foliage. This was then combined with a continent-wide network of some 250 cameras at 14 sites including Lethbridge, Alberta, capturing images of vegetation conditions every half hour. In effect, they “trained” their hydrology-vegetation model with what could be described as ‘stop-motion’ photography. The model’s predictions were validated by comparisons with 28 years’ worth of productivity and ground-cover data from both satellites and the Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas.

This work was then used to predict the response of grassland productivity to changes in temperature and precipitation seen in climate projections for a world that sees no real efforts to reduce emissions—a scenario usually described by both scientists and policymakers as ‘business as usual’, which would see temperature increase of just under 5°C above pre-industrial times by the end of the century.

They found that grasslands will confront higher temperatures and increasing drought conditions over this period. As grassland growth is largely constrained by soil water content and, relatedly, how much and how often the rain falls, this is bad news. However, these negative outcomes will for the most part be offset by an earlier start to the growing season and later end, with warmer conditions in winter. Overall, this means a net increase in productivity. Grassland green foliage cover expands by 18 percent. Significant increases were most pronounced in semi-arid northern grasslands, or some 55 percent of the area considered.

The researchers did not include future elevated carbon dioxide, which experimental evidence elsewhere suggests should also increase grassland productivity so long as there are no additional constraints on nutrients. As a result, the researchers believe their findings may represent an underestimate of the potential growth response of grasslands to future climate change.

Sounds great, right? Not so fast. The projections suggest that the growing season will be bifurcated, with a blooming of vegetation in the spring, then a summer withering, followed by a rebound later in the year. In effect producing two growing seasons.

“The bad news is that we're going to have this new seasonality that is outside of current practices for rangeland management, and how to adapt to that is unknown,” says lead researcher Koen Hufkens.

Back in 2013, PICS supported work by the BC Agricultural Council’s Climate Action Initiative to produce detailed plans for dealing with the effects of climate change on food production in the Cowichan, Peace River, Cariboo, Delta and the Fraser Valley. The region-specific adaptation packs offer local risk assessments and a series of manuals for on-farm adaptation methods, ranging from water management and drainage to nutrient and soil management. The Initiative is also engaged in a multi-year project tracking soil carbon, soil moisture and plant productivity in BC’s grasslands, as well as the potential for using intensive pasture-management practices to strengthen resilience of rangelands to climate change.


Electric vehicles in BC may now drive in HOV lanes

The British Columbian government announced on Wednesday that the owners of electric vehicles (EVs) will be able to drive in high-occupancy vehicle lanes, no matter how many people are in the car.

Premier Christy Clark unveiled the policy ahead of a summit in Vancouver between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his provincial and territorial counterparts intended to lay the groundwork for a national climate strategy.

Up to now, high-occupancy vehicles have been restricted to cars with at least one passenger in addition to the driver in an effort to reduce emissions per journey. According to recently published research funded by PICS, an average car in the province produces more greenhouse gases per kilometre (202 g CO2/km) than a fully packed 737 jumbo jet (75 g CO2/km) if the car has just a single occupant.

The move comes a month after Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne opened up high-occupancy vehicle lanes to electric vehicles and the UK government launched similar pilot projects in eight cities and towns in which traffic priority is offered to zero-emission cars and vans.

Analysis by the Norway government found that of all its EV policies, the single most effective in terms of greenhouse gas emissions reductions for each krone spent was access to bus lanes. In October, PICS produced a policy brief outlining the Norwegian experience, which now boasts a 25 percent EV market penetration for all new vehicles sold thanks to a wide range of driver perks and discounts.

The BC initiative is being enacted immediately. Drivers of battery-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles must display a special HOV pass decal on their car to access the lanes. Non-plug-in gas-electric hybrids are however ineligible.

Clark also set aside an additional $6 million for its Clean Energy Vehicle programme, which offers point-of-sale rebates of up to $5,000 toward the purchase or lease of new electric vehicles. The BC government has already spent some $31 million on the popular programme, which has seen two iterations so far. In both cases, the funds established for the rebates were quickly exhausted by consumers keen to take up the government’s offer.

Clark is to set a price cap of $77,000 on the rebate programme however. The cap is similar to that announced in Ontario, where if a vehicle’s price tag is higher than $75,000, the subsidy is restricted to just $3,000. The thinking behind the cap is that those who can afford expensive vehicles such one made by Tesla, whose cheapest vehicle comes with a price tag of US$80,000, do not need the assistance with purchasing cars.

The government is also to spend $890,000 supporting build-out of public and residential charging stations.

Photo credits (in order of appearance): Justin, Jasperado, NOAA, daniyal162, mordac

Authors: Leigh Phillips (PICS), Maura Forrest (S3i)

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