PICS Climate News Scan - March 31, 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 31, 2016

Stories this week:

  • Oil sands giant Suncor moves into solar
  • BC climate consultation ruffles feathers in Vancouver
  • Inuit grapple with changing Arctic as polar ice hits record low max
  • Canada 4th least climate-change vulnerable nation
  • Tesla to launch first mass-market electric car

Energy

Oil sands giant Suncor moves into solar

Fossil fuels giant Suncor is making its first foray into the energy source it is named after.

The company, Canada’s largest oil sands firm, has submitted a request to the Alberta Electric System Operator to build three solar photovoltaic facilities with a capacity totalling 240 megawatts. If approved, the Suncor developments would significantly expand the province’s existing solar capacity, currently clocking in at nine megawatts. Suncor is also considering expanding its wind farm portfolio.  

This is the latest in the company’s bid to rebrand itself and diversify its products amid low commodity prices and growing concerns over the impact of Alberta’s oil sands on climate change. Suncor CEO Steve Williams was one of four oil company bosses to endorse Premier Rachel Notley’s climate change framework, announced in November. Earlier that year, the CEO acknowledged climate change, saying “doing nothing is not an option we can choose.”

In a statement to the National Observer, Suncor spokesperson Nicole Fisher said the company is looking to diversify its energy holdings, but stressed discussions around the solar developments are “very preliminary.”

“Renewable energy is an important part of the global energy mix as we work toward a sustainable energy future,” Fisher said.

The Alberta government is seeking to grow the share of renewable power produced in the province, aiming at 30 per cent by 2030. Currently, the lion’s share of Alberta’s electricity comes from coal and gas, giving it one of the most polluting electricity grids in the country.

Jamie Bonham, a manager with NEI Investments, said that companies like Suncor could see good return on investment with solar, especially given low oil prices.

“The price of oil changes these conversations, and makes these projects look more attractive,” he said.

The company will also be able to take advantage of new incentives for solar developers unveiled last month.

If Suncor’s proposals are accepted, the solar projects could be connected to the grid as early as March 2018. 

Policy

BC climate consultation ruffles feathers in Vancouver

Concerns are mounting that a perceived lack of consultation over BC’s next climate action plan will lead to a watering down of climate action priorities identified by local government in greater Vancouver.

Last May, the provincial government announced it was to update its climate strategy and appointed a ‘Climate Leadership Team’—a group of prominent climate science, energy policy and industry figures—to produce a series of proposals. Simultaneously, the province opened a first round of public consultations via an online survey that received some 6000 responses. The team issued 32 recommendations last October, including an annual increase in BC’s carbon tax of $10 a tonne from 2018 onward, and its expansion to cover all sources of carbon pollution from 2021. They warned that that BC is set to miss its 2020 emissions reduction targets, and showed how to get back on track for 2030 and 2050.

Citizens were able to offer feedback in a second consultation via a webpage with a single open-ended question asking what they thought, assisted by a 30-page “consultation guide”. The consultation was due to have closed on 25 March but last week, the government extended it to 8 April.

The board of directors of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, known more simply as Metro Vancouver, that brings together 23 local authorities including Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey, received a staff report at its meeting on Friday that outlined concerns that the provincial government had not issued a draft plan as had been promised. The government is to issue a final plan in the spring instead.

“In the absence of a detailed plan, it is difficult for staff to evaluate how well the (provincial plan) will support regional climate action priorities,” the authors of the report lament. Last year municipalities identified low-emission vehicles, ultra energy-efficient buildings, more pedestrian, cycling and transit options, and carbon pricing as priorities.

“Both Metro Vancouver staff and municipal staff have identified the lack of a consultation process on the final plan as a concern,” the report continues.

In contrast is the federal government’s approach, which seems to put municipalities in the driving seat. Last Thursday, federal infrastructure minister Amarjeet Sohi met with business people and municipal representatives in Richmond in an initial consultation over Ottawa’s green stimulus budget unveiled the same week. Sohi told the municipal leaders that they are free to set the priorities in some $12 billion announced in new infrastructure spending over five years. Large chunks of the stimulus spending are to be directed toward overhauling the country’s ailing infrastructure while doing so in a way that supports the country’s greenhouse gas emissions mitigation commitments.

Much of the fine print however has yet to be unveiled, but Sohi said that the first phase of the stimulus is intended to be flexible, while in the second phase from 2019 after the next federal election, large-scale federally directed projects that take much longer to plan will be put in motion.

Science

Inuit grapple with changing Arctic as polar ice hits record low max

As Inuit communities in the high north grapple with a rapidly changing environment, US scientists reported this week that Arctic sea ice reached a record low winter maximum extent for the second year in a row.

Polar ice cover stretched across some 14.5 million kilometres as of 24 March, according to researchers with the US National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA. This amounts to a 0.2 percent drop from the last time there was a record low maximum, in 2015, and a seven percent decline on the three-decade average from the 80s through the 2000s.

The researchers say that unusually warm temperatures in December, January and February around the world, but particularly in the Arctic, are to blame. Air temperatures experienced near the edges of the ice pack had been up to 5.5°C above average. In addition, winds brought warm air from the south in the first two months of the year. Finally, as the ocean has warmed up, the ice edge will not expand as far south as it was once able to. Taken together, these conditions mean record low winter maximums are likely to keep happening in the future, the researchers say.

Every spring and summer, polar ice melts and then grows back in the fall and winter. It usually reaches its maximum extent some time between February and April. This is important because in the summer especially, the white ice reflects solar energy back into space. In the absence of this ice, the darker oceans absorb the heat. So the extent of the summer melt receives a lot of focus in the press and by campaign groups.

But as winter ice is less extensive, it is also thinner and more fragile, and as a result, communities in the high north such as Canada’s Inuit increasingly find the ice less dependable for transport or as a staging ground for hunting.

This week, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, which represents western Canadian Inuit of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, announced it is to develop its first climate change adaptation strategy. Erosion near the coast is also a major threat, as homes and graveyards begin to fall into the water. The placement of concrete blocks to prevent erosion is one option being considered, while relocation may be necessary for other areas.

The corporation is currently undergoing community consultations, with a website dedicated to the issue due to be launched next month. A final strategy document is expected to be released in the summer. The corporation is looking for financial assistance with its adaptation plans from the territorial and federal governments.

Society

Canada 4th least climate-change vulnerable nation

Out of all countries in the world, Canada is the fourth least vulnerable to climate change, after the UK, Norway and Germany, according to a prominent climate adaptation league table. However it is still languishing much lower on the same rankings with respect to readiness than it was in the 1990s.

Each year, researchers from Notre Dame University produce the Global Adaptation Index, a data-driven analysis of which countries are best prepared to deal with climate disruption. The index is divided into two parts: a ranking of which countries are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and which countries are most prepared to deal with such effects. The two rankings are then combined to produce a single overall index that has been put out each year since 1995.

Canada does exceedingly well in the vulnerability index, which considers six life-supporting sectors: food, water, health, ecosystem services, human habitat, and infrastructure.

However, since the launch of the index, Canada has steadily slid down the readiness ranking, which assesses preparedness on the economic, governance and social fronts. Governance focuses on the institutional factors that enhance adaptation, while social readiness captures factors such as social inequality, ICT infrastructure, education and innovation. In the 1990s, Canada regularly placed in the world’s top ten most ready to adapt to climate impacts, but as of last week’s publication of the 2016 numbers, it now sits at 17th place, between Japan and Ireland. New Zealand meanwhile comes first in the world for readiness, due particularly to its top marks for infrastructure, regulatory quality and education.

Canada’s combined readiness and vulnerability rankings produce an overall adaptation ranking of 13th in the world, down from ninth in 1995, and seventh in 1997. The reasons for this slide include a decline in the quality of trade and transport infrastructure such as paved roads, railroads, ports and information technology; disaster preparedness; and the percentage of protected terrestrial biome.

The index is not just a useful gauge of Canada’s capacity to withstand the shocks of climate change. By tracking the adaptive capacity of much less developed countries, the index shows from where Canada is likely to receive requests for climate finance assistance.

The five countries with the world’s worst adaptive capacity are all in Africa: Eritrea, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Paris last December, the international community signed a global climate agreement that committed wealthy countries to delivering US$100 billion a year from both public and private sources by 2020. Up to now, many countries in the global north have failed to meet their climate finance pledges, and much of what is categorised as climate finance is just re-packaged existing development assistance funding. In addition, what funding has been made available has largely been in support of clean energy projects rather than adaptation measures.

Solutions

Tesla to launch first mass-market electric car

Electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla Motors is set to launch its latest car, the Model 3, this evening, the first mass market automobile the company has produced.

Unusually for a car firm, Tesla has managed to inspire as much excitement about its products as Apple does for its sleek computers and mobile phones. Much of this comes down to the cars’ reputation for acceleration, design and being packed with technology. But up until now, at a starting price of $70,000, the Tesla models that have been produced have been out of reach for most consumers, and if the world is to make a shift to a fully electric vehicle fleet, it is the mid and low-priced cars that are going to do much of the heavy lifting.

The Model 3 comes with a baseline price tag of $35,000, so still a big-ticket item that will be in competition with the likes of BMW and Mercedes Benz, but much more affordable than its precursors. The question motoring enthusiasts are asking is how much of a compromise in design and technology has Tesla had to make to get the price down while still maintaining its brand image of the sort of car that is not just good for the planet but a desirable item in its own right.

It is expected to be a four-door sedan some 20 percent smaller than the company’s Model S, and will enjoy a range of 320 kilometres (200 miles) on a single charge as well as a self-driving capability.

Elon Musk, the company’s CEO, is to unveil the car at 8:30pm Pacific time in a suburb of Los Angeles. Tesla says that it will start taking orders online at that time for a $1000 deposit, and in stores the next day, for shipping in 2017, although some market watchers predict based on past experience of considerable delays from the firm that the car is unlikely to hit the roads before 2019.

The firm is not the only company aiming to produce a 200-mile-range electric vehicle this year. Chevrolet’s Bolt due to go on sale later this year also hits this target, at a slightly higher base price of $37,500.

British Columbia’s own Electrameccanica is set to launch the Solo, a compact, three-wheel electric vehicle with a 160-kilometre range and 130 kilometre per hour maximum speed this year. First reported on last July when the firm won registration approval from the Ministry of Transportation allowing them to sell the car and for people to drive them, the made-in-BC Solo comes with a price tag of $19,888 and can be reserved for $250. The Solo, initially named the Sparrow, weighs just 580 kilos and is suitable for a single driver. 

Photo credits (in order of appearance): David Goehring, Magnus Larsson, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Bryn Davies, 8000vueltas

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

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