PICS Climate News Scan-October 30, 2014

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

October 30, 2014

Stories this week:

• Arctic sea ice versus the world
• Australia’s weak climate policies backfire
• LNG could exacerbate global warming
• Solar’s precipitous price plummet
• EU nations to slash emissions by 40 per cent

Energy

LNG may worsen rather than ease global warming

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) will fail to reduce the rate at which global climate is changing in the absence of supporting international climate policies to limit overall carbon pollution, finds two recent papers. On Monday, the Pembina Institute and the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions released a white paper testing the British Columbia (BC) government’s claim that LNG would reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by replacing dirtier fossil fuel energy sources such as coal. This claim assumes that LNG is cleaner overall than coal and is largely supported if methane emissions are controlled. But the claim also assumes that LNG will directly replace coal, and this will not necessarily be true. Natural gas must be considered within the wider available energy mix that includes coal, renewables, nuclear and hydro. Without policy mandating the substitution of one for the other, use of both gas and coal would likely rise, contributing to more emissions overall says the report. These findings support a recent paper that examined the rise of natural gas use worldwide and whether it would help lower emissions. Computer models again suggested that the use of coal and other dirtier sources wouldn’t diminish, and in fact could rise, releasing more emissions and discouraging the development of renewables due to cheap fossil-fuel-based energy.

So why the fanfare about LNG in the first place? It’s certainly in plentiful supply since the advance of fracking technologies and it’s much cheaper to switch to natural gas than to invest in renewables. An added benefit: on a full life-cycle basis, LNG has fewer GHG emissions than coal (if methane emissions are minimized), which has spurred claims that natural gas can help the climate. Often cited is the recent drop in United States (US) energy sector carbon dioxide emissions that fell 12 per cent from 2005 to 2012 as natural gas use rose. But the US has brought into place policies to simultaneously phase out coal, while other countries like China continue to invest in new coal infrastructure. The evidence overall thus suggests that natural gas isn’t the climate change white knight that we would like it to be. BC cannot control what LNG displaces in the Asian energy mix, and unless it can, claims that its LNG is a climate change solution are dubious. Governments that want to reduce emissions and take climate action may be tempted to laud natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ in energy transitions, but the PICS-Pembina paper recommends that the best hope of truly clean LNG for BC is to reduce carbon pollution from its domestic natural gas production, encourage renewables and lead on the world stage with supportive emissions-reductions policy. 

Policy

Australia’s climate-unfriendly policy backfires

Australia has gained a reputation for weak climate action and pro-industry policy. However, two recent events suggest this approach is backfiring. The Australian Academy of Science has issued a response to the Australian and Queensland governments’ multimillion dollar ‘Reef 2050’ plan to protect the Great Barrier Reef, which has lost about half of its coral since 1985 according to a 2012 Australian government report. The Academy notes that the government has not reduced emissions, despite climate change being the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef. Healthy coral actually contains two symbiotic creatures: the coral polyp, and golden-brown photosynthetic algae that live inside the coral and provide nutrients that benefit polyp growth. Growing global greenhouse gas emissions and associated rising sea temperatures cause the coral to expel the algae, leaving the coral white or ‘bleached’. That response has an economic impact: the Great Barrier Reef attracts two million tourists and nets an estimated AUD$5.7 billion in revenue a year. The coal industry, however, nets about AUD$47.8 billion, which may explain why Australia is instead ‘sustainably’ developing four nearby ports, including a coal export terminal at nearby Abbott Point. But it is that strategy that is backfiring. Four US banks have now refused to invest in the terminal over environmental concerns, including Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, as well as Europe’s Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, Barclays and Credit Agricole.

Meanwhile, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is investigating several Australian airlines, including Qantas, Virgin, and Regional Express, in a case that may show how small a burden the country’s scrapped carbon tax imposed. When the nation’s carbon tax was abolished this summer, airlines were asked to lower their ticket prices to reflect presumably lower fuel costs. This follows claims by the airlines in 2012 that the carbon tax would cost them millions, and that costs would have to be passed onto customers. However, the airlines now say they absorbed the costs rather than raise the price of tickets and therefore aren’t able to lower prices. As ThinkProgress says, the implication is that either airlines are overcharging or the tax was not onerous to begin with. Other data support this and suggest that the impact of the C tax was relatively benign. The Australian Bureau of Statistics said that despite an overall rise in consumer prices, some did fall after removing the tax, although the exact effects couldn’t be quantified. The largest drop was in electricity and fuel prices. Electricity prices fell by 5.1 per cent, directly attributed to the removal of the carbon tax; however this drop did not match how much those prices rose (15.3 per cent) when the tax was introduced two years ago. The fuel price drop (2.5 per cent) was attributed to world markets. Here in BC, the climate benefits of environmental taxes are clear, Gas price increases associated with the BC carbon tax (6.67 cents per litre) are about the same magnitude as up-and-down swings in market prices. A recent econometric study found that upward market swings on this scale have little impact on gasoline demand in BC, while, equivalent price increases specifically attributed to the carbon tax did reduce gas consumption significantly. This response likely reflects anticipation by drivers that the price would stay higher or continue to increase, and that appears to have led to behavioural change. And just like in Australia, there is little to no evidence that the carbon tax in BC has caused economic dislocation. 

Science

The problem with polar data

New research that suggests how shrinking ice cover in the Arctic could affect the climate in Eurasia follows a suite of varying reports on how this human-caused melt phenomena will impact the rest of the globe. The new paper says that record declines in sea ice in the Barents-Kara Sea may have more than doubled the probability of cold winters in central Eurasia. Previous research has linked a reduction in Arctic sea ice to changes in how winter storms track across the western US and southern British Columbia, leading to greater likelihood of drought. Other research by Rutgers University Research Scientist Jennifer Francis has linked Arctic ice loss to a slower and more wobbly jet stream. This in turn can influence extreme weather further south, such as last winter’s polar vortex. Yet, even the new paper’s authors say that a clear response by the rest of the atmosphere to sea ice changes hasn’t been found, and they acknowledge uncertainty remains in their study due to relatively small amounts of comparable data from different climate models. The scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change is clear - 97 per cent - but certainty about the precise effects of declining Arctic ice on the rest of the world, remain debated. Why?

The answer is simple: a lack of Arctic data. Until recent decades the only way to get information from the Arctic was to go there, a costly and challenging venture. Since the late 1970s satellite images have provided a clear record of ice extent but that is only one part of being able to model a dynamic Arctic system. There are other crucial information requirements such as ice thickness, heat flow and the role of winds. Thus, while glacier ice cores, ocean sediment cores, tree rings and rocks can provide records on the order of hundreds of thousands of years to build a coherent picture of climate change worldwide, Arctic sea ice extent has only been recorded accurately for about 40 years. Fortunately, data collection is getting better all the time, and Canada is at the forefront. The world-famous Amundsen research icebreaker has traversed the Arctic for years, making in-situ measurements on the water properties, and ice and atmospheric characteristics. Canadian researchers are using improved satellite sensing to determine the biological activity in seawater. And the University of Victoria-housed Ocean Networks Canada has installed an underwater observing array at Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, to stream Arctic data to researchers worldwide. 

Society

EU throws down emissions gauntlet ahead of COP21

In an optimistic signal to global climate policymakers, 28 European Union (EU) leaders signed an accord to lower emissions by at least 40 per cent, compared to 1990 levels, by 2030. They also agreed to generate 27 per cent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030. The targets are not yet legally binding, but they do make the EU the first of the world’s major GHG emitters to state its position ahead of a key United Nations (UN) climate meeting in Paris in December 2015, where delegates will try and produce a global climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol. The Paris meeting is likely also the UN’s last chance to broker a deal between global emitters before climate change exceeds thresholds widely considered to be dangerous. While Europe’s bold move is encouraging, EU member nations (the EU-27) are only responsible for 11 per cent of global emissions. Meanwhile, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is meeting this week in Copenhagen, Denmark, to finalize the panel’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri told the gathering on Monday that despite dire language in a draft of the report, they should not ‘lose hope’, and that there is still time to act. While the sentiment is appreciated, the IPCC for decades has been releasing dire warnings and the world has been failing to heed them for decades. Why should we care about this most recent attempt to educate the global public?

A new paper coauthored by Simon Fraser University’s Ekaterina Rhodes, Mark Jaccard and colleagues suggests we don’t really have to. In a surprising conclusion, the paper examined British Columbians’ knowledge of, and support for, key climate policies, from the well-known Carbon Tax to the Renewable & Low Carbon Fuel Requirements Regulation (RLCFR), which is credited with a quarter of BC’s emissions reductions since 2007. Of the 475 British Columbians surveyed, only a quarter could actually name a climate policy. Of those that did, most named the Carbon Tax and only one named the RLCFR. The study concludes that citizen knowledge of climate policies didn’t affect their support, suggesting that education wasn’t necessarily the way to climate action. That’s perhaps not a problem when a policy works - but what about when it fails? Les Leyne in the Times Colonist argues that policy ignorance lets governments shirk commitments such as emissions targets without backlash. “If you don’t need public support to pursue climate-change policies,” Leyne writes, “it’s conceivable you don’t need public support to stop pursuing them, either.” Those who want to be in the know on all aspects of climate, including policy, can take PICS’ Climate Impacts 101 online courses that include a new product that went live this week. Called BC Climate Impacts and Adaptation, it’s the third and final in a series that also includes courses on climate science basics and mitigation. All PICS education products are free, peer-reviewed and developed with input from leading scientists. 

Solutions

US on track to meet its 2020 solar price targets

The US Department of Energy (DOE) looks on track to meet its nation-wide pricing targets for solar energy before the end of the decade, a recent report finds. The Photovoltaic System Pricing Trends Report has found that the price for solar has declined across the United States, with prices for distributed photovoltaic (PV) in particular dropping by 12-15 per cent from 2012 to 2013. These findings keep the DOE on par with its national PV pricing goals as set out in the SunShot Initiative, which the DOE launched in 2011 as a way to keep tabs on solar PV trends throughout the States. Through SunShot, the DOE “seeks to make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the decade,” according to the Initiative’s website. This means a price drop of about 75 per cent in the cost of solar between 2010 and 2020. The report’s other findings include a decrease in utility-scale PV costs to about $1.80 per installed Watt in 2014, 59 per cent below 2010 levels. And this year will see another 3-12 per cent decline in the price for distributed solar systems, according to a news release from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a co-author of the report.

According to CanSIA, a non-profit trade association representing the Canadian solar industry, Canadian solar could reach market competitiveness along similar timelines. CanSIA’s Solar Vision 2025 report predicts mainstream adoption of solar technology in Canada by 2025. Yet public sector support for Canadian solar varies from province to province. This is one reason why Canada has been falling behind some of its international partners in the field, including the US. In BC in 2013, solar PV cost about $3 per installed Watt, which is about half the cost it was five years ago. Solar is only cost-effective in very remote areas of the province; where hydro isn’t available, wind-generated electricity costs about 10-12 cents per kWh, while solar comes out at 30 cents per kWh. However, the Ontario government’s feed-in-tariff system (now up for debate in the legislature) is one reason that province’s solar sector has thrived, and the main reason why Canada’s solar costs are set to fall by more than half their current levels by 2025, to $146-$200 MWh (or 14.6 to 20.0 cents per kWh). However, is not clear that these forecasts, will be met in Canada in the absence of strong national climate-change legislation, such as that seen in Australia, Germany and the US. 

Image credit (in order of appearance): Province of British Columbia (flickr), Green MPs (flickr), guido.romero (flickr), Yanni Koutsomitis (flickr), Oregon Department of Transportation (flickr)

Authors:

Ami Kingdon (PICS)
Arman Kazemi (ISIS)

Editors:

Tom Pedersen (PICS)
Robyn Meyer (PICS)

Justin Bull (ISIS)