Monday, September 07, 2015

Alberta's Climate Change Strategy - Some Suggestions

Alberta has already done on a lot about climate change. While most haven’t a clue what we have done and how substantial this work is, it is a fact that Alberta is a progressive jurisdiction. It is appropriate that, with a new government, we take stock. But let us not begin from a starting point which ignores what we have done.
Before looking at where we are and what we may need to do next, it is important to understand something about climate change:

  1. .         Climate change is real.
  2. .         Climate change is in part caused by nature – the climate has always changed – and in part by the actions of humans as a species. The challenge we have is that we are not sure just how much of the change we are seeing, which is not wildly “out of control” or really unusual, is due to human actions versus nature. Its an old debate, but an important one.
  3. .         Climate change affects different regions of the world in different ways. Sea level changes both up and down – in some regions it is rising faster than before and in others it is falling. We can see this on the NOAA map – available here. In some places, the climate is definitely moderately warmer and other places cooler. Some scientist predict a significant period of cooling (here).
  4. .         The link between climate change and extreme weather events is not strong, at least according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who explored this issue in some depth in a special report (here). The rising cost of natural disasters is explained by more wealth in harm’s way and not by increasing frequency or intensity of natural disasters and extreme weather (here).
  5. .         The idea that 97% of all scientist agree on all aspects of the claims made about climate change and its impacts is not at all true, at least according to Senate testimony by Dr Richard Tol – a lead IPCC author (here). In fact there is almost universal agreement that humans are a part cause of global warming, after that there is a lot of debate. This is why we need to understand climate change not as a simple problem (e.g. more C02 = warmer climate) but a wicked problem which we do not yet fully understand. Science is, of course, never settled.
  6. .         Most of the climate change concerns and anxieties come from models and simulations, which are themselves problematic. In a recent commentary from the UK Met Office – one of the leading centres for climate change research – about why they were not very accurate in predicting the summer which Britain experienced in 2015, Professor Dame Julia Sligo of the UK Met Office said “we all know that forecasting months and seasons ahead is still in its infancy and much more research needs to be done.”  The same models are being used to predict climate for 2100 by the same team of researchers. The models have failed to predict the current pause in warming (here), which has lasted for over eighteen years. They have also been poor at predicting a range of other features of climate (here).
  7. .         Most governments are using the precautionary principle – better to anticipate the worst case scenario than be caught off guard – as the basis for public policy. So while the evidence of the direct link between C02 and climate is not as strong as many thought it was some years ago, public policy is still based on this big idea. Even though science has moved on – CO2 is a factor, but may not be as significant as once thought – public policy has not.
  8. .       While some think that climate change is the biggest problem facing mankind (John Kerry, for example), it is one of many. Bjorn Lomborg and his colleagues at the Copenhagen Consensus have worked on this issue for some time (here). Their conclusion is that we need to do a better job of looking at the cost-benefit of action on climate change and focus on adaptation rather than prevention: “we don't need action that makes us feel good – we need action that actually does good”. 

These eight points provide context to what Alberta needs to consider. Rather than rushing to look good, what Alberta needs to do is to build on its past work.

What has Alberta done? Here are some key components:

  •            Alberta has one of the most progressive pieces of land use legislation in the world. It requires community based engagement for regional land use plans. Such plans enable Governments at all levels to determine what uses land in a region can be used for, what the controls and constraints will be and what needs to be tracked so as to protect the land, maintain biodiversity and support social and economic development. Land use is always a set of trade-off’s.
  •            To support effective land use and maintain eco-systems, Alberta is developing one of the most sophisticated monitoring systems in the North America. We already have efficient and effective measures of air quality, water flow and quality and biodiversity. But we could do better. We need more sophisticated sensors, better analytics and real time geospatial data which permits real-time review of eco-system conditions. The Alberta Environmental Monitoring Agency is charged with a responsibility to develop, use and make available the best environmental monitoring data possible with current technology.
  •           Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America to place a tax on carbon emitted by large emitters – energy companies. While the decision to use intensity measures and not to implement a wholesale tax on all carbon emissions has been criticised, Alberta collects $30 a tonne over and above an agreed level of permissible emissions. These funds go to the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CMEC) which invests in clean energy technologies. The $30/tonne is a recent decision – it was $15 for a long time. It is worth noting that the EU’s price per tonne is currently Î8 ($11.83).
  •            Alberta has CO2 emissions trading – companies who emit can purchase offsets from those who store CO2 or use it. Forestry companies sell emissions offsets, for example.
  •           Alberta has made investments in carbon capture and storage. Shell’s Quest project will be the first commercial-scale CCS project in the world for an oil sands operation. The Albertan and Canadian governments have been strong investors in CCS.
  •            Alberta has invested in companies which have commercial uses for CO2. A Calgary based company turns CO2 into energy and others which have significantly improved CO2 “scrubbers” for industrial plants, which reduce emissions at the surce.
  •            Oil sands companies, which are predominantly SAGD companies, have significantly reduced their water consumption through co-generation and have accelerated the pace for land-reclamation.
  •           The Province is also experimenting with eco-system service offsets, which enable companies to invest in land reclamation and remediation in areas of greatest need. A systematic approach to market based ecosystem services has not yet been adopted by Government, but a roadmap for such an approach is available (here).
  •            All Alberta pulp mills are off the electricity grid and most now are green energy producers.
  •           Alberta has encouraged the significant expansion of renewable energy resources – mainly wind-power, but also some solar. Alberta is home to over 1.4 GW of installed wind capacity and ranks third among Canadian provinces.

So  what should the focus be on now? There are five big areas where the Province could do more:

  1. .         Stop using coal for electricity generation – phase out coal as a primary source of energy and replace coal-fired power with natural gas. Once this
  2. .         Invest in infrastructure improvements for flood protection, water use and transportation which would have the effect of creating better defense against extreme weather events and reducing traffic congestion and aiding traffic flow. David Dodge has been asked to develop a five year plan for infrastructure, which we should see as part of the climate change plan.
  3. .        Adopt market based eco-system services as a way to accelerate land reclamation and improve land use. Terrestrial sequestration of CO2 through forests, grasses and other ecosystems are important. What is also important is maintaining Alberta’s eco-system and biodiversity while reducing the risks associated with invasive species.
  4. .         Make more investments in environmental monitoring – lead the world in technological developments for this work, which requires the systematic collaboration of researchers in nanotechnology, genomics and ICT with firms and government.
  5. .         See regional land use plans as the primary process by which Alberta will monitor the impact of climate change and act to adapt to these changes. Strengthen the planning process by putting in place permanent regional Stewardship Councils reporting to the Alberta Land Commissioner, who should be independent of Government.

You will notice that I do not suggest a carbon tax, other than that already in place. Unilateral action by Alberta on CO2 through taxation makes little sense. Few have been able to estimate the environmental impact of Alberta taxing CO2 (the US Congressional Budget Office could not produce an impact value for the US – here). Further, the suggestion that reducing emissions will lead to a change in climate, even over a long period of time, is not supported by current observations from satellite data – emissions have risen significantly (despite commitments by many Governments to reduce them) but temperature has not (hence the pause). Given the deadlock over these issues amongst the global community – deadlock which has reduced the value of global approaches to climate change and which will likely be seen again in Paris this fall – it is unlikely that a functioning CO2 emissions strategy “with teeth” will emerge anytime soon. 

What Governments seeking to tax CO2 are doing is making excessive use of the precautionary principle (see here). While a tax may demonstrate to others that Alberta has joined an elite club of CO2 taxing jurisdictions, its impact on the environment and climate have yet to be proven. Remember: “we don't need action that makes us feel good – we need action that actually does good”.

Nor do I suggest significant targets for renewable energy – water, wind, solar, nuclear or fusion – as part of Alberta’s energy mix. We already have some significant “green” energy from these sources. But we should encourage the greater use of co-generation by firms and municipalities, more intensive recycling and activities aimed at energy efficiency in homes, workplaces and transportation.

What should be the test of Alberta’s climate change strategy? It should be that it actually helps communities adapt to changing conditions and aid the response to any extreme weather events. The measures should be focused on eco-systems indicators (biodiversity, water and air quality, land status) and public health. Put this another way – if our only measure is the volume of CO2 emissions then what does that tell us? Very little.

The Government is asking for ideas with respect to climate change. Let us base the strategy which emerges from an understanding of where we are, what the issues really are and what impact any actions are likely to have.

All public policy involves trade off’s. In this case, we are trading off economic values with social and political values – all of which impact the environment. Caution is appropriate. There is no need to adopt a radical approach which has little real impact on climate and the environment but a big impact on the economy and communities.

1 comment:

david oldroyd said...

Admirably clear and detailed exploration of your perspective on complex policy issues and trade-offs that continues your sceptical critique of over-simple conclusions about cause and effect and raises doubts about the wisdom of predictive modelling and the use of the precautionary principle. Most of us use this principle in relation to our ‘old folks’, our children and grandchildren, possibly to excess, so it is not altogether surprising that we should also use it in relation to planet earth, the bottom-line of our existence.

Sadly, human impacts on our 3.6 bn.-year evolved ecosphere (including all human-produced - "Machine World"- impacts and emissions, not only CO2) are growing exponentially as population and economic activity continue apace (e.g. 2 bn. more humans to come; 7% economic growth in China = doubling every 10 years). I see no precautionary principle being applied to the anthropocentric assumption that the earth (as Sarah Palin would have it) consists of resources provided by God to satisfy human needs (or is it ‘wants’ or ‘greed’?). The notion of ‘ecosystem services’ typifies the anthropocentrism that Palin and the hubris of our species in general represents: God-given nature at our service! And still economic thinking based on the desire for unlimited GDP growth fails to account for the costs to nature in that very measure.

The biggest trade off of all is trading off the homeostatic, self-adjusting (‘S’- curve) balance of the natural world against the accelerating impact (‘J’-curve) of humans upon this delicate balance evolved over 3.6 bn. years. Your policy prescriptions, focused on the wicked problem of climate change, admirable though they are, have to be set within this much bigger picture arising from the ‘big history’. The re-assessing and re-framing the most fundamental anthropocentric assumptions of the invasive human species is the wickedest of all our problems. Your policy advocacy makes a lot of sense, but is but a tiny step forward and fails to incorporate the limits to growth global perspective.