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Tag Archives: climate

EGU Debate: can we have global economic growth and a habitable climate?

by Liz Kalaugher

At the EGU General Assembly debate on “Is global economic growth compatible with a habitable climate?” there was discussion whether the session was even titled with the right question. Not to mention the pre-debate issue of whether the speakers should stand up or sit down.

To Clive Spash of WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, the title was too tightly focused on climate and should have widened out to a habitable planet. Spash, who believes that the economic view of the world is unrealistic, said he disagrees that economic growth is vital and thinks it’s politically naïve to try and shut down the debate on whether we need growth. In his view a carbon tax won’t work and decoupling of growth and carbon emissions won’t save us.

Narasimha Rao of IIASA, Austria, also wanted the question to be broader. Rao called for consideration of dimensions of wellbeing beyond economic growth, since the economy doesn’t reflect phenomena such as air pollution and oil spills.

Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester, UK, reckons the answer depends on whom we’re referring to – rich people, people in poorer nations, or other species. Some in the rich parts of the world believe we can cope with 2, 3 or even 4 degrees of temperature rise, he said, whilst many developing countries believe that the maximum habitable temperature change for them is 1 or 1.5 degrees, given that many are already feeling the effects of climate change. And significant numbers of animal species are already struggling with temperature rise today, particularly as they’re under other environmental stresses too.

Given the rates of emissions reductions we’d need, Anderson said that a 1-1.5 degree threshold is no longer viable and we’re stuck with 2 or 2.5 degrees at best. “Economic growth is not compatible with a habitable climate for people like us,” he said, arguing that since the relatively poor need economic growth to have a habitable climate, it means big emissions cuts for the rich. And for non-human species, economic growth is again not compatible with a habitable climate.

Finally, Jorgen Randers confessed that having worked in sustainable development since 1972, he has failed as the world is less sustainable now. Randers argued that economic growth is compatible with a habitable climate but human society has not been willing to implement the solutions. To him, the question is “is humanity going to be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit GDP fast enough to get greenhouse gas emissions to decrease?” Whilst technically “it’s a piece of cake”, and shifting from dirty to clean production is cheap at a cost of just 1% of GDP, it has not been done and will not be done because people think too short-term. “That’s the sad story,” Randers added.

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Reactions to climate uncertainty

By Dave Elliott

Renewable energy has benefited from concerns about climate change. But in some countries there are doubts about whether climate impacts will be severe and in some there are no significant climate policies. Contrarian views may be in a minority in most places, but much has been made of the apparent slowdown in average global temperature rises in recent years. Indeed some sceptics claim that this refutes all the climate models, with some pointing to a 17-year or more period when the running average did not indicate a rise. So it’s claimed we don’t need to rush ahead with renewables. (more…)

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Just how big is an XL pipeline?

Today we have a lot of options for sizing our purchases. Small, medium, large, extra large, venti, grande, nano, and the list goes on.  These qualitative words are relative to cultures and languages across the world.   For instance, if I order a shirt from an American clothing brand, I might wear a small or medium depending upon the fit.  However, if I travel to China and my luggage is lost by the airline, I would have to buy replacement garments at XL, XXL, or maybe even XXXL to actually be the same absolute size as my normal S or M.  One label does not describe the same fit.

But I primarily concern myself with energy, not fashion (those who know me are chuckling).  Considering the topic of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to be built by TransCanada, just how “extra large”, or XL, is it?  In analyzing this question, most analyses focus so much on the small question of the relative impact of the pipeline that they miss the extra large picture: more pipelines mean more shipping options, more options provide (possibly) cheaper options, and cheaper options enable more consumption.  In short, more begets more, not less.

One of the major concerns regarding Keystone XL is whether or not it enables the world to produce and consume Canadian oil sands to such a degree as it undermines climate mitigation on the global scale. Usually economic and life cycle analyses come up with conclusions that GHG emissions changes related to Keystone XL will have little to no material impact on GHG emissions when considering alternative oil supplies (e.g., from Venezuela, as if somehow we can predict that economy) and transport options (e.g., other pipelines and rail).  For proponents, Keystone XL is somehow a GHG rounding error.  Using this logic, every oil well in the world is such a “small rounding error” that each one has no discernible impact on GHG emissions.  Yet somehow, if we add up thousands of indiscernible quantities of oil production and GHG emissions, we get quantities that are much greater than zero (If the Canadian government didn’t think oil sands production had a material impact on GHG emissions, perhaps they would have stayed part of the Kyoto Protocol). The same goes for population: somehow couple by couple we reached over 7 billion of us on the planet even though each couple produced a “rounding error” in terms of a number of children.

More shipping options for oil from the oil sands means just that: more shipping options and more shipping capacity.  See Maximillian Aufhammer’s discussion of the various proposed pipelines for oil sands for a good back-of-the-envelope quantitative discussion.  Four options for shipping oil sands is cheaper (and more) or at worst equal in price to only three of the options.  The same logic holds for three instead of two or two instead of one.  Aside from the pure cost of each shipping option, each has to compete with each other, again lowering the price of shipping.  It is possible that the Keystone XL as the next additional shipping option would be the cheapest option to get oil sands to refineries. If that is the case, then the worldwide marginal price of refined petroleum products would possibly decline. And if this price declines then people will be able to afford to produce and consume more, not less, petroleum as well as other goods and services.   TransCanada understands this concept, as the website keystone-xl.com states “… the Keystone XL Pipeline will also support the significant growth of crude oil production …”.

This increase in consumption due to lower cost is due to the rebound effect, or Jevons Paradox.  The Paradox is difficult to measure and model, especially in today’s globalized world.  Small-scoped and short term analyses, like most of those employed in Keystone XL political battles, simply can’t pick up the concept, yet its effect is clearly shown in the long-run data. The world has continually become more efficient, and so far we humans have continually consumed more energy resources and at an increasing rate due to more people and consumption.

Thus, Keystone XL would be one more investment in long line of investments to enable further access to energy resources.  Opponents of the pipeline are correct in stating that it acts against climate mitigation both physically and symbolically.  Anyone claiming that Keystone XL is neutral or insignificant on aggregate GHG emissions is myopically deluding themselves.  Preventing Keystone XL or any other oil sands transport option decreases GHG over the long-run by reducing the number of shipping options from one of the world’s largest fossil resource areas, and thus raising oil prices to some degree.  In almost no instances does a single person have sole authority over a GHG prevention option as does President Obama on denying the northern leg of Keystone XL (from Canada to the U.S.). If the President actually believes in reducing GHG emissions, he has no choice but to prevent construction of Keystone XL.

So just how big is Keystone XL?  Is it XL or is it small? It’s big enough for activists to rally around yet possibly too small for an economist to notice. It’s small enough to finance for TransCanada, yet too big to hide.  Perhaps the Keystone XL debates have taught pipeline companies they must find Goldilocks so they can ask her about the appropriate size that is “just right”: not so small that they can’t make a profit due to high costs and not so large that they can’t even get it approved.  My prediction, no company will again call their next oil pipeline “XL”.

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World Energy Council- get real

By Dave Elliott

The World Energy Council (WEC) has called for policymakers and industry leaders to ‘get real’ on global energy policy, claiming that the global financial crisis, Fukushima, and the development of unconventional hydrocarbons has changed the context and that, as a consequence, the CO2 targets for 2050 will be missed, unless significant changes and policy frameworks are adopted. (more…)

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To limit is to be human, to proliferate is to be natural

I agree with some prognosticators that attribute all global warming to natural processes. From normal cycles of the atmosphere to the regular Earth orbit and wobble about its axis. From sunspots to wildfires, natural processes dominate the flux of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into and out of the atmosphere. But there is one natural process that is usually categorized incorrectly: the actions of that species that is Homo sapiens.

H. sapiens, or we humans, follow the same trend as many other animal species in discovering food and energy resources and using them to proliferate and maintain numbers. However, we have a seemingly innate ability to acquire knowledge and pass it on to younger generations such that the subsequent H. sapiens don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” every generation. This accumulation of knowledge began with the first writing, continued with the teaching of agriculture for stable food supplies, and is now culminating in the transfer of information (and much of it simply data or low-value information) across the internet as is occurring when you are reading these words.

The process of accumulating knowledge, using that knowledge to create even further new knowledge of how to make new tools and extract and use natural resources has been occurring for approximately 10,000 years. Over this time, we have discovered laws of physics, incredibly advanced the science of medicine, and established societal laws and governmental structures. All the while we H. sapiens expand in population (with a few bumps in the road due to disease) and extract more renewable and fossil resources from the Earth each year. H. sapiens is a part of this Earth just as much as are Oncorhynchus mykiss (rainbow trout), Gorilla gorilla (Western Gorilla), and Sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant Sequoia). Granted, the trees have a hard time extracting resources beyond their roots, and the trout don’t have opposable thumbs that allow them to grasp rocks in the stream bed to make houses or fish pens. G. gorilla have thumbs but don’t seem able to venture out far from their original habitat. Most plant and animal species simply expand when resources (prey, nutrients, sun, rain, etc) are abundant and contract when they are scarce – simply a response to immediate stimuli. But those darn H. sapiens make clothing and shelter that allows them to stay in climates and conditions for durations that would otherwise kill them. This learned planning ability to plan ahead for the future seasons and years has been used to further the natural expansion and reach of humans across all continents of the globe.

With these thoughts in mind, why call anything done by us humans to date anything other than “natural”? We don’t make steel, we find iron ore and carbon-containing substances to combine them when heated to form a substance with new properties we call steel. Using steel and other transformed materials we assemble objects, composed of many of these refined and purified substances, that would otherwise not exist on Earth. But oysters do the same thing in constructing their shells. We just do it a lot more, a lot faster, and into more materials.

If we consider the terms “man-made” and anthropogenic as describing actions that go against the continued expansion of Homo sapiens, then what past decisions can fall into that category? Two candidates come to mind: (i) the Chinese one-child policy and (ii) the OPEC/Arab Oil embargoes of the 1970s. it In restricting the spreading of a sixth of the world population, the one-child policy is meant more to preserve the Chinese state more than the humans in general. But don’t short-change the one child policy as being a possible climate policy – as was suggested by some at the recent Copenhagen talks.

And the oil embargos, in hindsight, could be considered the first greenhouse gas policy and/or energy conservation policy. By restricting the flow of resources to a large part of H. sapiens, the leaders of a few resource-rich countries triggered a drastic change in the growth of energy consumption of the world, and hence greenhouse-gas emissions. Annual growth in world energy consumption was increasing close to exponentially until the 1970s, and after that it has been growing only linearly (i.e. at a slower rate). We could possibly attribute 100s of exajoules (or quads) of annual energy conservation to OPEC.

Perhaps embargoes and tariffs in general are a truly man-made construction. The one-child policy and oil embargoes were targeted with the intention of preserving the wealth/power of certain political entities – one with some intent to punish other political entities. Political states being the result of increasing complexity in society, they are inherently man-made. Thus, organization by treaty and by writing is man-made. And perhaps that is why negotiating a limit on greenhouse gas emissions was not successful in Copenhagen this December – because such a limit is a man-made restriction of a natural tendency, not a natural restriction of an anthropogenic tendency.

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