The Unforgiving Truth About Unburnable Carbon

GHG2014 cover image thumbIn a recent blog highlighting the findings in my 2014 Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report, I stressed that the science of climate change is unequivocal: humans are changing the global climate through deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. Since the rise of the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased by over 40 per cent – from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 401 ppm today.  This blanket of greenhouse gases traps radiant heat, which has already resulted in a nearly 1°C rise in atmospheric temperatures since pre-industrial times. While 1°C may not seem like a big deal, it is: the global average temperature difference between today and the last ice age 12,000 years ago was only 4°C.

The Need for a Planetary Carbon Diet

In 2009 the global community adopted a goal [.pdf] to limit global warming to 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures to avoid “dangerous … interference with the climate system”. We are already about half-way to this threshold. Consequently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released calculations regarding a global carbon budget [.pdf] – a carbon diet if you will – that must be adhered to going forward. To have a reasonable chance of staying within a 2°C increase, the IPCC cautions that the global economy only has about 1,000 Gigatonnes (billion tonnes or Gt) of CO2 remaining for future use (see diagram). At the current worldwide rate of CO2 release (36 Gt CO2 /yr), this global budget will be exhausted in about 28 years; sooner if emerging economies like India and China don’t stem their rising carbon appetites.

Carbon budget

The Fossil Fuel Industry Wants to Feed Us More

The situation becomes even bleaker when one realizes the considerable disparity between the budget – what can be emitted while staying within the 2°C threshold – and what the global fossil fuel companies publicize are their proven reserves of fossil fuels. The 2012 World Energy Outlook published by the authoritative and independent International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the remaining global reserves of all fossil fuels in the ground (coal, oil and natural gas) would emit 2,900 Gt CO2 if burned.  If the IPCC’s 1,000 Gt CO2 scenario is the diet that the global economy must stick with to avoid ecological catastrophe, then about two-thirds of these fossil reserves must stay in the ground – they are unburnable carbon.

The Economics of Unburnable Carbon

Unburnable carbon raises the spectre of portfolio write-downs and stranded assets for fossil fuel-intensive industries, and raises an important financial risk for the industry‘s investors. Within Canada the S&P/TSX Composite Index is one of the most carbon-intensive stock indices in the world.In 2013, the TSX had over 400 companies listed in the oil and gas sector, representing a market capitalization (i.e., the total value or worth of the 400-plus companies) around $400 to $500 billion.

I stressed in my report that the fossil fuel industry and its investors need to re-examine business risk through this new unburnable carbon lens. Several authoritative international organizations, including the IEA, Carbon Tracker, the United Nations [.pdf] and HSBC [.pdf] are warning investors to focus this lens quickly and act accordingly to avoid another kind of catastrophe – an economic one.

Climate Change Science is Certain

Almost 14 years ago, I submitted a special report to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario entitled Climate Change: Is the Science Sound? Concerned about the debate that was ongoing at the time, I felt that – as the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario – it was incumbent upon me to review the scientific evidence and provide Ontario policymakers with my considered opinion as to the strength of the arguments that were being made. I concluded at the time that climate change is occurring and that humans play a key role.

GHG2014 cover image thumbFor anyone who has been paying attention to this issue during the intervening years, it is clear that both the weight of evidence and the certainty of the science are now unequivocal. Enhanced scientific modelling, as well as improved technologies, have allowed scientific organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Meteorological Organization, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to reach the same inescapable conclusion: the climate-warming trends that have been witnessed over the past century are almost certainly due to increases in greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. In my most recent report on the Ontario government’s progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, I discuss key conclusions reached by the IPCC, as well as others, to again present Ontario policymakers with the most up-to-date scientific information possible on Earth’s changing climate.

In our day-to-day lives, we plan what to wear, and whether to bring an umbrella, based on daily weather forecasts. One day may be warmer or rainier than the next and so we make plans according to the weather. Over a much longer time frame, however, trends in weather patterns are assessed to determine what the climate is for a particular area. In other words, the difference between weather and climate is a measure of time; typically more than a 30-year timeframe. While daily changes in the weather are clear and obvious, it is more difficult to discern whether the climate is also changing.  It is only through the long-term tracking and recording of data that climate patterns, and changes associated with those patterns, become evident.

At a global level, it is through this long-term tracking that scientists have determined that global average temperatures are inexorably rising. As shown below, the longer term trend shows a clear increase, particularly when averaged over 10-year time periods. As shown in the lower portion of the diagram, the average temperature of each succeeding decade has been warmer than the one previous. The most recent data indicates that 2013 was slightly warmer than the preceding two years (source). Within the Northern Hemisphere, the last 30 year period is likely to have been the warmest period during the previous 1,400 years (source).

Surface temp anomaly

A key question in climate change discussions is whether or not severe weather events – such as extreme heat alerts – can be attributed to a changing climate. Over the past year, research (.pdf) has revealed that the frequency with which anomalous extreme heat events are occurring has shifted, such that they now occur more often. The graph below illustrates this for the Northern Hemisphere. The far left box shows that historic summer temperature anomalies from 1951-1980 produce a normal distribution – or bell-curve pattern. The far right tail of the curve – in the darker red that is barely visible – shows that extreme heat events occurred only very rarely; only 0.1 per cent of all temperature events during the 30-year period. Over time, however, there has been a shift in the entire distribution curve; in short, extreme hot weather events are now happening much more frequently than they have in the past.

N Hemisphere Land Summer Temp Anomalies

Along with rising temperatures, other indicators clearly demonstrate that not only is the climate changing, it is doing so at an accelerated rate. For instance, the average rate at which glaciers and ice sheets are melting has increased in recent years (source). While each of these findings reveals the changes that have occurred in the past, the IPCC also provided projections that should truly give reason to pause and consider what may lie ahead for the future.

Ontario’s policy decisions matter and they can have an influence on our future. I am therefore calling upon the provincial government to show leadership and to make decisions that will help the province move toward a low-carbon economy. The costs of inaction are profound and, in my view, the benefits of taking action are compelling. It is now time for leadership on climate change.

Insuring our Future Against Extreme Weather

In my just-released Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report, I note that wild weather –such as ice storms and floods – has increasingly captured the attention of Ontarians.  The province has always experienced periodic heavy downpours and ice storms but, thanks to climate change, the magnitude and frequency of these extreme weather events is increasing. This trend is the new normal.

This message hit home in 2013 when regions as diverse as Toronto, Sault Ste. Marie and Muskoka were struck by damaging storms. On July 8, for example, Toronto experienced a torrential rainstorm. Parts of the city were overwhelmed with up to 126 millimetres of rain in about two hours, more than the previous daily rainfall record of 121.4 millimetres, which was set by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The subway system and airport were shut down, people were stranded for hours and residents had to wade through streets that had been transformed into rivers.  Similarly, Sault Ste. Marie and Muskoka experienced severe floods the same year. Over the past ten years, citizens in Wawa, Thunder Bay,  HamiltonPeterborough  and other communities across the province have also experienced wet basements, flooded streets and evacuations, sometimes multiple times over.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that storms that used to occur every 40 years on average can now be expected to occur every six years. Extreme weather is here to stay and will only get worse. Municipalities are on the front lines in terms of dealing with the associated challenges and struggle to manage such repeated disasters – operationally, environmentally and financially.

Many municipalities lack the technical knowledge and financial capacity to adequately adapt to a changing climate. Flooding can come from rivers and lakes overflowing their banks, but in many cases urban flooding is caused by inadequate stormwater infrastructure that cannot handle the intense downpours that are now being witnessed across the province. Some municipalities are attempting to prepare for extreme weather through tools such as green infrastructure or paying for investments by imposing stormwater rates; however, without direction from a higher level of government, communities are working in isolation.

Municipalities have asked the province for help [.pdf] to adapt to a changing and volatile climate, and provincial leadership is clearly needed. However, in my latest GHG Report, I conclude that “on stormwater management and climate change, Ontario ministries have unfortunately not yet stepped up to their responsibilities.”

Municipalities and conservation authorities are not the only ones affected by extreme weather – the insurance industry has noticed these trends as well. While fire was once the main cause of property insurance claims in Canada, the Insurance Bureau of Canada reports that water and wind damage from severe weather has now become the leading loss. For example, insured property damage from the 2013 Toronto flood was pegged at $940 million. As such, it’s expected that insurance rates will go up and some types of liabilities, such as wet basements, will cease to be covered. There have even been headlines warning of uninsurable homes, raising a major question mark when it comes to obtaining or renewing a mortgage.

The insurance industry’s growing concerns about climate risk will also have broader implications for Ontario. As I said at the release of my report, “The insurance/reinsurance industry has been warning us for years that losses due to flooding must be stemmed or it will be impossible to write insurance. Our financial system cannot function without insured risk.” (Watch the video of my remarks) If Ontario does not step up to the plate and provide leadership to municipalities and residents in climate change adaptation, we risk increased, and possibly unmanageable, costs for damage to infrastructure and properties when extreme weather inevitably occurs again.

I believe it is urgent that the provincial government fulfills its responsibilities to help Ontario prepare for the stormwater and flooding impacts of a changing climate. Our province has drifted into troubled waters and without quick action our communities will not be able to weather the coming storms.

Keeping up with Monsieur and Madame Jones

With our busy lives these days, we don’t always know exactly what our neighbours are up to. But unconsciously (or consciously) we all compare ourselves to our neighbours– who has the better car or lawn, or nicer house? Similarly, climate policy wonks might wonder, which jurisdictions are moving ahead with the most effective policies? While Ontario has made strides in reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the energy sector by embracing renewable power and phasing out the production of coal-fired electricity, other provinces have pulled far ahead when it comes to using economic instruments to lower emissions from the industrial sector. In Ontario we don’t always hear about the great things happening on the climate file in Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta.

At one point, Ontario seemed to be keeping pace with its leading provincial counterparts. It was a leader within the Western Climate Initiative, and seemed to be charging ahead with its own cap-and-trade program. Now, several years, three discussion papers, and rounds of industry consultations later, the fear of harming our economic competitiveness seems to have stalled program implementation. Contrast that to our next-door neighbour Quebec, which has a functioning cap-and-trade system in place, auctioned its first permits last week and is preparing to link its program early next year with California’s.

British Columbia’s carbon tax has been receiving a lot of favourable attention from economists and policymakers all over North America and globally as an example of good environmental and economic policy. It’s been in place five years, and people are getting used to it. The tax works: personal and corporate income taxes are the lowest in Canada, the economy has grown faster than the rest of Canada’s and emissions have fallen. Alberta’s Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, while not very stringent, has at least put a price on carbon; a huge step forward for a resource-intensive province.

The point is that someone always has to be first, or in financial terms, the first mover. Good policy requires some degree of risk. Ontario has dithered while its neighbours have moved ahead, and they will reap the benefits. We need to reframe climate policy as an economic opportunity: the opportunity to be more efficient, invest in new technology and spur new industries. A price on carbon will help these green industries grow. We need to just look over the fence at what our neighbours are doing.

A Picture can be Worth a Thousand Tonnes

What will it take for us to address the existential challenge of climate change? A lot of brainpower has gone into trying to answer this fundamental question, because setting out the sober facts and pleading for action don’t seem to be doing the job.

We definitely can help people better understand the problem using visual tools. “Data visualization” has arrived on the scene, maybe just in time. There has been an explosion in the use of infographics to illustrate complex concepts, including environmental issues. We have more data at our fingertips than ever before and less time to process it all; combined with the availability of the technological tools to slice and dice the data into more visual formats, the emergence of this trend makes a lot of sense. Even the White House created an infographic  to describe its June 2013 Climate Action Plan [.pdf]. I recently used a great graphic [.pdf] of the carbon footprints in different neighbourhoods in the Greater Toronto Area in my Energy Conservation Progress Report – Vol. 1.

This data visualization trend has been around long enough that we’re starting to see the “next generation” of tools emerge. For climate change, there is one notable organization, Carbon Visuals, trying to get us to “look at carbon differently.” What does CO2 even look like? It’s an odourless, colourless, invisible gas. Not surprisingly, most people have no idea. Carbon Visuals to the rescue!  This image shows the scale of one tonne of CO2 at standard pressure. Each sphere is 10 metres in diameter and one sphere (one tonne) is emitted in New York City every 0.58 seconds!

pic 1

Carbon Visuals has also developed tools to help understand the main causes and scale of carbon emissions in certain jurisdictions, including New York City. Part of that is visualizing the yearly emissions from specific buildings, as this image shows. According to Carbon Visuals, these images have helped them engage with building owners and users.pic 2

Of course good visuals aren’t possible without good data, and the New York case is also an example of the value of government transparency in making available the necessary data to enable development of visual analytical tools.

The environmental community is learning to embrace data visualization.  See for example the recent cost of urban sprawl website by green economy think tank Sustainable Prosperity. Infographics, tables, illustrations and charts are certainly very useful in drawing people’s attention to the most important points, and in helping them better understand and remember complex issues, such as how badly we are failing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.  But as I’ve said before, we also need greater government transparency about numbers and data. Data visualization depends on access to data.

I hope to see many smart, creative examples of data visualization to help get us moving on climate change, because we are running out of time!

More on Short-Lived Climate Pollutants

I have written about the dangers of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) before, both on my blog and in my 2011 Annual Greenhouse Gas Progress Report.  But a more general overview of why this ‘under the radar’ climate change topic matters in Ontario is needed.

The four key SLCPs are methane, black carbon aerosols, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Climate change mitigation actions that reduce the presence of these four SLCPs in the atmosphere warrant more attention, because they can have dramatic short-term results. Case in point, a recent study  by the Scripps Institution for Oceanography, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Climate Central (which was published in April 2013 Nature Climate Change) found that mitigation of SLCPs could reduce cumulative sea level rise by up to 42% by 2100. However, to achieve this result, action has to begin now (by 2015). But this finding shows that mitigating SLCPs has significant potential to buy us more time to get our act together on the larger challenge of drastically reducing other greenhouse gases (GHGs), namely carbon dioxide (CO2).

Let’s learn a little more about SLCPs, and what could be done to reduce these potent warming agents in Ontario. The chart below describes the lifespan and global warming potential (a measure of the total energy that a gas absorbs over a certain time period, in this case 20 years, compared to CO2 which has a global warming potential of 1) of each SLCP, and looks at examples of where they come from and how to reduce them.

SLCP Lifespan Global Warming Potential (compared to CO2 = 1) Examples of Sources Examples of Mitigation Actions
Methane Ten years 721
  • Landfills
  • Oil and natural gas production
  • Livestock (especially grain fed feedlot animals)
  • Eliminating organics from landfills
  • Eliminating fugitive methane releases from distribution mains and fracking.
  • Altering manure management strategies or animal feeding practices.
One week 690-47002
  • Heavy diesel vehicles (trucks)
  • Forest fires
ozone 3
Few days-weeks N/A
  • Photochemical reaction with nitrogen oxides (NOx) from the combustion of fossil fuels
  • Reducing NOx emissions from all sources including vehicles, industry and electricity generation. See my latest GHG report for more details.
<15 years 437-12,0001
  • Mobile and stationary air conditioning
  • Fridges

1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change, Working Group I Report “The Physical Science Basis,” Chapter 2: Changes in Atmospheric Constituents and in Radiative Forcing. Page 212. [.pdf]
2. Bond, T. and Sun, H. Can reducing black carbon emissions counteract global warming? Environmental Science & Technology 2005 39(16): 5922. [.pdf]
3. Reid, Neville, 2007. A Review of Background Ozone in the Troposphere. [.pdf]

SLCP lifespans are shorter and their global warming potential is greater than that of carbon dioxide (CO2). This means that actions to reduce SLCPs can have immediate and significant benefits in mitigating climate change.

There are currently available solutions and technologies to reduce SLCPs and other jurisdictions are taking action. The most encouraging sign was the recent announcement by the United States and China that they will work together, and with other countries, using the governance infrastructure created by the Montreal Protocol, to phase down the use of HFCs.

It is time for Ontario to get serious about reducing SLCPs, especially with regard to ozone in the troposphere, the layer of air closest to the Earth’s surface, which is actually the air we breathe. As I stressed in my 2009-2010 Annual Report, any improvement to Ontario’s air quality, especially at street level in urban areas, would be a big improvement.