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.