Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

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11 Jun 2021

Another warning

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

Even as governments and citizens struggle to cut greenhouse gas emissions, they continue to rise. This spring the world passed another dangerous mark when the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 419 parts per million or 50 per cent higher than in pre-industrial times. It has now reached levels last seen 4 million years ago when our early ancestors were developing stone tools. Back then the world was in a natural warming period. The global temperature was 4 degrees C warmer and the oceans about 24 metres higher, flooding what is now home to half of humanity. The latest measurement comes from the world-famous atmospheric observatory atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. According to Pieter Tans, a senior scientist with NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory, the world continues to add about 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. The United Nations has warned that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by near half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to prevent a climate disaster.

CO2 level keeps going up

Meanwhile the world continues to open new coal mines, and oil and gas wells as a growing world population demands more energy. The International Energy Agency is forecasting that global demand for oil will rebound to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2022. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development rich nations keep funding energy projects that pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere despite pledges to reduce emissions. The organization said that between January 2020 and March 2021, G7 nations put US$189 billion into coal, oil and gas projects compared to US$147 billion for clean energy. UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently said the world needs to abolish subsidies to fossil fuels and put a price on carbon dioxide emissions. Recently the G7 agreed to stop the international financing of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel but keep supporting gas projects, which still add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

28 May 2021

What’s in a name?

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The oil industry is under so much pressure to clean up that some businesses are rebranding themselves. This week the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors became the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors. In France the oil giant, Total, changed its name to TotalEnergies, saying it will invest more in solar and wind energy, using revenues from its oil business. The question is whether the name changes signal real cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. In 2001, the oil giant BP rebranded itself from British Petroleum to “beyond petroleum.” I asked a BP executive if this meant the company was getting out of the oil business. He gave me a horrified look and said BP was investing in renewable energy but still intended to pump and sell as much oil as it could. A decade later, BP sold off many solar and wind assets to deal with financial problems caused by a gigantic oil spill. More recently it has once again promised to invest in renewable energy.

The name changes are one more signal the once-stable industry is in a historic period of change. In The Netherlands a court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must accelerate its planned emission cuts. This was the result of a lawsuit by Friends of the Earth and thousands of Dutch citizens. On the same day shareholders voted to nominate two climate activists to the board of ExxonMobil, while Chevron shareholders voted for a proposal to cut emissions generated by its oil and gas products.

24 May 2021

Cleaner – faster

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

It’s time to start cutting the ties to fossil fuels. That’s the short, sharp, hard message from the International Energy Agency [IEA]. Its report Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, says that if countries are going to achieve their Paris agreement goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 they have to start moving a lot faster than they are now. They need to immediately cease new investments in oil, gas and coal supply, shutter coal-fired plants in advanced economies by 2030 and ban sales of new internal combustion engine cars by 2035. IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said the opportunity to bring emissions down in time to stop severe climate change is “narrow but still achievable.” He went on to say, “The scale and speed of the efforts demanded by this critical and formidable goal – our best chance of tackling climate change and limiting global warming to 1.5 °C – make this perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,”

It’s a kick in the behind for the numerous governments that keep funding and encouraging more fossil fuel development even as they promise to reduce emissions. Although some countries are cutting fossil fuel use others are still expanding it, particularly with coal-fired power plants, one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide. Many are still expanding their natural gas networks which supply fuel for heating to hundreds of millions of homes and other buildings. There is already pushback from some developing countries that want to take advantage of established fossil fuel technologies to expand their economic growth. Just after the IEA report came out the G7 nations and the European Union agreed to stop international funding for coal projects that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

For years climate activists, recently joined by some major investors, have been calling for an end to investment in fossil fuels. The IEA report is support from a highly credible source, one that was created in 1974 to ensure the security of oil supplies after the 1973 oil embargo by major producing countries. The agency has evolved to the point that it calls for “the complete transformation of the global energy system.” It says that by 2050 oil, gas and coal use needs to fall to just 20 per cent of energy supply, down from 80 per cent currently. What remains of fossil fuel use will need to be offset by carbon capture technology.

The IEA report, which it calls the world’s first comprehensive energy roadmap, focuses on energy, source of around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions today. In addition to stopping the expansion of fossil fuel use, it calls for the “massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation.” We need an unprecedented expansion of technologies such as renewables, electric vehicles and energy efficient building retrofits between now and 2030. The IEA says that most of the reductions in CO2 emissions this decade can come from current technologies but after that we need to roll out technologies that are still at the demonstration or prototype stage.

The IEA says global clean energy investments need to more than triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion a year. The upside of such investments is not only a more stable climate but a 4 per cent boost in global GDP by 2030 and the opportunity to provide clean electricity to most of the world. There will be great opportunities for innovation in sectors such as advanced batteries, hydrogen fuel and carbon removal from the atmosphere. Virtually eliminating fossil fuel burning would get rid of air pollution that sickens and kills millions of people a year.

We are on the road to a historic change. Wind farms and giant solar arrays are spreading faster than ever. Automotive giants like Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen have decided on an electric future and announced billions of dollars in investments in electric vehicles.

Electric pickup truck
All-electric pickup truck

The IEA report calls for a growth spurt in renewables that is hard to grasp. For solar power, it is equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day. While governments need to lead change the report says, “A transition of such scale and speed cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from citizens, whose lives will be affected in multiple ways.” Around 55 per cent of the emission reductions in the proposed pathway are linked to consumer choices such as purchasing an EV, retrofitting a house with energy-efficient technologies or installing a heat pump. Behavioural changes, particularly in advanced economies – such as replacing car trips with walking, cycling or public transport, or foregoing a long-haul flight – also provide around 4 per cent of the reductions.

23 May 2021

A lesson from COVID-19 for climate change

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

We can look on the experience of dealing with COVID-19 as a training ground for the upheavals coming with climate change. The speed with which we reacted to the new virus showed we are amazingly adaptable. In a few weeks people stopped travelling, learned to wear masks and pulled back from human contact. Scientists collaborated to produce vaccines in months not years. One country after another is bringing the infection rate down.

When it comes to heading off the worst of climate change the challenges will be different, much more complicated and permanent. We need to create a new normal. We cannot keep releasing massive of greenhouse gases if we want to have a habitable world. We need to start immediately replacing most of the energy systems that power the modern world. This includes everything from gasoline-powered lawn mowers to cars and trucks to the giant ships and planes that carry us and our goods around the world run – all burning fossil fuels.

This is “perhaps the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced,” says Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency [IEA], a global centre of expertise on energy. There are signs of progress. Car makers are making the switch to electric motors faster than anyone thought possible just a few years ago. More than a dozen countries have announced bans on fossil fueled vehicles over the next couple of decades. Investments in renewable energy generation are growing at a record place. They need to. Most of the world’s vast array of fossil-fueled power plants need to be phased out over the next few decades. Ditto for the huge number of heating systems in homes, offices, shops and hospitals that all burn oil or natural gas. These are staggering challenges. We have never had to abandon such a huge number of technologies that worked very well because they are destroying our environment.

The IEA says we have many of the technologies to start the move to net zero emissions by 2050, but we need other technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase. Developing vaccines for COVID-19 in less than a year shows we can move with incredible speed and ingenuity. Cutting our emissions of greenhouse gases will require the same type of global cooperation and innovation and huge investments. We will need ingenuity, adaptability and flexibility to end our carbon-intensive lifestyle. Moving quickly pays off. As we saw with COVID-19 infection rates, those governments that imposed strict controls on movement and stuck with them ended up with far fewer infections and were able to open up earlier.

Making an unprecedented change in our energy supply will require courageous leadership from governments. They need to start limiting then banning new investments in fossil fuels and their use.  It will especially hard for governments of fossil fuel producing countries, such as Canada. While there will be many new jobs in a renewable energy economy there will be losers, especially among people who work in the fossil fuel sector. The transition will be hard, and it will be essential for governments to provide support for those dislocated by the changes just as they did when businesses were closed by COVID-19 restrictions.

It will be important for leaders to focus on the benefits of change rather than the costs of the transition. Stopping the burning of fossil fuels will eliminate a major source of air pollution that causes health problems and shortens lives. Electric vehicles are simpler and cheaper to maintain. Government directives are not enough on their own. We need but a profound culture change. This is not a new idea. In 1973 the Science Council of Canada called for a shift to a “conserver society.” It said, “Canadians, as individuals, and their governments, institutions and industries, (must) begin the transition from a consumer society preoccupied with resource exploitation to a conserver society engaged in more constructive endeavours.”

27 Apr 2021

Unions and the environment

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

When society decides that an industry is too polluting and must be changed or closed the workers may lose their livelihoods. In many cases, unions have fought to protect industries and members’ jobs despite the environmental impact from that work. At some point that is no longer acceptable, and the unions can become powerful voices for environmental protection. That is the message from Unifor, whose 315,000 members form Canada’s largest private sector union. About 12,000 work in the oil and gas sector, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. In a statement, Unifor says, “Canadian labour strongly supports climate change action to limit global warming and we are prepared to work with government and employers on the transitions and transformations that will be necessary.” It continues that, “Some workers and industries will be directly affected by carbon pricing and by reducing the use of fossil fuels. In these cases a ‘just transition’ is necessary to ensure that workers do not disproportionately bear the burden of change.”

The Unifor position on the need to reduce greenhouse gases is an echo of that from the United Steelworkers of America on the struggle to cut acid rain, then seen as Canada’s greatest environmental threat. In 1983 the Steelworkers called for major cuts to acid gases from the Inco Ltd. smelter in Sudbury even though this would lead to some job losses. Union officials said the environment cannot be traded off for jobs. “We are our brother’s keeper,” said union president Ron MacDonald. These are crucial statements from those who represent workers. We need to reduce pollution but see workers are not abandoned and get a just transition to retirement or good new jobs. Such statements from unions are of historic importance because they undercut the argument that we cannot afford to protect the environment because it will affect jobs.

22 Apr 2021

Science and choices

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

If there is one lesson COVID-19 can teach us about environmental decision making it’s that if you ignore the science advice, you’re going to get into a lot of trouble. Politicians who listened to advice from doctors made much better decisions than those who pushed it aside under pressure from other interests.

When it comes to climate change we are faced with even more complex choices. We’ve got clear advice about the risks, some of which are already evident and about how much we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions: half by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. How do we do it? Are electric cars going to save us? Will our electricity systems be able to handle the demand? Is carbon capture and storage a worthwhile technology? How fast can we transition from fossil fuels to renewables? How do we cope with intermittent power supplies? What do we do about food supplies? The list of questions is endless. There are many answers, often from people or organizations trying to further their interests. There are billions of dollars at stake as well as the shape of our economy and society for decades. Governments, businesses and the public need the best possible advice and we need it now. Governments could use the model of COVID-19 expert panels and groups to provide the best advice on the difficult transition ahead.

13 Apr 2021

The rich polluters

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The world’s rich not only have more money but they create a huge amount of the planet’s pollution. Changing our ways? Behaviour change and the climate crisis, by the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change lays out some shocking numbers. It says greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s richest one per cent are greater than all those from the poorest 50 per cent. It says that one per cent – the polluter elite – needs to reduce its footprint by a factor of 30 if the world is to meet the Paris climate agreement targets. The situation is worsening according to the report because of the expanding middle classes in developing countries are trying to emulate lifestyles in rich nations.

It cites the 2020 UN Emissions Gap report which said we need more than a 90 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Cambridge commission says we need a rapid shift to a sustainable lifestyle based on low energy demand, low material consumption and eating food that does not result in high greenhouse gas emissions. This includes a more plant-based diet, a reduction in food waste, a ban on big gas-guzzling vehicles and big cuts to air travel.

It won’t be easy. “The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous.” It will take both changes in personal behaviour combined with government policies that give people low-polluting options they often lack today. While many will see the huge changes as losses, the report says we will gain cleaner air, more vibrant local communities and improvements to well-being.

20 Mar 2021

We need more imagination

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

What we need to deal with the environmental sustainability crisis is the imagination to take on our great challenges. A very interesting article in The Guardian newspaper talks about a proposal to regreen the Sinai Peninsula, a chunk of Egyptian desert abutting Israel to the east with the Red Sea to the south and the Mediterranean Sea to the north. Long ago, the Sinai had forests and rivers. But, like too many parts of the world it was deforested for firewood and building materials, and grazing animals prevented forests from coming back. The loss of greenery led to a process of desertification, leaving an arid, barren and inhospitable landscape.

“This world is ready for regenerative change,” says Ties van der Hoeven, co-founder of a group of Dutch holistic engineers called The Weather Makers. They are proposing to regreen the Sinai, effectively rolling back the ecological clock. He compares this project to putting someone on the moon, very difficult but doable once people set their minds to it. What his group proposes is ecological restoration, the renewing and restoring of damaged or destroyed ecosystems.

There are good examples. The Loess Plateau an area in northwest China went over the centuries from a breadbasket to a dry, barren, heavily eroded landscape because of cutting too many trees and overgrazing the land. About 30 years ago a major restoration project turned around the soil degradation with planting vegetation and controls on land use. The land is more stable and food production went up.

In Africa’s Sahel region, at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert the Great Green Wall project aims to plant an 8,000-kilometre belt of trees from The Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It is now one of the poorest places on the planet, subject to war and famine. The aim is to restore this degraded landscape providing a better environment, food security, jobs and possibly peace.

7 Mar 2021

Throw less, fix more

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

The fastest and cheapest way to reach our environmental goals is not some new machine or process. It’s much simpler and we can do it now. It’s consuming and wasting less materials and energy. Earlier this year, France used an anti-waste law to require makers of some consumer products to display a repairability index with the price. The index covers smartphones, laptops, televisions, washing machines and lawnmowers. The aim of the index is to encourage people to choose more repairable products, and manufacturers to improve the repairability of their products. It’s an important attempt to fight against the throwaway culture. France estimated that only 40 per cent of broken electronic devices were repaired last year. It’s also an effort to roll back the clock to a time when products were expected to last for years and repairs were cheaper than replacement. In three years, the French index will be expanded to include durability. All this is part of a growing movement to encourage a circular economy where materials remain in use rather than ending up in the garbage.

28 Feb 2021

The end of ICE

Posted by Michael Keating. No Comments

When I was young, ice was something to slide on and then to skate on. As I got older it was something that lurked under the snow when skiing, ready to send me sideways. Later still, it was a threat when I walked in winter. Now the world worries about disappearing ice in our polar regions. Huge glaciers are melting and Arctic ice is retreating, opening one of the most dangerous oceans to shipping. ICE is also shorthand for internal combustion engine and this is something else that will be disappearing. As a young man, I watched car engines grow to mammoth sizes, as much as 7 litres. They burned huge amounts of gasoline and spewed out plumes of air pollution. Anti-pollution regulations have drastically cut the stinking fumes but can’t stop the carbon dioxide coming out the tailpipes. With climate change threatening the world’s future, the axe is falling on the fossil fuel engine. Around the world, governments are mandating a shift to emission-free vehicles over the next 10-15 years. The sales of battery electric vehicles is starting to climb. They were the majority of sales in progressive Norway last year. The automotive giants are moving. Companies like Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen, among others, have announced billions of dollars in investments in electric vehicles. Prepare to say goodbye to the roar of motor and hello to the sound of silence when you pull out of the driveway.

picture of Ford's new electric Mustang Mach-E
An electric Mustang
Credit: Ford Motor Co.