I’m telling you nothing new when I say that in confronting Climaticide we face both an opportunity and a grave danger. On the one hand, if we change our behavior, we can not only save ourselves from the worst climate catastrophe but also, as a necessary part of the process, make our civilization more sustainable and more just. On the other, if we reject fundamental change and postpone meaningful action we will only travel further down the mistaken path that we embarked on when we decided to tie our fate to the exploitation of fossil fuels. With each missed opportunity and tipping point passed our future becomes more problematic.
That the world still finds itself heading down the road to ruin is in very large measure because America has betrayed its ideals and failed in its responsibilities. The destructive consequences of the Bush administration’s refusal to participate in international efforts to combat Climaticide in favor of a jingoistic, nationalistic, energy policy became even more starkly evident this week with news stories about the headlong race to exploit Canadian tar sands and problems with the Australians efforts to establish meaningful cap and trade emissions standards.
Let’s start with Alberta’s tar or oil sands:
Shell, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Canada’s Imperial and other companies plan to strip an area here the size of New York state that could yield as much as 175 billion barrels of oil. Daily production of 1.2 million barrels from the oil sands is expected to nearly triple to 3.5 million barrels in 2020. Overall, Alberta has more oil than Venezuela, Russia or Iran. Only Saudi Arabia has more.[my emphasize–JR]
This is what oil sands exploitation looks like.
Oil-sands operations, including extraction and processing, are responsible for 4 percent of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and that’s expected to triple to 12 percent by 2020. Oil-sand mining is Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases and is one reason it reneged on its Kyoto Protocol commitments. Experts say producing a barrel of oil from sands results in emissions three times greater than those from producing a conventional barrel of oil.
According to the world’s foremost climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen:
Reserves are hotly debated and may be exaggerated, but we know that enough oil and gas remain to take global warming close to, if not into, the realm of dangerous climate effects. Coal and unconventional fossil fuels such as tar shale contain enough carbon to produce a vastly different planet, a more dangerous and desolate planet, from the one on which civilization developed, a planet without Arctic sea ice, with crumbling ice sheets that ensure sea level catastrophes for our children and grandchildren, with shifting climate zones that cause great hardship for the world’s poor and drive countless species to extinction, and with intensified hydrologic extremes that cause increased drought and wildfires but also stronger rain, floods, and storms.[emphasis added–JR]
According to other experts:
David Suzuki, Canada’s most prominent environmentalist, and other critics warn that the environmental ramifications are too dire to ramp up oil-sands production.
Their [the oil companies investing in tar sands] projected rates of expansion are so fast that we don’t have a hope in hell of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions,” said Dr. David Schindler, an environmental scientist at the University of Alberta.
Other critics raise other environmental concerns:
Many critics are worried about the amount of water taken from Alberta’s Athabasca River. The extraction process uses 2 to 4 ½ barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced, according to the Pembina Institute, a nonprofit think tank.
There are concerns, too, about the tailing ponds next to the river. The ponds contain waste made from the separation of oil from sand. The toxic ponds take up 50 square miles of northern Alberta.
Jeff Short, a U.S. government scientist who studied the long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, said if one of the ponds spilled into the river, the impact would be felt for decades — or centuries.
“It would be the equivalent of several hundred Exxon Valdez oil spills,” he said.
Note: Apparently some of the ponds are already leaking into the river.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world in Australia:
Designing an emissions trading scheme in Australia was supposed to have been made easier by the pioneering work done in the European Union. After all, they’ve been developing their scheme since 2000 and trading for nearly four years, albeit with varied success.
But there’s a big catch. The EU hasn’t worked out how to treat its emissions-intensive trade-exposed (EITE) industries and find an equitable system for auctioning permits. Under pressure from business concerned about the erosion of their international competitiveness, the EU avoided any tough decisions on permits, simply allocating them to major emitters or applying grandfather clauses since the first trial period began in 2005.
Environmentalists derided the approach and the over-generous allocations that followed, but the underlying structural problem is genuine. The accumulation of greenhouse emissions is a global problem, but any domestic emissions trading scheme will make firms inside its borders less internationally competitive, and will just relocate many trade-exposed emissions from regulated to unregulated economies. [added emphasis–JR]
This article goes on to quote a study by the Business Council of Australia that “tested the impact of a carbon price of $40 a tonne on 14 trade-exposed firms.” (This is a extremely low price for carbon that translates into a price of less than $11 a ton for CO2. A price that would get us moving toward serious carbon reduction would probably need to be at least 10 times higher.) The study concluded that:
…without any compensation, four would close, three more would have to take drastic action and might also fail, while the remaining seven would lose more than 10 per cent of profits. Remedial action for all firms would result in significant carbon leakage to other economies.
I have serious doubts about the accuracy of the Business Council of Australia’s calculations. Nevertheless the fear that any country that imposes strict emissions standards on it’s most polluting, energy-intensive industries will either see those industries go bankrupt or pack up and move to some place without regulations is widespread.
Canada’s decision to exploit its tar sand resources and the failure of Cap and Trade in Europe to set an adequate price for carbon highlight what happens when there is a lack of international agreement about confronting Climaticide. The failure of the United States to sign the Kyoto Treaty and to seriously participate in the ensuing negotiations about further emissions cuts has undoubtedly been a major contributor to both of these policy failures.
What are the lessons that President Obama and Vice-President Biden should draw from this?
1) Without international agreements, all attempts to confront Climaticide are doomed to failure. No country is going to establish emissions limits on its most energy intensive, most polluting industries, if it sees large economic losses as the consequence. Without United States leadership, the establishment of a world-wide enforceable and effective Cap, Auction and Trade policy will never happen. Developing countries such as China and India will only join such a system if the developed world embraces it unanimously.
Additionally, a plan must be adopted to transfer sustainable energy technology and programs for energy efficiency to the world’s most impoverished nations at little or no cost to them. Both practical considerations (including putting an end to deforestation and sponsoring both reforestation and afforestation) and justice require that these countries be given an opportunity for development that does duplicate and exacerbate the errors committed by the developed world.
2) The energy crisis cannot be addressed outside of the context of the climate crisis. Attempts to achieve energy independence or to alleviate high energy costs that ignore the question of greenhouse gas emissions will only worsen our problems and make it less likely that we will be able to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points.
Specifically, international agreement needs to be reached banning:
a. all new coal-fired power plants that do not provide Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS),which at the present time means NO new coal-fired power plants.
b. any exploitation of oil from tar sands or oil shale.
c. offshore oil exploitation in newly ice-free Arctic waters.
Free market advocates have argued that high energy prices will lead to innovation that will fix the problem, but without international agreement on emissions policy, higher energy prices will only lead to the exploitation of the most dangerous remaining fossil fuels and uncertainty and delay in the adoption of real cap, auction and trade policies. We can afford neither.
Check out this new post by Joe Romm on why, even with US leadership, attainment of these goals is going to be extremely difficult.