Has climate-change politics hit a wall? ~ David Wilkin

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By David Wilkin, Masters, Electrical Eng., P. Eng

The media is filled with global-warming predictions and warnings, with climate experts and national political leaders calling for more action, yet many in democratic countries are not onside with the current climate policies:

  • Ontario voters removed a 15-year Liberal government largely over unpopular cap-and-trade tax and costly green-energy policies. Now Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, PEI and Alberta all oppose carbon taxes. Recently, the collapse of Canadian oil and gas prices has angered many Canadians, exposing failures in Federal government energy and pipeline policies.
  • The French president, after only a few weeks of unprecedented citizen anger and protests over massively unpopular fuel tax increases, backed down on imposing new promised increases for six months. There are signs the uprising may spread beyond France.
  • Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter, elected a new conservative PM promising changes to previous climate plans.
  • Brazil, the largest player in South America, elected a populist president promising to pull out of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
  • The US Trump administration “America first” policies brought aggressive deregulation and promotion of its energy sectors, then withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Has climate-change politics hit a wall? Perhaps, but before drawing conclusions, here are some ‘big-picture’ energy facts to consider that seldom make headlines:

  • Globally, ‘green’ renewables (wind, solar) provide under one per cent of all energy consumed, and global energy demand is forecasted to grow by almost 27 per cent over the next two decades.
  • Renewables are used mostly in power generation, but there are real, hard limits to its overall share. Germany, a renewables leader, recently learned this, as it was forced to open new coal plants following the closure of nuclear plants. Green renewables in the German power-grid generate about 18 per cent of its power, and this appears close to the upper share-limit to ensure power-grid stability. Carbon-based backup generation is necessary to balance the load demand.
  • According to IEA 2017 CO2 emission reports, only seven of 195 Paris Agreement signing countries, and none of the 32 largest emitters were on track to meet commitments (China and India accounted for almost half of the 1.6 per cent 2017 global CO2 increase). Forecasts point to emissions growth in 2018, potentially by 2.7 per cent, despite the Paris Agreement calls for over one per cent reduction per year.
  • Polluting coal plants persist. A 2017 Berlin-based study found 1,600 new coal plants in 62 countries are planned or under construction, expanding coal-powered capacity by a staggering 43 per cent. Chinese companies will build half of them, despite coal reduction commitments.
  • A recent Nature Communications report showed if all countries followed the climate energy policies of China, Russia or Canada, world temperature would rise a dangerous five degrees Celsius by 2100.
  • The US became the world’s largest oil producer in 2018, and is on track to become a net energy exporter within a few years. This change has big geo-political consequences, particularly for Canada (the US takes 99 per cent of our oil exports), the Middle East, Russia, & China. Yet, somehow the US still managed to reduce carbon emissions by 0.5 per cent in 2017, better than all major emitters.
  • Many media headline-grabbing ‘doomsday’ predictions have not panned out with actual historic climate measurements. Some had serious errors.

The emission reduction progress in most countries is not measuring up to government leaders’ talk and commitments. What is becoming clear is that without changes, CO2 emissions will not decline, and we will see growing economic stress, inequities, social unrest and conflict. Quite the dilemma, to say the least. These are very complex issues to be sure, with no easy answers. One thing is clear—governments must have their people fully on board, otherwise they get thrown out. Here are some additional lessons leaders may have learned:

  • Transition from the carbon-energy economy will take many decades. Don’t prematurely limit oil and gas supplies or drive their costs too high before competitive alternatives are more widely available.
  • Don’t be myopic on renewables. Nuclear has a role to play, as will other innovations and incentives.
  • Policy burdens must not fall disproportionally on those least able to pay—it must be broadly viewed as fair.
  • Leaders viewed as elitist, idealist, out of touch or over-promising and under-delivering will fail.
  • Beware ‘Climate change hysteria, it hurts the cause in the long run.
  • The much-praised 2015 Paris Agreement is flawed. Its national voluntary targets and lack of fairness, standards, and enforcement are evident. Clearly, the biggest and fast-growing emitters (mostly in Asia) must do more to curb emissions. Regardless of your views on Trump, he was right to call out the flaws and need for changes.
  • More warming is inevitable, better start planning for it now.

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10 Comments

  1. I cannot believe that if all countries followed Canada’s energy policies, world temperatures would rise by five Celsius degrees (nine Fahrenheit degrees) by 2100. If all the provinces agreed to the carbon tax, this is simply impossible. Alberta is already limiting their oil and gas production in any attempt to prop up prices. And looking beyond fossil fuels to the immense present (and future) reserves of vegetation-based fuels, I feel that a far slower increase in Canadian temperatures, at least, is sustainable. We should be prospecting for cobalt (for batteries for electric cars): GM is trying to get ahead of the curve by transitioning almost exclusively to electric/hybrid vehicles. The time for LRT is now (not some vague time in the future), and even more studies into SAFE nuclear power are required. We cannot survive without it.

  2. Great article Dave. However, I do not agree that Trump was right to pull out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The agreement is not perfect with itsvoluntary and unenforced goals, but it’s better than no agreement which would have been the result of trying to impose enforced goals. The wealthy G7 and the G20 countries (20 biggest economies) must lead by example in everything, or there will be little hope for positive change. Trump, as leader of the world’s most wealthy economy, was dead wrong to pull out of the Paris agreement and by doing so, he gave an excuse to several others. Fortunately many US states are working to reduce emissions in spite of Trump.

  3. Dave, thanks for bringing a factual article on CO2 emissions and carbon reductions to the public domain. Rhetoric and Trump bashing seems to be more important than seeing actual CO2 emission reductions even though as you point out the US has been successful in reducing their emissions by .5% in 2017. People seem to stick their heads in the sand when it comes to oil. Much of the oil produced is further processed into plastics, these plastics are used in automobiles, electric cars and every piece of electronic equipment built today, in fact the majority of modern living has evolved around the processing of oil. Carbon Tax is not reducing carbon footprints, it simply increases tax on the people. The hysteria takes us away from building the infrastructure we need to deal with the ensuing disasters of climate change. We all need to do our share of reducing our dependency on oil by walking more, using cars less, flying less and using wood products, a renewable resource in place of plastics.

    • John and Brian
      I have spent a great deal of time and effort studying various levers that can be used to reduce emissions and resulting climate change. I am convinced that the broad-based revenue-neutral carbon tax is the most effective. It is the only way to get everyone involved and it does not raise anyone’s tax bill. it simply shifts the base from everything else to consumption of carbon. If you don’t believe in climate change, then do it to curb the use of fossil fuels before we run out in about 50 years. If we wait too long to remove a tumour we are doomed. If we wait too long to shift away from fossil fuels, we will have the double jeopardy of energy shortages along with climate change. I don’t want to foist that on my grandchildren. Do you?

  4. One thing about this climate change idea that keeps being sort of either overlooked, or just ignored is that one of the big drivers of climate change is the inequality of incomes around the world.
    The G-7, G-20 or whatever you like to call them, they have a relatively high per capita income and they have the lifestyle to go with it. Cars, lots of infrastructure, big homes, recreational homes, lots of fossil powered recreational toys, fresh food imported to local supermarkets regardless of the season, the list is endless.
    Developing countries, call them 3rd world or whatever, they have very little of all this “stuff”.
    When the world was not so globalized this did not matter much as these people, the poor of the earth, did not really realize that they were indeed “poor” but now with mass travel and electronic media flowing virtually everywhere these people see the difference between their lifestyle and that of the richer countries. Who wouldn’t want to upgrade their life!?. If their governments can’t do it due to being corrupt or incompetent then a lot of these people will vote by trying to immigrate to a richer country. The results are quicker than trying to change their country and these immigrants are hard to stop, Trump’s wall or not.

    The basic problem is that our Earth simply cannot produce enough resources such that all the people on it can live like Americans. But they watch TV and they see this largess and they want it.

    Climate change is inevitable with the energy use rates we have now. How are we going to bring all these other people up to our standards without making climate change much worse? There are roughly 6.5 billion people on Earth and only about 1 billion are the rich ones now. Can you see a problem looming here?
    If we cannot find a way to make our lifestyle orders of magnitude easier on resource consumption and carbon emissions caused by the generation of the energy we use, then we will surely not be able to accommodate the desires and wishes of the other 5 plus billion who now live in what we consider extreme poverty.
    Either this large group needs to lower their ambition, set their sights lower on the affluence scale, or we privileged few at the top need to lower our usage, and not just a little bit for show, but a lot that really makes a change that everyone can see and appreciate. Neither one of these options seems to very much accepted at the moment.

    Solve this little dilemma and you will be inline for the next Nobel Prize and save some part of out planet as well.

    • It’s about time to stop talking about global warming and start talking about pollution as they go hand in hand. Global warming has been going on for the last 10’000 years at least but the terrible pollution problem is only a couple hundred years old so let’s forget the carbon stuff and figure out how to stop a lot of the pollution . The way I see it if we all drove electric cars providing the energy we would need would pollute just about as much as using the gas we do. I’m the same as everyone else and have no idea just how to not contribute to the pollution problem and still live the way we do. I don’t really think going back to the horse and buggy age would make a difference.

      • Ray, it just isn’t as simple as, “Let’s all drive electric cars.” Talk to an electrical engineer about that possibility. 1) Our aging electric grid could not possibly supply the electrical energy needed to power all of those cars. 2) Do you not think that the production of that power entails pollution? 3) Electrical engineers run the numbers and understand that wind and solar are part of the mix in the energy basket but impractical for much of the energy needed. For example, the desert southwest in the U.S. has LOTS of sunshine but is far from the major population centres of the northeastern and eastern U.S. 4) California has promoted solar-powered electricity as a way of reducing their “carbon footprint” and discovered, to their dismay, that it isn’t particularly efficient or cost-effective. 5) How will the western U.S. producers get the solar-powered electricity to the eastern U.S. where it is needed? Electrical transmission over long distances, faces significant losses of power in the transmission. 6) Using coal-fired plants to produce the power for all of those electric vehicles will end up polluting possibly more than the present system. 7) It is not, at this time, politically acceptable to use nuclear power for much more of the energy picture. Everyone apparently thinks nuclear power is a swell idea until a power company proposes to build a nuclear power plant five miles from their house.

        No one has yet proved that the admittedly SMALL increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (carbon dioxide is a VERY small part of what comprises our air) will have anything close to what the “Chicken Little” prognosticators have dreamed up to scare everyone with. Al Gore said TEN years ago that we would have NO ICE at the poles within five years from that date. We are five years past his projected doomsday and, last time I checked, we still had an awful lot of ice at the poles. In fact, the Inuit say that the ice pack has increased in some areas. Methane is a MUCH more potent greenhouse gas and yet no one is talking much about it. Probably because they can’t figure out how to make us pay a tax on it. Ten years ago, an administrator at the U.N. admitted that the whole carbon tax idea was simply a way to get wealthy nations to transfer some of their wealth to poor nations (which are typically hotbeds of corruption where people in power scrape off huge proportions of everything given to those nations by the “wealthy” nations). The fact that the people behind the carbon tax plan are the same people who brought the world the “oil-for-food” scam (that made a number of people attached to the U.N. very wealthy–including the son of the then, Secretary General, Kofi Anan) should make us very suspicious. I could go on but now you know why people in France are rioting in protest of the huge tax hike on gasoline.

  5. Ray is right about the waste and pollution it causes.
    If we wish to have all the neat “stuff” that our science and industry can produce, it is sort of incumbent on us to go the last step and figure out how to do it without burying ourselves in waste too.

    I operate a small resort and we have offered recycling, composting, and that sort of stuff for years, long before our political leaders suddenly thought it was in vogue.

    Sadly we see many visitors who seemingly couldn’t care less and just toss everything into the trash.
    As an example, my family makes so little actual trash that the driving reason to toss what we do make is that it starts to smell! We get away with a small kitchen trash bag full per month. All the rest we recycle.
    In the heating season, we have a wood burning furnace and it also consumes all paper waste as well. Although we use about 25 face cords of wood per year in this furnace I find that most of what I need for it comes from damaged, dead or wind fallen trees. Very few good trees are needed and I’m not even making a small dent it the trees we have.
    We have two 10 kw solar installations too. These work ok. If I could add about 50 to 60 kw more of these it would make our business and homes here essentially a net zero user of electricity. I have the room, I have the money to install this but the government has enough rules and obstructions such that I cannot do this. They profess to be trying to “help the environment” but when it comes to something practical like this…. nothing is allowed to proceed.

    Back to those tourists…. I’ve seen cases where a family of 5 people produces about three full size garbage bags of trash per day…. day after day! Sadly, without trying to be racist or anything, Asians and Americans seem to be the worst offenders in this catagory. They are good for the economy I suppose but they leave a literal wake of trash behind them as they travel.
    I’ve seen holiday families that have 6 members, (mom, dad, grandpa/grandma and a couple of kids) show up and they all (except grandma/grandpa) have their own cars so for 6 people we see 5 cars at our parking lot. Then, they can’t walk a few hundred feet to our office but drive back and forth many times per day.
    You know, they really did not need this many cars nor that much use and I haven’t even mentioned that the kids are driving giant pick up trucks with one person on board and the parents have an SUV that has an engine in it that would have easily looked at home in a tractor trailer a few years back… Do we really need a 400 HP diesel in a truck or SUV that collects the groceries and trundles dad to work each day? Again, can you see an issue looming here? If you can’t you’re part of the problem most likely.

  6. Wow! great to see such great comments and dialogue coming!

    Two thoughts come to mind. First, Brian, you just landed on the next article I am currently working on! (we should talk!) By ~2040, economists forecast the world’s middle class will almost double to 7B people. China and India alone will account for half of it. As you point out, these 3.5B people will all want what we already enjoy. Given some of the energy facts I pointed out in my article, it is easy to see that there is no way CO2 emission can possible hit targets to achieve the 2-degree C stated red line. Emissions will continue to rise if this growth happens, even accelerate, as we have witnessed in the last few years. Something will have to give.

    This brings me to my point on why I think Trump made the right decision to pull the US out of the flawed Paris Agreement. It brings the world attention to this simple reality – committed targets by the countries with the big emerging middle class will not reduce emission growth for 50 years or more. Period. The current modern middle class countries (EU, North America, Japan) with its ~1B people could drop their emissions to 0 over the next 20 years, and it still won’t work. It’s a zero sum game. China and other emerging countries that are following China’s proven model will not trade off growth goals for lower emissions. Their weak Paris commitments reflect this reality. The switch off of the carbon-based energy can not happen fast enough. This is the dilemma the world leaders must face. No more nice talk, and wishful thinking. It has to be confronted head on if we believe the experts’ climate models are right. Trump has just called it out. (in his usual, blunt way)

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