Statement on greenhouse gas emissions associated with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion

I delivered the following statement this morning at a meeting of the Ministerial Panel on the proposal to expand the Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline:

My name is Simon Donner and I work as an Associate Professor of Climatology in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia. For the past 15 years, I have conducted research in the area of climate change science and policy.

I am here today to explain the effect of upstream greenhouse gas emissions due to the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion on Canada’s international climate commitments following the Paris Climate Agreement.

Let me be clear at the outset. I am here as neither an opponent nor a proponent of the proposed activity. I am personally agnostic about the pipeline expansion. My statement speaks only to whether the project is consistent with Canada’s climate policy.

There are two key points in this statement:

First, the draft upstream emissions analysis conducted by Environment and Climate Change Canada features critical methodological shortcomings. These lead to incorrect conclusions about upstream emissions.

Second, the proposed pipeline expansion “locks in” future greenhouse gas emissions at a level that is not compatible with Canada’s international climate commitments, unless aggressive actions are taken to reduce net emissions from other sectors of the economy.

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The hoops of Majuro: Dispatch from the Marshall Islands

This is the fourth in a series of dispatches from our field work in the Republic of Marshall Islands.

The geography of sports in the Pacific Islands is a bit of a lens into the colonial history and ongoing international power dynamics. There’s the rabid popularity of rugby in once-British Fiji. Then there’s the ‘export’ of football players from American Samoa, a U.S. territory where people are not granted U.S. citizenship and cannot vote for president.

In the Marshall Islands, which has its own complicated relationship with the U.S., the sport of choice is basketball.

In the capital of Majuro, there are hoops attached to posts, palm trees, walls, you name it. There are quite a few well-maintained places to play, including the covered outdoor courts in front of the College of the Marshall Islands. However, many aging nets, hoops and backboards stay standing for years for the reasons described in my first dispatch: the challenge of getting new materials and disposing of waste on isolated reef islands.

Without further adieu, I present the hoops of Majuro:


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Nuclear legacies: Dispatch from the Marshall Islands

This is the third in a series of dispatches from our field work in the Republic of Marshall Islands.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAcross the road from the pier where we began each day in Majuro is a building housing the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. And a dentist’s office.

The Tribunal was created in the 1980s as part of the “Compact of Free Association” with the U.S., which gave the Marshall Islands independence. It was established to compensate the people and their families affected by the nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll in the 1950s.

The story of the forced evacuation in advance of nuclear testing of Bikini is well known. Today, the Bikinians and their descendants largely live on Kiji, a small crowded islet in Majuro, or in the U.S.

Less known, and even more odious, is the story of the people of Bikini’s close neighbour, Rongelap Atoll, a mere 75 miles away.

The Rongelapese were not evacuated until 1954, days after the massive 15-megaton Castle Bravo test dropped fallout over the whole region. Three years later, they were told it was safe to return.


Seriously dark humour: the airport bar sells a “Bravo” shot

They became test subjects in what was effectively a randomly controlled trial on radiation exposure. The Rongelapese were finally evacuated again in 1985, to two small islets in Kwajalein Atoll, home of a U.S. military base, by Greenpeace aboard the Rainbow Warrior.

As detailed in the Rongelap Report, the fantastic and thoroughly depressing book by Barbara Johnston and Holly Barker, the Nuclear Claims Tribunal has awarded over $1 billion in legal claims. However, under the Compact agreement, the Tribunal was only allocated $150 million in compensation. The rest has gone unpaid.

Some Rongelapese are still hoping to return home, depending on the health of the soil. Not the Bikinians, though.

The Bikinians are worried about a new threat, also brought on by the rest of the world. Their adopted islet of Kili, along with much of Majuro, has experienced severe flooding several times in the past few years. Concerned about sea-level rise, the Bikinians in Kili have asked about relocating to the U.S. 


After the flood: Dispatch from the Marshall Islands

The July 3, 2015 storm (G. Johnson)

The July 3, 2015 storm (G. Johnson)

During our visit to Majuro Atoll, construction was ongoing to repair a stretch of relatively urban shoreline devastated by a storm last July.

The waves and the damage from the July 3, 2015 storm were unlike anything local residents could remember. Westerly winds brought waves up to 10 feet high into the normally placid lagoon. Boats sunk, sea walls were torn apart, and houses were damaged, including that of Tony de Brum, the climate envoy who was pivotal in discussion of the 1.5 C temperature target at the UN Climate Summit in Paris.

Did global warming and sea-level rise play a role? Most likely yes.

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How do we determine what counts as “climate” aid?

As part of the United Nations (UN) climate agreements, the developed world has promised to provide at least US$100 billion per year by the year 2020 to help the developing world respond to climate change. The funding may come in many forms, from grants to private investments. There is one key stipulation: climate aid must be “new and additional” to standard development aid.


Road and seawall construction (Tarawa, Kiribati)

What counts, and does not count, as climate aid is the subject of a new study (open access) by my colleagues Milind Kandlikar, Sophie Webber, and I. Accounting may not seem as glamorous as surveying reefs on remote islands, but it is just as important. If we want to help the developing world respond to climate change, we need to make sure any promised aid is actually being provided and meeting the priorities of the recipients.

Current estimates of climate, and especially adaptation, finance are uncertain and contentious because they depend on potentially politically-motivated and value-laden assumptions. For example, as we note in the paper, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) itself concluded that depending on the method of analysis, anywhere from virtually none to almost all of the fast-start financing provided after the 2009 meeting in Copenhagen could be considered additional climate aid. Continue reading


Where to throw things on an atoll: Dispatch from the Marshall Islands

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“For God’s sake, do not go to Majuro!”

It was 2005, and I was on my way to do research in the central Pacific for the first time. The warning was the only ‘advice’ I received about the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and it came from the only person I had met who had been there: a retired American travelling quickly from country to country for the sole purpose of collecting as many different stamps as possible in his passport. With a trip already scheduled to Kiribati, and spooked a bit by the warning, I shortened the stop in Majuro to just a few days.

It was my loss. Majuro Atoll (top right) is a friendly and fascinating place. Our small team – Sara Cannon from my research group, Diane Thompson from Boston University and soon-to-be PhD student Emma Reed – just completed a research trip to Majuro and its neighbour Arno Atoll. We were there to study climate history and evaluate the effect of climate and local disturbances on the coral reefs. Continue reading


Can coral reefs recover from bleaching? The case of Tobago

by Salome Buglass

The bleaching of coral reefs is once again making headlines. Reefs across the tropical Pacific, including the Great Barrier Reef and now reefs in the Indian Ocean, are turning white due to warmer than usual sea temperatures as a result of climate change and the current El Niño. This may be the beginning of a series of mass bleaching events occurring at a global scale, similar to those observed in 1998, 2005, and 2010. Caribbean coral reefs may be the next to experience extensive bleaching, starting at the end of the region’s summer (~August 2016). How coral communities recover from the aftermath of bleaching events is a key question concerning marine scientists and managers as it will determine the survival of coral reefs on an increasingly warming planet.

Bleaching in 2010 at Speyside, Tobago

Bleaching in 2010 at Speyside, Tobago

When sea surface temperatures rise above the normal high for the year, it stresses corals causing them to expel the colorful algae that live inside the corals’ tissue and which provide the corals with their brilliant color and most of their energy needs. Bleached corals are weak and the longer they remain in this state, the more susceptible they become to infectious diseases and vulnerable to partial or complete mortality. Severe bleaching events often lead to significant decline in coral “cover” – the fraction of the reef covered by living corals — and changes in the average colony size. For instance, the average colony size declines as a result of partial mortality or fragmentation. Considering that larger corals tend to have greater reproductive output, a decline in abundance and mean size of coral colonies can greatly slow down the ability of the corals to reproduce, regrow, and thus recover following disturbances such as bleaching.

After witnessing the bleaching among the coral reefs that surround my home island of Tobago back in 2010, I decided to dedicate my Master’s thesis to studying the impact and recovery of these coral communities. With Simon Donner from the University of British Columbia and Jahson Alemu from the Trinidad and Tobago’s Institute of Marine Affairs, I examined changes in coral demographics over time (2010-2013) across three near-shore reef systems with different proximity to urban land. In addition, we tallied the juvenile corals at each reef, as their abundances are indicative of different species’ ability to reproduce sexually and survive. We also assessed sediment deposition and composition at each site using simple PVC pipe traps, as high levels of sedimentation are known to affect the growth stages in a coral’s life cycle. Continue reading


The Vancouver Climate Agreement

This week, the students in my course “Climate Change: Science and Society” completed the “22nd” Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Groups of students representing 24 different countries worked feverishly for a week to complete an agreement. Without further ado, we present to you the Vancouver Climate Agreement:



1. All countries present agree that forests, land use changes, and other sinks shall be included when calculating net greenhouse gas emissions, excluding unintentional and unavoidable natural disasters such as pests and fires. Greenhouse gas emissions including emissions from land use, land use change, and forestry should be reported every five years. Continue reading


Can Canada live up to the promise of the Paris Climate Agreement?

My new article in Policy Options explores whether Canada can reconcile its climate policy targets with the temperature limits in the Paris Climate Agreement. The article is based on an analysis I conducted with Kirsten Zickfeld of Simon Fraser University – the report is available here.

The answer depends on how the world divides up the carbon that could be burned while keeping the planet within the temperature limits. From the report:

If you divide the pie based on each country’s present-day emissions, wealthy high-emitting Canada gets a generous helping for a country of its size (1.6-1.8% of the remaining carbon budget). If you divide the pie based on population, Canada gets a more equitable but much smaller slice (0.5% of the remaining budget).

With a generous helping of carbon pie, future emissions pathways for Canada that are consistent with the temperature limits would look like the figure at left. The 1.5°C limit is “at best unrealistic, at worst politically impossible.” The current Canadian target of reducing emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 could be consistent with the 2°C limit, provided emissions continue to rapidly decline after 2030.

Other countries, however, may not like Canada taking such a generous helping:

Allocating the remaining carbon budget based on present-day emissions places an unfair burden on developing and rapidly industrializing countries that historically have had low per-capita emissions. Despite being far less responsible for climate change to date, and currently having low per-capita emissions, countries like India would essentially be asked to bear an equal part of future mitigation efforts.

Equity, granted, is also an issue within Canada. I’ve been asked about emissions trajectories for individual provinces (that are consistent with the Paris temperature limits). Those trajectories would depend on assumptions about how Canada’s carbon budget “should” be allocated between different parts of the country. The answer for Canada as a whole is already dependent on assumptions about our slice of the global carbon pie; advancing this analysis to the provincial level would introduce even greater uncertainty, not to mention greater room for argument.

A simple approach would be to simply “scale” the emissions trajectories depicted above to the provincial emissions. Following that logic, the percent reduction targets, and the percent change in emissions by year, would be the same across all the provinces. That method, however, ignores the wide differences in mitigation potential and historic emissions burden. Perhaps the only thing that is clear from this analysis is that there’s no easy solution for Canada.




Canada’s contribution to meeting the Paris temperature targets

PM Trudeau in Paris (CBC)

PM Trudeau in Paris (CBC)

At this week’s First Ministers’ Meeting here in Vancouver, the federal government begins the politically difficult task of establishing a national climate policy. The first step is coordinating the existing patchwork of provincial policies and carbon pricing systems.

Underlying this conversation is a question that has remained unanswered since Canada’s much-celebrated turn at the 2015 United Nations climate summit in Paris:

Are the existing or proposed national emissions targets consistent with the global promises made in Paris?

Together with Kirsten Zickfeld of Simon Fraser University, I completed a report on future CO2 emissions trajectories for Canada that are consistent with avoiding the global temperature limits in the Paris Climate Agreement.

The analysis in our report suggests that the current Canadian target of a 30% reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 could be consistent with maintaining a likely chance (66%) of limiting warming to less than 2°C globally, but only if Canada is given a generous allocation of the world’s “remaining” future carbon budget (based on the present fraction of the world’s emissions). A target consistent with a likely (66%) chance of avoiding 1.5°C of warming globally is extremely limited regardless of the method of allocation. Even under a generous allocation to Canada, national net CO2 emissions would need to decline 90-99% below 2005 levels by 2030.

For more, see the full report available here. I’ll also write more on this subject in the coming weeks.