Emissions of Convenience: The other side of oil spills

The fear of oil spills on Canada’s west coast was heightened by the recent small spill of bunker fuel, basically fuel oil, from a container ship parked in Vancouver’s harbour. Amidst all the furor over the recent spill, one question was missing: What would have happened to that fuel oil if it had not leaked into English Bay?VCRD129_Oil_Spill_20150409

It would have been burned, adding CO2 and a number of air pollutants to the atmosphere.

Transporting goods around the world via ships represents around 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly the same as air travel, or all of Canada. A recent study by Alice Bows-Larkin and others in Nature Climate Change concluded that shipping emissions are going to continue to grow at a rapid pace into the future despite the availability of technological advancements in ship design and energy sources.

The question of tackling greenhouse gas emissions from shipping will be up for debate at the upcoming meeting of the International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (May 11-15th, 2015) thanks to a push from a surprising source: the Republic of the Marshall Islands. This small Pacific Islands country may sadly be best known to outsiders as the site of U.S. hydrogen bomb tests in the 1950s.

Why are the Marshall Islands leading the charge for regulation of shipping emissions?

Thanks to the weird system of international shipping in which vessels fly the flag of distant countries in order to avoid regulations, the Marshall Islands is legally the home port of 3,400 large vessels. If you live in Vancouver or another port city, look through some binoculars at the back of the supertankers and container vessels and you will likely see one of three names: Panama, Monrovia (the capital of Liberia), or Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands.

Unlike most economic sectors, shipping emissions are not part of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and thus not part of the emissions total for countries. Under the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, the responsibility for shipping emissions was handed to the IMO, similar to how aviation emissions were made the responsibility of the International Civil Aviation Organization.


Flooding in Majuro, 2014 (rtcc.org)

The Marshall Islands is using the leverage of its large ship registry to push for a sector-wide emissions target. With most land less than 2-3m above sea-level, the coral atolls of the Marshall Islands are highly vulnerable to climate change. The damaging “king” tides from last year gave a glimpse of the future of the Marshallese. Here’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Tony de Brum:

We are an island nation and shipping is one of our lifelines – we cannot survive without it.  At the same time, carbon emissions, including those from shipping, pose an existential threat to our people and our country.

Right now, the Marshall Islands and others are jockeying for support within the IMO, especially from neighbouring Pacific Island countries. They could use support from places like Canada, which pays attention to shipping fuel only when it spills into our waters.

The federal government has spoken of making Canada a world leader in oil spill response. The recent budget included $13.9 million to fund research on effective response to oil spills, as well as money to help establish an International Maritime Centre in Vancouver.

The next step is to deal with the oil that ships actually burn.

US-China climate deal places pressure on Canada

The proposed climate agreement between the U.S. and China will put the Canadian government’s promise to harmonize with U.S. policy to the test.

Under the new agreement, the U.S. would limit greenhouse gas emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by the year 2025. That is a step beyond the existing U.S. target, shared by Canada, of 17% below 2005 levels by the year 2020.

The U.S. is roughly on pace to meet its 2020 target, with emissions for 2012, the most recent year available, only 8% above the target and further reductions possible due to automobile regulation, coal regulations and the shift from coal to natural gas for energy.

Canada is not; emissions were 13% above the 2020 target in 2012 and are projected to increase over the next two decades largely because of activities in the oil sands sector. According to the Environment Canada projections, Canada’s emissions are projected to reach 762 Mt of CO2e by the year 2020,  9% above the 2012 level and 25% above the 2020 target. 

The new agreement will increase the gap between U.S. and Canadian ambitions. Canadian greenhouse gas emissions are projected to be one third above the new target for the year 2025 agreed to by President Obama (assuming the Environment Canada projection for 2025 is halfway between the 2020 – 762 Mt – and 2030 – 815 Mt).

The core of the gap is the oil sands. This is not environmental rhetoric. This is math, based on the government’s own projections, submitted to the United Nations according to international reporting agreements. Roughly three-quarters of the projected growth in Canadian emissions by 2030 comes from the oil sands sector, with the remaining growth in industries like rail and heavy-duty trucks that can be related to the oil and gas activity.

Without addressing the expected growth in greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands, Canada will not come close to even stabilizing emissions in the next couple decades, let alone keeping up with action by the U.S. and the rest of the developed world. At some point, our leaders need to address the elephant in the room.

The climate, coral reefs, and energy policy must learn to cope with commitment


Bleached corals, Fiji, April 2014

This week, the U.S. government announced it would be listing 20 coral species found in American waters as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Part of the rationale is the threat posed by climate change and ocean acidification, a potentially groundbreaking policy move. What may be missed in this announcement is that the original proposal included a longer list of 66 coral species.

The decision begs a broad question. If we are considering the research on climate change and ocean acidification in the decision, then why not list all coral species as threatened?

The Coral Specialist Group of the IUCN, of which I’ve been a part, submitted a detailed comment to the U.S. proceedings. My meager contribution to the group’s terrific dissection of coral ecology and physiology was the argument that committed climate warming may alone be sufficient evidence for all coral species to be listed as threatened. Here is the excerpt, with wording vastly improved by my colleagues:

The projected increase in sea surface temperatures due to the physical commitment from the present accumulation of greenhouse gases due to anthropogenic activity, as well as the socioeconomic commitment (i.e. it is logistically impossible to instantly eliminate anthropogenic emissions, regardless of policy decisions, because of inertia to the existing energy system), is sufficient to cause frequent and higher magnitude heat stress for the majority of the world’s coral reefs by 2050 (Donner, 2009). The primary source of uncertainty in this forecast is the ability of the coral holobiont to acclimate and/or adapt to heat stress. The fact that the future abundance of coral species depends on a rate of adjustment to heat stress that is unprecedented in geological history should be sufficient to warrant a minimum status of threatened for all coral species.

The problem of coping with commitment, the title of that cited 2009 paper, was highlighted by a terrific new paper that happened to be released almost simultaneously with the U.S. coral decision. In “Commitment Accounting of CO2 emissions”, Stephen Davis and Rob Socolow calculate the committed emissions from the operation of new energy investments, like coal plants, over the expected lifetime of those investments (see Dot Earth for a lengthy discussion). They conclude that it would  be sensible to use committed emissions, rather than the annual emissions, to inform public policy.

The socioeconomic commitment or capital “lock-in” to future emissions has implications for everything from these species listings to oil pipeline decisions. We can’t perfectly project the future of each coral species, but we can say that the oceans are committed to physical and chemical changes which may be dangerous or fatal to corals. These changes do not guarantee widespread extinction or endangerment, given potential adaptability of many species and the potential refuges in the ocean, but certainly could classify as threatening.

Adapting to climate change, in the real world

by Simon Donner

The world needs to adapt to climate change. Regardless of the level of effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some adaptation will be necessary.

The adaptation challenge is thought to be greatest in the developing world, especially “least developed countries”, which are in the unfair position of being the least prepared to respond to a problem they did not create. In response, developed countries and international institutions like the World Bank are increasingly directing aid towards climate change adaptation. Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the developed world has agreed to mobilize $100 billion per year by the year 2020 to help the developing world respond to climate change.

New sea wall in Tarawa, Kiribati, with author for reference (2012)

How will this work on the ground? How will adaptation decisions be made, given that the future is uncertain and countries are relying on the highly imperfect international development apparatus for resources and expertise?

There is a lot of terrific theoretical work on the “coulds” and “shoulds” of adaptation, but less forensic analysis of how it happens on the ground.

A new paper by Sophie Webber and I in Sustainability Science attempts to fill that gap, using a case study of preparing for sea level rise in Kiribati. As home to the World Bank’s first climate change adaptation project, Kiribati is an ideal place to learn about the challenges of adaptation on the ground (close to the ocean as that ground may be!).

The paper builds on interviews conducted over the years of field work in Kiribati. We try to trace the many forces influencing decisions,  including the uncertainty about future sea level, the trade-offs between different adaptation options (e.g. sea walls, mangrove planting) and the local cultural, political and economic context. Along the way, we identify some useful lessons from the Kiribati experience, like the value of short planning horizons to reduce trade-offs and scientific uncertainty. The story of the sea wall in that photo helps illustrate what adaptation is often like in the real world: complicated, messy and expensive, no matter how pure the intentions. From the conclusion:

 Visitors to Tarawa can see the office of the Kiribati Adaptation Project, public notices and signs, new seawalls, equipment for the mid-lagoon dredging project, mangrove saplings planted alongside several causeways, new water tanks in certain villages, and construction of new water pipes for the reticulation system. Like all first steps, these initial actions towards adapting to an uncertain future are cautious, unsure and sometimes backwards.

The gaping hole in the National Energy Board’s Review of the Northern Gateway Pipeline

by Simon Donner

In the decision to recommend the Northern Gateway Pipeline for approval by the Canadian government, the National Energy Board ignored the very purpose of a pipeline: getting the product to market.

Embedded GHG emissions vs. B.C. targets

The panel did not consider the impact the pipeline would have on oil sands development – creating the product or the impact of using the oil that would be transported by the pipeline – getting someone to use the product.

This is like making a decision about a road without asking whether it would affect the communities the road is supposed to connect. For one, the emissions embedded in the oil that would be transported by the proposed pipeline make a mockery of provincial and federal greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Nevermind, said the Joint Review Panel. From the report:

Many people said the project would lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental and social effects from oil sands development. We did not consider that there was a sufficiently direct connection between the project and any particular existing or proposed oil sands development or other oil production activities to warrant consideration of the effects of these activities.

While we can sympathize with the panel, which has specific terms of reference that places some issues outside their mandate, the logic in the report is fatally flawed.

As Chris Turner writes, the core argument for additional pipelines from Alberta has been to encourage economic expansion, via increased operations in the oil sands. If the panel is correct, and the Northern Gateway pipeline would not lead to any further oil sands development, then why build the pipeline?

Either the panel is wrong, or the case for the pipeline is wrong. Which is it?