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Archive for September 2013

Climate change in BC, IPCC 2013 outlook

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Couded climate ahead

Clouded climate ahead

I attended, on line, a conference on the newest IPCC report, along with the expected impacts of climate change for BC.  The conference was held this morning at the SFU Wosk Centre downtown .

 Here’s the skinny on what BC is looking at, according to Dr Francis Zwiers, director of the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium (and vice-chair of the IPCC working group 1):

  • Temperatures will increase in winter, more so than summer temperatures, which will increase nonetheless.  We’re in for an increase in the next two decades, regardless of whether we can effectively control emissions or not.  It is only starting in the 2040 decade that the differences between the emission scenarios become large.
  • There has already been a strong change in the climate regarding the number of frost free days; there are now between 3 to 4 weeks fewer days with frost than in 1900, and the trend will continue, with another 40 or so more frost-free day in the high emission scenario.  This may be good for gardeners, but bad for disease and pest control.
  • Precipitations will also increase, both summer and winter, but there is som much noise in the data that while the increase is real, it isn’t statistically significant (chew on that one a bit…).  The North will get the bulk of the increase in precip, while the south west will experience the least change.
  • Water resources will be very clearly impacted.  The bulk of BC’s electricity comes from the Peace River basin, with the peak flow occurring in late June following snowmelt; the river currently flows at an average of 3800 cubic meters per second at peak, compared to a flow of 1200 m3/s in August, down to only 200 in March.  Future flows (by 2080) are expected to be highest earlier (in May), but with a much reduced flow of only 2800 m3/s (only three quarters of current peak), a higher flow in March (six times as high, to 1200), but much lower in August (400 m3/s only, or only one thrid of the current flow).  So this spells problems for fish who are used to the current hydrologic regime; and it also could mean trouble for power generation and irrigation needs in summer.

There were questions about increased methane emissions, and the likelihood of more extreme climate, but  there was little new data shown in the answers.  All in all, the experts stated that the impacts will be substantial and require adaptation, even in the more optimistic scenario.  We are, as they say, entering an era of “climate change commitment”.

Written by enviropaul

September 30, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Five projects that may change Africa

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A herd of elephants in the KAZA area.

A herd of elephants in the KAZA area.

With the recent tragedy in Nairobi it would easy to give up on Africa as a basket case.  But Africa is huge and complex.  To counteract that impression, I’d like to summarize an article I found in the French version of the magazine Geo (September 2012, not available on line, unfortunately).

The article is entitled: five projects that will change Africa.

The projects:

  •  Last year KAZA TFCA, the largest protected zone of the planet was created, a wild area of over 300,000 km2 straddling the borders of Angola, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.  This area should help preserve over 300 species of plants, 600 species of birds and 200 species of mammals.  While there are problems (it’s a region densely populated, and local conflicts over land use occur), there’s reason for optimism.
  • A 1300 km long canal to save Lake Chad has recently been restarted.  The chances of success of this project remain mitigated; the Ubangi River, from which the canal water is to be diverted, is itself in bad shape.
  • The Great Green Wall is an initiative to fight desertification by planting a fifteen kilometer wide strip with drought resistant trees such as acacias from Senegal to Ethiopia, over 7000 km long.  It has started in Senegal through the Tessekere region.  If successful, it will also sequester carbon and defend against climate change effects.
  • Solar panels are deployed in Morocco (a full 12 km2) and plugged into the electric grid.  The project, called Desertec, is to export the bulk of its electricity to Europe, with the overall objective of producing 15% of the European demand.  (Because of the European angle, some consider this project ecolonialism; it is currently stalled as Morocco is now funding a competing project for domestic electricity production.) The project is based on the calculation of the German physicist Gerard Knies, who found that solar captors covering 0.75% of the Sahara could provide all the electricty required from Morocco to Egypt while leaving a considerable surplus for European exports.
  • A 300 MW wind farm (365 windmills) is under construction near the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya.  It is projected to meet 20% of the elctricity demand of the country, at a rate lower than what Kenyans currently pay.

These projects may not all be successful, nor, with their size, proceed without obstacles.  But it shows that there is a side of Africa that is visionary and full of hope. 

Written by enviropaul

September 29, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Energy news: gas, oil, coal in trouble, so let’s attack solar.

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Once again, a flood of news about energy on a Monday!  Here’s a quick run-down.

There’s a project to send tar sands oil by rail to Prince Rupert; here are the Vancouver Sun and the Common Sense Canadian reports on it.  This follows a recent proposal to use rail to ship oil via Churchill in Manitoba.  For the oil companies, this has the advantage of by-passing environmental assesments.  One can only hope, in the wake of Lac-Mégantic, that better tanker cars will be required.

Otherwise, the Harper government faces a showdown with First Nations it isn’t likely to win with respect to pipelines, reports Michael Harris in the Tyee.  Meanwhile, the province’s NDP is grappling with its position over pipelines, especially Kinder Morgan’s, reports the Globe.

There are also clouds on the horizon for liquid natural gas exports from BC, reports the Globe & Mail.  Not only is gas liquefaction an energy hog, but BC’s crude gas is already rich in carbon dioxide, which contributes to a disproprotionate carbon footprint.  The Pembina Institute chimes in with a report suggesting necessary changes in the gas patch for BC to maintain its clean energy image.

The Pembina Institute also highlighted the uncompensated wetland destruction that result from tar sands exploitation, calling the situation “a gift to the oil industry.”

The 24-hour newspaper features a debate about fracking in the Peace, with Laila Yuile arguing that brakes should be put on fracking.  This follows on the heels of a recent article in the Tyee about the start of a lawsuit by Jessica Ernst against Encana, which she charges with contaminating her water source through fracking.  Of course, just a few days ago contamination from fracking came up in the wake of the unprecedented flooding in Colorado.

Coal exports also face unprecedented opposition.  The Globe reports that “Coal mining protest in BC is set to erupt”, while the province’s project to replace the Massey Tunnel with a bridge is perceived to be a giveaway to coal (and oil) exports.  But the bombshell in coal export news was unhearted by Seattle Sightline Institute: Cloud Peak Energy, one of the larger coal exporter, makes money only by…betting against coal exports on hedge fund markets.  In other words, a company with secure, high-quality coal that should be well placed on the export markets cannot make make money exporting coal.  Ecowatch also reported today on the unprecedented opposition to coal exports in the US.

But in the midst of all this the Vancouver Sun, alas, chose to go with a non-story: how renewable energy is causing all kinds of troubles for poor Germany.  This story was lifted straight from the British Daily Telegraph, which seems to specialize in nay-saying.  The article is full of mistakes, particularly when it conflates or confuses the issues related to shutting down all nuclear reactors with issues with solar and wind energy.  An article on the same topic in the New York Times is at least a bit more nuanced, but makes the same mistake: the two are unrelated, and, no, despite that, the cost of electricity is not going through the roof.   Energy guru Amory Lovins does a fine job debunking myths that the German renewable energy program isn’t working: well, it is, and beautifully.  Expect to see more articles like these from the Sun in the days to come: deniers are flooding the media in advance of the IPCC report.    

Addendum: on the renewable front, Connecticut is developing a 250 MW wind farm which will cost less per megawatt than coal.  So there.

Written by enviropaul

September 23, 2013 at 8:32 pm

The Massey tunnel, the bridge, and Harold Steves

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The proposed bridge over Deas Island, as rendered in the vancouver Sun

The proposed bridge over Deas Island, as rendered in the vancouver Sun

So our Premier has announced a plan to replace the Massey Tunnel with a bridge; it’s all over the news (for instance, here and here).

There will be direct environmental impacts, of course.  The bridge, if built, will change the character of Deas Island and will destroy a popular neighbouring produce farm and market.

And that’s all the media see fit to discuss.  But it doesn’t begin to address the fundamental question: how do we address transportation planning in the context of climate change.

At least Metronews got a reaction from Richmond councillor Harold Steves.   Steves, who was instrumental in setting up the ALR to protect farm land, is quoted as saying:

It will take away a tremendous amount of farmland on both sides,” he said.  “There is only one reason to do it, and it’s for commercial interests. They’re turning over the use of the river to heavy industry, instead of light industry and fisheries like it is now.”

Which is quite good, but when one follows the trail of comments left behind on facebook sites, one discovers that Steves has quite a bit more to say:

The only reason for replacing the tunnel with a bridge is to allow massive coal ships, panamex supertankers carrying jet fuel and crude oil tankers to go up and down the river. At present they can only navigate over the tunnel about an hour a day when there is a high enough tide. Studies were done recently to see if the mass of rock covering the tunnel to keep it in place could be removed. Removing it would have endangered the public so the tunnel has to go. Ironically if the port allowed trucks to load at night they could go through the tunnel at night and relieve traffic during rush hour. All that would be needed would be to build a tunnel beside the existing one for LRT to Delta, White Rock and South Surrey. That is what was originally planned in the 1970’s. Why not today?

About the rationale for the bridge of reducing congestion, Steves said:

It won’t even take more cars to simply move the rush hour traffic jam to the Oak Street Bridge. The three main beneficiaries are the Port, the Port and the Port. First the trucks from the Port won’t have to sit in traffic as they don’t go to Vancouver. The Port could alleviate tunnel traffic now if the Port operated at night and kept the trucks out of the tunnel at rush hour. Second, the main obstacle to getting Panamax Supertankers up the river carrying jet fuel will be gone. They will even be able to ship crude oil down the river once a jet fuel terminal is in place. Third, the temporary shipment of dirty Wyoming coal on barges can be changed to massive coal ships. They can’t get over the tunnel at present. With fishing constantly closed on the river, the change to heavy industrial use of the Fraser River is imminent.

Showing his memory of past projects, Steves continued:

“The George Massey Tunnel will be twinned and both Highway 99 approaches widened from four lanes to six once the provinces more pressing transportation needs are complete”, Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon said. (Richmond Review, Feb. 18, 2006) “A twinned tunnel could also incorporate light rail transit”, said Richmond Councillor Harold Steves, “and ultimately connect to Richmond’s Canada Line”. Richmond should go “flat out” in trying to secure the project, he said. Falcon said he was willing to sit down with Richmond Council and discuss the timing of the tunnel project. What went wrong? There was no consultation. What changed their plans? Jet fuel, dirty Wyoming coal, and even crude oil shipments on the Fraser River, in massive ships and Panamax Supertankers that can’t get over the tunnel!

Sigh.  This is a move in the wrong direction.  I suppose, in the long term, it’s all academic: the tunnel, the bridge, Deas Island, and for that matter all of Richmond will be under water as sea levels rise.  But I would like to think we’re trying to avoid that, as opposed to making happen sooner.

And I sure would like the media to do their job, so I wouldn’t have to search for comments by Steves.  Way to go, Harold, keep it up.

Written by enviropaul

September 23, 2013 at 11:46 am

Climate news on a rainy Monday in September

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Sewage geyser in the Colorado flood.

Sewage geyser in the Colorado flood.

I opened my facebook page this morning and an avalanche of climate news tumbled out.  So I thought I’d put them all together in a single blog entry. Here goes.

The Guardian has several articles on a number of aspects of climate change.  John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli illustrate the strategies of the climate deniers, through the Murdoch papers, ahead of the upcoming release of the IPCC report.  Alison Kemper and Roger Martin write that we are underestimating the severity of climate change and underfunding innovation, using the Calgary flood as an example.  Martin Lucaks opines that building oil pipelines through Canada is a great swindle, not a nation-building exercise.

The National Geographic writes about the Colorado flash floods in the context of climate change, a topic echoed  in the Arctic News blog, where Sam Carana discusses how the Colorado flooding catastrophe and climate change may be related, and reminds readers that the flood is spreading hydrocarbons and fracking fluids as it destroys the infrastructure.  In the same site David Spratt reviews a report entitled “is climate change already dangerous?”.

Broken infrastructure: the shape of things to come? In Colorado.

Broken infrastructure: the shape of things to come? In Colorado.

As if answering the question, Bob Litterman, former head of risk management at Goldman Sacks, writes about assigning a price to climate risks.

In a lighter vein, Jake Richardson compiled a nice set of environmental quotes by Einstein and muses about what the great man would have said if he were alive today.

Jennifer, a student in my Environmental Protection program, brought to my attention the upcoming conference at York University entitled Work in a Warming World: Labour, Climate Change, and Social Struggle.  (She’s going, and I’m envious.)

RealClimate, one of the best climate scientific forums, features a new post on the Holocene climate, detailing the progress that has been made since Michael Mann and colleagues created the famous Hockey stick graph a decade ago.  The results were clear back then: it is clear that the warming trend in the last fifty years is real and not due to natural causes.  The new findings reinforce that, but give insight into how climate has changed – justifying the title “the end of the Holocene”.  An excellent, if technical, read; I’ll just reproduce the key figure here, it’s pretty eloquent.

The Marcott temperature curve (recent warming looks natural, yes?)

The Marcott temperature curve (recent warming looks natural, yes?)

And, in case you had any doubts, a group of prominent scientists declared that human activity is the cause of global warming, and typhoon Man-yi has displaced half a million people in Japan.

Yup.  It’s a Monday.

Written by enviropaul

September 16, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Oil spills on the outlaw sea

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outlaw-seaI finally read William Langewiesche’s 2004 The Outlaw Sea: a world of freedom, chaos, and crime, that was calling to me from my groaning shelves of unread books.

A very good book, that, thought it is really a somewhat disconnected series of essays.  The book opens with the issue of flags of convenience, continues with piracy (with the very compelling story of the hijacked Alondra Rainbow, which reads like a high-seas adventure thriller), oil spills, moves on to the harrowing story of the sinking of the ferry Estonia on the run between Stockholm and Tallinn on the Baltic Sea, to finish with the ship breakers in Alang.

The book provides a fascinating insight into a world that very few of us know about – a realm of danger, naked ambition and risk taking, and shirked responsibilities.

In this respect the chapter on oil spills is quite an eye-opener.  Langewiesche details the story of the 1976 Argo Merchant sinking near Nantucket, spilling eighty million gallons of oil, creating a six thousand square mile slick.  This story sets the stage for a description of the difficulties inherent in regulating ocean-going vessels.

It was not long lost on the American public that the Argo Merchant was a foreign vessel sailing inside American waters, deriving profit from the US trade operating beyond coast guard control.

The wreck of the Amoco Cadiz

The wreck of the Amoco Cadiz

The book continues with the spills from the Exxon Valdez, Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz, and others main ones that had occurred up to 2003 (including the Haven, Prestige, Aegean Sea, Braer, Erika, Kristal, and Sea Empress), all except the Exxon Valdez flying flags of convenience.  Langewiesche details efforts by various jurisdictions to implement safety regulations including double hulls (finally in place by 2010 for Europe and the US). 

But here’s the clincher: regulations are nearly impossible to enforce, and double hulls may not make much difference.  Langewiesche quotes retired US Coast Guard officer Daniel Sheehan, who instructed his staff to study the circumstances of the Exxon Valdez spill:

The engineers concluded that the grounding would have torn through a double hull as well…there was no reason to believe that a double hull design (not inherently stronger than single hull design and possibly more prone to corrosion) addressed the accident that had actually occurred.

Nor would double hulls have helped in the other spills.  This is particularly timely knowledge, given the recent media barrage promoting pipelines across BC, and their tanker ports.  For instance,  John Hunter recently asserted that

much of this [tanker spills] history occurred before radar, GPS, tethered tugs, double hulls, coastal pilots, and other improvements.

This should already be taken with a grain of salt by everyone who followed the 2010 Shen Neng spill in Australia. But after reading The Outlaw Sea, such claims arguments ring cruelly hollow.  The open sea remains an outlaw domain – people and the environment suffer, new technology or not; and it’s sufficient reason to oppose the pipeline and tanker port projects.

Burtynsky's photo of ship braking in India

Burtynsky’s photo of ship braking in India

Written by enviropaul

September 15, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Green tea party? A strange but welcome development.

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Could this be a Tea party member?

Could this be a Tea party member?

We are so used to the inanities coming out of Tea Party figures, from Michelle Bachmann to Ted Cruz, that it’s easy to forget that the Tea Party grassroots is made up of well meaning, pissed-off individuals.  Some of these folks are now waking up to the fact that they’ve been had by rich manipulators such as the Koch brothers.

They’re now looking at Big Oil and Big Coal with the same jaundiced eye that they have for Big Government.  The results are surprising: they want to know who’s standing between them and cheap renewable energy, and whoever is in the way better beware.  Now it’s Tea Party for Solar, yessiree.

Last June, Debbie Dooley, the chair of the Atlanta Tea Party, took a swing at utility giant Southern Co. and its subsidiary Georgia Power.  The charge?  The utility is behaving like a monopoly, and preventing folks from getting solar energy.  As Kiley Kroh of Think Progress reports,

 Dooley said the Tea Party believes consumers should be able to exercise choice when it comes to their energy source and the activists she works with don’t want to be dependent on one or two energy sources. And Dooley’s effort is not aimed at reducing carbon emissions — in fact, she doesn’t believe in global warming — but based on their view that solar is a commonsense alternative for Georgia ratepayers that could function without subsidies.

In an interview with Grist, Dooley explained:

Solar prices have plummeted since 2008, dropping almost 75 percent in some areas. Solar is now a great bet against rising utility rates, because once you set up the system, the fuel — sunlight — will always be free. No one owns the sun or has exclusive rights to it. We can give consumers the option to choose solar and protect the environment at the same time.

And it’s not just Georgia.  This is also happening in Louisiana, Idaho, and especially Arizona, where there’s a rebellion against a plan by the utilities to charge extra fees for customers who have roof-mounted solar panels.  And the movement has now spread to republican Wisconsin.

This is happening despite a Koch-funded disinformation campaign that

warned the group’s 50,000 members that the solar proposal would “reduce the reliability of every appliance and electronics gadget in your home” and could increase Georgia electricity rates by up to 40 percent. As the Associated Press pointed out, neither of these claims bore much resemblance to the truth.

But Tea Party or not, even conservative Americans recognize, at last, that something needs to be done about the climate; a recent poll reports that 60 % of them would endorse a carbon tax.

Jim Hansen – hardly a climate denier, he – may have put his finger on a key factor; he said:  

If [conservative leaders] continue to pretend that human-made climate change is a hoax, eventually you get to the point where nature makes it clear it wasn’t a hoax and then the public demands the government do something and that’s the worst nightmare for conservatives. 

It’s like trying to mesh the hippie anthem “Let the sunshine in” with the banjos of  “deliverance”.  Not a natural mix.  But, hey, if it works, and brings solar in…