Rail lines, not pipelines: the past, present, and future of Canadian passenger rail

Graph of Canadian railway network, kilometres, historic, 1836 to 2016
Canadian railway network, kilometres of track, 1836 to 2016

One kilometre of oil pipeline contains the same amount of steel as two kilometres of railway track.*  The proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will, if it goes ahead, consume enough steel to build nearly 2,000 kms of new passenger rail track.  The Keystone XL project would consume enough steel to build nearly 4,000 kms of track.  And the now-cancelled Energy East pipeline would have required as much steel as 10,000 kms of track.  (For an overview of proposed pipelines, see this CAPP publication.)

With these facts in mind, Canadians (and Americans) should consider our options and priorities.  There’s tremendous pressure to build new pipelines.  Building them, proponents claim, will result in jobs and economic development.  But if we’re going to spend billions of dollars, lay down millions of tonnes of steel, and consume millions of person-hours of labour, should we be building soon-to-be-obsolete infrastructure to transport climate-destabilizing fossil fuels?  Or should we take the opportunity to create even more jobs building a zero-emission twenty-first century transportation network for Canada and North America?  Admittedly, the economics of passenger rail are different than those of pipelines; building a passenger rail system is not simply a matter of laying down steel rails.  But for reasons detailed below, limiting global warming probably makes significant investments in passenger rail inevitable.

The graph above shows the total length of the Canadian railway network.  The time-frame is the past 180 years: 1836 to 2016.  Between 1880 and 1918, Canada built nearly 70,000 kms of railway track—nearly 2,000 kms per year, using tools and machinery that were crude by modern standards, and at a time when the nation and its citizens were poor, compared to today.  In the middle and latter decades of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of kms of track were upgraded to accommodate heavier loads.

The length of track in the Canadian railway system peaked in the 1980s.  Recent decades have seen the network contract.  About a third of Canadian rail lines have been torn up and melted down over the past three-and-a-half decades.  Passenger rail utilization in recent years has fallen to levels not seen since the 1800s—down almost 90 percent from its 1940s peak, despite a doubling of the Canadian population.  Indeed, ridership on Via Rail is half of what it was as recently as 1989.

Contrast China.  In just one decade, that nation has built 25,000 miles of high-speed passenger rail lines.  Trains routinely operate at speeds in excess of 300 km/h.  Many of those trains were designed and built by Canada’s Bombardier.  China plans to build an additional 13,000 kms of high-speed passenger lines in the next seven years.

Japan’s “bullet trains” began running more than 50 years ago.  The Japanese high-speed rail network now exceeds 2,700 kms, with trains reaching speeds of 320 km/h.

Saudi Arabia, Poland, Turkey, and Morocco all have high-speed lines, as do more than a dozen nations in Europe.  Uzbekistan—with a GDP one-twentieth that of Canada’s—has built 600 kms of high-speed rail line and has trains operating at 250 km/h.

The construction of Canadian and North American passenger rail networks is probably inevitable.  As part of an international effort to hold global temperature increases below 2 degrees C, Canada has committed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions emission by 30 percent by 2030—now less than 12 years away.  Emissions reductions must continue after 2030, reaching 50 to 60 percent in little more than a generation.  Emission reductions of this magnitude require an end to routine air travel.  Aircraft may still be needed for trans-oceanic travel, but within continents long-distance travel will have to take place using zero-emission vehicles: electric cars or buses for shorter journeys, and electrified passenger trains for longer ones.

This isn’t bad news.  Trains can transport passengers from city-centre to city-centre, eliminating long drives to and from airports.  Trains do not require time-consuming airport security screenings.  These factors, combined with high speeds, mean that for many trips, the total travel time is less for trains than for planes.  And because trains have more leg-room and often include observation cars, restaurants, and lounges, they are much more comfortable, enjoyable, and social.  For some long journeys where it is not cost-effective to build high-speed rail lines, European-style sleeper trains can provide comfortable, convenient overnight transport.  In other cases, medium-speed trains (traveling 150 to 200 km/h) may be the most cost-effective option.

Canada must embrace the inevitable: air travel must be cut by 90 percent; and fast, comfortable, zero-emission trains must take the place of the planes.  Maybe we can build thousands of kms of passenger rail lines and thousands of kms of pipelines.  But given the gravity and menace of the climate crisis and given the rapidly approaching deadlines to meet our emission-reduction commitments, it isn’t hard to see which should be our priority.

*For example, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline would be made up primarily of 36” pipe (914mm) with a 0.465 wall thickness (11.8 mm).  This pipe weighs 262 kgs/m.  Rails for high-speed trains and other demanding applications often weigh 60 kgs/m.  As two rails are needed, this means 120 kgs/m—half the weight of a comparable length of pipeline.

Graph sources:
Urquhart and Buckley, 1965, Historical Statistics of Canada.
Leacy, Urquhart, and Buckley, 1983, Historical Statistics of Canada, 2nd Ed.
Stats. Can., Various years, Railway Transport in Canada: General Statistics.
Stats. Can., CANSIM Table 404-0010


Will Trump’s America Crash Earth’s Climate?

Graph of US energy consumption by fuel, 1990 to 2050
US energy consumption by fuel, 1990 to 2050

Last week, the US Department of Energy (DOE) released its annual report projecting future US energy production and consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  This year’s report, entitled Annual Energy Outlook 2018, with Projections to 2050 forecasts a nightmare scenario of increasing fossil fuel use, increasing emissions, lackluster adoption of renewable energy options, and a failure to shift to electric vehicles, even by mid-century.

The graph above is copied from that DOE report.  The graph shows past and projected US energy consumption by fuel type.  The top line shows “petroleum and other liquids.”  This is predominantly crude oil products, with a minor contribution from “natural gas liquids.”  For our purposes, we can think of it as representing liquid fuels used in cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships.  Note how the US DOE is projecting that in 2050 America’s consumption of these high-emission fuels will be approximately equal to levels today.

The next line down is natural gas.  This is used mostly for heating and for electricity generation.  Note how the DOE is projecting that consumption (i.e., combustion) of natural gas will be about one-third higher in 2050 than today.

Perhaps worst of all, coal combustion will be almost as high in 2050 as it is today.   No surprise, the DOE report (page 15) projects that US GHG emissions will be higher in 2050 than today.

Consumption of renewable energy will rise.  The DOE is projecting that in 2050 “other renewables”—essentially electricity from solar photovoltaic panels and wind turbines—will provide twice as much power as today.  But that will be only a fraction of the energy supplied by fossil fuels: oil, natural gas, and coal.

How can this be?  The world’s nations have committed, in Paris and elsewhere, to slash emissions by mid-century.  To keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius, industrial nations will have to cut emissions by half by 2050.  So what’s going on in America?

The DOE projections reveal that America’s most senior energy analysts and policymakers believe that US policies currently in place will fail to curb fossil fuel use and reduce GHG emissions.  The DOE report predicts, for example, that in 2050 electric vehicles will make up just a small fraction of the US auto fleet.  See the graph below.  Look closely and you’ll see the small green wedge representing electrical energy use in the transportation sector.  The graph also shows that the the consumption of fossil fuels—motor gasoline, diesel fuel, fuel oil, and jet fuel—will be nearly as high in 2050 as it is now.  This is important: The latest data from the top experts in the US government predict that, given current policies, the transition to electric vehicles will not happen.

The next graph, below, shows that electricity production from solar arrays will increase significantly.  But the projection is that the US will not install significant numbers of wind turbines, so long as current policies remain in force and current market conditions prevail.

The report projects (page 84) that in 2050 electricity generation from the combustion of coal and natural gas will be twice as high as generation from wind turbines and solar panels.

Clearly, this is all just a set of projections.  The citizens and governments of the United States can change this future.  And they probably will.  They can implement policies that dramatically accelerate the transition to electric cars, electric trains, energy-efficient buildings, and low-emission renewable energy.

But the point of this DOE report (and the point of this blog post) is that such policies are not yet in place.  In effect, the US DOE report should serve as a warning: continue as now and the US misses its emissions reduction commitments by miles, the Earth probably warms by 3 degrees or more, and we risk setting off a number of global climate feedbacks that could render huge swaths of the planet uninhabitable and kill hundreds of millions of people this century.

The house is on fire.  We can put it out.  But the US Department of Energy is telling us that, as of now, there are no effective plans to do so.

Perhaps step one is to remove the arsonist-in-chief.


If you’re for pipelines, what are you against?

Graph of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions, by sector, 2005 to 2039
Canadian greenhouse gas emissions, by sector, 2005 to 2030

As Alberta Premier Notley and BC Premier Horgan square off over the Kinder Morgan / Trans Mountain pipeline, as Alberta and then Saskatchewan move toward elections in which energy and pipelines may be important issues, and as Ottawa pushes forward with its climate plan, it’s worth taking a look at the pipeline debate.  Here are some facts that clarify this issue:

1.  Canada has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30 percent (to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030).

2.  Oil production from the tar sands is projected to increase by almost 70 percent by 2030 (From 2.5 million barrels per day in 2015 to 4.2 million in 2030).

3.  Pipelines are needed in order to enable increased production, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and many others.

4.  Planned expansion in the tar sands will significantly increase emissions from oil and gas production.  (see graph above and this government report)

5.  Because there’s an absolute limit on our 2030 emissions (515 million tonnes), if the oil and gas sector is to emit more, other sectors must emit less.  To put that another way, since we’re committed to a 30 percent reduction, if the tar sands sector reduces emissions by less than 30 percent—indeed if that sector instead increases emissions—other sectors must make cuts deeper than 30 percent.

The graph below uses the same data as the graph above—data from a recent report from the government of Canada.  This graph shows how planned increases in emissions from the Alberta tar sands will force very large reductions elsewhere in the Canadian economy.

Graph of emissions from the Canadian oil & gas sector vs. the rest of the economy, 2015 & 2030
Emissions from the Canadian oil & gas sector vs. the rest of the economy, 2015 & 2030

Let’s look at the logic one more time: new pipelines are needed to facilitate tarsands expansion; tarsands expansion will increase emissions; and an increase in emissions from the tarsands (rather than a 30 percent decrease) will force other sectors to cut emissions by much more than 30 percent.

But what sector or region or province will pick up the slack?  Has Alberta, for instance, checked with Ontario?  If Alberta (and Saskatchewan) cut emissions by less than 30 percent, or if they increase emissions, is Ontario prepared to make cuts larger than 30 percent?  Is Manitoba or Quebec?  If the oil and gas sector cuts by less, is the manufacturing sector prepared to cut by more?

To escape this dilemma, many will want to point to the large emission reductions possible from the electricity sector.  Sure, with very aggressive polices to move to near-zero-emission electrical generation (policies we’ve yet to see) we can dramatically cut emissions from that sector.  But on the other hand, cutting emission from agriculture will be very difficult.  So potential deep cuts from the electricity sector will be partly offset by more modest cuts, or increases, from agriculture, for example.

The graph at the top shows that even as we make deep cuts to emissions from electricity—a projected 60 percent reduction—increases in emissions from the oil and gas sector (i.e. the tar sands) will negate 100 percent of the progress in the electricity sector.  The end result is, according to these projections from the government of Canada, that we miss our 2030 target.  To restate: according to the government’s most recent projections we will fail to meet our Paris commitment, and the primary reason will be rising emissions resulting from tarsands expansion.  This is the big-picture context for the pipeline debate.

We’re entering a new era, one of limits, one of hard choices, one that politicians and voters have not yet learned to navigate.   We are exiting the cornucopian era, the age of petro-industrial exuberance when we could have everything; do it all; have our cake, eat it, and plan on having two cakes in the near future.  In this new era of biophysical limits on fossil fuel combustion and emissions, on water use, on forest cutting, etc. if we want to do one thing, we may be forced to forego something else.  Thus, it is reasonable to ask: If pipeline proponents would have us expand the tar sands, what would they have us contract?

Graph sources: Canada’s 7th National Communication and 3rd Biennial Report, December 2017

Global plastics production, 1917 to 2050

Graph of global plastic production, 1917 to 2017
Global plastic production, megatonnes, 1917 to 2017

This week’s graph shows global annual plastics production over the past 100 years.  No surprise, we see exponential growth—a hallmark of our petro-industrial consumer civilization.  Long-term graphs of nearly anything (nitrogen fertilizer production, energy use, automobile productiongreenhouse gas emissions, air travel, etc.) display this same exponential take-off.

Plastics present a good news / bad news story.  First, we should acknowledge that the production capacities we’ve developed are amazing!  Worldwide, our factories now produce approximately 400 million tonnes of plastic per year.  That’s more than a billion kilograms per day!  Around the world we’ve built thousands of machines that can, collectively, produce plastic soft-drink and water bottles at a rate of nearly 20,000 per second.  Our economic engines are so powerful that we’ve managed to double global plastic production tonnage in less than two decades.

But of course that’s also the bad news: we’ve doubled plastic production tonnage in less than two decades.  And the world’s corporations and governments would have us go on doubling and redoubling plastics production.  The graph below shows the projected four-fold increase in production tonnage by 2050.

Graph of global plastics production to 2050
Projected global plastics production to 2050

Source: UN GRID-Arendal

Plastics are a product of human ingenuity and innovation—one of civilization’s great solutions.  They’re lightweight, durable, airtight, decay resistant, inexpensive, and moldable into a huge range of products.  But projected 2050 levels of production are clearly too much of a good thing.  Our growth-addicted economic system has a knack for turning every solution into a problem—every strength into a weakness.

At current and projected production levels, plastics are a big problem.  Briefly:

1.  Plastics are forever—well, almost.  Except for the tonnage we’ve incinerated, nearly all the plastic ever produced still exists somewhere in the biosphere, although much of it is now invisible to humans, reduced to tiny particles in ocean and land ecosystems.  Plastic is great because it lasts so long and resists decay.  Plastic is a big problem for those same reasons.

2. Only 18 percent of plastic is recycled.  This is the rate for plastics overall, including plastics in cars and buildings.  For plastic packaging (water bottles, chip bags, supermarket packaging, etc.) the recycling rate is just 14 percent.  But much of that plastic inflow is excluded during the sorting and recycling process, such that only 5 percent of plastic packaging material is  actually returned to use through recycling.   And one third of plastic packaging escapes garbage collection systems entirely and is lost directly into the environment: onto roadsides or into streams, lakes, and oceans.

3. Oceans are now receptacles for at least 8 billion kilograms of plastic annually—equivalent to a garbage truck full of plastic unloading into the ocean every minute.  The growth rates projected above will mean that by 2050 the oceans will be receiving the equivalent of one truckload of plastic every 15 second, night and day.  And unless we severely curtail plastic production and dumping, by 2050 the mass of plastic in our oceans will exceed the mass of fish.  Once in the ocean, plastics persist for centuries, in the form of smaller and smaller particles.  This massive contamination comes on top of other human impacts: overfishing, acidification, and ocean temperature increases.

4. Plastic is a fossil fuel product.  Plastic is made from oil and natural gas feedstocks—molecules extracted from the oil and gas become the plastic.  And oil, gas, and other energy sources are used to power the plastic-making processes.  By one estimate, 4 percent of global oil production is consumed as raw materials for plastic and an additional 4 percent provides energy to run plastics factories.

5. Plastics contain additives than harm humans and other species: fire retardants, stabilizers, antibiotics, plasticizers, pigments, bisphenol A, phthalates, etc.  Many such additives mimic hormones or disrupt hormone systems.  The 150 billion kilograms of plastics currently in the oceans includes 23 billion kgs of additives, all of which will eventually be released into those ocean ecosystems.

It’s important to think about plastics, not just because doing so shows us that we’re doing something wrong, but because the tragic story of plastics shows us why and how our production and energy systems go wrong.  The story of plastics reveals the role of exponential growth in turning solutions into problems.  Thinking about the product-flow of plastics (oil well … factory … store … home … landfill/ocean) shows us why it is so critical to adopt closed-loop recycling and highly effective product-stewardship systems.  And the entire plastics debacle illustrates the hidden costs of consumerism, the collateral damage of disposable products, and the failure of “the markets” to protect the planet.

In a recent paper that takes a big-picture, long-term look at plastics, scientists advise that “without a well-designed … management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.”

Graph sources:
• 1950 to 2015 data from Geyer, Jambeck, and Law, “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made,” Science Advances 3, no. 7 (July 2017).
• 2016 and 2017 data points are extrapolated at a 4.3 percent growth rate derived from the average growth rate during the previous 20 years.
• Pre-1950 production tonnage is assumed to be negligible, based on various sources and the very low production rates in 1950.

Saskatchewan’s new Climate Change Strategy: reckless endangerment

Graph of Saskatchewan greenhouse gas emissions relative to selected nations
Saskatchewan greenhouse gas emissions relative to selected nations

Saskatchewan’s greenhouse gas emissions are extremely high: 66 tonnes per person per year.  What if Saskatchewan was a country, instead of a province?  If that were the case, we’d find that no country on Earth had per-capita emissions higher than ours.

This week’s graph compares per-capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Saskatchewan to emissions in a variety of countries.  The units are tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq).  The data is for the years 2014 and 2015, the most recent years for which data is available.  The graph shows that Saskatchewan’s emissions are higher than those of petro-states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar and manufacturing nations such as China and Germany.

Our world-topping per-person emissions form part of the context for this week’s release of the Government of Saskatchewan’s climate strategy: Prairie Resilience: A Made-in-Saskatchewan Climate Change Strategy.  The report isn’t really a plan of action—more an attempt at public relations and a collection of re-announcements.   Most critically, it lacks a specific set of measures that can, taken together, enable citizens and businesses in this province to reduce our GHG emissions by 30 percent by 2030.  I’ll review some of the key points of the document, but first just a bit more context.

In Paris in 2015, the world’s governments reaffirmed a target of limiting global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (relative to pre-industrial levels).  However, more and more scientists are warning that 2 degrees is not a “safe level,” and that temperature increases of this magnitude will create floods, droughts, storms, and deaths in many parts of the world.  But a 2 degree rise is better than 4 or 5 degrees.

So that’s the first point: our 2 degree target is weak.  To this we’ve added inadequate emission-reduction commitments.  In the lead-up to the Paris climate talks the world’s governments each submitted specific emission-reduction commitments.  Canada committed to cut this country’s emissions by 30 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2030.  Other nations made similar pledges.  But here’s the troubling part: When you add up all those emissions-reduction commitments you find that they put the world on track, not for 2 degrees of warming, but for 3.2 degrees (UN Emissions Gap Report 2017).  So this is the context for recent climate change strategies from Saskatchewan and other provinces: These plans amount to inadequate provincial contributions to an inadequate national commitment to a weak international target.

One final bit of context: not only are per-capita emissions in Saskatchewan among the highest in the world, they continue to increase: up 65 percent in a generation (1990 to 2015).  Some will want to excuse our province: it’s cold here.  But our per-capita emissions are almost twice as high as those in the Northwest Territories, nine times as high as in the Yukon, and four times as high as those in neighbouring Manitoba.  Others will want to talk about the fact that Saskatchewan is a resource-producing and agricultural province; our prosperity depends upon our ability to keep farming and mining and producing oil and gas.  There’s a grain of truth to some parts of that idea, but it simply cannot be the case that “prosperity” requires the emission of 66 tonnes of GHGs per person.  Citizens in every nation want prosperity.  But if everyone in the world felt entitled to emit GHGs at the same rate as us, there would soon be no Saskatchewan as we know it.  There would be a parched desert here, and submerged cities worldwide.  In a climate- and carbon-constrained world, prosperity simply cannot require Saskatchewan-sized emissions.

So, with this for context, what does the Saskatchewan Climate Change Strategy propose?  The government has re-committed to increasing the production of low-emission electricity—to the “expansion of renewable energy sources up to 50 per cent of generating capacity” by 2030.  This is good news and we must ensure that this happens, well before 2030, if possible.  But careful readers might note three things in the preceding commitment:  1. the words “up to.”  2. generating capacity is not the same as output; because of the intermittent nature of wind power, for example, 50 percent of capacity will not equate to 50 percent of production.  3. electricity provides less than 30 percent of Saskatchewan’s total energy demand.  Thus, moving to 50 percent renewable/low-emission sources for electricity leaves 80+ percent of Saskatchewan’s energy needs filled by high-emission fossil fuels.

The Climate Change Strategy includes the creation of a technology fund.  But this is not new.  The government passed legislation in 2010 requiring large emitters to pay into a green technology fund.  That law was never put into force.

Predictably, the Strategy rejects a carbon tax, arguing that such a tax “would make it more difficult for our province to respond effectively to climate change because a simple tax will not result in the innovations required to actually reduce emissions.”

The Strategy also includes a vague mix of commitments to reporting, potential future measures to reduce methane emissions, emission-intensity targets, and offset trading.  Think of this as a cap-and-trade system without a cap.

The Strategy includes some positive steps but fails to deliver what we need: a comprehensive, detailed plan that will result in a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.  This failing is especially evident when one takes into account probable emissions increases that may result from economic growth, planned increases in energy production, and increased use of agricultural inputs such as nitrogen fertilizer.  (Applied tonnage of N fertilizer has doubled since 2002.)

Overall, the Strategy steers away from discussions of emissions reduction and focuses instead on the idea of “resilience.”  That word appears 44 times in 12 pages.  The report defines resilience as “the ability to cope with, adapt to, and recover from stress and change.”  But resilience—coping, adapting, and recovering—may simply prove impossible in the face of the magnitude of climate change that will scorch our province under a business-as-usual scenario.  The high-emission, fossil-fuel-dependent future assumed in the Climate Change Strategy would raise the average temperature of this province by 6 to 8 degrees Celsius (sources available on request).  Climate disruption of that magnitude vetoes adaptation and mocks resilience.

And even if we in Saskatchewan could find ways to adapt and make ourselves resilient in the face of the blows that may be inflicted by a hotter, stormier, more damaging climate, we must ask: Will poor and vulnerable populations around the world be able to make themselves “resilient” to the climate change that our emissions trigger?   The global proliferation of Saskatchewan-level emissions would cause cities to disappear under the waves, food-growing regions to bake and wither, and tropical storms to become more numerous and damaging.  What is our ethical position if we are among the greatest contributors to these calamities, yet all we offer affected populations is the advice to make themselves more resilient?

A real plan is possible.  Emission reductions of 30 percent by 2030 are attainable at costs that Saskatchewan can afford.  Holding global temperature increases to 2 degrees also remains possible.  All this can be accomplished if governments act with courage and integrity, rapidly and effectively, and in the interests of citizens and the future.

Graph sources:
Saskatchewan and other provinces: Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators: Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
Other nations: World Resources Institute, CAIT Climate Data Explorer.


Geoengineering: 12 things you need to know

Graphic showing various geoengineering methods

The following draws upon extensive research by ETC Group.  I have been privileged to serve on ETC’s Board of Directors for several years. 

1.  What is “geoengineering”?  It is the intentional, largescale, technological manipulation of Earth’s systems.  Geoengineering is usually discussed as a solution to climate change, but it could also be used to attempt to de-acidify oceans or fix ozone holes.  Here, I’ll concentrate on climate geoengineering.

2.  There are two main types of climate geoengineering:
i. Technologies to partially shade the sun in order to reduce warming (called “solar radiation management” or SRM).  For example, high-altitude aircraft could be used to dump thousands of tonnes of sulphur compounds into the stratosphere to form a reflective parasol over the Earth.
ii. Attempts to pull carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air.  One proposal is ocean fertilization.  In theory, we could dump nutrients into the ocean to spur plankton/algae growth.  As the plankton multiply, they would take up atmospheric CO2 that has dissolved in the water.  When they die, they would sift down through the water column, taking the carbon to the ocean floor.

3.  The effects of geoengineering will be uneven and damaging.  For example, sun-blocking SRM technologies might lower the global average temperature, but regional temperature changes would probably be uneven.  Other geoengineering techniques—cloud whitening and weather modification—could similarly alter temperatures in some parts of the planet relative to others.  And if we change relative regional temperatures we would also shift wind and rainfall patterns.  Geoengineering will almost certainly cause droughts, storms, and floods.  Going further, however, all droughts, storms, and floods (even those that might have occurred in the absence of geoengineering) could come to be seen as caused by geoengineering and the governments controlling those climate interventions.  If we go down this path, there will no longer be any “acts of God”; weather will become a product of government.

4.  These technologies are dangerous in other ways.  Seeding the stratosphere with sulphur particles could catalyze ozone depletion.  Shifts in rain and temperature patterns may cause shifts in ecosystems and wildlife habitats.  Multiplying plankton biomass may affect fish species distribution and biodiversity.  Moreover, as with any enormously powerful technology, it is simply impossible to foresee the full range of unintended consequences.

5.  Geoengineering is unilateral, undemocratic, inequitable, and unjust.  In a geoengineered world, who will control the global thermostat?  Solar radiation management and similar schemes will inevitably be controlled by the dominant governments and corporations—a rich-nation “coalition of the dimming.”  But benefits and costs will be distributed unequally, creating winners and losers.  Where will less powerful nations appeal if they find themselves on the losing end?  Our climate interventions will be calibrated to maximize benefits to rich nations: the same countries that have benefited most from fossil fuel combustion and that have caused the climate crisis.  We appear to be contemplating a triple injustice: poor nations will be denied their fair share of the benefits of fossil fuel use; hit hardest by climate change; and left as collateral damage from geoengineering.  Finally, geoengineering is undemocratic in another way.  It is a choice to pursue technical interventions rather than social or political reforms.  It reveals that many governments and elites would risk damaging the stratosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere rather than risk difficult conversations with voters, CEOs, or shareholders.

6.  Geoengineering embodies and proliferates a certain worldview: masculine, nature-dominating, imperialistic, managerial and technocratic, hostile to limits, and hubristic.

7.  Geoengineering will create conflicts.  Because technologies such as SRM are transboundary and have the potential to shift weather patterns they can lead to charges that other nations are stealing rain and, ultimately, food.  To get a sense of the potential for conflict, imagine the US reaction to unilateral deployment of weather- and climate-altering technologies by Russia or China.

8.  It is untestable.  Small-scale experiments with SRM or similar technologies will not reveal potential side-effects.  These will only become evident after planet-scale deployment, and perhaps years after the fact, as weather systems move toward new equilibria.

9.  Deployment may be irreversible.  Once we start we might not be able to stop.  Geoengineering would probably proceed alongside continued greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  But if we deploy sun-blocking technologies and simultaneously push atmospheric CO2 levels past 500 or 600 parts per million, we wouldn’t be able to terminate our dimming programs, no matter how damaging the effects of long-term geoengineering are revealed to be.  If we did stop, high GHG levels would trigger sudden and dramatic warming.  We risk locking ourselves into untestable, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and planet-altering technologies.

10. Can geoengineering “buy us time”?  Proponents argue that these technologies can buy us some time: time humanity needs in order to ramp up emissions reductions.  But geoengineering is more likely to buy time for the status quo, to prolong unsustainable fossil fuel production and energy inefficiency, and to blunt and delay urgent and effective action.  The effect of geoengineering is not so much to buy time as to waste time.

11. There will be attempts to pressure us into accepting geoengineering.  Geoengineering proponents may soon raise the alarm and claim that we must accept these risky technologies or face even worse damage from climate change.  “Desperate times call for desperate measures,”  they will say.  From these same sources may come arguments that geoengineering is necessary to hold global average temperature increases below 1.5 or 2 degrees and thus spare the world’s poorest and most vulnerable peoples.  Such arguments would be both ironic and duplicitous.  The same government and corporate leaders who today deny or downplay climate change, or deny the need for rapid action to cut emissions, may tomorrow be the ones raising the alarm, and claiming that there is no solution other than geoengineering.  They may pivot from claiming that there is no problem to claiming that there is no alternative.

12. Geoengineering will be pushed by the rich and powerful.  A growing number of corporations, elites, and politicians see the solution to climate change, not in emissions reduction, but in massive techno-interventions into the atmosphere or oceans to block the sun or suck up carbon.  When he was CEO of Exxon, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of climate change: “It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.”  Exxon employs many geoengineering proponents and theorists.  Former executive at oil company BP and former Under-Secretary for Science in the Obama administration Steven Koonin is lead author of a report entitled Climate Engineering Responses to Climate Emergencies.   Virgin Airlines CEO Richard Branson offered a $25 million prize to anyone who could solve climate change by geoengineering.   Bill Gates and other Microsoft billionaires are funding geoengineering research.  Newt Gingrich is the former speaker of the US House of Representatives and a Vice Chairman of Donald Trump’s transition team.  His views on geoengineering are worth quoting because they may be representative of a growing sentiment among political and corporate leaders.  Gingrich wrote in a 2008 fundraising letter:

“[T]he idea behind geoengineering is to release fine particles in or above the stratosphere that would then block a small fraction of the sunlight and thus reduce atmospheric temperature.

… Instead of imposing an estimated $1 trillion cost on the economy …, geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year.  Instead of penalizing ordinary Americans, we would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific innovation.

My colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute are taking a closer look at geoengineering, and we should too.  …

Our message should be: Bring on the American Ingenuity.  Stop the green pig.”


For reasons outlined above and many others, we must not go down the path of geoengineering.  These technologies—massive government and corporate interventions into the core flows and structures of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere—are among the most dangerous initiatives ever devised.  Geoengineering must be banned; it is untestable, uncontrollable, unjust, probably irreversible, and potentially devastating.  There exist better, safer options: rapid and dramatic emissions reductions; and a government-led mobilization toward a transformation of global energy, transport, industrial, and food systems.







Setting our future aflame: Projected energy use to 2035

Graph of primary energy consumption by source or fuel, 1965 to 2015, with projections to 2035
Global primary energy use, by source or fuel, 1965 to 2015, with projections to 2035 (billions of tonnes of oil equivalent)

In a recent post (link here) I said that holding global temperature increases below dangerous levels would require “a mobilization of near-wartime scale and speed to transform the global economy and its energy and transportation systems.”  Most climate scientists looking at carbon budgets agree that global greenhouse gas emissions need to fall to near zero in the 2040s (to hold temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius) or 2050s (to hold increases to 2 degrees).

So, how are we doing?  BP (formerly British Petroleum) is one of the world’s leading sources for energy statistics and projections.  This week’s graph is taken from the 2017 edition of its Energy Outlook.  The graph shows BP’s projections of energy use to 2035, based on current trends.  The picture is bleak.

BP’s projections show oil use/combustion rising over the next 18 years.  Natural gas combustion rises even faster.  Even coal combustion increases.  Not surprising, BP projects rising GHG emissions for the period from 2017 to 2035.  But this is exactly the time frame in which we are supposed to be rapidly reducing emissions.

If BP is correct, if we act in the ways they are predicting, there is zero chance of meeting the Paris commitments of reducing GHG emissions by 30 percent by 2030.  And there is zero chance of holding temperature increases below 2 degrees.  The picture BP paints, if we allow it to come to pass, would push global temperature increases past 3 degrees, or even higher.  That would be a cataclysmic amount of warming.

I’m told that fear and bad news are not good motivators.  But neither are delusion or denial.  We must stop telling ourselves fanciful stories about salvation by solar shingles.  The citizens of the world need to know the facts about our situation and our trajectory.  There is a vague feeling that we’re doing the right thing, that solar and wind power are growing so fast that we can meet our targets, that a modest carbon tax levied sometime in the future will be enough to put us onto the right track.  No.  Projections by BP and others tell a wholly different story.  The facts indicate that we are on track to climate calamity.  That may not be welcome news, but it is the truth.  Whether it motivates people remains to be seen.

Graph source: BP, Energy Outlook: 2017 edition

Some good news on climate change

Graph adapted from Millar et al.
A graph produced by Millar et al. illustrating their re-assessment of carbon budgets.

A September 18th article in the journal Nature Geoscience provides some good news in the struggle to save human civilization (and perhaps half the planet’s species) from the ravages of climate change.  The article by Richard Millar and nine colleagues calculates that there is still time to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.  (Article link is here.)

A 1.5 degree target was set in Paris in 2015.  While many people assert that holding temperature increases to 1.5 degrees is impossible, Millar et al. reassess carbon budgets to show that the target is attainable.  By their calculations, humans can emit an additional 700 to 900 billion tonnes of CO2 and still have a 66% chance of holding temperature increases below 1.5 degrees.  That amount of CO2 is approximately equal to 20 years of emissions at current rates.  (Previous assessments indicated that the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees would be used up in 5 to 7 years at current emission rates.)

The findings in the Millar paper are good news.  Here’s why: they take away the argument that “it’s too late.”  We still have it within our power to hold temperature increases below dangerous levels, spare low-lying island nations, prevent the inundation of rich river-delta agricultural lands in Bangladesh and elsewhere, retain the Greenland ice sheet, and prevent the worst ravages of climate change.  Here’s the message everyone should hear: It’s not too late.

But while it’s not too late, it is late.  The other message people should take from this article is that we have no time to spare.  Aggressive action is necessary now.  If we are to save ourselves from ourselves we must embark on a mobilization of near-wartime scale and speed to transform the global economy and its energy and transportation systems.  We need government-led mobilization for transformation.

The article’s lead author, Richard Millar, wrote a commentary stating that “the window for achieving 1.5C is still narrowly open.  If very aggressive mitigation scenarios can be implemented from today onwards, they may be sufficient to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.”  (Find that commentary here.)  At a press event he stated that holding increases to 1.5 degrees requires “starting reductions immediately and then reducing emissions to zero over 40 years.”  Like nearly everyone else who has looked at this issue, Millar and his team have concluded that emissions reductions must begin immediately and emissions from the global economy must be reduced to zero by the 2050s or 2060s.

So here’s where we are: Millar et al. calculate that we have the time (if only just).  We have the technologies: solar panels, wind turbines, electric trains, net-zero and passive solar homes.  We have historical examples of action on a similar scale: the WWII repurposing of the major industrial economies.  And we have the productive capacity: a global manufacturing sector of unprecedented scale and output.  Civilian and military aircraft makers must be compelled to immediately begin building trains.  Auto makers must build electric cars.  The home renovation industry must be redirected away from fantasy kitchens and home spas and toward energy-efficiency retrofits.  And electrical utilities must rapidly replace GHG-emitting generation plants with near-zero-emission alternatives.  And we must do all these things at rates that reflect that our future depends upon our success.

The calculations by Millar et al. are sure to be controversial and closely examined.  They may be revised.  But the paper has weight because the team that wrote it includes many of the leading experts on carbon budgets.  As climate scientist Glen Peter notes here: “the authors of this paper developed the idea of carbon budgets, are the world leading experts on carbon budgets, and derived the carbon budgets for the IPCC process.”  We should all hope that Millar and his colleagues are correct in their reassessment.

The graph above is taken from a commentary by Millar and adapted from the article by Millar et al.  (Link to the commentary here.)

Powering Canada: 51 years of Canadian energy use data

Graph of Canadian energy use, by fuel or energy source, 1965 to 2016.
Canadian energy use (primary energy consumption), by fuel or energy source, 1965 to 2016.

New reports in highly-respected journals Science and Nature (links here and here) tell us that the world’s economies and societies need to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions to zero before mid-century.  This has huge implications for the ways in which we power our cities, homes, food systems, transportation networks, and manufacturing plants.  Our civilization must undergo a rapid energy-system transformation, similar in magnitude and effects to previous energy transitions, such as the replacement of wood by fossil fuels in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.  Enormous changes are on the way.

To understand our possible futures it is useful to know something of the past.  The graph above shows Canadian primary energy consumption from 1965 to 2016.  The units are “millions of barrels of oil equivalent”—that is, all energy sources have been quantified based on their energy content relative to the energy contained in a barrel of oil.  (“Primary energy” is energy in the form in which it is first produced: oil from a well, coal from a mine, hydroelectricity from a dam, or photovoltaic electricity from a solar panel.  Much of the coal and some of the natural gas listed in the graph above is turned into electricity in power generating stations.)

This multi-decade look at Canadian energy use reveals both good and bad news.  Most obvious, it shows that Canada has nearly tripled its overall energy consumption since 1965.  Today, on a per-capita basis, Canadians consume more energy than citizens of most other nations.  Our very high per-capita energy use will make our energy transition more difficult and costly.

On the positive side, our rate of increase in energy use is slowing—the top line of the graph is flattening out.  Partly, this indicates that Canadians are using energy more wisely and efficiently.  But another factor may be the transfer of heavy industry and manufacturing to other nations; Canadian energy use may be growing more slowly because more of our industrial and consumer goods are made overseas.  Also, the graph may not include the full extent of energy consumed in international shipping and aviation.  If Canada’s full share of global water and air transport were added, our energy use may appear higher still.

The graph has some good news in that fossil fuel use in Canada is declining.  Coal, oil, and natural gas provide less energy to our economy today than they did 20 years ago.  Coal use, especially, has been cut.  On the negative side, any downward trendline in fossil fuel use is not nearly steep enough to intersect zero by 2050.

Good news is that Canada already has a large number of low-emission energy sources in place.  We are the world’s third-largest producer of hydro-electricity.  We also produce significant amounts of electricity from nuclear powerplants.  Starting in the 1980s and continuing today, Canada has produced about a third of its primary energy from low-emission sources: including nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar electricity generation.

This brings us to perhaps the most important fact revealed by the graph: the very slow rate of installation of new low-emission energy sources—especially solar and wind.  Today, solar and wind provide just 2 percent of our primary energy.  Indeed, the contribution of solar power is barely visible in the graph.

An energy transformation is critical.  Global greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2020 and ramp down sharply, reaching zero three decades later.  This will be, by far, the most rapid energy transition in human history.  Canadian action so far falls far short of the scale and rate required.

P.S. A new book on the history of Canadian energy systems has recently been published.  Powering up Canada: A History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600 contains chapters on the energy sources for the fur trade, early horse-powered agriculture, the rise in the importance of coal in Canada, and chapter on the development of the oil and gas sectors.

Graph sources: BP Statistical Review of World Energy.


Electric cars are coming…  Fast!

Graph of the number of electric vehicles worldwide and selected nations
Increase in the stock of electric vehicles: global and selected nations

When- and wherever it occurs, exponential growth is transformative.  After a long period of stagnation or slow increase, some important quantity begins doubling and redoubling.  The exponential growth in cloth, coal, and iron production transformed the world during the Industrial Revolution.  The exponential growth in the power and production volumes of transistors (see previous blog post)—a phenomenon codified as “Moore’s Law”—made possible the information revolution, the internet, and smartphones.  Electric cars and their battery systems have now entered a phase of exponential growth.

There are two categories of electric vehicles (EVs).  The first is plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).  These cars have batteries and can be driven a limited distance (usually tens of kilometres) using electrical power only, after which a conventional piston engine engages to charge the batteries or assist in propulsion.  Well-known PHEVs include the Chevrolet Volt and the Toyota Prius Plug-in.

The second category is the battery electric vehicle (BEV).  Compared to PHEVs, BEVs have larger batteries, longer all-electric range (150 to 400 kms), and no internal combustion engines.  Well-known BEVs include the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt, and several models from Tesla.  The term electric vehicle (EV) encompasses both PHEVs and BEVs.

The graph above is reproduced from a very recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) entitled Global EV Outlook 2017.  It shows that the total number of electric vehicles in the world is increasing exponentially—doubling and redoubling every year or two.  In 2012, there we nearly a quarter-million EVs on streets and roads worldwide.  A year or two later, there were half-a-million.  By 2015 the number had surpassed one million.  And it is now well over two million.  Annual production of EVs is similarly increasing exponentially.  This kind of exponential growth promises to transform the global vehicle fleet.

But if it was just vehicle numbers and production volumes that were increasing exponentially this trend would not be very interesting or, in the end, very powerful.  More important, quantitative measures of EV technology and capacity are doubling and redoubling.  This second graph, below, taken from the same IEA report, shows the dramatic decrease in the cost of a unit of battery storage (the downward trending line) and the dramatic increase in the energy storage density of EV batteries (upward trending line).  If we compare 2016 to 2009, we find that today an EV battery of a given capacity costs one-third as much and is potentially one-quarter the size.  Stated another way, for about the same money, and packaged into about the same space, a current battery can drive an electric car three or four times as far.

Graph of electric vehicle battery cost and power density 2009 to 2016

Looking to the future, GM, Tesla, and the US Department of Energy all project that battery costs will decrease by half in the coming five years.  Though these energy density increases and cost decreases will undoubtedly plateau in coming decades, improvements underway now are rapidly moving EVs from the periphery to the mainstream.  EVs may soon eclipse internal-combustion-engine cars in all measures: emissions, purchase affordability, operating costs, performance, comfort, and even sales.

Source for graphs: International Energy Agency, Global EV Outlook 2017: Two Million and Counting