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Cracks in the Carbon Corridor

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

– Leonard Cohen, “Anthem

The old Anglo-Saxon name for the month of March wasHréth-monath meaning ‘rough month’ and March 2013 has lived up to the designation.

It has been a rugged and stormy month as cracks began to fracture society’s fervent almost religious fidelity to economic growth.

The late Earl Cook, a geologist and former Dean of Geosciences at Texas A & M University, termed this devotion a battle between two options – progress and prudence. Cook’s 1976 book Man, Energy, Society is one of the most comprehensive critiques on energy use, resource depletion, and environmental degradation.

Thirty-seven years ago, Cook foresaw a time when humans would have to adjust their values and lifestyles to match energy, resource and environmental realities. He wrote:

“The consequences of the continuing accumulation of carbon dioxide in the world’s atmosphere may someday be adjudged too costly to warrant the continued burning of the fossil fuels for energy, and remaining reserves would then be devoted to other uses.”

March brought sobering news for the carbon corridor dreams of Alberta Premier Alison Redford, her BC counterpart Christy Clark, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper that should give them – and all of us – cause to reconsider their economic growth plans to build a network of pipelines across North America to speed development of the Alberta tar sands and shale gas deposits.

These pipedreams become even more irrational when perfectly sensible, less environmentally destructive and cheaper alternatives that will create more jobs are available.

First, let’s deal with the sombre information and then we’ll focus on the month’s positive news.

CO2 reaches highest ever level

According to preliminary data released March 5, CO2 levels reached their highest level ever recorded at Mauna Loa, Hawaii where measurements have been taken since March 1958.

Last month, they reached a record 396.80 parts per million with a jump of 3.26 ppm between February 2012 and 2013. Levels were 4.98 ppm higher than in February 2011.

Carbon dioxide levels fluctuate seasonally, with the highest levels usually observed in April. Last year the highest level at Mauna Loa was measured at 396.78 ppm in May. According to the observatory, the average annual rate of increase for the past 10 years has been 2.07ppm – more than double the increase in the 1960s.

Prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels were about 280 ppm by volume.  The rise in CO2 levels is responsible for a 0.8°C increase in global surface temperatures and scientists consider a rise of 2°C to be the “safe” upper limit to hold global warming under control.

2012 saw 2nd highest CO2 jump

Then on March 8th, scientists at Mauna Loa reported that 2012 saw the second-greatest annual rise in CO2 emissions.

Carbon dioxide levels measured at the observatory jumped by 2.67 ppm in 2012 to 395 ppm, said Pieter Tans, who leads the greenhouse gas measurement team for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The record was an increase of 2.93 ppm in 1998. 

Tans told the Associated Press the major factor was an increase in fossil fuel use. “It’s just a testament to human influence being dominant”, he said. “The prospects of keeping climate change below that [two-degree goal] are fading away.”

Tans’ assessment followed a study published in Science that found global average temperatures in the last decade were higher than they have been for about 75% of the past 11,300 years.

Shaun Marcott, a paleoclimatologist at Oregon State University, and his colleagues compiled the most meticulous reconstruction yet of global temperatures over the past 11,300 years, virtually the entire Holocene – the modern geological era that began after the last ice age. They analyzed data from 73 overlapping climate records including sediment cores drilled from lake bottoms and sea floors around the world, along with a handful of ice cores collected in Antarctica and Greenland.

“What’s different is the rate of change,” said Marcott. “What we’ve seen over the past 150 years is much greater than anything we saw in the past 11,000 years.”

We need to reduce emissions by 50%

The Mauna Loa measurements coincide with a new peer-reviewed study of the pledges made by countries to reduce CO2 emissions. The Dutch government’s scientific advisers show that rich countries will have to reduce emissions by 50% percent below 1990 levels by 2020 if there is to be even a medium chance of limiting warming to 2°C.

“The challenge we already knew was great is even more difficult,” said Kelly Levin, a researcher with the World Resources Institute in Washington. “But even with an increased level of reductions necessary, it shows that a 2° goal is still attainable – if we act ambitiously and immediately.”

Other facts highlight a disturbing trend:

·      Global CO2 emissions increased by 3% in 2011 and were 46% higher than their 1990 level.

·      According to the International Energy Agency, global emissions of carbon dioxide have risen by 117%, or on average 2% per year, since 1971.

·      Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have increased by over 16 times between 1900 and 2008.

·      In its most recent report on global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, the International Energy Agency found Canada’s emissions rose 24% between 1990 and 2010 when they should have gone down by 6 percent to comply with our Kyoto Protocol commitment.

Canada’s Arctic changing drastically

The effect of the CO2 rise is being felt in Canada, primarily in the Arctic and on glacier ice.

On March 10th, a paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change said climate change is altering the seasons in the Arctic, making them more like southern regions.

“We are doing a strange experiment,” said Ranga Myneni of Boston University, co-author of the study that reviewed 30 years of satellite data on the vegetation and temperatures of far north landscapes from 45 degrees north all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

It suggests that plants and animals adapted to the extreme chill of the Arctic region are now experiencing a disruption in their environment.  Today’s temperatures and habitats look like the temperatures and habitats of locations 4 to 6 degrees farther south in 1982.

“It’s like Winnipeg, Manitoba, moving to Minneapolis-Saint Paul in only 30 years,” said NASA’s Compton Tucker, another co-author.

In a paper published online March 7th in Geophysical Research Letters, lead author Jan Lenaerts says one-fifth of Canada’s glaciers could be gone by the end of the century causing a 3.5 centimetre rise in sea levels.

“Even if we only assume moderate global warming, it is still highly likely that the ice is going to melt at an alarming rate,” Lenaerts said in a statement. “The chances of it growing back are very slim,” added the meteorologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Temperatures in Canada's Arctic Archipelago have risen between one to two degrees Celsius since 2000 and the volume of ice has significantly diminished. Glaciers in the archipelago comprise the third largest ice body in the world and if they disappeared entirely would cause a 20 centimetre rise in sea levels.

Progress or prudence?

Lurking unacknowledged in the background is the fact that if all the known and estimated reserves and resources of fossil energy carriers were extracted and used, this would release 100 times more CO2 emissions into the atmosphere than is permissible by 2050 if dangerous climate change is to be avoided.

Last November, the World Bank issued a report warning humanity is on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.

The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012 – also released last November – stated: “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal.”

A 2009 study by the Potsdam Institute in the journal Nature provides another framework for business-as-usual growth in the absence of policy change, calculating that we have until 2024 – just 11 years away – before unchecked carbon emissions will lock the world in to more than 2 degrees of warming.

In light of such overwhelming scientific evidence that fossil fuel burning is harming the planet, why are our politicians preaching progress over prudence?

Even the world’s largest professional services firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers says: “Now one thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2C, but 4C or even 6C.”

BAU not an option

It is abundantly evident that business as usual is not an option.

Fossil fuel subsidies totalled more than $520 billion in 2011, a 30% rise over 2010. Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, says eliminating subsidies for coal, gas and oil could save as much as Germany's annual greenhouse gas emissions each year by 2015.

“Energy is significantly underpriced in many parts of the world, leading to wasteful consumption, price volatility and fuel smuggling. It's also undermining the competitiveness of renewables,” Birol told The Guardian in 2012.

Birol and the IEA say that a phase-out would avoid 750m tonnes of CO2 a year by 2015, potentially rising to 2.6 gigatonnes by 2035.

It is impossible to imagine that world governments will continue indefinitely to prop up the fossil fuel industry and let the planet burn. Surely it is only a matter of time before leaders realize the fossil fuel age must be wound down and take strong, decisive action.

Why then does landlocked Alberta continue digging up an area the size of Florida to squeeze oil from tar sands and seek to market its bitumen wealth offshore when, if Alberta was a country, per capita greenhouse gas emissions are higher than in any other country in the world?

Many people want nothing to do with Alberta’s “dirty oil”. Vermont voters in 29 towns turned thumbs down March 5 on a plan to use a portion of the Montreal to Portland, Maine pipeline to ship corrosive bitumen to Gulf refineries and to overseas customers.

 Tar sands development is already the largest industrial project on Earth that is affecting 23 percent of the province and planned growth will result in a doubling of CO2 emissions by 2020, making it impossible for Canada to meet its Copenhagen Accord commitment of a reduction in GHG emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.

Tar sands spew toxins

In addition, in January 2013, a team of scientists, led by Dr. John Smol from Queen's University, found evidence strongly suggesting the Alberta oil sands have been sending toxins into the air and water for decades. This collaborated evidence gathered by Dr. David Schindler that first aired on the CBC Nature of Things program Tipping Point: Age of the Oil Sands.

Why then are government ministers from Alberta and Ottawa travelling to Washington to try to persuade the US government to okay the Keystone XL pipeline when approval will boost Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 16 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels?

Why are Enbridge and Kinder Morgan planning new or expanded pipelines to BC’s west coast over the objections of First Nations and many others?

Why is Christy Clark hoping for the planned construction of up to five liquefied natural gas plants to ship fracked shale gas to Asia when the greenhouse gases emitted from fracking and processing the gas will make it impossible for BC to meet its GHG reduction target of 33% below 2007 levels by 2020?

Why is David Black even considering the prospect of an oil refinery in Kitimat to upgrade tar sands bitumen when this will just increase tar sands extraction with all of its consequent liabilities?

The total cost of the planned refinery, liquefied gas plants, new tar sands developments and associated pipelines exceeds $200 billion – on top of $500 billion already invested in the tar sands – money that could be more productively spent on energy efficiency measures and renewable energy sources.

Carbon-induced financial disruption

There’s a really good reason why this money shouldn’t be invested in more fossil fuel developments and infrastructure – on March 4th, the financial services firm Standard and Poor’s warned that oil and gas companies “will likely see declines in cash flows and credit downgrades if world leaders implement policies to limit GHG emissions.”

Their study, done with the assistance of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, is called What a Carbon-Constrained Future Could Mean for Oil Companies ’ Creditworthiness and looks at how BP and Shell, along with three Canadian companies that focus on tar sands projects — Canadian Oil Sands, Canadian Natural Resources, and Cenovus Energy — would be affected by the International Energy Agency’s 450 scenario.

This scenario aims to limit the global increase in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius by limiting GHG emissions to 450 parts per million of CO2, resulting in a 35 percent reduction in oil use for transport by 2030, and 49 percent by 2035.

The three tar sands operators analyzed have issued $13.6 billion of corporate bonds, with more than 50% of these maturing post-2020. The study says the companies may find a very different business environment when they try to refinance any of the debt that matures in the next few years.

At an undetermined point in time, governments will act to put the world on a path to limit warming to under two degrees. Whenever that happens – next month, next year or in five years – the burning of coal, oil and gas will be reduced and later eliminated, leading to what Paul Gilding calls “carbon-induced financial disruption on a global scale.”

But there is also one other unappreciated fact and here is the good news: renewable energies offer sufficient technical and sustainable potential to exceed current global energy demand by a very substantial margin. In other words, there is a genuine opportunity to establish a 100 % renewable global energy supply.

A study from the University of Delaware published in the March 1st issue of the Journal of Power Sources shows it is possible to power the U.S. grid 99.9% of the time with only solar and wind energy, at a cost comparable to what Americans are paying today.

This counters the conventional wisdom that we will always need large amounts of fossil fuel as a backup when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. It also means the goal of getting largely beyond fossil fuels by 2030 is not just achievable, but practical.
The more things change, the more they stay the same

In their 1981 book Energy and the Quality of Life: Understanding Energy Policy, C. A. Hooker, R. Macdonald, R. Van Hulst, and Peter Victor wrote:

“Our analysis of available documents leads us to conclude that the federal energy strategy should be seen as a ‘business-as-usual’ policy because it leaves Canada with an even stronger dependence upon traditional non-renewable energy resources with no allowance for the longer term future; leads even more heavily towards the established dependence on foreign capital and towards ever more massive technical projects; reinforces the past trend towards less and less effective public participation in decision-making and towards a decreased sense of initiative and responsibility for social conditions; and leads towards maintenance of the present institutional arrangements with regard to energy policy and supply. 

“By contrast the long-term public interest calls for a sustainable resource base utilized as far as possible in the pursuit of social equality, diversity, and freedom of choice; social institutions that nurture responsible political participation and as much local autonomy as possible; and a flourishing, self-reliant economic life. Present policy supports the short-term interests of a small wealthy segment of society – the present energy technology industries – at the expense of longer term social goals.”

Written more than 30 years ago, the above quotation brilliantly describes the situation that still exists in today’s Canada, a point made by York University political science professor emeritus Daniel Drache in an interview March 24 on CBC’s The Sunday Edition.

Drache is one of Canada's leading proponents of the staples thesis, a theory espoused by scholar Harold Innis last century. Innis saw Canada's economic history as a succession of staples traps — the economy becoming imbalanced and vulnerable to slumps because of its over-reliance on exporting natural resources, resources that might see prices collapse or markets dry up.

This scenario is on the cusp of changing; awareness of the severity of impacts is rising and public opinion is shifting.

The cracks appearing in the carbon corridor will lead to collapse and a new economy based on renewable energy, energy efficiency, local food production, improved transportation systems, health wellness, education, tourism, film production, internet technology, value-added manufacturing, arts and culture, responsible mining and forestry, research and development will take its place.

March is named for Mars, the Roman god of war and it is obvious that our planet desperately needs a war-like mobilization to reduce the rough risks of climate change.

There is a clear end-date for the widespread use of fossil fuels and we should start creating the new energy future now. We can begin by telling our politicians to stop all planned fossil fuel developments.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based energy specialist and owner of the consultancy Zero Waste Solutions. He is also the energy critic for the Green Party of BC and can be reached by email at


RESOURCES – The latest Atmospheric CO2 Data Set from the Mauna Loa Observatory is at

A synopsis of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can be found at

A Reconstruction of Regional and Global Temperature for the Past 11,300 Yearscan be read at

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency study of greenhouse gas emission reduction action plans was published in Energy Policy and can be found at

Temperature and vegetation seasonality diminishment over northern landspublished inNature Climate Change can be found at

Irreversible mass loss of Canadian Arctic Archipelago glacierspublished inGeophysical Research Letters can be accessed at

The executive summary of the International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2012 can be viewed at

The International Energy Agency report CO2 Emissions From Fuel Combustion Highlights 2012can be viewed at

The World Bank report Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degree Centigrade Warmer World Must be Avoided can be read at

The Potsdam Institute 2009 study can be read at

The PricewaterhouseCoopers study Too Late for Two Degrees? can be viewed at

Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands can be viewed at

The Carbon Tracker Initiative/Standard and Poor’s study can be accessed at

Paul Gilding’s discussion paperCarbon-Induced Financial Disruption, written with financial risk expert Phil Preston can be found at

The University of Delaware study can be accessed at

Daniel Drache’s interview on The Sunday Edition can be heard at

Daniel Drache’s paper Canada’s Resource Curse: Too Much of a Good Thing can be found at

The Canadian government’s two page brochure about oil sands emissions can be read at

The Pembina Institute’s fact sheet on tar sands climate impacts can be found at