Back to top

Let’s talk numbers

By Michael Jessen

English speaking humans communicate using at least 250,000 distinct words. By contrast there are only 10 individual numbers – larger numbers being combinations of zero to nine.

To put our thoughts into words, we have an unlimited capacity to produce vocabulary.  We will coin no new numbers. 

Language is a highly elaborate signalling system; we convey our fears and feelings, tell of our adventures and ideas, and recall our parents and our past.

Numbers on the other hand are mathematical objects used for counting, measuring, ordering, or for labels or codes.

In a warming world, however, numbers are transmitting some disturbing signals.

Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel – a rise of 1.6 Gt over 2009, according to estimates from the International Energy Agency.

Contrary to predictions, the worst global recession in 80 years had a minimal effect on carbon dioxide emissions which totalled 29.3 Gt in 2008.

Warming will cause disruptions           

“I’m very worried,” the IEA’s chief economist Fatih Birol told the Guardian newspaper. “It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below two degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”

Lord Stern of the London School of Economics and author of the influential report on the economics of climate change said: “These figures indicate that emissions are now close to being back on a business as usual path. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projections, such a path would mean around a 50 per cent chance of a rise in global average temperature of more than four degrees Centigrade by 2100.

“Such warming would disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict. That is a risk any sane person would seek to drastically reduce.”

Saying disaster can still be averted if world governments heed the warning, Birol added: “If we have bold, decisive and urgent action, very soon, we still have a chance of succeeding.”

Fudging the numbers

Any hope of such action from the climate change denying Harper government in Canada?

Not judging from the fact that Environment Canada has fudged the figures in its latest national inventory on Canada’s greenhouse gas pollution.

Postmedia News has discovered that the government department deliberately excluded data indicating a 20 per cent increase in pollution from Canada’s tar sands industry in 2009 from a recent 567-page report on climate change that it was required to submit to the United Nations.

The report revealed a six per cent drop in annual emissions for the entire Canadian economy from 2008 to 2009, but does not directly show the extent of pollution from tar sands production which is now greater than the greenhouse gas emissions of all the vehicles driven on Canadian roads.

Tar sands emissions on the rise

An even more alarming part of the data indicates that emissions per barrel of tar sands oil produced is increasing, despite claims to the contrary made by the industry in an advertising campaign. 

“The oil sands remain Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution,” said Clare Demerse, director of climate change at the Alberta-based Pembina Institute. “So it’s very disappointing to see Environment Canada publish a 500-page report that leaves out these critical numbers – especially when last year’s edition included them.”

Environment Canada says the tar sands industry was responsible for about 6.5 per cent of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, up from five per cent in 2008. Since 1990, the growth in emissions from the tar sands is close to 300 per cent, which cancel out many of the reductions achieved by other sectors of the Canadian economy.

A spokesperson for Environment Canada was not able to answer questions about who made the decision in government to exclude the numbers from the tar sands or provide a detailed explanation about changes in emissions.

Last fall when the Canadian Senate killed a climate change bill mandating emissions reductions that Parliament’s elected members had approved, the Harper government sent diplomats to the US and Europe to lobby against low-carbon fuel standards.

Writing in the May-June issue of Alternatives, tar sands author and critic Andrew Nikiforuk says “Canada now stands right behind the sheiks in obstructionist climate change politics.”

Developed countries outsource GHG

In advance of crucial United Nations climate talks in Bonn next week, reports continue to show that responsibility for rising greenhouse gases is not so easy to pinpoint.

While IEA figures confirm that three quarters of the emissions rise in 2009 came from rapidly emerging economies like China and India and one quarter from the rich world, there is mounting evidence that the west has exported billions of tonnes of its emissions by relying on imports from the developing world.

Two recent studies highlight the growing extent of carbon dioxide emissions “hidden” in imported goods.  One – published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – reports that 26 per cent of global emissions come from producing goods for trade. The Carbon Trust in Britain found such ‘embedded’ CO2 could negate domestic carbon cuts planned in the UK up to 2025.

The migration of heavy manufacturing industry to developing countries has raised emissions in emerging economies. Rich countries benefit from the results as they buy back the manufactured goods while not having to report the emissions caused by their imports. More emissions are associated with the manufacture of most modern goods than with their use.

There is a way out

It’s a common adage that every cloud has a silver lining and the axiom applies also to numbers.

The United Nations crunched the numbers and found that wind, solar and four other forms of renewable resources have the potential to outstrip energy demand by 2020 and replace fossil fuels as a power source.

An IPPC summary for policy makers entitled Special Report Renewable Energy Sources (SRREN) was approved in early May with the complete report scheduled for release on June 14th.

The report is called the Renewables Bible, and will serve as a reference guide for renewable energy growth. The report indicates that there’s enough potential for the six renewable energy sources – which also include geothermal power, biomass fuel, hydropower and power harnessed from oceanic waves – can grow 20-fold over the next decade.

The United Nations examined 164 scenarios to come to the conclusion in a comprehensive survey of the current renewable energy environment.

The transition will come at a cost -- a complete shift to renewable energy sources will cost global markets around $12.3 trillion by 2030. Global markets will have to invest around $5.1 trillion over the next decade and an as much as an extra $7.1 trillion between 2020 and 2030 to complete the shift.

Dump proposed fossil fuel expenditures

Shift is the operative word as in changing our priorities. It’s not as if that amount of money can’t be found. The IEA says a total of $20 trillion needs to be spent on energy infrastructure to expand it and meet demand by 2030.

Citizens need to ensure their governments spend the money on the correct infrastructure.

For instance, the $5.5 billion Northern Gateway pipeline proposed by Enbridge which will soon go through an environmental assessment process has been deemed as unneeded by senior bureaucrats in Natural Resources Canada. Two 1,172 km pipelines would cross pristine forests, mountains, and water bodies bringing tar sands bitumen from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta to a new shipping terminal and docking facility in Kitimat, BC.

Oil would flow westerly for shipment to Asian countries like China. A second pipeline would bring condensate (a material used to thin petroleum products for pipeline transport) easterly to the Edmonton area.

Toss out the $13 billion US proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline, the McKenzie Gas Project pipeline at an estimated $16 billion, a few nuclear power plants at $10 billion a pop, the Site C dam in Northeastern BC at a now reported $7.9 billion, a few 600 MW coal-fired power plants at close to $3 billion apiece, and it gets easy to see where the money can be found for a transition to a zero carbon future.

Shell has an idiotic idea

That’s just the tip of the idiotic iceberg of ideas the fossil fuel industry has to keep us all addicted to oil and natural gas. Royal Dutch Shell has just unveiled plans for the world’s first floating natural gas platform to open up vast new areas of the deep seabed for gas exploration.

The massive platform, nearly half a kilometre long, will be the biggest floating offshore drilling structure in the world, weighing in at about 600,000 tonnes – equivalent to six aircraft carriers – and staffed by 110 people at a time. Five times more steel will be used in its construction than went into the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Shell would not say how much it is expected to cost, but the total cost of exploiting the company's Australian off-shore oil fields, where it will be used, is likely to exceed $30bn. It will take about five years to build, and is not expected to be fully operational before 2017.

Money doesn’t grow on trees

There is only so much money to spend on new energy infrastructure. It is time to make honest judgements about how best to spend that money. If we spend it on unneeded pipelines, nuclear, coal-fired, or destructively large hydroelectric plants, and humongous oil and gas drilling platforms, we will enslave ourselves to these energy sources for a minimum of 40 years.

A counter movement against waste and greed and the dominance of corporations is sweeping the world. Germany and Switzerland have committed to phase out nuclear power, knowing that better ways of producing energy are available.

Corporations and politicians have attempted to win us over with oversimplifications expressed as person-years of construction employment and labour-related income.  We need to tell them there are better ways of employing people.

Putting money back in your wallet

The Columbia Institute’s new report This Green House: Building Fast Action for Climate Change and Green Jobs points out that a $7,000 retrofit in Canada can reduce the average detached home’s energy use by between 23 and 26 per cent and cut the average household’s GHG emissions by approximately 3.1 tonnes per year.

This would equate to GHG reductions in the range of 19 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, lopping off about 2.6 per cent of Canada’s overall national total.

Retrofitting creates between 13 and 16 local direct jobs for every $1 million of increased economic output – 50 to 60 times the job creation of oil and gas extraction, the reports adds.

Who wouldn’t want to save $700 a year on an average $2,000 annual heating bill, and live in a more comfortable home that will have increased value as a result of the retrofit?

Vancouver will start a pilot project this summer to help taxpayers retrofit their drafty, energy-inefficient homes. The homeowners will be able to access low-interest financing to install new high-efficiency furnaces, heat pumps, upgraded water heaters and wall and ceiling insulation.

The program will be administered through Vancity Credit Union and repayment will be done over 10 years through the city’s utility and property tax billing system.

Much more can be done

On a drive up to have a look at the energy efficient Tenth Street student residence being retrofitted by Selkirk College, I was overwhelmed by the large new houses being built in the Fairview Heights subdivision.

Only one house at 526 Foster Place has a solar hot water heater and one house in the 600-block of Ninth Street has a solar photovoltaic array for generating electricity. These isolated examples need to become the norm on all new construction and retrofits and our city should have bylaws in place mandating this.

Some final numbers

Words are often used to give ourselves a kick in the pants when something needs to get done. Let’s see if some final numbers can accomplish the same task.

  • In April 2011, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide as measured by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was 393.18 parts per million, the highest level for April in at least 2.1 million years. Fifty years ago in April 1961 it was 319.48 ppm.
  • The first four months of 2011 have all recorded atmospheric CO2 levels over 390 parts per million for the first time since record keeping began at the Mauna Loa observatory in 1958.
  • The combined land and sea surface temperature globally in April 2011 was 14.3 degrees Centigrade, the seventh warmest April in 132 years.

Without a doubt, the weather is changing, the climate is changing, and we are all responsible. We are living in a world of wounds.

All the above numbers point to the need for us to change our ways of providing for our energy needs. We have the needed blueprints; it’s time to get on with the job.

When the IEA released the news of the fastest-ever rise in greenhouse gas emissions, Connie Hedegaard, the European Union’s climate chief, said: “One wonders how many more worrying figures the world needs.”

Michael Jessen is a Nelson eco-writer and owns the consultancy Zero Waste Solutions. He is also the Energy Critic for the Green Party of British Columbia and can be reached by e-mail at