Tag Archives: greenhouse gases

So that’s a “NO” then?

by Simon Wheeler

The Premier of B.C. announced the British Columbia government’s climate action plan in Richmond on 19 August 2016.

Late on a hot Friday afternoon last week the BC Provincial Government released their long awaited and much delayed Climate Leadership Plan.  It was as though they wanted to bury this document to avoid any media spotlight or comment.

Let’s step back. Just over a year ago the government announced, with great fanfare, the setting up of their new Climate Leadership Plan, including a strong team of stakeholder advisers drawn from industry, environmental groups, the First Nations and universities. Their mandate was to produce a robust report with input from the public and including interim and final recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the province. The path for the reductions was needed because the BC Government itself was committed by law to a 33% reduction from 2007 levels by 2020.

The Leadership Team worked hard and listened carefully to the comments made. They produced their interim report in November 2015, along with invitations for a further round of public discussion. The final report was initially due in March 2016 but ominously failed to appear despite calls from some members of the Leadership Team for explanations.

By this time it was apparent that the government’s own targets for 2020 were unachievable. Indeed it looked like there would be a rise in emissions rather than a reduction. The Team, in its interim report, had suggested a modified target of 40% reduction by 2030 and 80% by 2050, together with some clearly defined pathways to achieve these goals whilst maintaining economic growth.

What has the government given us?  A report that ignores their 2020 legislated emissions reduction, ignores the suggested 2030 target, and coincidentally thumbs its nose at the Federal government’s stated intention for a national 30% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. It also ignores most of the Leadership Team’s recommendations, together with their suggested pathways to emissions reduction, and now presents some flawed figures that will not even get them halfway to the stated target for 2050.

So indeed it’s a “NO”. NO to meeting the government’s own targets, NO to any credible plans for emissions reduction in the future and certainly NO to any form of climate leadership.

BC deserves better.


Energy from the wind – the example of Wolfe Island Wind Farm, Ontario

by David Laing

We were shivering; bracing against a blustery, bone-chilling north-west wind, yet virtually hypnotized by the majestic beauty of the guardian towers and the gentle swish, swish, swish of the rotating blades. We wanted to linger far longer, but the cold won out as a freshening gust drove us back to the comfort of our car. It was a damp chilly day in early December 2012 and my wife Dayle and I were on Wolfe Island near Kingston Ontario, just finishing a visit to Canada’s second largest wind farm project. Our purpose was to get a firsthand perspective on the benefits and detractions of wind turbines as an economical power source for the Province of Ontario and also to understand the impact of those turbines, both positive and negative, on the local Wolfe Island community.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe Wind Farm on Wolfe Island boasts 86 turbines, each capable of generating 2.3 Megawatts, when running at peak capacity. The 197.8 megawatt farm is just under the 200 megawatt limit allowed in Ontario. Of course theoretical capacity is not the same as actual output. The wind is fickle and the turbines aren’t always spinning at their maximum velocity. Maintenance activity, both scheduled and unscheduled also reduces wind farm capacity. But, even considering these inefficiencies, Wolfe Island produces sufficient electricity to meet over 68% of the power requirements for the Kingston Metropolitan Area. [1]

TransAlta completed construction of the facility in 2009 and is committed to a 20 year contract to produce wind-based power for Ontario’s Power Authority. At something less than 9.2 cents a kilowatt hour, (exact contract terms are confidential), the price compares favourably to nuclear and hydro when all the cost for construction, maintenance, operations and environmental impact are taken into consideration.[2]

Proposing to build an industrial facility in a natural setting is a certain recipe for controversy and Wolfe Island was no exception. According to our long-term friends, who moved to the island well before the wind farm project was conceived, the prospect of dozens of 80 metre towers rising above relatively flat agricultural land that also is part of a major bird migration route, elicited a particularly strong negative response from many local residents. The controversy initially divided the community, pitting family members against each other, prompting at least one to pack up and move away.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAYet 3 ½ years after TransAlta Corporation completed construction and began operations, our friends have indicated that the majority of the residents think that the wind farm is more of a benefit than a detraction to the island and that TransAlta is a pretty good neighbour, as corporations go. To discover more, we asked our friends to contact their neighbour Mike Jablonicky who also happens to be Wolfe Island’s Wind Farm Supervisor of Operations.   And so a visit was arranged for that frigid December morning.

Friendly and approachable, Mike is clearly enthusiastic about his job and very proud of the farm and its operating team. We learned that he was assigned to the project from the beginning. He was, and still is the communications point person, handling all manner of objections and complaints from the local residents.

When asked about the acceptance rates for the project prior to construction, Mike smiles and hands us the “fact sheet” published by a group who were, at the time, anxious to stop the project. “Reading that, he said, I would be scared to the point that I wouldn’t want a wind-farm in my area as well”. The early objections he said mostly came down to myths, misunderstanding and a lack of information. For instance, residents were told that, during storms, ice could collect on the turbines and be thrown hundreds of metres by the spinning blades in chunks the size of a bus. Or that the vibration of the towers would crush turtle eggs, kill the crops because the dew worms would leave the area and cause cows to lose their minds and stop calving.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMike hosted monthly communications sessions, talked to people in small groups and even one-on-one. Each issue was addressed in turn. He demonstrated the mechanics of how any ice build-up on the turbine blades would cause the turbine to slow down and stop, not throw ice off. He explained how vibration, significant enough to damage turtle eggs, would, in fact, destroy a turbine tower in about 3 hours of operation. As a result, he said the three turbine blades, each weighing about 11 tons, is balanced to within 20 pounds of the other two such that tower vibration is virtually eliminated. He also showed concerned residents pictures of other wind farms where crops grow and cattle graze right up to the tower base. Once the farm was in operation, these fears were proven to be unfounded which added to Mike’s credibility and helped build trust between TransAlta and the community. Support for the wind farm development crept above 50% for the first time since the project was announced.

But some issues aren’t myths. Wind farm detractors point to thousands of bird and bat deaths each year from interactions with the turbine blades. Complaints arise from turbine noise, both audible noise and low frequency “infrasound”, which is thought to be a cause of negative health effects such as: sleep disorders, headaches, depression and changes to blood pressure[3]. Then there is the undisputable fact that wind farms forever alter the skyline. Handling these real objections required more than talk and education. Mike, and the company, had to have a process and an action plan for mitigation.

To mitigate bird and bat kills, TransAlta worked with the University of Calgary’s Professor of Biology Robert Barclay, to carry out a number of independent studies. The research indicated bat deaths were the far greater problem and the highest concentration of bat deaths occurred at low wind velocities.[4] This lead TransAlta to adjust its procedures around wind farm operations in low wind conditions with the effect that bat fatalities have been reduced by 60%.[5]

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe latest available data from the Wolfe Island studies estimates about 900 birds and 1,900 bats were killed at the facility in 2011. This number is considerably below the Adaptive Management Threshold as set by Environment Canada.[6]

While the hundreds of thousands of wildlife deaths caused by wind turbines in North America are of concern, it is important to put this in perspective when compared to the billions of bird and bat deaths caused each year in collisions with high-rise buildings and attacks by domestic housecats. [7],[8],[9]

In terms of ambient noise, Ontario regulates turbine set-backs from any private residence such that the noise at the residence must not exceed 40 decibels. Mike brought in a decibel meter and showed residents that 40 decibels is about the level of a quiet library conversation. He told them anything above that meant something very likely was wrong. He posted his cell phone number and told residents to call him with noise issues “twenty-four seven” and that “he would be there in 15 minutes”. When tested, even at 2:30 in the morning, Mike was responsive, coming out to check on the problem and shutting down the offending turbines until repairs were made. More trust and credibility accrued to Mike and approval levels continued to rise.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe health effects of low-frequency noise present a more difficult challenge. According to Mike, studies by local and provincial authorities along with the World Health Organization have so far, not been able to correlate either low or high frequency noise with any deleterious health impacts. The collective conclusion is that, for some people, living near a wind farm is such an emotional irritant that the annoyance factor alone may be the cause of negative health effects. So this issue remains unresolved although Health Canada is now sponsoring a very comprehensive study. The results are expected in late 2014 and it is hoped this will allow more definitive conclusions to be drawn.[10]

Then there is the issue of wind farm aesthetics. Mike and TransAlta recognized that wind turbines do alter the landscape and this may be disturbing to some people. They addressed this issue non-defensively, in effect offering financial compensation in return for loss of view. During construction, over 400 on-site construction jobs and purchasing through local companies injected $22M over 11 ½ months into the local economy. After construction was completed TranAlta continues to frequent local stores for hardware, gas and automotive repairs. Several permanent well-paying jobs were created and filled with local labour. In addition, each year TransAlta provides the community with “amenities money”: $634,000 to be used for the betterment of the community such as road construction, beach-bike paths and a new water system. As a result, everyone on the island benefits from the presence of the wind farm whether or not they have a turbine on their property.

So after 3 ½ years of operation, Mike says, “I think we are about a healthy 80-85% acceptance rate, [by the residents], right now and, that’s probably as far as we’re going to get, and that’s Ok. We can’t have 100% consensus on anything we do in any community…80-85%, I’ll take that.”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI’ll admit to bringing a certain bias to this investigation. Dayle and I have stood beneath modern wind farms in several locales around the world: Costa Rica, Hawaii, Europe, Britain, South Africa and North America. In each case we have been impressed by the elegance of their functional design.

We all must recognize that there is no method of producing electricity that is 100% benign. While there is no mistaking their industrial application, wind farms are less disruptive and integrate far better into the natural surroundings than other power producing alternatives. Aesthetics aside, for us there is an unmistakeable appeal in their ability to generate much needed electrical power, using wind as a “free fuel” that is non-toxic, produces no carbon emissions and that will be available for as long as the sun continues to shine on our planet.

We value your comments and discussion. If you want to to learn more about sustainable design, please contact the office at info@daylelaing.comThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 905-846-3221.

[1] 2011 Power consumption statistics courtesy of Ontario Energy Board http://www.ontarioenergyboard.ca/OEB/

[2] “Facts and Myths debunked – Facts and Figures Ontario’s Electricity System”, Ontario Citizens Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy, http://www.occcae.org/facts-and-myths-debunked.php

[3] “Health Canada lays out a plan for study of wind farms, Globe and Mail, February 11, 2013, pg. A3

[4] Bat deaths from wind turbines explained, University of Calgary, Aug 2008. http://www.ucalgary.ca/news/aug2008/batdeaths

[5] U of C scientists find successful way to reduce bat deaths at wind turbines, University of Calgary Faculty of Science, Sept 25, 2009 http://www.ucalgary.ca/science/batdeathsolution

[6] 2011 Stantec study, numbers supplied by TransAlta

[7] “U.S. cats kill up to 3.7 billion birds, 20.7 billion small mammals annually”, Globe and Mail, January 29, 2013

[8] “Many Human Caused Threats Afflict our Bird Populations”, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2002 http://www.fws.gov/birds/mortality-fact-sheet.pdf

[9] “Are Wind Turbines getting more bird and bat friendly?”, Scientific American August 20, 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=wind-turbines-and-bird-conflicts

[10] “Health Canada lays out plan for study of wind farms”, Globe and Mail, February 11, 2013

Northern Gateway pipeline is more than just an environmental issue

By Bob Worcester

The Northern Gateway Pipeline is pitting U.S. interests against the Chinese, and Alberta against B.C. Five oil sands companies have revealed themselves as supporters of the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, lending their names to a massive infrastructure proposal that has stirred intense opposition in Western Canada. Cenovus Energy Inc., MEG Energy Corp., Nexen Inc., Suncor Energy Marketing Inc. (a subsidiary of Suncor Energy Inc.),and Total E&P Canada (the domestic arm of French giant Total SA) have each spent money to help develop the $6.6-billion pipeline which, if built, will funnel massive volumes of oil sands crude to the West Coast for export to California and Asia. Gateway’s financial backers also include Chinese state-owned energy company Sinopec. And there are others who have yet to step forward. Market sources have said they believe China National Petroleum Corp. also holds an interest in Gateway. Sinochem Group, another Chinese energy firm, is also believed to support Gateway.

Against this backdrop a story is emerging that Canadian environmental groups receive some funding from US charities. Canada’s Conservative government is using this as a “talking point” against the swelling opposition to the Gateway pipeline and tar sand development. The government seems to be taking a very narrow view as to what constitutes the “national interest.”

No one can deny that billions of dollars of foreign investment will impact the Canadian economy. It seems easier, however, for the government to deny that billions more tonnes of greenhouse gases will impact the Canadian (and global) climate. Despite the petro-dollar funded denials it remains an “inconvenient truth” that we are mortgaging the health and welfare of our children and grandchildren in the rush to exploit the last remaining fossil fuel deposits and get them to market across BC’s pristine northern forests and rivers.

Oil and gas geologists know very well what global warming is doing to arctic ice and northern tundra. They drive through the infestation of warm weather pine beetles in BC’s boreal forests. For them it is merely the cost of doing business, knowing that they are not even being asked to pay those costs. Those costs are being passed on to our children in the form of catastrophic climate changes now occurring faster than the IPCC’s worst predictions.

Environmentalists are raising the alarm because the facts are truly alarming. This is much more than merely an environmental or economic issue. It is an eldership issue of survival. Elders have understood for generations the dangers of reckless exploitation and resource exhaustion. Those cultures that heed the warnings survive and thrive while those that don’t disappear into the mists of history. The difference now is that the impacts are global and there are no more uncharted territories to shelter the survivors.

Ecology has no national interest. Iroquois Law is often described as decreeing that decisions must consider seven generations. Sadly, governments are bound instead to election cycles and oil companies are bound to balance sheets and annual reports. Eldership transcends those limitations and never was there a greater need for elders to be heard. Canada’s national interest is a sustainable future for its next generation. Who will speak for them?

The pros and cons of nuclear power versus coal

by Peggy Olive

In an ideal world, inexpensive, reliable, and safe sources of green energy would abound, and we could avoid using energy derived from either nuclear fission or coal burning. But we’re not there yet, and with climate change already affecting life on our planet, most of us believe that we need to move quickly to using clean energy sources to limit the rise in global temperature caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

In a talk on energy and climate entitled, “Innovating to Zero”, Microsoft’s Bill Gates gives a compelling argument for why we need nuclear power in an age of increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 [1]. Using a simple equation, he argues that CO2 is a product of the number of people on the planet, the services delivered per person, the energy needed per service, and the amount of CO2 produced by each unit of energy. The first two are heading up and are unlikely to be stopped. The cost of energy is decreasing, but not enough. So that leaves the fourth factor. We must use energy that does not produce greenhouse gases, but we need reliable energy – energy that’s available when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Gates believes that nuclear power offers this promise and should be part of the mix, especially if improved (safer) technology is employed. Energy conservation should be a viable way to transition from dirty to clean energy, but increases in services delivered per person along with a growing population would quickly eat up conservation savings.

Like coal power, nuclear power is economical and does not fluctuate as much as wind or solar power. Unlike coal, it is considered clean in terms of the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the power plant itself, although uranium mining and processing are not without risks and environmental impact. But the public is overly fearful of nuclear power, seeing it as an accident waiting to happen and, when it does, likely to adversely affect millions. Of equal concern, radioactive wastes from power plants accumulate and represent a threat by terrorists willing to handle the material, but this has not yet occurred. Accidents at nuclear power plants have the potential to be dangerous to the local population and environment as we’ve recently appreciated with the Fukushima disaster, and once long-lived radioactive elements like cesium-137 and strontium-90 are released, they can contaminate the surrounding land for decades. A case in point, the a 30 km exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl remains empty of people twenty-five years after that disaster.

Fortunately, nuclear power plant “accidents” that spread deadly isotopes are rare, and the planet has suffered only two (avoidable) serious events that rank at the top of the International Nuclear Event Scale. As serious as these events were, there were few immediate deaths. At Chernobyl, the nuclear core of a poorly designed and operated reactor exploded and was cast outside the facility. Thirty-two radiation workers died shortly after radiation exposure at Chernobyl. At Fukushima Daiichi, in spite of IAEA concerns, an older reactor was operating without adequate safety precautions to ensure reactor coolant in the event of an earthquake and tsunami. No one has died from acute radiation poisoning at Fukushima. Other than thyroid cancers (which are mitigated by potassium iodide tablets and easily treated) increases in the incidence of other types of cancer have not been conclusively linked to radiation from the Chernobyl accident [2]. Cardis and colleagues [3] estimated that “of all the cancer cases expected to occur in Europe between 1986 and 2065, around 0.01% may be related to radiation from the Chernobyl accident”. Although a tiny percentage, this still represents a large number of excess cancer cases, more than 5000 to date. However, air pollution is estimated to end life prematurely in at least 17,000 US citizens per year [4] and up to 850,000 globally [5]. A 2002 analysis by the International Energy Association concluded that nuclear power ranked much lower than coal in terms of impact on biodiversity, accidents, and health risks, and only ranked higher on risk perception [6].

When seen in comparison to the risks of deriving energy from burning coal, the evidence that deriving energy from nuclear power is dangerous remains relatively weak. It is the perceived threat that is strong, and this threat recently caused Germany to close eight of their nuclear power plants and to begin to phase out the remaining nine by 2022. Although the intent is to generate energy cleanly, almost half of the energy in Germany currently comes from coal, and it is difficult to believe that this percentage will not rise in the next few decades, thus contributing further to global warming.

Coal-derived power, in addition to being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and acid rain, is hardly safe. Thousands of coal miners die in accidents each year, and the public is susceptible to lung and heart effects from air-borne pollutants. In 2000, the Ontario Medical Association declared air pollution “a public health crisis” [7] and coal-fired power plants as the single largest industrial contributors to this crisis, producing carbon dioxide, fine particulates, and cancerous heavy metals including mercury. In 2005, the Ontario Medical Association estimated that air pollution costs the province more than six hundred million dollars per year in health care costs, as well as causing the premature deaths of thousands of Ontarians each year [8]. Although of little health consequence, it is worth noting that burning coal produces fly ash that concentrates natural radioactive isotopes in excess of levels produced by nuclear power plants under normal operating conditions [9]. Disposal of toxic coal combustion wastes, orders of magnitude larger in volume than nuclear wastes, has also come under scrutiny [10].

We constantly accept risks in our lives without giving it much thought. A person who smokes twenty cigarettes a day over their lifetime would shorten their life, on average, by six years. A person currently living 50 km from Fukushima who is exposed to an extra 3 mSv per year over their lifetime (the average background exposure is now greater than 3 mSv per year thanks to medical imaging) would shorten their life by 15 days [11]. What cannot be easily evaluated, and is therefore ignored in these risk assessments, is the psychological trauma to evacuees and to those who fear the consequences of minimal radiation exposure because they do not comprehend the risks. Wild animals, ignorant of continuing radioactive decay, are now thriving in the Chernobyl exclusion zone [12].

Economic arguments favour the use of coal over nuclear power when waste management and decommissioning are taken into account. Nuclear plants are very expensive to build (and dismantle) although estimated capital costs for advanced coal plants with carbon control and sequestration appear to be on par with costs to build nuclear power plants [13]. The cost to run and maintain coal plants can be higher than nuclear power plants, in part because of the transportation costs of coal. A major concern with both nuclear and coal power plants is that once the plants are built, they are likely to be around for a long time because the infrastructure is so costly to develop. Public pressure will be needed to ensure that these plants are closed as soon as clean energy sources become available.

In summary, although recent events at Fukushima warn us that safety standards and compliance must be improved, nuclear power plants operating normally produce less greenhouse gas and toxic emissions, less global environmental damage, and fewer health issues than coal-burning power plants. Neither represents a safe, sustainable, energy choice, but given a choice between these two, nuclear power comes out on top. According to Walter Keyes, a proponent of nuclear power who has worked as an energy consultant for the Saskatchewan and Federal governments, “If climate change really is the serious global issue that most scientists believe it is, there is a very limited amount of time to fix the problem and we should not be wasting valuable time debating which non GHG (green house gas) generation source is the best – we need them all, desperately!” [14].


1. Bill Gates on Energy: Innovating to Zero! TED talks, February, 2010. http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

2. UN Summary of the Chernobyl Forum, Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts, IAEA, 2006. http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Booklets/Chernobyl/chernobyl.pdf

3. Cardis E, Krewski D, Boniol M, Drozdovitch V, Darby SC, Gilbert ES, et al. 2006. Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident Inter. J Cancer 119, 1224–1235 (2006).

4. US Environmental Protection Agency, Power plant, mercury and air toxics standards, March, 2011. http://www.epa.gov/airquality/powerplanttoxics/pdfs/overviewfactsheet.pdf

5. World Health Organization. Estimated deaths and DALYs linked to environmental risk factors. http://www.who.int/quantifying_ehimpacts/countryprofilesebd.xls

6. International Energy Agency, Environmental and health impacts of electricity generation, June 2002 (Table 9.9) http://www.ieahydro.org/reports/ST3-020613b.pdf

7. Canadian Medical Association, June 27, 2000. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/201/300/cdn_medical_association/cmaj/cmaj_today/2000/06_27.htm

8. Ontario Medical Association Illness Costs of Air Pollution (ICAP) – Regional Data for 2005. https://www.oma.org/Resources/Documents/d2005IllnessCostsOfAirPollution.pdf

9. McBride JP, Moore RE, Witherspoon JP, Blanco, RE. Radiological impact of airborne effluents of coal and nuclear plants. Science, 202: 1045-1050, 1978.

10. Dellantonio A, Fitz WJ, Repmann F, Wenzel WW. Disposal of coal combustion residues in terrestrial systems: contamination and risk management. J Environ Qual. 39:761-75, 2010

11. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Instruction concerning risks from occupational radiation exposure. Regulatory Guide 8.29, Feb. 1996. http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/reg-guides/occupational-health/rg/8-29/08-029.pdf

12. Hinton TG, Alexakhim R, Balonov, M., Gentner N, Hendry J, Prister B, Strand P, Woodhead D. Radiation-induced effects on plants and animals: Finds of the United Nations Chernobyl Forum. Health Physics 93: 427-440, 2007.

13. US Department of Energy/Energy Information Administration, Levelized cost of new generation resources in the annual energy outlook 2011. http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/aeo/electricity_generation.html

14. Howell, G and Keyes W, Green (renewable) energy versus nuclear energy. Part five of an eight part written debate regarding nuclear power generation. Mile Zero News and Banner Post, March 17, 2010. http://www.computare.org/Support%20documents/Guests/MZN%20Nuclear%20Debate/5%20of%208%20Green%20Energy%20Howell-Keyes.pdf

We’re doomed

The following post contains material of a depressing nature, and is unsuitable for readers under 65 years of age. Reader discretion is advised.

First point – the global climate is changing. Not many people dispute that any more. The mean global temperature has risen by 0.8°C over the past century, and the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. Within the past century many significant climate changes have been measured and reported, including increases in the frequency of heat waves in the U.S., an increasing proportion of precipitation coming in the form of intense, flood-inducing events, an increase in tropical cyclone intensity in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico, a huge decrease in the seasonal extent of Arctic sea ice, and a big jump in the rate at which glaciers are melting.

The rates of change seem to be accelerating and most of the profound secondary changes are negative. Dr James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first drew international attention to the impending climate disaster, testified way back in 1988 that Earth had entered a long-term warming trend. Today the effects of global warming on the extremes of the global water cycle – stronger droughts and forest fires on the one hand, and heavier rains and floods on the other – have become more evident in Australia, Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.

Second point – the causal factors of climate change are now very well known. Earth is surrounded by a relatively thin layer of greenhouse gases – water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide – which act as a thermal blanket. About half the incoming solar radiation passes through the atmosphere to the Earth’s surface where some is absorbed and the remainder reflected back into the atmosphere. Substantial amounts of the energy absorbed are again radiated outward in the form of infrared heat. These contribute further to the warming of the atmosphere.

Third point – humanity has drastically changed global climatic dynamics by adding huge amounts of CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons to the atmosphere. Activities such as deforestation, land use changes and the burning of fossil fuels have increased atmospheric CO2 by a third since the Industrial Revolution began. Decomposition of wastes in landfills, burgeoning agriculture, especially rice cultivation, and huge populations of burping and manure-producing domestic livestock have boosted the amounts of methane in the atmosphere by a factor of three since the industrial revolution. Methane is twenty times more active than CO2 in atmospheric heat retention.

The atmospheric concentration of CO2 measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii is a good indicator of where we are now globally in respect of atmospheric change. Back in 1959 when the data collection programme was initiated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the CO2 level was measured at 316 parts per million (ppm) and the annual increase was less than 1 ppm. Today the level is over 392 ppm and the annual increases are 2.2 ppm and getting larger all the time.

James Hansen and his climate scientist colleagues concluded that we have either reached, or are very close to, a set of climate “tipping points”. That means that climatic changes are now at a point where the feedbacks from changes spur even larger and more rapid further changes. Hansen cites Arctic sea ice as a good example of this. Global warming has initiated faster sea ice melt and has exposed darker ocean surfaces that absorb more sunlight which leads to more melting of ice. As a result, and without any additional greenhouse gases, the Arctic could soon be ice-free in the summer. The western Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are vulnerable to even small additional warming – once disintegration gets well under way it will become unstoppable.

Pause for reality check – not only is climatic change a reality, it is progressing at an accelerating rate, the negative consequence are getting greater, and the likelihood of us managing to slow or reverse the negative trends are getting smaller.

Fourth point – James Hansen and his fellow climate scientists looked at the atmospheric CO2 levels, then at the changes in climate which were occurring, and came up with the recommendation that a CO2 level of 350 ppm (last recorded back in 1987) was pretty much the upper allowable limit if massive climatic related adverse effects were to be avoided. The number 350 has a certain appealing ring to it, and has been widely adapted by environmental organizations such as Bill McKibben’s 350.org as a universal target for citizen and government action on carbon emissions. The protagonists are quite aware that the present global atmospheric CO2 level has already overshot that target by more than 40 ppm, but they argue, convincingly, that a reversal is absolutely essential to safeguard our long-term global future.

Fifth point – and now we’re at the crux of the problem. How on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter, do we get anywhere close to reducing the rate at which atmospheric CO2 increases in future, never mind actually reversing the trend towards 350 ppm?

We think of Earth’s carbon reservoirs as being great fields of coal and petroleum compounds, which are more or less stable until we dig them up and burn them. But the globe’s biggest carbon reservoirs are in the atmosphere, the ocean, living ecosystems and soils, and are highly dynamic. They all exchange CO2 with the atmosphere, they both absorb it (oceans) and assimilate it (ecosystems), and they release it (oceans) or respire it (ecosystems). The critical point is that anthropogenic carbon emitted into the atmosphere is not destroyed but adds to the stockpile and is redistributed among the other carbon reservoirs. The turnover times range from years or decades (living plants) to millennia (the deep sea, soil). The bottom line is that any carbon released into the atmosphere is going to be around for a long, long time. Up to 1000 years in fact.

Sixth point – so how do we get from our present scene of 390 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere and impending climate doom to something closer to 350 ppm and a more stable climate scenario? Straight answer – we cannot. We simply don’t have that option.

Seventh point – the absolutely best case scenario for reduction of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere would be an immediate halt to all activities leading to anthropogenic carbon emissions. Park all motor vehicles, no more home heating, no coal-fired power plants, no burning of natural gas, no aircraft flying overhead, shoot and bury 90% of all domestic livestock. Just shut down all of human civilization. No more anthropogenic carbon emissions. Would this sacrifice bring the CO2 level down in a hurry?

Dr Susan Solomon and her colleagues at NOAA, with the help of their sophisticate computer models have addressed that very question. They ran a coupled climate–carbon cycle model which has components representing the dynamic ocean, the atmospheric energy–moisture interaction, and interactive sub-models of marine and terrestrial carbon cycles. The model reveals, sadly for us, that climate change is largely irreversible for 1000 years after all carbon emissions cease. The drop in radiative forcing of atmospheric CO2 (i.e. the extent to which CO2 causes atmospheric warming) is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the oceans. So atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. And the natural interactive processes between the atmosphere, ocean and ecosystems would carry on. Atmospheric CO2 concentration would eventually drop back to 350 ppm by about 2060 and then flatten out to near 300 ppm for the rest of the 1000 years.

Eighth point – I haven’t noticed any great urges on the part of ourselves to go and huddle in caves and gnaw on pine nuts and raw fish (no wood-burning allowed) to make this scenario work, so what is more likely?

Global carbon emissions from fossil fuel use were 6.2 billion tonnes back in 1990 when global CO2 was near 355 ppm. The 2010 estimate is 8.5 billion tonnes. That’s a 38 % increase over the levels used to formulate the Kyoto Agreement. The annual growth rate of emissions derived from fossil fuels is now about 3.5%, an almost four-fold increase from the 0.9% per year for the 1990-1999 period. Carbon emissions from land-use change (i.e. mainly deforestation) in 2007 (in just that one year) were estimated at 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon. The biggest increase in emissions has taken place in developing countries, largely in China and India, while developed countries have been growing slower. The largest regional shift has been that China passed the U.S. in 2006 to become the largest CO2 emitter, and India will soon overtake Russia to become the third largest emitter. Currently, more than half of the global emissions come from less developed countries. Developing countries with 80% of the world’s population still account for only 20% of the cumulative emissions since 1751. There is nowhere for these rates to go, other than up.

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced their Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, they diplomatically tried to hedge their bets. So they churned out 40 different scenarios based on emissions scenarios for the decade 2000-2010 which encompassed the full range of uncertainties related to future carbon emissions, demographic, social and economic inputs and possible future technological developments. The model predictions were correspondingly wide, ranging from “best” to “worst” in terms of atmospheric CO2 levels and changes in the associated climatic driving forces. Now it has become apparent that the actual emissions growth rate for 2000-2007 has exceeded the highest forecasted growth rates for 2000-2010 in their emissions scenarios.

Ninth point – so the most likely future outcomes (by the end of the century) are those at the top end of the scale outputted by the computer models (diagram above). That is to say our grandchildren will be looking at CO2 levels above 900 ppm, mean global temperature rises of 5 or 6 degrees C over what they are today, and an average sea level rise above 0.5 metres. Plus all the storms, cyclones, droughts, floods, vanishing shorelines, water wars and famines that might creep in along the way.

The end – CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and future temperatures are just numbers, and pretty much the only things that computer models can output. We will have to estimate the extent of global human misery by ourselves.

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