Sensitivity training

This article was originally published online at Corporate Knights Magazine and will appear in the publication’s Fall 2016 hard-copy magazine. It was also previously republished, in part, at Skeptical Science.

Climate scientists are certain that human-caused emissions have increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 44 per cent since the Industrial Revolution. Very few of them dispute that this has already caused average global temperatures to rise roughly 1 degree. Accompanying the warming is disruption to weather patterns, rising sea levels and increased ocean acidity. There is no doubt that further emissions will only make matters worse, possibly much worse. In a nutshell, that is the settled science on human-caused climate change.

What scientists cannot yet pin down is exactly how much warming we will get in the future. They do not know with precision how much a given quantity of emissions will lead to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. For climate impact it is the concentrations that matter, not the emissions. Up until now, 29 per cent of human emissions of carbon dioxide has been taken up by the oceans, 28 per cent has been absorbed by plant growth on land, and the remaining 43 per cent has accumulated in the atmosphere. Humans have increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from a pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million to over 400 today, a level not seen for millions of years.  Continue reading

Carbon budgetting

Carbon budgetting

Originally published online at Corporate Knights Magazine on May 18, 2016 and in the hardcopy magazine in June 2016.

The Paris Agreement on mitigating climate change seeks to limit emissions with the goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 C above preindustrial levels while also pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C.

As with any complicated international deal, the devil is in the language. While it acknowledges that developing countries will take longer to peak their greenhouse gas emissions, it agrees that these reductions will be made on the basis of equity.

parisagreement1

This phrasing, “basis of equity,” probably means very different things to different parties to the agreement. The Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997 was based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility,” which is to say that developed countries, with their disproportionate historic responsibility for past emissions, were expected to cut sooner and deeper. This same language is still used in the Paris Agreement reached last year. Continue reading

Consensus on Consensus

Consensus on Consensus

Originally published in Corporate Knights Magazine

studies_consensus

In 1998 and 1999, American scientists Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes published two papers that reconstructed the average temperatures of the northern hemisphere back to the year 1000. The articles showed a temperature profile that gently declined from 1000 to 1850, fluctuating a little along the way, with a sudden increase in the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.  The graph was nick-named “the Hockey Stick”, with its long relatively straight handle showing the stable pre-industrial climate and the blade representing the sudden uptick in the last 150 years.

The diagram was a striking depiction of the abrupt warming that had occurred since the Industrial Revolution compared to what happened before. For those opposed to the scientific consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), the Hockey Stick posed a threat and had to be broken. Continue reading

Temperature tantrums on the campaign trail

Temperature tantrums on the campaign trail

Originally published at Corporate Knights on March 17, 2016.

Sorry Ted Cruz. There’s no conspiracy among scientists to exaggerate global warming by fudging the numbers.

Last year was the warmest year recorded since the measurement of global surface temperatures began in the nineteenth century. The second-warmest year ever was 2014. Moreover, because of the persisting effects of the equatorial Pacific Ocean phenomenon known as El Niño, many experts are predicting that 2016 could set a new annual record. January and February have already set new monthly records, with February half a degree Celsius warmer than any February in history.

This news is deeply unsettling for those who care about the future of the planet. But it is even more upsetting for people opposed to climate mitigation, since it refutes their favourite talking point – that global warming has stalled in recent years.

U.S. Congressman Lamar Smith claims there has been a conspiracy among scientists to fudge the surface temperature records upwards and has demanded, by subpoena, to have scientists’ emails released.

Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz recently organized a Senate hearing on the temperature record in which he called upon carefully selected witnesses to testify that calculations of temperature made by satellite observations of the upper atmosphere are superior to measurements made by thermometers at the Earth’s surface.

It’s easy to cherry-pick data in order to bamboozle people. The process of making consistent temperature records from surface measurements and satellite observations is complicated and is easy to misrepresent.

But the fact remains that there are no conspiracies afoot. Here’s why. Continue reading

The quest for CCS

The quest for CCS

This article was originally published online at Corporate Knights and will appear in the hard copy Winter 2016 Edition of the Corporate Knights Magazine, which is to be included  as a supplement to the Globe and Mail and Washington Post later in January 2016. The photograph used in the original was changed for copyright reasons. Also reposted at Skeptical Science.

Human civilization developed over a period of 10,000 years during which global average surface temperatures remained remarkably stable, hovering within one degree Celsius of where they are today.

If we are to keep future temperatures from getting far outside that range, humanity will be forced to reduce fossil fuel emissions to zero by 2050. Halving our emissions is not good enough: we need to get down to zero to stay under the 2 C target that scientists and policy makers have identified as the limit beyond which global warming becomes dangerous.

Photo: rustneversleeps

Shell boasting about its government-funded Quest CCS project, on a Toronto bus.  “Shell Quest captures one-third of our oil sands upgrader emissions”

Many scenarios have been proposed to get us there. Some of these involve rapid deployment of solar and wind power in conjunction with significant reductions in the amount of energy we consume.

Continue reading

B.C. lowballing fugitive methane emissions from natural gas industry

This was first published at Corporate Knights. I have added in this re-post some footnotes with details of calculations along with comments and references below the main article. I have also done a rough estimation of the emissions associated with the addition of one 18 million tonne per year LNG project (excluding end-use emissions) and the effect that this will have on BC’s emissions targets.


Photo by Jesús Rodríguez Fernández (creative commons)

The push by British Columbia to develop a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) export industry raises questions about the impact such activities would have on greenhouse gas emissions, both within the province and globally.

One of the single most important factors relates to the amount of methane and carbon dioxide that gets released into the atmosphere, either deliberately through venting or by accident as so-called fugitive emissions. Fugitive emissions are the result of valves and meters that release, by design, small quantities of gas. But they can also come from faulty equipment and from operators that fail to follow regulations.

According to the B.C. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report 2012, there were 78,000 tonnes of fugitive methane emissions [1] from the oil and natural gas industry that year. B.C. produced 41 billion cubic metres of gas in 2012 [2]. This means about 0.28 per cent of the gas produced was released into the atmosphere [3].

By North American standards, this is a very low estimate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses a figure of 1.5 per cent leakage [4], more than five times higher. Recent research led by the U.S. non-profit group, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), shows that even the EPA estimates may be too low by a factor of 1.5 [5]. B.C.’s estimate, in other words, would be about one-eighth of what has been estimated for the American gas industry.
Continue reading

Are we overestimating our global carbon budget?

Research on carbon-cycle feedbacks suggests we have less wiggle room to turn the climate ship around.

(First published at Corporate Knights on July 7, 2015.)


Illustration by Yarek Waszul

The latest research suggests that natural sinks of carbon on land may be slowing or even turning into sources, creating climate consequences potentially worse than first thought.

Nature has provided humans with a buffer against the worst effects of our carbon pollution. Since 1750, we have emitted about 580 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, cutting down forests and making cement. If those emissions had simply accumulated in the air, the concentration of carbon dioxide would have increased from 280 parts per million (ppm), as it was before the Industrial Revolution, to about 550 ppm today. Instead, we currently measure around 400 ppm, which is still a whopping 40 per cent above the planet’s pre-industrial atmosphere, but much less than a doubling.

Some 60 per cent of our emissions have been taken up in natural sinks by, in roughly equal parts, dissolving into the ocean and by being taken up by plants growing faster on land. Were it not for these natural carbon sinks, we would by now be much deeper into dangerous climate change.

As we continue to burn fossil fuels, our climate troubles will become worse should those sinks start to falter. And the outlook will be worse still if those sinks turn into sources of carbon.

Continue reading

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