Keeping oil sands in the ground is not a “charade”

Keeping oil sands in the ground is not a “charade”

If the world is successful in reducing emissions sufficiently to avoid dangerous climate change, there is a limited future for a prospering oil-sands sector in Canada. The conventional wisdom among the Canadian establishment is that growing the oil-sands business is compatible with meeting national and global emissions commitments. This is a myth that obscures government policy contradictions.

In a recent Globe and Mail article Environmentalists should end the charade over the oil sands, Martha Hall Findlay and Trevor McLeod argue that keeping oilsands in the ground and stopping new oil pipelines will actually increase global greenhouse gas emissions.

Their argument rests on two premises:

  • Oil demand won’t start to fall until 2040. After that it will remain high for many years.
  • Oil-sands production is becoming less emissions intensive thanks to improving technology. If oil-sands consumption by US refineries were replaced by, say, more emissions-intensive Venezuelan heavy crude, then global emissions would increase.

I won’t dispute the second point in detail, at least for now. The case I’m making here does not depend on rebutting it. If overall oil-sands upstream emissions intensities really are falling due to improved technology, that’s welcome news. But I haven’t seen the most recent average emissions data that back it up. My understanding is that newer projects are predominantly in-situ facilities that are more emissions intensive than mines, so that the average GHG emissions per barrel is actually rising slowly.

My focus here will be the first point, where Hall Findlay and McLeod made an important error by misrepresenting the scenarios from the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2016. They wrote: Continue reading

Carbon sequestration in basalts

I have just had a piece published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: ‘We’d have to finish one new facility every working day for the next 70 years’—Why carbon capture is no panacea . I’m not allowed to repost the whole article here, but it is open access on the Bulletin website.

I looked again at the outsized role that carbon capture and storage (CCS) along with Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) play in most of the IPCC 2 degree models. I have argued previously that the gigantic quantities of CO2 that need to be sequestered in geological reservoirs, according to these models, face huge obstacles in terms of scalability, financing, technical hurdles and public acceptance.

A recent paper in Science reported on a breakthrough experiment in Iceland in which CO2 (from a volcanic source) dissolved in water was injected into basalts at depths of 400-1000 metres. Using isotopic and chemical tracers, the researchers estimate that the CO2 had been mineralized into benign and stable carbonate minerals in the space of just two years. This was faster than suspected and, if this process turns out to be scalable, then sequestration in basalts would provide a solution to the need to monitor conventional sedimentary rock disposal sites for leakage over the long term. 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.


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

The Road to Two Degrees, Part Three: Equity, inertia and fairly sharing the remaining carbon budget

The Road to Two Degrees, Part Three: Equity, inertia and fairly sharing the remaining carbon budget

Previously published at Skeptical Science on December 9th, 2015

In the first part of this series, I examined the implications of relying on CCS and BECCS to get us to the two degree target. In the second part, I took a detailed look at Kevin Anderson’s arguments that IPCC mitigation scenarios aimed at two degrees are biased towards unproven negative-emissions technologies and that they consequently downplay the revolutionary changes to our energy systems and economy that we must make very soon. In this last part, I’m going to look at the challenges that the world faces in fairly allocating future emissions from our remaining carbon budget and raising the money needed for climate adaptation funds, taking account of the very unequal past and present.

Until now, economic growth has been driven and sustained largely by fossil fuels. Europe and North America started early with industrialization and, from 1800 up to around 1945, this growth was driven mainly by coal. After the Second World War there was a period of rapid (~4% per year) economic growth in Europe, N America and Japan, lasting about thirty years, that the French refer to as Les Trente Glorieuses, The Glorious Thirty. This expansion was accompanied by a huge rise in the consumption of oil, coal and natural gas. After this there was a thirty-year period of slower growth (~2%) in the developed economies, with consumption fluctuations caused by oil-price shocks and the collapse of the Soviet Union. During this time, oil and coal consumption continued to grow, but not as steadily as before. Then, at the end of the twentieth century, economic growth took off in China, with a huge increase in the consumption of coal.

Source of the emissions data is from the CDIAC. See the SkS post The History of Emissions and the Great Acceleration for further details.

If we are to achieve a stable climate, we will need to reverse this growth in emissions over a much shorter time period, while maintaining the economies of the developed world and, crucially, allowing the possibility of economic growth for the majority of humanity that has not yet experienced the benefits of a developed-country middle-class lifestyle.

Here are the the annual emissions sorted by country and region:

From Chancel and Piketty (2015) Continue reading

The three R’s of Paris: Rejoice, Ratify, Ratchet

It’s all too easy to carp about the Paris COP agreement. There’s no global carbon tax. It is all pledges and good intentions. The sum total of those promises falls far short of the 2 C goal and far, far short of the 1.5 C aspirational target. The agreement contains some provisions for measuring progress in transparent ways, but it is not legally binding. There is no provision for sanctioning governments that fail to deliver. As my MP, Elizabeth May, has said of environmental treaties in general: “Trade treaties have teeth, environmental treaties only gums”.

Still, there is much to celebrate.


This is what a turning point looks like. This is what a first step in the right direction looks like. We have waited for a long time for this, too long of course, but now that it has happened we should cheer this agreement. It brings together all of the governments of the world, in a diplomatic agreement focussed on the monumental problem of climate change. The French convenors deserve our thanks and praise for their stamina and patience in herding all of these cats to a common goal.

Now it’s up to the national governments to implement their promises. Continue reading

The Road to Two Degrees, Part Two: Are the experts being candid about our chances?

The Road to Two Degrees, Part Two: Are the experts being candid about our chances?

Originally published at Skeptical Science on November 26th, 2015

The first part of this three-part series looked at the staggering magnitude and the daunting deployment timescale available for the fossil fuel and bioenergy carbon capture and storage technologies that many 2°C mitigation scenarios assume. In this second part, I outline Kevin Anderson’s argument that climate experts are failing to acknowledge the near-impossibility of avoiding dangerous climate change under current assumptions of the political and economic status quo, combined with unrealistic expectations of untested negative-emissions technologies.

In plain language, the complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50% or better chance of meeting the 2 °C target work on the basis of either an ability to change the past, or the successful and large-scale uptake of negative-emission technologies. A significant proportion of the scenarios are dependent on both. (Kevin Anderson)

Kevin Anderson has just written a provocative article titled: Duality in climate science, published in Nature Geoscience (open access text available here). He contrasts the up-beat pronouncements in the run-up to the Paris climate conference in December 2015 (e.g. “warming to less than 2°C” is “economically feasible” and “cost effective”; “global economic growth would not be strongly affected”) with what he see as the reality that meeting the2°C target cannot be reconciled with continued economic growth in rich societies at the same time as the rapid development of poor societies.  He concludes that: “the carbon budgets associated with a 2 °C threshold demand profound and immediate changes to the consumption and production of energy”.

His argument runs as follows: Integrated Assessment Models, which attempt to bring together, physics, economics and policy, rely on highly optimistic assumptions specifically:

o   Unrealistic early peaks in global emissions;
o   Massive deployment of negative-emissions technologies.

He notes that of the 400 scenarios that have a 50% or better chance of meeting the 2 °C target, 344 of them assume the large-scale uptake of negative emissions technologies and, in the 56 scenarios that do not, global emissions peak around 2010, which, as he notes, is contrary to the historical data.

I covered the problems of the scalability and timing of carbon capture and storage and negative emissions technologies in a previous article.

From Robbie Andrew, adjusted for non-CO2 and land-use emissions.Note that thesemitigation curves assume no net-negative emissions technologies deployed in the latter part of the century.

Continue reading

The Road to Two Degrees, Part One: Feasible Emissions Pathways, Burying our Carbon, and Bioenergy

The Road to Two Degrees, Part One: Feasible Emissions Pathways, Burying our Carbon, and Bioenergy

Originally posted at Skeptical Science on November 16th, 2015

This post looks at the feasibility of the massive and rapid deployment of Carbon Capture and Storage and negative-emissions Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage technologies in the majority of IPCC scenarios that avoid dangerous global warming. Some observers question whether the deployment of these technologies at these scales and within the required time frames is achievable. This is Part One of a three-part series on the challenge of keeping global warming under 2 °C.

The various emissions models that have been used to produce the greenhouse gas concentration pathway to 2°Celsius vary considerably, but the majority of them require huge deployment of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as well as net-negative global emissions in the latter part of the twenty-first century. The only negative emissions methods generally considered in these scenarios are bioenergy capture and storage (BECCS) and land-use changes, such as afforestation. For there to be net-negative emissions, positive emissions have to be smaller than the negative emissions.

Kevin Anderson (2015) (open-access text) reports that of the 400 scenarios that have a 50% chance or greater of no more than 2 °C of warming, 344 assume large-scale negative emissions technologies. The remaining 56 scenarios have emissions peaking in 2010, which, as we know, did not happen.

Sabine Fuss et al. (2014) (pdf) demonstrate that of the 116 scenarios that lead to concentrations of 430-480 ppm of CO2 equivalent, 101 of them require net negative emissions. Most scenarios that have net-negative emissions have BECCS providing 10-30% of the world’s primary energy in 2100.

From Fuss et al. (2014), showing the historical emissions (black), the four RCPs (heavy coloured lines) and 1089 scenarios assigned to one of the RCPs (light coloured lines). Continue reading

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