Thursday, September 11, 2003
Re: Managing Greenhouse Gases
Klaus Jericho raises several questions relative to my position on the Kyoto proposal in his letter (“How should issue of greenhouse gases be addressed?”) of September 5, 2003. He closes by asking what the costs to human society will be if we do not reduce greenhouse gases in keeping with the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
I do not have the answer to that question nor, indeed, does the IPCC profess to have the answers. There remains great uncertainty with respect to the magnitude of possible global warming, and even the direction.
However, I have no doubt human society reaps tremendous benefits from our discovery of stored energy resources and means to harness it. Human society subsisted, for the most part miserably, on renewable energy sources for centuries. The availability of low cost energy over the past couple of centuries has extended prosperity and comfort to many more humans. Even more energy will be needed to bring equity to our fellows in less fortunate countries. My contributions to the Herald take into account these realities in conjunction with recognition we may need to manage greenhouse gases.
The United Nations was responsible for organizing the IPCC climate change science reviews. I agree that the IPCC presents much evidence to suggest that we may be entering a phase of human induced global warming. Their science report is an impressive cooperative work. The level of international agreement with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 is remarkable.
The level of agreement is declining. It is now evident that developed countries, mostly in Europe, with stagnant population have tried to impose their standards of GHG reduction on technically developed countries with potential for population and economic growth which tends to increase emissions. Largely because of this inequity, the United States and Australia have dropped out of Kyoto. In spite of this additional burden, Canada has ratified Kyoto. Alberta is growing and has proposed an alternative plan, essentially consistent with Canada’s goals, which is based on reducing GHG emissions per unit of economic output. As details for the implementation of Kyoto, subsequent to the 1997 signing are developed, organizers are losing sight of the original goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A most glaring example is the exclusion of credit for helping to establish nuclear energy in developing countries. The Kyoto Protocol treatment of forest carbon dioxide sinks is totally inscrutable. Credits available to Canada are far less than our forests are capable of absorbing on an on-going basis.
Mr. Jericho wonders if I see a need for global greenhouse gas reductions. He and others think I consider the costs of reducing greenhouse gases too great. He wonders why I question our federal government’s Kyoto plan and lend support to Alberta’s alternative proposal. He wonders why I question the efficacy of wind and solar energy.
Bluntly, I believe the jury is still hung with respect to the connection between greenhouse gases and global warming. While waiting for a verdict, I do believe the evidence is strong enough to warrant taking significant action to manage greenhouse gases. We should direct most of our attention to developing technology which will allow reductions far in excess of anything the Kyoto Protocol requires – let alone that which it can achieve. My experience with the Technology Issue Table of the National Climate Change Process leads me to believe the best opportunities lie with alternative energy technology. Solar and wind energy are a step in the right direction. My doubts about the ultimate efficacy of wind and solar energy come from their diffuse and intermittent nature. They can not provide the reliable electricity we need without the provision of major over capacity and some kind of storage and alternative means of electricity generation when they are not available. Much less expensive reliable alternatives can be developed based on the capture and sequestration of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel, and nuclear fission. The management of agriculture and forest practice to increase the net removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere also seems promising. As I noted in one letter to the Herald, our exports of lumber to the US alone represent the removal of some 40 million tonnes annually from the atmosphere. The unfathomable Kyoto Protocol does seem to provide credit to Canada for that.
My support for the Alberta plan comes mainly from Alberta’s recognition that our population and economy are growing and of the need for time to develop major changes in energy technology. The federal government’s plan focuses more on just meeting the Kyoto requirements and relies heavily on the purchase of credits from abroad. Expectations of the availability of low cost credits result in analysis results which indicate the overall cost will be low. This tends to reinforce rosy eyed optimism from some organizations which suggest to the public that meeting Kyoto will be easy and will solve many other environmental problems as well. I do not believe Canadians are well served by trivializing the immensity of the challenge posed by embarking on greenhouse gas management.
In summary, our human society depends on and benefits immensely from our mastery of nature’s energy sources. We can even direct energy use to benefit the overall environment. It may turn out that we really need to make a whole-hearted effort to manage global greenhouse gas level. There are technologies which can be developed to avoid greenhouse gas emissions from profligate burning of fossil resources and better account for, augment and manage natural removal and sink mechanisms. The costs to bring about this change will be immense, making the two or three billion spent to date on Canada’s plan seem like mere chicken feed. However, the costs will be spread over a few decades and expenditures will be needed anyway to replace our aging energy infrastructure. Our effort will not be in vain as alternate energy supply is needed in due course to replace our slowly disappearing fossil energy bounty.
I do remain optimistic that we humans will be able to adapt and learn to manage greenhouse gases as necessary and thrive as a species. I am also confident that, if we can’t, Mother Nature will take care of any problems we have caused – possibly with a less gentle approach than we might wish for.