Mea culpa

Well I got a letter published in the National Post, and to my horror, in my haste I made a mistake.  When I read the published letter, I thought the mistake was with the Post editors, but I had saved a copy of what I sent and the mistake was definitely mine.

If the tar sands expand from 1.3 million barrels/day to 5 million barrels/day while the economy sheds 20% of our emissions by 2020, then the oil sands would be responsible for over 20% of our emissions by the end of the next decade, not over 30% by the end of the decade.

The gist of the letter is correct.

5 responses to “Mea culpa”

  1. Rudyard Griffiths writes:

    Hi Adriana,

    As a columnist I appreciate nothing more than feisty letters to the editor in reply to what I write. I will leave it up to you as to whether you felt my moderating of the Munk Debate was unbiased or not… The response I received from attendees was that it was fair and balanced.

    I will however take exception with the assertion you made in your letter to the editor that Ontario will “come close to meeting its share of Canada’s Kyoto target”… The Ontario government in 2006 reported that its GHG emissions were 16% over 1990 levels (interesting how this % correlates to our population growth between 1990 and 2006). I could provide you with the various web links that verify this stat but I am sure you know how to use Google. Also, I am sure you are well aware that the Ontario government has not finalised a hard closure date for Nanticoke Station which is the single largest source of GHG emissions anywhere in Canada. As such it strains credulity for anyone, let alone the climate change “critic” of the Green Party, to argue that the Province of Ontario will “meet its share of the Canada’s Kyoto target”. Facts matter in the public dialogue about the impacts of climate change, as you and your colleagues well know.

    Best regards,

  2. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    Hi Rudyard,

    The Ontario government in 2006 reported that its GHG emissions were 16% over 1990 levels … I could provide you with the various web links that verify this stat but I am sure you know how to use Google… Facts matter in the public dialogue about the impacts of climate change, as you and your colleagues well know.

    My understanding is that Ontario reported in 2006 that its emissions were 16 Mt higher than they were in 1990. This translates to 9%.

    [link to 1990-2006 GHG Emission Summary for Ontario]

    interesting how this % correlates to our population growth between 1990 and 2006

    Ontario’s population grew by 22% between 1990 and 2005. So our emissions grew at 41% the rate of our population growth.

    I’m basing my statement that Ontario will come close to (but not meet) its share of Canada’s Kyoto target on taking the Ontario government at its word. I am also taking Alberta at its word in the comparison I made. Ontario’s plan is to reach the bulk of its targets through the closure of coal plants, as you note. Until recently, Ontario was planning on reaching a target of 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. While most people think this means meeting the Kyoto target, actually it does not, because the Kyoto target must be met over the Kyoto period (2008-2012) rather than just at the end. However, that would have counted as very close. Now, the province is targeting a date of 2014 for reaching an emissions level of 6% below 1990 levels. That’s still close in my mind. By 2012, we are expected to be crossing the 1990 levels again. The Ontario Clean Air Alliance points out that over the last year, we didn’t need to run the coal plants at all since Ontario now has sufficient capacity to do without them. So it’s possible that we’ll close the coal plants ahead of schedule and come even closer to meeting our Kyoto share.

    Now I’ll grant you that nothing is certain with greenhouse gas emissions, and I cannot predict whether Ontario will actually live up to its promise. If Jeff Rubin is to be believed, we all may find emissions reductions a lot easier than we think. As I said, I’m simply taking Ontario at its word.

    My larger point of course, was to compare Alberta and Ontario, which is the comparison you began with. You asserted that Ontario’s population was more problematic than the impact of the tar sands in Alberta.

    So let’s take Alberta at its word as well, knowing that they may fail to reach their targets just like Ontario.

    In 2007, Alberta’s emissions were 44% above 1990 levels. Unlike Ontario, Alberta expects that in spite of any efforts to curb emissions, they will keep rising to at least 2020, when they will be more than 50% above 1990 levels. At that point, Alberta hopes that they may fall. Alberta is relying on carbon capture and sequestration to bring down emissions. The date for bringing in CCS is pretty hopeful, far less settled than anything to do with Nanticoke. If this technology fails, as many people dread, then Alberta’s emissions will keep climbing until by 2050 they are double 1990 levels. However, let’s assume that Alberta’s rosy picture turns out right. According to Alberta’s plan, in 2050, when Ontario’s emissions will be 80% below 1990 levels, Alberta’s will be 14% below 2005 levels, which is 17% above 1990 levels. In fact, in 2050, Alberta’s emissions will still be almost 25% above its share of Canada’s Kyoto obligations. That’s Alberta’s plan for emissions reductions.

    It’s pretty clear that tar sands operations are more of a problem than population.

    Thanks for your gracious upgrade of tickets to the Munk Debates for my guests. They really appreciated it.


  3. Rudyard Griffiths writes:

    Hi Adriana, I appreciate your fact-based response to my email below and the interesting numbers on Alberta’s emissions through to 2050.

    As per reporting by the CBC and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, our province produced 205 megatonnes of greenhouse gases in 2005 versus 177 megatonnes in 1990 for a 16 per cent increase… Maybe you are referencing C02 only as opposed to all GHGs? Also to clarify, my reference of 16% re: population growth pertained to the total average national increase from 1990 to 2006, not Ontario only.

    The CBC has a helpful summary re: Ontario emissions: [link to CBC News: Ontario unveils greenhouse gas targets]

    I am all in favour of Ontario meeting a Kyoto type target but again current and future rates of population growth will make this very difficult given that some 150,000 people will take up residence in the province every year for the foreseeable future and each output on average 15 metric tons of emissions, year after year… And again, this is not good for the planet as a whole in that the majority of these people arrive from countries with very low per capita emissions (2.2 metric tons per person is the average for our top three sources countries for new arrivals to Canada). In Ontario, and globally, population growth and migration is a critical factor in the steady rise of C02 levels but is an issue that doesn’t get anywhere near the commensurate attention (including in Copenhagen). Hopefully the GP can address this….

    P.S. for a interesting take on population growth’s impact on C02 levels from now through to 2050 have a look at: [link to New York Times: The Missing ‘P’ Word in Climate Talks]

    Best regards,

  4. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    Hi Rudyard,

    I believe the link I sent you was authoritative, and it’s dated 2006, the year you mentioned, rather than 2005. It’s clearly labelled CO2 equivalent, as reported to Environment Canada. If you don’t like making the calculations, here is the Environment Canada summary that shows Ontario’s emissions grew 9% between 1990 and 2006, and that’s what’s reported under Canada’s UNFCCC obligations:

    [link to Environment Canada: Provincial and territorial GHG emissions, 1990 and 2006]

    There is another chart that shows Ontario’s CO2 emissions only, rather than CO2 equivalent, and that has a number that’s lower still, 165 Mt of CO2 as opposed to 190 Mt of CO2 equivalent. You can see that here:

    [link to Environment Canada: Provincial/Territorial Greenhouse Gas Emission Tables, 1990-2006]

    If it’s any consolation, the previous year’s report, reporting up to 2005, had a higher number for 2005 than this year’s report does. They had 201 megatonnes reported on a base of 174 megatonnes in 1990. So that would have been a 15.5% increase. So the 2007 assessment of 2005 emissions was in fact right in the range you noted. However the 2005 numbers were revised down and the reported 2006 numbers are just 9% above 1990 levels. So think of it this way – Ontario dropped its reported emissions 5.5% in just one year! At this rate, by now (2009) we’ve already hit our Kyoto targets without even touching the coal plants.

    [1. Population, immigration.] I would never argue that population had no impact on emissions. The Green Party of Canada has a member-supported policy for addressing global population growth as part of our emissions reductions strategy. We focus on empowering women, education and basic health as drivers for reducing fertility rates. You are also correct that immigrants tend to immediately increase their emissions on arrival in Canada, simply by virtue of the fact that Canada has one of the highest per-capita emissions rates on the planet. Our infrastructure is horrifyingly wasteful and almost impossible to avoid. However, I believe you grossly exaggerate the impact of population growth and neglect opportunities to reduce those impacts. I also believe the tar sands remain qualitatively different as a threat to emissions reductions. And finally, I also believe that our responsibility for climate change will oblige us to take in some refugees in the future.

    George Monbiot has written extensively on the topic of immigration, pointing out that economic growth far outstrips population growth, and that the countries where emissions are rising fastest have low population growth while the highest population growth is ironically associated with low emissions growth:

    [link to George Monbiot: Cutting consumption is more important than limiting population]
    [link to George Monbiot: Stop blaming the poor. It’s the wally yachters who are burning the planet]

    The correlation between wealth and emissions is far stronger than the correlation between population growth and emissions growth. However, the wealth correlation can be at least partly undone relatively easily. North American emissions are about double those of the EU, even though by many measures our standard of living is lower. So by simply implementing proven solutions for efficiency, we could nearly double the Canadian population and still come out with emissions reductions. We could also ensure that any population growth in Canada did not increase emissions by enacting laws forcing new housing, commercial and industrial developments to be carbon neutral. This would probably discourage population growth while simultaneously ensuring that what growth did occur was sustainable. Note, however, that this would probably affect economic growth even more than population growth, and I strongly suspect that there would be heavy opposition to such an idea because it would threaten economic growth. Threatening immigration is far more acceptable in polite society.

    You must also keep in mind that immigrants adopt Canadian fertility patterns as quickly as they adopt our consumer patterns. If your concern is population, you could make the argument that we should welcome as many immigrants as possible since entry into Canada is the quickest way to cut global population growth . And I think that neatly encapsulates the problem. If the problem really were population growth, getting people into Canada would be a good objective since our fertility rates are quite low. It’s not a good objective because Canada’s far bigger problem is our per capita emissions, which are grotesque. So let’s give those more attention than we give to population.

    Similarly, I think that while there’s some truth to the idea that immigrants dramatically increase their personal emissions on arriving in Canada, it’s less true than often believed. We often look at immigrants from, say, India, and imagine that they’re trading average Indian emissions for average Canadian emissions. That’s just wrong. Our immigrants are overwhelmingly the best educated and wealthiest people in developing countries. Their emissions soar high above the national average of their native countries. On arrival in Canada, they tend to live very modestly by Canadian standards. Their contributions to the Canadian economy raise incomes and emissions of established Canadians as well, so their personal emissions growth is less than their net effect on Canadian emissions.

    I think I’m still dancing around the edges of my first point, though. I don’t have an objective to grow population any more than I have an objective to cut economic growth, intercontinental travel, SUVs, incandescent bulbs or even the tar sands. I have an objective to cut emissions, and above even that objective, to simply secure a livable world for my grandchildren. I don’t care how we do it, but I try to be clearsighted about our options. And clarity means recognizing that a great number of factors influence the rate of emissions and play out in sometimes unpredictable ways. So we have some flexibility about how we approach the problem.

    You would choose the option of reducing immigration. That wouldn’t be my choice of focus when our own emissions are so high, but hey it might work. The principal mechanism would be that it would (hopefully) decrease or halt economic growth. Local markets would shrink, along with the labour pool relative to business as usual. Now suppose that lead to a compensatory increase in native fertility, possibly encouraged by a government concerned about economic contraction? Would you support that? Or would you like to embrace any economic contraction that occurred? And if so, why wouldn’t you just embrace economic contraction without reducing immigration in the first place? Better yet, why wouldn’t you want to focus our economy on efficiency and low-emissions industries so that you could stimulate the economy (or at least reduce the contraction) while reducing emissions? Do you support the thesis, seemingly adopted by all members of the climate change debate you moderated, that the desperately poor must be lifted out of poverty? And if so, does it really matter whether they do it in their native countries or by coming to Canada? We can hope that developing countries grow by leapfrogging dirty fossil energy, or we can bring some of their population here, ensure we drive down emissions and have fewer people to deal with globally. As far as the planet is concerned, that may well be the better option.

    What we can’t do is have more people demanding more stuff made with high emissions inputs.

    [2. Tar sands.] However, the tar sands are really quite different. Because while it’s possible to almost neutralize the carbon impact of a new immigrant, the carbon impact of the tar sands is relatively fixed. It’s fixed because the product is almost wholly burned in a way that makes sequestration impossible, and it’s fixed because the process of extracting and refining that product has high emissions associated with it that can only be partly offset through carbon sequestration when that becomes available, if ever.

    I cannot accurately predict how Canada will reduce its emissions. If we succeed, it will include some combination of efficiency, clean technology, population reduction and economic contraction or even collapse. Obviously, I hope for more efficiency and clean technology and less collapse. But while there’s flexibility there and uncertainty about just how things will proceed, there’s really no uncertainty about the tar sands. If the world is serious about emissions reductions, the tar sands will close. Without question. I say that completely dispassionately and with no agenda to impose closure at all. It is simply a physical fact.

    A couple of years ago, James Hansen did an inventory of our fossil fuels and calculated their carbon content. He concluded that if we stick to natural gas and conventional oil, we will probably be safe. We cannot, however, afford to burn any more unconventional oil or coal, nor should we continue to find new sources since we can’t afford to use them anyway, unless we want to risk catastrophic impacts. So you might ask, what if you use unconventional oil sands in place of something else? That would be incredibly foolish. Because for each barrel of tar sands crude you produced you’d have to waste more than three times as much energy in extraction as you would in a conventional well, so you’d have less energy at the end. And once we start shutting down fuel sources, we won’t have any energy to spare. Sequestering carbon dioxide doesn’t get you any further ahead either. The product is burned anyway, and the production process is still more energy intensive than the alternatives, and in fact more energy intensive than it would be without sequestration. The tar sands still fail.

    So if we looked at all our energy sources, did a carbon audit and budget and permanently closed the sources we couldn’t use, the tar sands would be the first on the chopping block. Nor do they fare any better under any other method of carbon reduction. If we imposed a global tax. for example, the objective would be to put a wedge between the price at the pump and the price for the producer. You drive down what the producer gets and the least economical (usually the most energy-intensive) processes get shut out. The tar sands close. Carbon taxes are, of course, just a way of directly monetizing a cap. So any sort of truly effective cap and trade mechanism would have the same effect. The resulting higher cost of carbon emissions would drive that same wedge between consumers and producers and the dirtiest sources would get squeezed out. A clean fuel standard would also eliminate the dirtiest sources through regulation. Any way you look at it, the tar sands close, because when you have to limit the amount of fuel you extract, there is no situation that you would voluntarily choose to close a cleaner and more economical source for a dirtier and more expensive one.

    Let me put it another way. It’s difficult but at least theoretically possible for people to live emissions-free, even in Canada. It is not possible, even theoretically, to expand the tar sands without increasing emissions. So there’s definitely more wiggle room with immigration than with tar sands.

    [3. Refugees.] Now to my third and final point. The IPCC estimates that there will be at least 150 million climate refugees globally by 2050 (and presumably many more in the second half of the century). Most of these will be in countries like Bangladesh, the Sahel and island states which contributed nothing to the problem and have very limited resources to deal with it. Canada’s share of historical emissions must give us some responsibility for these people. We contribute 2% of the global emissions, so we should be responsible for finding homes for 3 million refugees over the next 40 years. That doesn’t mean that Canada should embrace the arrival of 3 million refugees. The focus on near-country settlement is enshrined internationally and is generally the preference for displaced people. But enabling new lives for all these people will be our responsibility and some may come to Canada as the entire Sahel shrivels up, as local opportunities evaporate and as neighbouring countries refuse to take on more. I’m not predicting what the final numbers will be, but I insist that Canada must remain open to the possibility of taking in its fair share.

    Canada also has further obligations to take in refugees in general and we’ve been doing less than our global share.

    I’m not thrilled about our immigration system, which takes (in fact, demands, through our preference for education and work experience) the best and brightest from developed countries and sets them to work driving cabs or serving coffee in Canada. I have no problem with radically changing our immigration system and looking at overall numbers is something I’m willing to do. But I think we need to keep in mind that the higher Canada’s emissions soar, the greater our responsibility will be for the effects we’re causing. So if you don’t want to see the arrival of millions of new Canadians this century, cutting down our own emissions is an imperative.

    And while we’re on population, keep in mind that the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research estimates that with 5 degrees Celsius of warming, the carrying capacity of the planet falls to 1 billion. There are now three recent studies I’ve seen that show that we’re on a trajectory for that level of warming this century. I was surprised that neither Elizabeth nor Monbiot brought this up during the debate. So there’s every reason to expect that unless we address global warming effectively and soon, the population of every country on the planet will drop dramatically no matter how many immigrants we take in.


  5. Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu writes:

    Bruce Haddad wrote a letter to the National Post asking:

    Why is it that the tar sands, producing only 5% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, are held up by some as a threat to humanity, while those emissions caused by immigration-fuelled population growth is not mentioned as a problem?

    I think my explanation above highlights why both are problems, reasonable ways of addressing both, and why the tar sands are a more serious challenge.

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