SOMEWHERE IN SOUTHEAST SASKATCHEWAN, CANADA – On the road south and east from the oil and gas boom cities of Fort Nelson, British Columbia, and Grande Prairie, Alberta, into the wellhead-dotted wheat fields of this Canadian province, it’s hard to avoid wondering about the commitment to climate change espoused by the largest nation in North America.
A proud signatory to the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” in Paris in 2015, Canada officially claims to have played an “active and constructive role in the UNFCCC negotiations and was a strong voice in the negotiations towards the establishment of the Paris Agreement.
“Canada’s current….target (is) to reduce its economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.”
The country was last year reported to be 6.3 percent below the 2005 level, but unfortunately moving in the wrong direction.
“The Early Estimate of National Emissions for 2022 shows that Canada’s total emissions increased 2.1 percent from the previous year, an increase of 14.2 megatonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (Mt CO2e),” according to the Canadian Climate Institute.
“Emissions from oil and gas, buildings undercut Canada’s climate progress, estimate finds” is how the group headlined its September 2023 report.
When you drive across the Western half of the country, those oil and gas activities are hard to miss. Despite Canada’s claims to being a leader in carbon reduction, its actions are those of a leader in carbon production.
An International Energy Authority (IEA) chart tracking energy production in Canada since 1990 pretty much says it all.
The country has reduced its production of coal, and saw a downward blip in energy production from all sources during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the general trend for oil and gas production has moved steadily upward since the early 1990s.
Saskatchewan, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights is now aiming for a 31 percent increase in oil production by 2030. That would put production at about 600,000 barrels per day or about 150,000 barrels per day above the current production of Alaska’s North Slope.
That the wheat fields are gushing oil isn’t making everyone happy though.
Policy Options, the digital magazine for Canada’s Institute for Research on Public Policy, has labeled Saskatchewan, the second largest producing province for Canadian oil, “real climate change fight” and has accused the province of shirking its ” shirk its climate responsibilities.”
Unfortunately, the province is also representative of how the difficult economic and social changes necessary to reduce the use of carbon-dioxide (CO2)-generating hydrocarbons are, a lot easier to talk about than to implement.
Canada, like many other countries, has encouraged its citizens to buy electric vehicles to battle climate change and is threatening drivers with electric-car mandates by 2030, according to the CBC, with a proposed ban on the sale of new hydrocarbon-powered cars by 2035.
But electric vehicle (EV) sales indicate Canadian consumers are as reluctant to go electric as they are to slow down to comply with Canadian speed limits imposed in the hopes of reducing carbon emissions.
As the government of Alberta notes, “the fuel economy of a vehicle varies with the speed of the vehicle. The fuel economy of current vehicles is maximized at speeds between 50 and 90 kilometers per hour (kph); at higher speeds increased aerodynamic forces reduce fuel economy, and at lower speeds, the fuel required to keep the engine running is greater.”
Despite this many of the roads in Alberta are posted at 100 km, which Canadian drivers appear to translate to 70 mph or more, and 110 km, which Canadian drivers appear to translate to 80 mph or more.
For those unfamiliar with the metric system, 100 km is 62 mph and 110 kph is 68 mph.
And in the low-traffic, northwestern part of the country, motorists sometimes appear to take speed limits as advisory rather than mandatory as the province of British Columbia concedes.
“The majority of motorists drive at a speed they consider reasonable, and safe for road,
traffic, and environmental conditions. Posted limits which are set higher or lower than
dictated by roadway and traffic conditions are ignored by the majority of motorists.
“The normally careful and competent actions of a reasonable person should be
considered legal,” the province said in a 2003 review of speed limits.
“Speed limits in British Columbia are not suggestions when set by law or by posting a regulatory sign,” DriveSmartBC now advises. “They are what is known as an absolute liability offense; you are either speeding or you are not. Technically, even one kilometer per hour above the limit is speeding. In traffic court, if that one over can be proven, the justice may choose to convict you.”
But there’s a big but in the rules in that the consequences of even the worst violations are only financial.
“Some of the speeds recorded (by photo radar) have been significant, as much as 121 kph (75 mph) over the limit,” the Drive Smart website says. “But as long as the owner pays the $483 fine, there are no penalty points or vehicle impounds to deter these truly dangerous drivers.”
Climate consequences? Who cares.
Canada’s ‘bad’ neighbor
By comparison to Canada, the United States – which didn’t agree to the Paris Climate Accords – was looking pretty climate-friendly as of 2022.
As it rebounded from the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic that sparked global lockdowns, “U.S. emissions grew by only 0.6 percent or 36 megatonnes (compared to Canada’s 2.1. percent and 14.2 megatonnes),” according to the IEA. “The buildings sector saw the highest emissions growth driven by extreme temperatures. The main emissions reductions came from electricity and heat generation, thanks to unprecedented increases in solar photovoltaic and wind, as well as coal-to-gas switching. While many other countries reduced their natural gas use, the United States saw an increase of 89 Mt in CO2 emissions from gas as it was called upon to meet peak electricity demand during summer heat waves.”
In terms of megatonnes, the U.S. increase in overall CO2 production was more than twice that of Canada, but then the U.S. is home to almost nine times as many people as Canada. Still U.S. emissions are growing even as electric cars increasingly enter the transportation stream.
How much those cars will help is also the subject of much debate given that the electricity has to come from somewhere, has to be available in quantity in places where electric cars are in use, and has to be “green” – as in solar, wind or hydropower – to help reduce carbon emissions.
“The largest absolute sectoral increase in emissions in 2022 was from electricity and heat generation. Electricity and heat sector emissions increased by 1.8% (or 261 Mt), reaching an all-time high of 14.6 Gt,” the IEA reported.
Some places in the U.S. also have significant environmental conflicts despite access to large volumes of carbon-free electricity. Electric vehicle (EV) sales are reported to have soared in the Seattle area, but according to the IEA, “in 2022, hydroelectric power accounted for 67 percent of Washington’s total electricity net generation….Most of those hydroelectric plants are located on the Columbia River, and one of them, the Grand Coulee Dam, is the seventh-largest hydroelectric power plant by capacity in the world.”
This puts electric cars in a head-on conflict with the desires of environmentalists to remove Columbia dams to help struggling stocks of wild salmon.
Some states have made amazing strides in producing clean, renewable energy, but many of them are red states far removed from the big population centers in blue states. According to the website of Choose Energy, an energy broker, more than half the country’s wind power is generated by four states: Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas.
When the wind blows, of course.
FlatlandKC, a nonprofit news site in that state, reported that in June of this year when the winds blowing across the prairies stalled, “wind production in Kansas amounted to 1,586,965,967 megawatt-hours, down from 2,346,190,645 megawatt-hours in June 2022, a drop of more than 32 percent,” and “Iowa produced 2,089,640,297 megawatt-hours of electricity in June. That compared to 2,975,520,827 megawatt-hours one year earlier. The decline was almost 30 percent.”
Solar power production is somewhat more reliable but doesn’t produce as much power. Choose Energy reports that the top five wind-power states produced nearly 18,000 Megawatts of electricity in May versus the 16,000 Megawatts produced by the top five solar power states in July, the prime month for solar generation.
California is by far the leader in solar production, pumping out about 30 percent of the nation’s solar energy. The Golden State is working toward 100 percent, carbon-free electricity by 2045, but as of 2021, solar, wind, geothermal and biomass production accounted for only 33.6 percent of the state’s electricity, according to the California Energy Commission.
Carbon-free electric production does reach 59 percent when nuclear and hydropower production are rolled in, according to the state’s energy department, but neither of those sources are particularly popular with clean energy fans, and none of the clean-energy sources help with California’s well-known traffic congestion which creates more problems than just carbon emissions and a shift to EVs won’t help there.
E-bikes might help and seem a perfect transportation alternative for sunny California, but most Americans consider them inconvenient and would prefer to ride around in a full-size automobile by themselves no matter the environmental consequences, which go beyond CO2.
A peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Science Technology in 2022 noted that “implementation of regulatory standards has reduced exhaust emissions of particulate matter from road traffic substantially in the developed world. However, nonexhaust particle emissions arising from the wear of brakes, tires, and the road surface, together with the resuspension of road dust, are unregulated and exceed exhaust emissions in many jurisdictions.”
“According to the most recent data, fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, is responsible for nearly 4 million deaths globally from cardiopulmonary illnesses such as heart disease, respiratory infections, chronic lung disease, cancers, preterm births, and other illnesses,” a peer-reviewed study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health added that same year.
And then there is the matter of black carbon, a portion of which comes from this particulate matter but a lot of which comes from the diesel engines that power 76 percent of the heavy trucks in the U.S., according to an analysis conducted by the Engine Technology Forum.
Trucks, trucks and more trucks are one of the things you can’t miss on the roads of Canada as you drive south and east from Alaska, and there seem to be only more trucks on the roads once you cross the border into the U.S.
The Technology Forum reports more than 15 million commercial vehicles are now registered in the U.S. to serve 711,000 trucking companies, some of which have become a little like the railroads that first opened up the U.S. West with the big rigs increasingly mimicking trains with the double-trailers giving way to triple-trailers.
The trucking business is at the moment in something of a recession, according to the FleetOwner website, but this was to be expected after the huge boom in the business that started in 2010 as online marketing of everything took off.
Once trains moved the freight much more efficiently across the continent, but the trains have given way to trucks in the name of convenience.
“The (U.S.) transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to anthropogenic U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency with the fading railroad industry accounting for only 2 percent of emissions.
Light-duty vehicles and medium to heavy trucks combine to account for 81 percent. This is all due to a U.S. transportation system almost entirely devoted to roads, and how to get the traffic down on the roads is a climate-change nut so tough to crack nobody really wants to talk about it.
Conventional wisdom is that if over-sized gas and diesel vehicles are simply replaced with over-sized EVs, all will be fine. But big vehicles do nothing to help with traffic congestion while increasing emissions over smaller EVs, which seems to be a problem in much of the Western world.
“In France, Germany and the United Kingdom in 2022, the sales-weighted average weight of a battery electric SUV was 1.5 times higher than the average small battery electric car, requiring greater amounts of steel, aluminum and plastic; the battery in the SUV was twice as large, requiring about 75 percet more critical minerals. The CO2 emissions associated with materials processing, manufacturing and assembly can be estimated at more than 70 percent higher as a result,” the IEA authority reported in its Global EV Outlook 23.
It’s easy to talk about the transition to an all-electric world powered by the sun and wind, but the Canadians seem to be betting on the idea that talk is easy and hydrocarbons will be powering the planet for decades to come.
This apparent reality has an increasing number of scientists looking into the possibilities for ocean carbon dioxide removal or Ocean CDR, as some call it. The idea is no doubt controversial.
“As the impacts of rising temperatures mount and the global transition to clean energy advances only gradually, scientists and policymakers are looking towards carbon dioxide removal (CDR) methods to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Attention has increasingly focused on ocean CDR techniques, which enhance or restore marine systems to sequester carbon. Ocean CDR research presents the risk of uncertain impacts to human and environmental welfare,” as scientists writing in Frontiers in Marine Science noted last year.
“The field of ocean-based carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is nascent, complicated, and risky -even compared with complex terrestrial carbon removal tech,” wrote at Sightline Climate in May of this year. “Nevertheless, we’ve created such a mess on Aisle Earth that it’s now necessary to mop vigorously with all possible carbon sponges,” citing a new report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The oceans are already the far and away big player in CO2 uptake. The carbon uptake of the Amazon rain forests, plus all the other forests on the planet, is dwarfed by the ability of oceanic phytoplankton to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.
The scientific thinking is that if this plant life were fertilized its productivity would increase significantly just as the productivity of terrestrial plants increases with fertilization. There are no doubt risks to continuing the human tampering with the planet’s ecosystem that has been underway for thousands of years.
But in driving across supposedly eco-friendly Canada, it’s hard to avoid wondering if there is any other realistic choice, and a look at the IEA’s 2022 report on global carbon emissions only tends to reinforces this thought.
The IEA charts a noticeable pandemic dip in emissions, but the subsequent rise is quickly back on track with the steady increase underway for the past 20 years.
On a global level, despite the international agreement to reduce emissions, all that seems to be happening is a tradeoff between the environmentally conscientious countries pushing their emissions downward and the economically interested countries pushing their emissions upward.
“Emissions from Asia’s emerging market and developing economies, excluding China, grew more than those from any other region in 2022, increasing by 4.2 percent or 206 Mt CO2,” the IEA reported. “Over half of the region’s increase in emissions came from coal-fired power generation.”
Emissions from China, the globe’s largest source of greenhouse gases, actually fell by 0.2 percent but the IEA noted this was due to unique circumstances: “Weaker economic growth, declining construction activity, and strict Covid-19 measures led to reductions in industrial and transport emissions. Power sector emissions growth slowed compared with the average of the past decade but still reached a 2.6 percent” increase.
China imposed a so-called “zero Covid policy” shortly after the SARS-CoV-2 virus started spreading and locked the country down hard, but abruptly abandoned the policy in December of last year with the Chinese citizenry rebelling and the economy in decline.
Economists reporting on the open-access website Elsevier in May of this year concluded that “in 2022, when the Omicron variant emerged, a stricter zero-COVID policy led to a 30 percent decline in mobility, a 1.17 percent decrease in PM2.5 (pollution) and a 7.7 percent reduction in night lights. Based on our calculations (tied to those observations), China experienced a 3.9 percent loss in gross domestic product as a consequence of the implementation of the zero-COVID policy in 2022.”
The Chinese economy is now rebounding and China, like India and much of the rest of Asia, is again showing a stronger interest in tomorrow’s economy than the future environment. China is among the few countries on the globe continuing to increase the use of coal-fired electric power plants.
And then there is Russia, the fourth largest producer of greenhouse gases behind China, the U.S. and India.
“Crucially, few in Moscow regard climate change as a clear and present
danger,” observes Bobo Lo, an associate research fellow with the Russia/NIS Center at the
French Institute of International Relations. ” The permafrost is melting, the Arctic sea-ice is retreating, and there are more frequent extreme weather events than ever before.
“But these are problems that are seen to affect a relatively small number of Russians, or that appear manageable (or ignorable), or whose outcomes may even turn out to be advantageous. The government has consistently acted on the implicit premise that the ‘cure’ to climate change is worse than the ‘disease’. Thus, decarbonization presents a greater threat to Russian interests than global warming, while environmental activism is seen as antidevelopment, impractical and self-indulgent.”
The view that “outcomes may even turn out to be advantageous” is not without merit, either. At least from a purely nationalistic viewpoint.
And though Russian researchers have concluded that climate change could bring droughts that would reduce grain production in the southeastern part of European Russia, “Central Siberia would likely benefit from the climate warming trend.
“For regions such as Krasnoyarsk Krai, Republic of Khakassia and Tyva Republic, agricultural production could double as the climate warms in the 21st century,” they contend. “In this case, the cultivation of traditional crops such as grain, potatoes and corn for silage may gradually shift 500 kilometers to the north, and in the south of the territories, may be introduced new crops such as apricots, grapes and gourds.”
Those same researchers cite other studies reporting that “due to global warming, an increase in grain yields is expected to occur in Ireland, Finland, the USA and Canada.”
Given this and the Canadian oil and gas boom, one might even hypothesize that Canadians are just following the Russian model of operating in their own national interests, but being Canadians are way too polite to reveal any indication that they would favor that which might benefit their lightly populated northern nation to the detriment of the vast majority of the human population concentrated in the nations of the globe’s mid-latitudes.