Will a liquefied-natural-gas frenzy blow B.C.’s carbon budget?

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      Last week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reaffirmed the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and is primarily caused by human use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) for our energy needs.

      For the first time, however, the IPCC stated an upper limit on total greenhouse-gas emissions, a global “carbon budget” to keep temperature increase below 2 ° C—the aspirational target for international negotiations and considered the threshold for “dangerous” climate change.

      The scientists of the IPCC reckon that we have already burned through more than half of our total carbon budget going back to the mid-19th century. Humanity’s remaining carbon budget is about 921 billion tonnes (921 gigatonnes, or Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2). That’s about 30 years of fossil-fuel emissions worldwide. It would provide a 66-percent chance of staying below 2 ° C; if we lower the odds to those of a coin toss (50 percent), we can emit up to 1,068 Gt of CO2.

      What does this mean for B.C.?

      A carbon budget would be a wake-up call for a province dreaming of fossil-fuel riches, including development of a liquefied-natural-gas (LNG) export industry. Political commitments on climate action, to the extent they exist, are usually pitched in terms of targets and time lines. B.C., for example, has a legislated target of 33 percent below 2007 levels by 2020.

      B.C.’s fair share of this global carbon budget would be determined by international negotiations. If the budget were allocated equally—based on share of the world’s population—B.C.’s carbon budget would be 0.6 Gt (for the 66-percent chance above). This amounts to a mere decade of emissions at current levels.

      B.C. would have more room to work with if we were allocated a carbon budget in line with our share of GDP. This would mean a more comfortable 2.8 Gt, some 45 years of emissions at current levels. But such a budget is hard to square with the massive emissions profile of LNG.

      The higher number is wishful thinking anyway. International negotiations have centred on “historical emissions”: rich countries have burned fossil fuels for more than a century with no thought to climate change, so they should be required to make disproportionate emission reductions.

      Even assuming B.C. secures a carbon budget at the high end, we still have a big problem: B.C.’s reserves of coal and natural gas are way larger than any plausible carbon budget. Natural-gas reserves are equivalent to 55 Gt if combusted into CO2. B.C.’s coal reserves represent another 40 Gt if combusted. Together, that fuel, safely sequestered belowground, is almost three years’ worth of worldwide emissions.

      This implies that the vast majority of those reserves need to stay in the ground. Plans for an LNG export industry need to be seriously rethought in light of carbon budgeting.

      Although most of the emissions from B.C.’s fossil fuels are exported—other countries combust the fuel and would count the emissions as part of their carbon inventory—B.C. still has to count the emissions from extracting and processing fossil fuels. These domestic emissions could come down if B.C. got serious about making the “cleanest LNG in the world”.

      But in a carbon-constrained world, other countries will also have to live within their own carbon budgets. They, too, will have to cut back on fossil fuels in favour of renewables.

      Ongoing extreme weather, oil spills, and train wrecks suggest it is only a matter of time before the world gets serious about carbon budgets. B.C.’s LNG plans double down on the old fossil-fuel economy and could come to represent tens of billions of dollars in stranded assets.

      A carbon budget tells us B.C. must invest heavily in precisely the opposite: green infrastructure, such as public transit, high-speed rail, and zero-waste facilities. Funded by an expanded carbon tax, climate action is also a superior jobs policy to LNG.

      The challenge of every jurisdiction is to figure out how to live within a carbon budget while providing the “good life” for all. Future generations will wonder why it took us so long to get started.


      Marc Lee is a senior economist in the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and is the codirector of the Climate Justice Project. His latest study, Canada’s Carbon Liabilities: The Implications of Stranded Fossil Fuel Assets for Financial Markets and Pension Funds (with Brock Ellis), is available at www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/canadas-carbon-liabilities.



      Kevin Washbrook

      Oct 3, 2013 at 1:00pm

      Thanks again to Marc Lee for holding the BC government to task over their LNG boosterism.

      The only place I would disagree with Marc is over how loudly we should be ringing the alarm bells about these proposals.

      The UK group Carbon Tracker says that to have an 80 percent chance of avoiding a 2 degree increase in temperature and the certainty of runaway climate change, we need to stay within a 565 GT CO2 budget over the next 40 years. That's just 14 GT CO2 per year, from all sources.

      In 2011 the world released 33 GT CO2, just from fossil fuel combustion alone.

      I'm not comfortable with a two in three chance of avoiding disaster, let alone a coin toss, but these numbers show that to have a relatively good (80 percent) chance of avoiding a runaway climate disaster, we need to dramatically cut back on fossil fuel combustion, not go on a wholesale expansion.

      Locking in to LNG exports now will make it unlikely any future government can change course on this urgent issue before it is too late.


      Oct 3, 2013 at 8:42pm

      If JFK had his way we would be driving around in electric or hydrogen powered cars right now. We need to get back on track with building infrastructure for the benefit of future generations. The alternative is what we have now, depopulation in the name of environmentalism.

      Lee L

      Oct 9, 2013 at 12:27am

      The thing is, Kevin Washbrook, that equally competent climate experts, such as James Hansen, and Richard LIndzen, looking at the same data, do not both agree that it is alarming and requires the restructuring of human society. Some of these experts have actually served on the IPCC reporting process, some refuse to serve again and in the case of Richard Lindzen, have served as LEAD AUTHORS, yet are very unconvinced that the advice written in the Summary for Policy Makers is anything but political science. I tend to agree.

      Humanity WILL NOT go back to the horse and buggy. Humanity WILL produce an energy source ( nuclear fusion ) that can be deployed to crack seawater into fresh water and light our cities and power our transport, whatever form it takes.

      In the mean time, every available penny could, instead of building useless wind farms in SOOKE, be directed to ameliorating the obvious source of the imagined and real problems, problems of scarcity ... human population growth. And luckily, it is a problem we already know how to solve. We KNOW how to do contraception.