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13 November 2012

The PICS Climate News Scan is a weekly summary of the major climate-change related science, technology, and policy advances of direct relevance to the BC provincial and the Canadian federal governments and more generally to businesses and civil society. The News Scan focuses on cutting edge climate issues and solutions gathered by the fellows and faculty of ISIS, a research centre at the UBC Sauder School of Business, in partnership with the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS). Access to some referenced articles may require a journal subscription or purchase of the article, and appropriate links are provided for this purpose. To provide content feedback and/or suggestions, please email picsscan@uvic.ca.

Authors: Chanda Brietzke, Justin Bull, Liz Ferris, James Noble, Tim Shah
Editors: James Tansey (ISIS), Neil Thomson (ISIS), Jessica Worsley (PICS), Tom Pedersen (PICS)

Research Theme I: The low carbon emissions economy

Businesses need to prepare for unpredictability

November 5, 2012.  The world will have to cut the rate of carbon emissions dramatically by 2050 to stop global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius this century, according to a report released by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). The planet is currently on track for an increase of more than six degrees, a threshold at which 90% of species could become extinct. In 2010, almost 200 nations agreed at United Nations climate talks to limit the rise in global temperatures to below two degrees to avoid dangerous impacts from climate change. In order to achieve this goal, global carbon intensity – defined in the PwC report as the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of gross domestic product – must be cut by an average of 5.1 percent annually from now to 2050, a rate of reduction that has not been achieved during the past 50 years. Even if the target is achievable in the long term however, because of the slow start, future emissions reductions will have to be steeper and far greater. This leaves businesses with little certainty as the global economy decarbonizes, “whether that's policy, climate or consumer change. Businesses that have failed to prepare will find it difficult to keep their operations running smoothly as the risk of disruption increases”.

Businesses in British Columbia (BC) are beginning to realize that implementing a carbon management plan is an effective strategy to cut costs and streamline business in addition to providing environmental benefits and protecting the uncertainties of a decarbonizing economy. Vancouver-based Climate Smart released a new report that examines the types of businesses acting to mitigate their carbon impact and exposure, their motivations, and the resulting cost savings they are likely to achieve. According to this report, if the roughly 200 businesses examined cut emissions by 3.6 percent – the average reduction measured over a one-year period – their potential savings could total $9.3 million annually. Transportation-related activities account for nearly 40 percent of a typical small to medium-sized organization’s emissions, with over half of them stemming from fleet operations. The report concludes that an average small business in BC can save $400 for every tonne of carbon eliminated from its operations, highlighting a significant return on investment for carbon reductions.

Research Theme II: Sustainable communities

Sustainable cities are measured beyond their city limits

October 31, 2012.  In order for cities to be sustainable, they must look beyond their borders to the broader impact of their consumption habits and resource use. A recent paper noted that many self-proclaimed sustainable cities ignore the environmental footprint of imported goods and services. Imported food, water and energy, for example, are often overlooked when developing strategies for “green cities”. The authors of the study suggest creating partnerships between urban and rural areas, thus enabling citizens and policy-makers to comprehend their relationship with the rural land as well as with other cities through a systems approach, and to improve efficiencies outside of the city limits. The planet’s population will reach nine billion in less than 40 years and "total urban area is expected to triple between 2000 and 2030. On this kind of trajectory, more than 15,000 football fields (FIFA accredited) will become urban every day during the first three decades of the 21st century. In other words, humankind is expected to build more urban areas during the first thirty years of this century than all of history combined". The net result is decreasing productive land with increasing population needs and a soaring emissions profile.

The outsourcing of manufacturing to foreign countries is an important factor when reviewing environmental footprints for a given region. In Canada, for example, extracting oil from the tar sands is extremely energy-intensive. When that oil is shipped and further processed elsewhere, the full life-cycle emissions are not accounted for. Similarly, the energy required for producing cell phones, laptops, wind turbines and other goods is rarely considered at their destinations. Implementing a life-cycle analysisapproach when developing sustainable strategies for a region will enable proponents to take into account the broader impacts of a city as discussed in the above paper. The ecological footprint<, a concept developed under the supervision of University of British Columbia (UBC) professor William Rees, is another approach for calculating the true impact of cities and their total land requirements. The planet, if shared appropriately between all its citizens, can offer two hectares per person. Canadian citiesrequire almost four times that amount at present, using 7.25 hectares per person.

Research Theme III: Resilient ecosystems

Tree invasion threatens mountain meadows, landscape resilience

November 2, 2012.  A study recently published in Landscape Ecology identifies a variety of local, fine-scale factors and regional, large-scale factors that affect the temporal and spatial patterns of tree invasion in the Oregon Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest. Researchers found a dramatic increase in the proportion of meadows occupied by trees, from eight percent in 1950 to 35 percent in 2007. Tree invasion was significantly affected by regional climate, including temperature, as well as local conditions, such as topography. The depth and persistence of snowpack, which is a product of both regional and local factors, was also highly influential. These factors create “complex tree invasion responses to climate over time”, which are further complicated by the uncertainty surrounding changes in snowfall in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. With so many factors affecting tree invasion, the trends found in this study cannot be applied to larger scales or different regions.

Depicting how mountain landscapes have changed over time is the focus of the Mountain Legacy Project, which consists of creating a database of repeat photographs of mountain ranges in Alberta and the interior of BC. The historical photographs originate from surveys conducted during the 1880s to 1950s with repeat photos taken from the same positions since 1998. These photos not only offer a striking visual representation of changes in vegetation patterns, but can also be used to inform research on these changes. In some cases, areas that were formerly a patchwork of meadows and forest now have significantly reduced proportions of meadows or no meadows at all. These more homogenous landscapes are less diverse and less resilient to disease, stress and change. Understanding the historical conditions of meadows in landscape mosaics can be helpful for restoring more complex and resilient landscapes for the future and managing the effects of a changing climate.

Research Theme IV: Social mobilization

Shifting habits reduces greenhouse gas emissions

October 24, 2012.  In the long-standing debate over the role that technology and society must play in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a new study weighs in with some interesting findings. The study, prepared for the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Climate Action, finds that changes in behaviour can be complementary to technological change in reducing GHG outputs and further, that the addition of complementary behaviour modifications make technological savings more cost effective. The study examined 36 behaviour modifications which could potentially lead to GHG emissions reductions, and found that 11 actions were particularly effective, including: moving to a more fuel-efficient or an electrically-powered vehicle, reducing consumption of meat and dairy products, working from home, and adjusting ventilation systems.

In BC, a multitude of initiatives work to inspire a shift in habits and attitudes, which can ultimately lead to emissions reductions. For example, BC Hydro, the province’s largest electricity supplier and a small but significant source of BC’s GHG emissions – resulting from the construction of new dam projects – has been successful in reducing the province-wide demand for electricity. These energy savings have been achieved through a demand side management strategy, which includes a focus on generating a ‘conservation culture’. Likewise, the province’s LiveSmart program provides tools and information to “make green choices that save money”. However, despite the success such programs have had in promoting behavioural change leading to GHG reductions, funding for these types of projects is often limited and short term. This is likely due to GHG savings resulting from behaviour modification being difficult to quantify. 

Research Theme V: Carbon management in BC forests

Soil erosion a potential new source of carbon

November 5, 2012.  Efforts to measure the global carbon cycle have assumed that soil erosion is generally a carbon sink. However, new field research conducted in Belgium is challenging that logic. A team of scientists used radiocarbon and optical dating to see how long carbon stored in soil remains embedded in the soil, even after it has eroded. By taking samples along the Dijle River, they were able to measure when carbon captured in eroded soil is eventually released. The average time was around 500 years, suggesting that eroded soil slowly releases its carbon content. The researchers warn, however, that climate change with its accompanying higher temperatures can speed up soil decomposition and release carbon faster. A major source of eroded soil is its conversion to agricultural use, which in the study area began on a large scale only 150 years ago. This suggests that much of the carbon captured in that eroded soil has yet to be released into the atmosphere.

The impact of climate change on soils is a major area of concern for BC. The research from Belgium implies that much of the eroded soil in BC has yet to release its carbon, creating the equivalent of an emissions time bomb. Given that some forestry and agriculture practices can cause soil erosion, scientists caution that alternative methods should be embraced. In Belgium, no-till agriculture has been proposed as a means to prevent soil erosion. In BC logging companies aggressively replant after harvesting, also helping to avoid erosion. These efforts, however, won’t mitigate all the effects of climate change on soil. Warmer soils, for example, tend to decompose faster, releasing the carbon they have stored. Other research has found that trees do not sequester as much carbon as previously estimated, an assumption that many climate models thought would help slow global warming. 

Also in the news

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Obama to weigh energy boom, climate change in second term

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Spring snow pack in the Arctic disappearing fast, Environment Canada warns

It's global warming, stupid

Sizing up biomass from space

Dust's warming counters half of its cooling effect

Researchers propose new building guidelines to clean up city air

Carbon tracking and climate models: researchers study carbon cycling in deciduous trees

Scientists look at climate change, the superstorm

Why seas are rising ahead of predictions: estimates of rate of future sea-level rise may be too low

Surprise, surprise: northern BC supports carbon tax

2001-2002 drought helped propel mountain pine beetle epidemic

Warming temperatures cause aquatic animals to shrink the most

Earth on acid: the present and future of global acidification

New method could help communities plan for climate risk

As planet heats up, fertile soil isn’t guaranteed