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27 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, Sarah Thomas
Editors: Neil Thomson (ISIS), James Tansey (ISIS), Jessica Worsley (PICS), Tom Pedersen (PICS)

Research Theme I: The low carbon emissions economy

Leading global businesses back carbon pricing

November 19, 2012.  While Warren Buffett once said that uncertainty is the friend of the investor, a clear, stable and cost-effective policy framework underpins investment for most businesses. Shell, Unilever and more than 100 of the world’s largest companies recently released a statement calling upon lawmakers worldwide to put a “clear” price on carbon emissions in order to contain global warming and help manage the business risk associated with climate change. The authors explain that clarity is needed to open channels for investment in infrastructure projects and that, in many cases, companies do not consider goals to cut greenhouse gases (GHGs). A price on carbon emissions must be core to policy objectives in order for the business community to deliver substantial GHG emission reductions and help the world meet the United Nations goal of containing global warming to two degrees Celsius. The letter notes a key lesson from existing carbon pricing systems: without a sufficient carbon price signal, companies will have no incentive to invest in low-carbon projects or technology.

Recently, the president of Shell Canada called upon federal and provincial governments to put a significant price on carbon to encourage industry investment in low-carbon technologies in order to improve environmental performance. Nevertheless, the Harper government has categorically rejected calls to adopt a carbon price. BC’s carbon tax and Alberta’s technology fund may be models to initiate large scale investment in low carbon R&D and infrastructure by creating a financial incentive for individuals and businesses to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Since BC’s carbon tax was introduced in 2008, fossil fuel consumption has fallen by 15.1 percent per capita over the same time in which Canada increased its per capita consumption by 1.3 percent. And as of September 2011, Alberta’s technology fund had collected $257 million, nearly half of which has been committed for investment in 27 projects that are expected to reduce 2.3 megatonnes of GHGs annually. 

China’s shift to low carbon

Over the past decade, the Chinese people and their leadership have come to view the country’s economic well-being and environmental quality as inextricably linked. China has announced a goal to reduce its carbon intensity per unit of GDP in 2020 by 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels, while pursuing a combination of measures to control and improve air, water, and soil pollution levels. A collection of proactive national climate change mitigation plans call for structural shifts to China’s economy, transforming development patterns, optimizing energy production and consumption, and promoting afforestation to increase carbon sequestration. Policies and actions to adapt to climate change focus on agriculture, forests and other natural ecological systems, water resources, coastal regions and disaster response systems. As a non-Annex I country to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), China must periodically submit national communications to the UNFCCC Secretariat and is currently working on its second submission, which will detail additional GHG emissions and sources, as well as mitigation policies and actions. Though China is the world’s largest overall emitter of GHG emissions, Canada is one of the world’s largest per capita emitters. Within Canada, BC emits roughly a third less than the national average emissions of 22 tonnes per capita of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent.

Research Theme II: Sustainable communities

Electric vehicles good for the environment, good for our image

November 12, 2012.  A recent report released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), entitled Implementing Agreement for Co-operation on Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Technologies and Programmes (IA-HEV), discusses current research and investment towards this industry. As of 2012, 12 IA-HEV task forces are investigating various aspects of the hybrid and electric vehicle economy including life cycle assessment of electric vehicles and quick-charging technologies. In addition to research, the IA-HEV with its seventeen member countries works towards the promotion and increased use of hybrid and electric vehicle technologies around the world. The report indicates that sales of the vehicles have been slower than anticipated and a broader range of offerings is required to increase uptake, especially in Canada. However, “combining the electric drive with renewable energy gives plug-in electric vehicles both good CO2 figures and a good image”. The document reports worldwide sales of 1.2 million electric vehicles, including e-bikes and e-scooters, and 2.5 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in 2011.

BC’s transportation sector accounts for approximately 41% of the province’s GHG emissions. With a commitment to decrease GHG emissions by 33% below 2007 levels by 2020, BC has identified a three-pronged approach to decreasing emissions from transportation: improving efficiency in the vehicles we drive, reducing carbon content in fuels and decreasing the number of kilometres driven. In order to achieve the second objective, the province has been actively supporting investment in electric vehicles. The Clean Energy Vehicle (CEV) program as part of the Live Smart BC incentives program offers residents of BC a rebate of up to $5000 per clean-energy vehicle. Subsidies for electric vehicle charging stations are also available. Additionally, the City of Vancouver is partnering with BC Hydro to install sixty-seven charging stations by the end of 2013 and has amended building codes to require the implementation of dedicated electric plug-in stations with new residential developments.

Research Theme III: Resilient ecosystems

Wolves may protect rangeland ecosystems

November 14, 2012. Rangelands are important for reasons beyond grazing livestock; they can also be diverse ecosystems that provide high quality soil and water when fully functioning. A recent study examined stressors on rangelands in the Western United States, where over 70% of land managed by government agencies is utilized by domestic livestock. The researchers found that ungulates – hooved animals – can have negative effects on plant communities, hydrological processes and soil quality, which could exacerbate the effects of climate change. They suggest that livestock grazing should be restricted or eliminated on large parcels of land and that wild ungulate populations should be reduced. The authors recognize that these actions may be socially and economically detrimental for some communities, but maintain that they are ecologically warranted in many cases if rangelands are to be restored.

In BC, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO) is responsible for managing rangelands on provincial Crown land, which makes up most of the province. Nearly 80% of utilized rangeland is located in the southern interior, overlapping most of the biogeoclimatic zones that are of conservation concern, and which contain the highest densities of provincially and globally listed species at risk. Human use, climate change and ungulate grazing are all recognized as threats, but there is no indication that all of these factors have been considered together in management planning. With this new research in mind, BC does have functioning apex predators that help control wild ungulate populations. The MFLNRO recently put forth a draft management plan for the grey wolf that should consider both ecological and human needs. However, the plan has been called a "veiled attack” on the predator that all but ignores the species’ ecological role.” Public commenting on the plan is open until December 5, although wolf advocate Ian McAllister has requested this deadline to be extended.

Research Theme IV: Social mobilization

Climate scientists implored to take more action, risk arrest (if necessary)

November 18, 2012.  In the wake of the devastating impacts of Hurricane Sandy, an editorial in Nature is calling upon the world’s climate scientists to speak out, by all available means, about the predicted devastating impacts of climate change. In the article, Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and chief investment strategist at GMO, one of the world’s largest investment funds with over US $97 billion in assets, calls upon climate scientists to present a “more realistic, more desperate, note on global warming”, even at the risk of their careers. Noting that younger scientists are faced with the issues of career development and questions of tenure, Grantham argues that it is up to the more seasoned, established and retired scientists to lead the charge. “Be arrested if necessary”, calls Grantham. “This is not only the crisis of your lives - it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave”.

These comments shed light on the precarious position the planet is in with respect to climate change and follow the actions of several high-profile, senior scientists, researchers and activists who feel that the threat of climate change is so great that it must be communicated by any means possible. James Hansen, director of the NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and arguably the world’s highest profile climate scientist, was arrested in 2009, 2010 and again in 2011 for acts of civil disobedience in protest of human activities, such as the expansion of development, and the extraction of fossil fuels, that lead to climate change. In BC, energy economist and Simon Fraser University professor Mark Jaccard has also participated in civil disobedience and was arrested in an attempt to communicate the gravity of climate change to the media and the public. “The window of opportunity for avoiding a high risk of runaway, irreversible climate change is closing quickly”, Jaccard notes. And as multiple recent extreme weather and/or climate events show us, that window might be narrower than was thought even a year ago.

Research Theme V: Carbon management in BC forests

Climate change to impact maple syrup, moose and timber production

November 20, 2012. A fifty-year research project in a forest in New Hampshire has shed new light on the local effects of climate change. Researchers at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest have used data that extends back decades to get a complete picture of how the conditions in northern hardwood forests have been changing. The biggest change has been the advance of spring and the retreat of autumn. Winters have been getting warmer and shorter, rainfall has intensified, and soil thaw no longer coincides closely with spring plant growth. The smaller snow pack leaves forest soils exposed during cold snaps, depleting their nutrient content. Warm winters also impact maple trees and the syrup industry, as soil frost – the result of cold air and no snow pack – increases tree mortality and warmer temperatures reduce the amount of sap produced. Pathogens are able to survive warmer winters, impacting tree and animal health. Moose are further impacted by a pathogen spread by deer, which are able to forage widely in low snow conditions.

BC’s forests are primarily coniferous – they do not lose their leaves. However, the evidence of systemic changes in other forest types is cause for concern. A decline in late-autumn cold snaps in BC’s interior was a catalyst for the mountain pine beetle outbreak. A reduced snowpack has also contributed to rapid yellow-cedar die off, with old growth trees along the north coast having a high mortality rate. The research out of Hubbard Brook tells two cautionary tales. First, climate models that deal with precipitation and temperature at the global level simply do not account for these localized changes in ecology. Indeed, most climate models assume forests will help mitigate climate change, but evidence suggests that any benefits will be outweighed by increased tree mortality and a limit to the growth-rate in trees imposed by a lack of nutrients in the soil. Secondly, the Hubbard Brook study underlies the importance of long-term research at the site level in forests. Without being in the field, measuring flora, fauna and soil characteristics, and analyzing changes with time, planning adaptation schemes in the face of climate change is made more difficult.

Also in the news

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Federal scientists uncover evidence that oilsands contaminants travel further than expected

San Francisco area drivers 1st with algae biofuel

Preserve the services of mangroves - Earth's invaluable coastal forests, experts urge

As US hesitates, California pours billions into green energy

Climate change risks soar for emerging Asian superpowers

Obama vows climate efforts but stays vague on agenda

Link between global warming and drought questioned

Climate change action focuses on tourist traps, say researchers

US military invests in sustainability

Clocks are ticking and climate is changing: increasing plant productivity in a changing climate

Himalayan glaciers will shrink even if temperatures hold steady, study says

World Bank climate change report warns of dramatically warmer world this century

CO2 hits new high; world could warm 7°F by 2060