At our November 8th AGM, climatologist Dr. John Jacobs, a local Council member, led a discussion on our province's strategy to reduce global warming. Here's a synopsis of what John had to say about Newfoundland and Labrador's commitment to reducing carbon emissions.
The Scope of the Problem
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), human-induced warming reached approximately 1°C (±0.2 °C likely range) above pre-industrial levels in 2017, increasing at 0.2°C (±0.1°C) per decade (high confidence. The impacts and risks of this warming for natural, managed and human systems are already evident, and will become more dangerous with further warming. Humanity has barely two to three decades in which to act to prevent crossing the 1.5°C threshold 1.
The 2015 Paris Agreement - Are we living up to our promises?
The Paris Agreement of 2015 aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2.0°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C. Additionally, the agreement aims to increase the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change, and at making finance flows consistent with a low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate-resilient pathways.2
In order to address the objectives of the Paris Agreement, Canada and the provinces established objectives for emissions reductions by 2020 and 2030. However, a 2018 collaborative report from Canada’s Auditors General3 found that neither Newfoundland and Labrador nor Canada as a whole are on track to meet their 2020 targets, and NL does not have a target for 2030.
In October 2018, in a special report, the IPCC called for urgent increased efforts to curb emissions to prevent global warming from exceeding the 1.5°C threshold. New scientific studies and recent climatic trends point to catastrophic consequences for the planet if temperatures increase further4.
What does NL's carbon tax look like?
Many experts agree that a “carbon tax” can be an effective incentive for lowering fossil fuel consumption. In October 2018 the NL Government released its “Made-in-Newfoundland-and-Labrador Carbon Pricing Plan”5. This plan projects “cumulative direct on-site GHG reductions below business-as-usual … at up to 1.7 MT (megatonnes) between 2019 and 2030.” That represents about 10 % of the 10.8 MT annual GHG emissions for the province in the most recent (2016) National Inventory. It remains to be seen how effective this plan will be, given the many exemptions.
What about the impact of NL's oil and gas policy?
The NL Government’s “Way Forward – Oil and Gas” policy6, also announced in 2018, seems oblivious to the imperatives of climate change mitigation. It aggressively encourages more offshore oil and gas exploration and development, and projects daily production to grow from the current 260,000 barrels of oil equivalent (boe) to over 600,000 boe per day by 2030. All of that oil represents potential additional CO2 added to the atmosphere.
Burning oil and its derivatives yields 0.43 metric tonnes CO2 per boe7. Current (2018) production represents 40.8 MT of CO2 per year. The imagined (“Way Forward”) 2030 production of over 600,000 boe per day would more than double that sector’s contribution to the atmospheric CO2 burden. This alone dwarfs any gains made by carbon pricing and other conservation measures.
For the sake of our future, the province clearly needs to get off a fossil-fuel based economy. Can't afford to? Just how important are revenues from offshore oil to the provincial economy? According to Minister of Finance Tom Osborne8, that currently amounts to 15 %, down from 30 % in 2011. He also said: “We need to diversify our economy.”
What are some alternatives to our current policy?
Clearly, we must move quickly to more renewable energy sources. Government has claimed that, when Muskrat Falls is at full power, “renewable electricity consumed in Newfoundland and Labrador will rise to 98 per cent.”9 This seems overly optimistic, given uncertainties about the performance of this complex and untested system. As well, we have yet to see a full accounting of the GHG produced in the construction and ongoing operation of that project.
We can perhaps hope for some progress from other Government initiatives, including the Climate Change Action Plan and the Low Carbon Economy Leadership Fund, but the amount of funding is paltry in relation to the need.
Increasingly, so-called “negative emissions” technology and practices are being introduced as a way to reduce the atmospheric GHG burden10. One obvious such practice involves the maintenance and expansion of forest lands, which typically capture about 2 tonnes of atmospheric CO2 per hectare per year. The province’s forest lands amount to about 8.1 million hectares, which amounts to about 16 MT CO2 per year. We can keep that carbon “in the bank” by investing in truly sustainable forest management practices, by reforestation of idle cleared lands, and by substantially expanding our system of protected natural areas, both on land in our waters.
Solutions are possible, but the time available is limited. What is clear is that “business as usual”, writ large, won’t do.
John D. Jacobs, PhD.
For the Council of Canadians, St. John’s Chapter
8 November 2018
Notes and Sources:
1. The Summary for Policymakers of the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC (SR15) is
available at http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/ or www.ipcc.ch.
2. Information on the Paris Agreement is at: https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/what-is-the-paris-agreement
3. Perspectives on Climate Change Action in Canada—A Collaborative Report from Auditors General—March 2018 http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_otp_201803_e_42883.html
4. Global Warming of 1.5 C. IPCC SR1.5. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/.
7. EPA (2017). Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2015. Annex 2 Methodology for estimating CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion.
8. Finance Minister Osborne, The Telegram, 7 November 2018.
9. News Release 23 October 2018 https://www.releases.gov.nl.ca/releases/2018/mae/1023n01.aspx
10. Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration – A Research Agenda. National Academies Press, 2018. http://nap.edu/25259