Ontario climate strategy

The Government of Ontario recently scrapped the provincial cap-and-trade initiative in favour of a new regulatory, command-and-control approach. Before presenting a new bill, the government is obligated to seek input. This is my contribution. It is far from a complete climate plan, but an attempt to speak the language of the business friendly government. It is a major problem that for 30 years, the environmental movement has failed to communicate the issue in a way that spurs significant action. Instead, we have allowed people and businesses with a vested interest in the status quo to poison the debate with a pernicious lie: that climate is too expensive; a job killer we can’t afford. No more. We urgently need to turn the debate around: climate action is not only imperative, it is a crucial opportunity to create a modern, efficient economy that works for everyone, not just a few.

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Picture of me as Torvald in Downsizing.

Downsizing – the movie

Downsizing poster
Downsizing poster

Now 100% more movie star! In 2017, I made my debut on the silver screen with my role in the science fiction movie Downsizing, made by Oscar-winning director Alexander Payne and starring Matt Damon. Never in a million lives would I have thought that I would once be in a major motion picture! It was the experience of a lifetime. I had the exquisite joy and honour to play the engineer/scientist Torvald, who introduces Matt Damon, Christoff Waltz and Hong Chau (together with the inestimable Swedish actress Margareta Petterson) to a doomsday vault in Norway. The attached picture is from that scene, occurring towards the end of the movie. Check out my IMDB page (though there’s not really anything there…).

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Historical emissions by country

Cumulative emissions

Who is responsible for global warming? Is it poor countries with large populations? Is it countries with small populations but high emissions? Is it countries with a historically high share of total emissions? The position of the developing countries since the very beginning of the international climate negotiations (in 1991) has been that we must look at who is historically responsible. They point out that the industrialized countries have produced the lion’s share of the emissions since the Industrial Revolution. Since 1850,  60% of the total, cumulative CO2 emissions (from fossil fuel and cement) have been emitted by just four political entities: the United States, the European Union, Russia and Japan.

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CO2 emissions (fossil fuel) for major economic categories (1960-2015)

Where do emissions come from?

There are two powerful stories in this chart. One is about growth. The other is about inequality. In the global emissions arms race of the last few decades, billions of people have been lifted out of poverty, thanks in large part to fossil fuels. The result has been a runaway increase in CO2 emissions; the main cause of global warming, and as a consequence, climate change. But many have been left out — and if they want to follow the same path to prosperity as the rest, it’s game over for the climate.

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CO2 emissions per capita (fossil fuel)

Worst emission offenders

There is more than one way to count your carbon. One way is to consider the relative CO2 emissions of countries — that is, their emissions divided by their population. This graph isn’t a representation of all the top emitters, but a cross-section pulling out some of the more important countries from top to bottom. It shows striking differences in carbon dependence.

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Emissions by sector 2010

Emissions by category

Which activities and sectors produce the most greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? The graph above shows us that they do not necessarily come from the places we might think. With a quarter of all emissions, agriculture and forestry is perhaps the biggest surprise. We tend to think of GHGs as coming from combustion of fossil fuels, in cars, furnaces and coal-fired power plants.  But high meat and dairy consumption are two of the main drivers of agricultural emissions, and makes this sector a potent threat — not least because it’s not obvious.

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CO2 emissions 1990-2017

Emissions up in 2017

After declining in 2016, CO2 emissions went back up in 2017. According to estimates from the Global Carbon Project, emissions increased by almost 600 million tonnes, ending up at 41.47 billion tonnes. Emissions had actually decreased in 2016 after flattening out over the last few years, bringing hope that we had finally reached peak carbon pollution, but it was not to be. Still, emissions have only edged up slightly in five years, so there is hope that the curve will finally start to bend downwards. Just as the curve had flattened mostly because of decreasing coal use in China, the Middle Kingdom was also responsible for the increase, with emissions going up by 3.5%, including 3% growth in coal emissions. China has promised to peak its emissions before 2030, but not quite yet it seems. Let’s hope they do it soon.

Source: The Global Carbon Budget 2017, Le Quéré et al., 2017, pp.33-34 (open access)

The global carbon budget 2018

The Carbon Budget — Living Beyond Our Means

There are good reasons to calculate our carbon budget. The carbon pie shows how much CO2 we’ve got to play with, how much we’ve used and how fast we’re using it. This isn’t a license to pollute, but the opposite. As long as we didn’t have a very good idea how much carbon we could emit, it was easier for polluters to run away from the problem or push it ahead of them. The carbon pie should be a visceral reminder of how urgent the problem has become and it should compel governments to reflect on what they all need to do to avoid overshooting. The small remaining carbon space no longer allows anyone to continue with business-as-usual.

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Arctic banner

Tipping points in the Arctic

When the summer melting season ended in 2007, the icecap floating in the ocean over the North Pole had shrunk to its smallest size ever recorded. More than one-and-a-half million square kilometres that had been covered with ice the year before was open ocean. According to satellite data, the remaining summer sea ice measured almost forty per cent less than the average for the period of 1979 to 2000. The event was a serious confirmation that had been suspected for a while in the scientific community: that the Earth may be prone to abrupt climate change and tipping points. The science of non-linear change is challenging our notions of what climate change is and when it will occur—and it is utterly alarming.

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