Facts matter in discussing fossil fuels

Facts matter in discussing fossil fuels

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 August 2019

700 words

In an article first published in the Financial Post and re-published here two weeks ago, Gwyn Morgan – “a director of five global corporations, including the founding CEO of Encana Corp.” – put forth a “list of little-known facts” about climate change. His article elicited a flurry of supportive and dismissive letters. What none of them really did was to take a hard look at these supposed ‘facts’, which often turn out to be mathematically unsound, scientifically illiterate, distorted or misleading. If this is representative of the quality of thinking and the level of mathematical and scientific literacy among the directors of global corporations, no wonder we are in such trouble.

But while tempting to ignore his article, it cannot go unanswered. It is in its way a classic example of the misleading propaganda that the fossil fuel industry puts forth in its attempt to minimise the significance of climate change at the expense of the long-term wellbeing of humanity and the natural systems upon which we depend.

Citing a 2018 report from the U.S. National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of Morgan’s first ‘facts’ is that “The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now one molecule per 2,500 molecules, compared with one molecule per 3,000 molecules 50 years ago. That’s an average growth rate of just 10 molecules per year.”

I have no idea from where he gets “10 molecules per year”. I suspect he is subtracting 2,500 from 3,000 and then dividing 500 by 50 years, which is mathematically incorrect. Bear with me, there is some math involved, but it’s important to understand attempts like this to pull the wool over our eyes.

If the baseline is 3,000 molecules, and 50 years ago I had one molecule, then today, with one molecule per 2,500 molecules, I would have 1.2 molecules of CO2 per 3,000 molecules, an increase of 0.2 molecules per 3,000 molecules over 50 years, or 0.004 molecules per 3,000 molecules per year, far below the 50 molecules he suggests – which might make it seem even less important.

But he fails to point out that the increase from 1 to 1.2 molecules per 3,000 is a 20 percent increase in the proportion of CO2 over the past 50 years. In fact, it is more than that. The NOAA report he refers to notes that the CO2 level in December 1969 was 324 parts per million and in December 2018, almost 50 years later, it was 409 ppm. This is an increase of 85 ppm of CO2 over the past 50 years (much less than Morgan’s 500), which is a 26 percent increase.

To put this in context – which Morgan does not – at a global average of 405 ppm in 2017, “carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years”, according to the NOAA’s Climate.gov website. Moreover, “the annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000-17,000 years ago”. That is why we have global over-heating and rapid climate change, with all the harm that results, including harm to human health.

Furthermore, “10 molecules per year” is a nonsensical statement without reference to a volume or a denominator. Ten molecules per year globally? In a millilitre? Per million molecules? I can only assume that “just 10 molecules per year” is an attempt to downplay the importance of parts per million of CO2 and to make the scientific concerns seem silly in every day terms – after all, who cares about “just 10 molecules per year”?

Now all this may seem a bit abstract, but it is vitally important, because public discussion needs to be informed, not mis-informed, if we are to make good decisions. If the media are going to continue to publish this sort of article they should come with a warning: “Caution – this article may be mathematically and scientifically illiterate and a misrepresentation and distortion of the facts and thus may be hazardous to your health and that of your descendants”.

Next week, I will discuss other problems with Morgan’s article.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

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One Planet Saanich – Thinking globally, acting locally

One Planet Saanich – Thinking globally, acting locally

Dr. Trevor Hancock

7 August 2019

700 words

I noted last week that Saanich is one of five municipalities around the world participating in a One Planet Cities initiative organised by Bioregional, a UK-based NGO. The idea is simple: How do we reduce our overall ecological footprint (about half of which is carbon emissions) to just take our fair share of the Earth’s resources, instead of the 3 – 5 planet’s worth we currently use?

Based on Bioregional’s ten ‘One Planet’ principles, the initiative addresses the ‘usual suspects’ of sustainability – energy, transportation, food, materials and waste, water, green space and so on. But Bioregional begins with three principles about people and community: Health and happiness, equity and the local economy, and culture and community. This helps us focus on why we are doing this; to enable us all to lead good quality lives, within the ecological constraints of our one small planet.

During the first year, which just ended, twelve Saanich-based organizations have created One Planet Action Plans or Scans. In addition to the municipality iteself, these include several schools, a college, businesses, NGOs and a church (see www.oneplanetsaanich.org for details). So what exactly are they doing, or planning to do?

First, Saanich itself has conducted a Sustainability Scan of the municipality. Based on Saanich’s Ecological Footprint, the report identifies several priorities related to reducing food waste and adopting a more plant-based diet, reducing the energy consumed in our buildings and infrastructure, reducing dependence on fossil fuel-based transportation and reducing the overall consumption of ‘stuff’ (consumable goods).

Importantly, the Scan notes the many potential areas of synergy between the ten areas of action defined by the Principles. For example, it looks at how a focus on local and sustainable food production with reduced meat and dairy consumption and reduced food waste can improve health and wellbeing, reduce environmental impact from animal wastes and intensive agriculture, strengthen the local economy, reduce water consumption and waste production and reduce the energy use and greenhouse gas production that contributes to global heating.

We can see how these ideas carry forward in the action plans of the twelve pioneering local organisations. The four schools (Artemis Place, Reynolds Secondary, Claremont Secondary and Mount Douglas Secondary), as well as Camosun College, all have initiatives that address food production, consumption or waste and provide hands-on learning in school gardens, land conservation or farming. In addition, there are projects in rainwater collection, a clothing swap and surveys and advocacy in support of public transportation.

Among the private sector participants, Beespot is working to build compact Green Passive House neighbourhoods, while the purpose of Bumblebee Electric Vehicles, which is a Community Contribution Company, is to accelerate widespread adoption of electric vehicles and solar energy products. In addition, both the Uptown retail centre and the Mt. Tolmie branch of the VanCity Credit Union are taking a number of actions.

The two NGOs are Haliburton Farms and Creatively United for the Planet. Haliburton is a community organic farm that has been advancing sustainable food in the region since 2001; it is linking its education work to the One Planet Principles and is accessing clean transportation options for deliveries with Bumblebee. Creatively United is focused on the arts and communication, and is creating videos to showcase local leaders who are providing positive and sustainable solutions. Finally, the Unitarian Church has initiated a Carbon Challenge to motivate members to change their driving and flying habits, install electric vehicle chargers, share recipes to encourage low-carbon food choices, and undertake advocacy to senior levels of government about climate action.

A celebration of the first year of work was held in June at the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, and both the Mayor of Saanich, Fred Haynes, and the CRD Chair, Saanich Councillor Colin Plant, were there to acknowledge these pioneers. This is important, because we need political commitment to move this approach forward, increasing the number of participating organisations and expanding it to the whole of the CRD and beyond.

But while we can show leadership locally, we cannot do this alone. An important part of our local footprint comes from the activities of the provincial and federal governments and large corporations elsewhere. They too must become One Planet organisations, for all our sakes.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

One Planet Communities – More than a climate change strategy

One Planet Communities – More than a climate change strategy (Published as ‘One planet’ communities look forward)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 July 2019

701 words

Last week I noted that on July 29th we reached Earth Overshoot Day – the day when humanity’s overall Ecological Footprint (EF) exceeded the Earth’s ability to replenish sufficient biocapacity to meet our demands.  However Canada, with an EF per person equivalent to 4.75 planet’s worth, passed its overshoot day on March 18th.  This week, I want to focus the issue more locally.

I live in Saanich, the largest municipality in the region. It also happens to be one of two local municipalities – Victoria is the other – that has had its EF estimated by Jennie Moore and Cora Hallsworth. The method they used – based on household expenditure data – gives an EF of 3.3 gigahectares (gha) per person, but this does not include two key components not considered part of household expenditure: Federal and provincial government services and the value of acquisitions of new or existing fixed assets (property, plant and equipment) by the business sector and governments.

Together they add a further 0.87 and 1.08 gha per person, so the total for Saanich is about 5 gha per person. This is roughly three times the Earth’s annual biocapacity, which is 1.7 gha per person, meaning Saanich’s Earth Overshoot Day is on day 122 of the year – May 2nd. So ever since then, we have been consuming more than our fair share of the Earth’s biocapacity.

Happily, Saanich’s EF is considerably less than the 4.75 Earths for Canada as a whole. This may be because most of our electricity is from hydro and we have a milder climate than much of Canada, so our energy use for heating and cooling is less. Additionally, we do not have heavy industry here, nor do we extract fossil fuels. In fact, we are more in line with European cities; a study of the Mediterranean region by the Global Footprint Network found the EF of 4 Italian and 2 Spanish cities ranged between 3.34 and 4.89 gha per person, or about 2- 3 Earths, while a separate study of three Portuguese cities found the EF falling within a narrower range of 3.76 – 4.08 gha, or about 2.5 Earth’s per person.

Nonetheless, with an EF of three Earths, we need to reduce our footprint by about 70 percent, but how do we do this while at the same time maintaining a good quality of life and good health for all who live here? There are important clues in the data on Saanich’s EF; roughly half is due to food, one quarter to transportation, one sixth due to buildings and the remaining one-tenth to ‘consumables’.

If we look at food, almost three-quarters is due to our consumption of animal products, while a similar proportion of transportation is due to private vehicle use and about the same proportion of the building EF is due to the energy used for heating and electricity; for consumables (clothes, electronics and other household goods), almost all of the EF is due to the energy and materials used in their production.

Put simply, we need to shift our diet to be more plant–based; move our transportation to more walking, biking and public transit (and working from home or close to home) and the use of clean energy vehicles; make our buildings more energy efficient and their energy sources clean and renewable, and buy less stuff, instead re-using and repairing. In many cases, these changes will also be good for health.

Importantly, while carbon emissions from fossil fuel use are a large part of the EF, there are many other aspects of our EF that need to be addressed, such as pollution, resource depletion and the loss of biodiversity. So all municipalities need to move from a focus primarily on climate action to a more comprehensive One Planet strategy.

Fortunately, not only has the EF of Saanich been measured, it is also the only local municipality that has an initiative underway to address the need to become a ‘One Planet’ community. It is the only Canadian municipality in an international project run by Bioregional, a non-profit consultancy in the UK that has been championing the ‘One Planet’ approach for almost 20 years. Next week, I will discuss the early work of One Planet Saanich.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019