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Global Climate Talks: G7 leaders target zero-carbon economy

Repost from The Carbon Brief

G7 leaders target zero-carbon economy

Simon Evans & Sophie Yeo, 08 Jun 2015, 17:00
Third working party at G7 summit
Third working party at G7 summit. | Bundesregierung/Kugler

Global climate talks received a symbolic boost today, as the G7 group of rich nations threw their weight behind a long-term goal of decarbonising the global economy over the course of this century.

The joint communique from the leaders of Japan, Germany, the US, UK, Canada, Italy and France reaffirms their commitment to the internationally agreed target of limiting warming to less than 2C above pre-industrial levels. It also reiterates their commitment to deep cuts in emissions by 2050.

Today’s declaration goes a step further, however, backing a long-term goal of cutting global greenhouse gas emissions at the “upper end” of 40-70% below 2010 levels by 2050 and decarbonising completely “over the course of this century”.

These milestones are broadly in line with the path to avoiding more than 2C of warming, set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year. The IPCC said this would require “near zero emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases by the end of the century”.

The 40-70% reduction on 2010 levels by 2050 is the range for 2C set out by research organization Climate Analytics earlier this year. It also just about reaches the 70-95% range of emissions reduction by 2050 that would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5C. A review of whether to adopt this tougher temperature target is expected to conclude at UN climate talks in Bonn this week.

Powering up Paris?

The G7 declaration calls this year’s UN talks in Paris “crucial for the protection of the global climate” and says: “We want to provide key impetus for ambitious results”. It promises to put climate protection “at the centre of our growth agenda”.

However, the G7 nations only account for 19% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd argued recently that the larger G20 needed to drive the planned global climate deal.

As such, the good will of the G7 is hardly enough to guarantee success in Paris on its own. In the run-up to the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen — variously described as a “failure”, “setback” or a “disaster” — the then-G8 group of leading nations said:

“We are committed to reaching a global, ambitious and comprehensive agreement in Copenhagen.”

The same 2009 G8 statement set a goal of cutting emissions by “at least” 50% by 2050 – within the 40-70% range set out by the G7 today. It said developed countries should collectively cut emissions by “80% or more” compared to 1990 levels.

G 7-group -photo
Group photo of the G7 leaders sitting together with their outreach guests on a bench. Source: Federal Government – Bundesregierung / Bergmann.

Zero carbon economy

Today’s text does not repeat this promise on developed country emissions. The novel element is its backing for potentially greater global ambition in 2050, along with complete decarbonisation by the end of this century.

Statements from NGOs — and some newspaper headlines — added their own interpretations to this new pledge. The Guardian said the leaders had “agreed on tough measures” that would cut emissions by “phasing out the use of fossil fuels”. The Financial Times headline  says “G7 leaders agree to phase out fossil fuels”.

Greenpeace said the text signalled the fossil fuel age was “coming to an end” and that coal, in particular, must be phased out in favour of 100% renewable energy. Christian Aid made similar points, asking global leaders to follow the UK in committing to phase out unabated coal. G7 nations continue to rely on large fleets of coal-fired power stations, whose combined emissions are more than twice Africa’s total.

The G7 language on decarbonisation this century is not specific, however, and does not promise an end to the use of coal or other fossil fuels. Instead, the language could imply reaching net-zero, where any remaining emissions are balanced by sequestration through afforestation or negative emissions technologies.

The most likely method of achieving negative emissions, biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), is controversial because it might require very large areas of land to be set aside for fast-growing trees or other biomass crops.

The G7 “commit to” develop and deploy “innovative technologies striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050”. The communique doesn’t explain which technologies would be considered “innovative”. However, the use of the plural term “energy sectors” perhaps points past electricity generation towards transport, heat and beyond.

Finance

The declaration is thin on new financial commitments – despite some high expectations heralded by chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement in May that Germany would double its contribution to international climate finance by 2020.

The communique says that climate finance is already flowing at “higher levels”. All G7 countries have pledged various sums of money into the UN-backed Green Climate Fund (GCF) over the past year, although all countries’ cumulative contributions are still only around $10bn.

This is well short of the $100bn a year that rich countries have pledged to provide every year by 2020. A significant proportion of this is expected to be channelled through the GCF. So far, there is no clear roadmap on how this money will be scaled up over the next five years – a source of contention for developing countries, which rely upon international donations to implement their own climate actions.

In the statement, the G7 countries pledge to “continue our efforts to provide and mobilize increased finance, from public and private sources”.

This doesn’t equate to a commitment to actually scale up finance, Oxfam’s policy lead on climate Tim Gore tells Carbon Brief:

“They’re saying that it’s higher than it was, and now they’re going to try and maintain it at that higher level. What we were looking for was what Merkel did, and say from the level we’re at now, we’re going up towards 2020.”

The statement also says that the G7 nations “pledge to incorporate climate mitigation and resilience considerations into our development assistance and investment decisions”. This could have particular implications for Japan, which is still investing heavily in coal plants both domestically and abroad.

Conclusion

Despite its shortcomings, the stronger elements of the G7 communique were not easily won. Wording on the long term goal could reverberate at the UN negotiations taking place this week in Germany, sending a message about the pressure that countries such as Japan and Canada are under to toe the climate line.

Both nations have faced criticism for low ambition in their INDCs (still due to be finalised in Japan’s case), yet have nonetheless agreed to a statement pointing towards a decarbonised economy by the end of the century.

Alden Meyer, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, says:

“I think it shows the pressure that some of these laggard countries felt under from other countries and from the public in their own countries to not block the language. This is not a kumbaya moment that all of a sudden has transformed the long term goal discussion, and those who have been resisting good language in this agreement are suddenly going to turn around on decarbonisation in the long term goal. I think that’s the political significance.”

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    Scientists call for end to tar sands mining

    Repost from The Guardian
    [Editor: This story is also covered (with great photos) in the National Observer, “Over 100 scientists call for oil sands moratorium.”  – RS]

    North American scientists call for end to tar sands mining

    More than 100 US and Canadian scientists publish letter saying tar sands crude should be relegated to fuel of last resort, because it causes so much pollution
    By Suzanne Goldenberg, 10 June 2015 13.14 EDT 
    The Syncrude tar sand site near to Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta, Canada
    The Syncrude tar sand site near to Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta, Canada | Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

    More than 100 leading US and Canadian scientists called for a halt on future mining of the tar sands, saying extraction of the carbon-heavy fuel was incompatible with fighting climate change.

    In a letter published on Wednesday, the researchers said tar sands crude should be relegated to a fuel of last resort, because it causes so much more carbon pollution than conventional oil.

    The letter, released two days after G7 countries committed to get off fossil fuels by the end of the century, added to growing international pressure on the Canadian government, which has championed the tar sands and is failing to meet its earlier climate goals.

    “If Canada wants to participate constructively in the global effort to stop climate change, we should first stop expanding the oil sands. More growth simply shows Canada has gone rogue,” Thomas Homer-Dixon, professor of governance innovation at the University of Waterloo, said in a statement.

    The researchers included a Nobel prize winner, five holders of Canada’s highest national honour, and 34 researchers honoured by Canadian and US scientific societies.

    The researchers said it was the first time that scientists had come out as professionals in opposition to the tar sands. The letter offered 10 reasons for the moratorium call, ranging from extraction’s impact on local First Nations communities to destruction of boreal forests and climate change, and argued that foregoing tar sands production would not hurt the economy.

    They said they hoped to present those findings to Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, who has lobbied hard in Washington and European capitals for the tar sands.

    “We offer a unified voice calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects,” the scientists said in the letter.

    “No new oil sands or related infrastructure projects should proceed unless consistent with an implemented plan to rapidly reduce carbon pollution, safeguard biodiversity, protect human health, and respect treaty rights.”

    They said the decisions made by Canada and the US would set an important example for the international community, when it comes to fighting climate change. “The choices we make about the oil sands will reverberate globally, as other countries decide whether or how to develop their own large unconventional oil deposits,” the scientists said.

    Since 2000, Canada has doubled tar sands production, and Harper has lobbied Barack Obama to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would open up new routes to market for Alberta oil.

    The crash of oil prices will likely put some future projects on hold, but are unlikely to affect current production, analysts said.

    The organisers of the letter said all future projects should be shelved unless Canada put in place safeguards to protect local people and environment and prevent climate change.

    “The oil sands should be one of the first fuels we decide not to develop because of its carbon intensity,” said Thomas Sisk, professor of environmental science at Northern Arizona University, and one of the organisers of the letter.

    “It is among the highest emitting fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions … If we are trying to address the climate crisis this high carbon intensive fuel should be among the first we forego as we move to an economy based around cleaner fuels.”

    Researchers including Sisk first outlined reasons for opposition to the tar sands in Nature last year.

    Wednesday’s intervention deepens an emerging political and economic distinction around coal and tar sands among climate campaigners.

    As a fossil fuel divestment movement moves from college campuses to financial institutions, a number of prominent supporters, such as Rockefeller Brothers Fund, moved swiftly to ditch coal and tar sands holdings, but plan more gradual moves away from oil and gas.

    Scientists agree that two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves will need to stay in the ground to avoid warming above 2C, the internationally agreed threshold on catastrophic climate change.

    The Guardian supports the fossil fuel divestment campaign, and has called on two of the world’s largest health charities, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, to rid its holdings of coal, oil, and gas.

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      House bill seeks ban on DOT-111 tank cars for oil trains

      Repost from McClatchyDC News
      [Editor:   Read the bill on Rep. McDermott’s website.  Track the bill on GovTrac.us.   Authenticated version of the bill is here.    Co-sponsors of the bill include Representatives Jim McDermott (WA-7), Doris Matsui (CA-6), Ron Kind (WI-3), Nita Lowey (NY-17) and Mike Thompson (CA-5).  A similar version of this legislation was filed in the Senate by Senators Cantwell, Baldwin and Feinstein in March 2015.  – RS]

      Matsui bill seeks ban on DOT-111 tank cars for oil trains

      By Curtis Tate, April 15, 2015

      Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, on Wednesday introduced a bill to address safety issues with crude oil trains following a series of recent derailments, including an immediate ban on tank cars that are vulnerable to punctures and fire damage.

      Matsui cited the multitude of railroad tracks passing through Sacramento, some of which have been used to transport crude oil. The oil shipments have declined recently, but could rise again once new terminals are approved and constructed.

      Since the beginning of the year, four oil trains have derailed and caught fire in North America, including derailments in West Virginia and Illinois, and two in Canada.

      “Too many of our communities have been devastated by the derailment of a train carrying crude oil,” Matsui said in a statement. “Enough is enough.”

      Matsui’s bill would prohibit DOT-111 tank cars from transporting crude oil, set tougher construction standards for new cars than the federal government currently requires, set a minimum volatility standard for oil transported by rail, increase fines and penalties for safety violations, and require that railroads share more information about hazardous shipments with local emergency responders.

      The bill, also sponsored by Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wis., and Jim McDermott, D-Wash., is similar to Senate legislation unveiled a few weeks ago by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

      The Senate bill is also co-sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, is a co-sponsor of Matsui’s bill.

      The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to issue new regulations on oil trains in the next few weeks, once the White House Office of Management and Budget has completed a review. It could be months, however, before those rules take effect.

      “With multiple sets of tracks going through our neighborhoods and downtown area,” Matsui said, “the risk of a derailment in Sacramento is too great to ignore.”

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        Crude oil train shipments dwindle in California, for now

        Repost from The Sacramento Bee

        Crude oil train shipments dwindle in California, for now

        By Tony Bizjak, 03/11/2015 9:47 PM
        A BNSF train carries Bakken crude oil in the hills outside the Feather River Canyon last June.
        A BNSF train carries Bakken crude oil in the hills outside the Feather River Canyon last June. Jake Miille / Special to The Bee

        A year ago, California officials nervously braced for an influx of milelong trains carrying volatile crude oil to refineries in the Valley and on the coast – trains similar to the one that exploded two years ago in Canada, killing 47 people.

        The trains never arrived. Although tank cars full of oil now roll daily through cities in the Midwest and East, provoking fears of crashes and fires, the number of oil trains entering California has remained surprisingly low, state safety regulators say, no more than a handful a month. In recent weeks, they appear to have dwindled to almost nothing.

        The reasons appear to be mainly economic.

        “Crude oil shipments from out of state have virtually stopped,” said Paul King, rail safety chief at the California Public Utilities Commission. “Our information is that no crude oil trains are expected for the rest of this month.”

        Most notably, the BNSF Railway recently stopped running a 100-car train of volatile oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota through the Feather River Canyon and midtown Sacramento to the Bay Area. The trains, several a month, carried an estimated 3 million gallons of fuel each.

        Bakken oil, a lighter type of crude, similar to gasoline, has gained a fearsome reputation since it entered the national scene a few years ago. A string of Bakken train explosions around the country prompted the federal government to issue a warning last year about the oil’s unusual volatility and launch efforts to write stiffer regulations on rail transport, including a proposal to require sturdier tank cars for oil.

        Two more Bakken train derailments and explosive fires recently in West Virginia and Illinois triggered a new round of complaints that the federal government is dragging its heels in finalizing those regulations.

        The BNSF train through Sacramento was believed to be the only train in California carrying 100 cars of Bakken oil. PUC rail safety deputy director King said his commission’s rail monitors have been told by owners of a Richmond oil transfer station in the Bay Area that refiners stopped the shipments in November as global oil prices dropped.

        California Energy Commission fuels specialist Gordon Schremp said lower prices for other types of oil have made Bakken marginally less marketable in California, although that could easily change in the future.

        Other projects, like a Valero Refining Co. plan to run two 50-car oil trains daily through Sacramento beginning this spring to its Benicia plant, have not yet gotten off the ground, in part because of political opposition. Under pressure from state officials, including Attorney General Kamala Harris, Benicia recently announced it is redoing part of its environmental and risk analysis of the Valero rail project. Valero has said it intends to ship lighter fuels, but has declined to say whether those will be Bakken.

        State safety officials said the slowdown provides a bit more time to provide hazardous-materials training for more firefighters, as well as to put together a state rail-bridge inspection program and to upgrade disaster and waterway spill preparedness. But state officials said they still feel like they’re playing catch-up as they prepare for existing and future potential rail hazards.

        “This apparent reprieve may seem helpful, but we still have substantial amounts of … hazardous materials traveling across California’s rail lines,” said Kelly Huston, deputy director of the state Office of Emergency Services. “It only takes one train to create a major disaster.”

        Oil prices have begun rising again, and state officials say they expect Bakken shipments to Richmond and potentially elsewhere to be back on track at some point. “We don’t have any concrete info about when it will resume,” the PUC’s King said. “When prices come up, it is likely to resume, and that could be in months.”

        Federal emergency rules require railroads to report to states when they run trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude, and then again when that amount changes by 25 percent or more. BNSF sent the state Office of Emergency Services a brief notice on Wednesday acknowledging it had not shipped more than 1 million gallons of Bakken on any train in the last week. The notice does not say how long ago the shipments stopped or when they may resume.

        BNSF officials have contended in letters to the state that shipping information is proprietary and should be kept secret. A BNSF spokeswoman declined this week to discuss shipments with The Sacramento Bee, writing in an email, “Information regarding hazardous material shipments is only provided to emergency responders.”

        King of the PUC said his monitors estimate that eight or more non-Bakken crude oil trains had been entering the state monthly from Canadian and Colorado oil fields recently, headed to refineries or transfer stations. The Canadian oil, called tar sands, is not considered as explosive as Bakken, but two tar-sands trains derailed and exploded in recent weeks in Ontario, creating fires that lasted several days.

        The national concern about crude oil rail shipments follows a boom in domestic oil production, notably in North Dakota, where hydraulic-fracturing advances have freed up immense deposits of shale oil. Lacking pipeline access, North Dakota companies have turned to trains to ship the oil mainly to East and Gulf Coast refineries and to Washington state. Crude by rail shipments in the United States skyrocketed from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 436,000 in 2013, according to congressional data.

        California continues to produce a sizable amount of its own oil in Kern County and receives marine shipments from Alaska and foreign sources. Still, a recent state energy-needs analysis estimates the state could receive as much as 23 percent of its oil via train or barge from continental sources, including North Dakota, Canada, Texas and other Western states, in the coming years. That estimate is based on plans by refineries in Benicia, San Luis Obispo and Kern County to build rail facilities that can accommodate large crude transports.

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