Carbon Non-Neutrality

Balancing rocks Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Zone

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

U.S. President Obama, 25 June 2013

It was good to hear the U.S President make a broad speech on climate change and how he sees the role of the United States vis-a-vis climate change challenges.

It was also good to hear him speak directly to the ongoing controversy regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil extracted from Canadian tar sands through the United States.

What was disappointing was the mention of the Keystone XL in conjunction with any notion of carbon neutrality. Even if every single aspect of the Keystone XL pipeline itself were able to meet some definition of being ‘carbon neutral’, i.e. by “achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference“*, and even if the extraction of the oil from the tar sands wasn’t included in the calculation, the fact of the matter is that this pipeline is just one more way of delivering our energy drug of choice – oil – into the U.S. energy cycle.

Rapeseed field

Rapeseed field

Way back when, before 2008, people were still talking about ‘peak oil’ and subsidies abounded for renewable alternatives. If there was one good aspect to the notion of running out of oil, it was the acknowledgement that most alternatives released less CO2 into the atmosphere over the long term.

Then came the financial meltdowns, and the miraculous discoveries of new oil reserves. And now we find ourselves talking more about adaptation and resignation to fossil-fuel use as the main path towards energy independence.

Overall, the President’s speech was promising and left little doubt that under Barack Obama, climate change issues are being taken seriously. It is a welcome call to action from one of the world’s largest economies, and one of its most influential polluters.

Yet there’s still that support of oil as a main source of American energy independence.

I am not neutral when it comes to the use of fossil fuels: ‘Carbon neutral’ refers to a balance that is hard to achieve in the best of circumstances, and impossible when talking about the traditional fossil fuel economy.

Every major federal investment made into the exploitation of this fuel source is an investment that wasn’t made into a better, cleaner, renewable solution.

It’s an investment into the past, not the future.

Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Art

Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Art

*Definition from Wikipedia. There are many variations of what ‘carbon neutral’ actually means in various contexts, but this one seemed the most straightforward.

Transcript of the full speech here.

The Big Flow

This is a large infographic, but worth having a look through for a few minutes. The gist? Burning fossil fuels accounts for 65% of greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation (i.e. Land Use Change) accounts for almost 15%.

World GHG Emissions Flow Chart 2010 Source: Ecofys / ANS Bank

World GHG Emissions Flow Chart 2010
Source: Ecofys / ANS Bank

View the entire chart here.


83rd Geneva Motor Show – A Footprint

A small corner of the 2013 Geneva Motor ShowPhoto: PK Read

A small corner of the 2013 Geneva Motor Show
Photo: PK Read

Yesterday we visited the 83rd Geneva Motor Show (Salon International de l’Auto). For the first time, cars with ‘green’ technology are displayed alongside all the other cars powered by traditional oil fuels. Alongside the Car of the Year handed out every year, a new Green Car Award will be given to a car chosen by five experts in green technologies. And indeed, there were a lot of cars with an array of non-fossil-fuel based systems, mostly in hybrid form, a few pure electric and natural-gas vehicles. Many exhibitors displayed the Fuel Economy Label  for each model, an alphabetical rating of a vehicle’s emissions, efficiency and projected fuel cost, with A rated vehicles emitting under 100 g CO2/kilometer, and higher letters signifying much higher emissions . Several vehicles made it into the A category, although many of these are not in actual production.

I would never argue against the need for some means of motor-driven personal mobility. We live in a rural area, and even if we had a well-designed and reliable form of public transportation in our region, we would still need a means of getting from our little village to wherever that infrastructure began. Back when our village was self-sufficient, perhaps a generation or two ago, that wouldn’t have been necessary. Now, some form of transportation is vital.

What struck me at the car show, besides the sheer size of the crowds who pilgrim here every year, was the inevitability of a massive carbon footprint when we talk about moving the masses. It’s not the individual vehicles once they are surrounding a happy new car owner – in terms of emissions and efficiency, huge strides are being made. (Although as a side note I would comment that many of the manufacturers who still seem content with abysmal fuel economy ratings for several models were out in force at the show – I’m looking at you, American car companies but also, shockingly, Smart cars and Volvo.) No, what impressed me was the profound integration of resource consumption into the model of mobility we’ve developed over the last century.

What counts isn’t just what the cars use and emit once they’re on the roads. What counts is the tailpipe emissions plus the emissions (and other resource use, especially water) that it cost to build the car itself. Add to this the emissions it cost to extract, refine and deliver the fossil-based fuel to the pump station, as well as the emissions and resource use it cost to generate an alternative fuel (e.g. how was the the electricity that powers the plug-in car generated?). As for new fossil-fuel sources, a recent study shows that oil extraction from oil sands and coal costs 20% more in resource expenditure than other extraction methods. And then there’s the cost of vehicle disposal. I even wondered about the carbon footprint of the Car Show itself. Look at all that energy and resource expenditure, but look at the vast, international, complex economy it supports.

The Geneva Car Show is an extravaganza of impressive design, technological innovation, bright lights and aspirational longing. As we rode one of the many packed shuttle buses back to one of the many, many full parking lots set up around the city to park all the cars driven by all our fellow pilgrims, I overheard a conversation among a group of young Germans who had driven down for the show for the first time. They were talking about how overfull the Car Show had been, the surfeit of choice, the noise level, the long drive to get back home. “I don’t think we need to come back next year,” said one of them. “What, only one year and you’re already done with the Car Show,” I said. “We don’t need to come back next year,” one of them replied, “But only because we each plan on having one of those cars in our own garages by then.”

83rd Geneva Motor Show

2013 Green Cars to watch, and more

U.S. fuel economy standards

Manufacturing footprint vs. tailpipe emissions – article

Rand study – Unconventional Fossil-Based Fuels Economic and Environmental Trade-Offs, by M. Toman, A.E. Curtright, D.S. Ortiz, J. Darmstadter, B. Shannon