The Race to Zero Emissions: Heatwaves, oil prices, and turbines

Quartz

Here’s what happened over the past week that helped or harmed the world’s chances of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to zero.

Michael J. Coren, Reporter

Reuters/Yves Herman

Decreases emissions

1️⃣ Wind developers blew up the record books ordering a 100 GW of new turbines last year. A boom in offshore wind investment is expected to draw more than $200 billion over the next five years. 💨⚡️

2️⃣ As sectors of China’s economy nearly halted due to coronavirus, the country’s emissions declined by an amount equal to six months of the UK’s emissions. With industrial activity resuming, they are set to rise again.

3️⃣ Australia’s bushfires are finally out. It’s the first month since July 2019 that New South Wales, the hardest-hit region, hasn’t seen a grass or bushfire. 🔥🌧🌈

4️⃣ The UK’s carbon dioxide emissions reached their lowest level since 1888 after six straight years in decline. While the rate of decline is slowing, emissions are now 39% below 1990 levels.

5️⃣ Stand down, coal-fired power plants. For the first time on record, America’s 300 or so coal plants generated less than 50% of their rated capacity, according to the Energy Information Administration. 🗽🛑 🏭

ANTARCTICA IS MELTING

On Feb. 6, Antarctica experienced the hottest temperature ever recorded. The temperature at Esperanza Base on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—18.3°C (64.9°F)—was similar to Los Angeles at the time. Nearby glaciers began rapidly melting under the heat. NASA’s Landsat 8 images show the ice cap on nearby Eagle Island rapidly melting and forming meltwater lakes between Feb. 4 and Feb. 13. It’s the third major melt event this polar summer.

Net-zero (for now)

1️⃣ Oil prices just collapsed, but liquefied natural gas was already cratering. A mild winter and collapsing demand due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pushed US fuel prices to a near-record low. The price of $5 per thousand cubic feet is threatening North American energy operators with bankruptcy. ⬇️😬

2️⃣ The European Union wants to be a carbon-neutral continent by 2050, but it needs to figure out a carbon border tax first. The levy to protect Europe’s economic competitiveness has run into potentially multi-year delays in the EU.

3️⃣ “Cloud seeding”🌨🌨 to fight drought is expanding in the American west—and it may affect the climate. Colorado used the weather modification technique to capture about 29 billion gallons of water last year, but scientists warn the short-term measure could distract from necessary climate action.

4️⃣ Horizon Organic, the world’s largest organic dairy company, wants to capture more carbon than it emits by 2025. New technology, soil carbon sequestration, and adding seaweed to cows’ feed are on the table for the Danone-owned firm. 🌿🐄

5️⃣ The collapse of the last round of global climate talks in 2019 means the EU must lead the way before the next attempt in Glasgow. The bloc’s announcement of 2050 goals last week—“a compass for the next 30 years”—did not set interim targets, prompting climate activist Greta Thunberg to call it “empty words.”

THE VIRUS OR YOUR LIFE

The specter of Covid-19 has mobilized billions of dollars and coordinated an international response. In places like China, draconian measures to limit exposure seem to have worked. Why can’t climate change, posing an even bigger threat to billions of people’s lives and livelihoods, muster the same response, asks the Christian Science Monitor. One answer is that the slow-motion nature of the catastrophe (and its political fallout) doesn’t focus the mind in the same way as a health threat—especially for older people who are both the most susceptible and likely to be in positions of power. Ultimately, the same degree of mobilization will be necessary to confront climate change.

🔼 Increases emissions

1️⃣ Executives at ExxonMobil, where share prices have fallen by more than 50% since 2017, tried to reassure shareholders that losses from the adoption of electric cars would be made up by growth in petrochemicals and plastics. 🛍

2️⃣ Heat and drought are sapping even pristine tropical forests’ capacity to absorb carbon, a study in the journal Nature finds. It predicted that by 2035 the Amazonian rainforest could no longer absorb carbon dioxide.

3️⃣ The US burned a record 85 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas in 2019 (up 3% annually). The utility sector was the biggest driver, consuming about one-third of total LNG. 🥵

4️⃣ The cost of a “wasted decade.” A paper in Nature found that the last 10 years of inaction mean we have only 10 year now to cut emissions by 7% annually to minimize climate impacts and a temperature rise of 1.5°C. ⏱

5️⃣ This February was the warmest on record save for the last high…in 2016, according to European space agencies. It follows hot on the heels of the warmest winter on record for Europe and New Jersey.

STATS TO REMEMBER

As of Mar. 7, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 414.30 ppm. A year ago, the level was 412.05 ppm.

SOURCE

If corporations have legal rights, why not rivers?

Image: Andrew G./Flickr

Image: Andrew G./Flickr

A popular sign at climate marches reads, “system change, not climate change.”

What does system change look like? Environmental crises such as climate disruption and plastic pollution have led many to suggest it means moving from a perpetual-growth economic system to a circular one, reforming land management to co-management with Indigenous Peoples and shifting from extractive, polluting energy sources to renewables.

Our society is constantly evolving its ideas and approaches. There are no doubt systems changes that have not yet been dreamed of. But in considering how to make systems more equitable and sustainable, one change underpins all others: a change in our relationship with nature.

The Western relationship is one of dominance. Government agencies that manage ecosystems are called “natural resource” departments, inferring that nature is a resource for human exploitation. Every inch of the planet has been petitioned for human ownership. The mainstream view is that nature is property, not a living, generative force. It’s a perspective upheld by our legal systems. People “own” farm animals, we can legally deplete the ocean of fish, and when private companies drain public aquifers for profit, communities must go to court to challenge them.

Under Western legal systems, the concept of “personhood” includes rights, powers, duties and liabilities. In many countries, corporations are recognized as having legal “personhood” and accompanying rights as well. Recently, as a reflection of Indigenous leadership and world views, the legal rights of personhood have in some instances been extended beyond people and corporations to nature itself.

In New Zealand, after centuries of advocating for a river they identified as their life force, the Māori negotiated a treaty settlement with the government recognizing that the Whanganui River, or Te Awa Tupua (which refers to the entire river system “and all its physical and metaphysical elements”), has the rights of a legal person.

According to David Boyd, author of The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution that Could Save the World, this recognition, formalized in law in early 2017, means that, “In short, the Whanganui River is no longer owned by humans but by itself, Te Awa Tupua.” The law puts the interests of the river first and contains safeguards against privatization and harm, and enables citizens to sue governments and corporations on the river’s behalf.

When the legislation passed — with support from all political parties — New Zealand Green party co-leader Metiria Turei said, “Our environment, however we want to describe it, is our ancestor and from where we come, and, therefore, we owe our environment everything — our life, our existence, our future. The law slowly is starting to find ways — clumsy and not perfect by any means, but it is slowly trying to find ways to understand that core concept.”

New Zealand offers an introduction to an unfolding story. Numerous initiatives worldwide are aimed at bestowing legal personhood and accompanying rights to nature, including rivers, forests and mountains. New Zealand has since given the same rights to a 2,000-square-kilometre former national park known as Te Urewera and to Mount Taranaki.

Unfortunately, in addition to being clumsy, some of these laws contain loopholes government can use to override nature’s rights. Enforcement in many regions has also proven to be a challenge, especially when changes to mainstream resource extraction practices are required.

Some Indigenous experts also point to significant limitations with the Western concept of “legal personhood,” especially when viewed alongside Indigenous laws. Anishinaabe-Métis lawyer and law professor Aimée Craft said in an email, “Indigenous laws tell us that nibi (water) is living — it has life and can take life. Recognizing the agency and spiritedness of water is distinct from the concept of legal rights of water or personhood. Indigenous legal orders can provide insight into the mechanisms by which we can honour our responsibilities to water, in all of its forms.”

The Western relationship with nature has led to climate and biodiversity crises. System change does not happen overnight. But it has begun, and this is a source of hope. As many Indigenous Peoples worldwide have articulated, we come from nature and are kin to it. We don’t own it. To develop news systems of sustenance and respect, we must move collectively beyond seeing nature as merely something to exploit. SOURCE

EXPLAINER: Here’s what you need to know about the Vista mine, Alberta’s thermal coal project that ‘sidestepped’ a federal review

While Canada champions a global shift away from burning coal for electricity, a new proposal — to build one of North America’s largest thermal coal mines — seems to tell a different story

Coal mining. Photo: Shutterstock

With so much talk in recent years about Alberta’s — and Canada’s — phase-out of coal-fired electricity, Albertans could be excused for being surprised to learn that new coal mining is being proposed in the province.

They could be further excused for being surprised that the latest new project has been exempted from what would have been a required federal environmental assessment under Canada’s new impact assessment legislation.

That’d be the expansion of the Vista coal mine, reportedly among the largest so-far undeveloped coal mines in the entire country and potentially one of the largest in North America.

The project just barely avoided a federal environmental assessment thanks to some last-minute tweaks to numbers (more on that later) — leading some to question Ottawa’s process for exempting coal mines from federal review.

Vista produces thermal coal — coal burned to produce electricity, as opposed to metallurgical coal, which is used in steel production.

And while coal-fired electricity is being phased out in Canada, the coal mined at Vista will be exported and burned elsewhere — so the phaseout doesn’t apply.

Still, on the world stage, the federal government has taken an active lead in encouraging businesses and governments abroad to cut back on coal-fired electricity.

“It’s like getting a temperance lecture from the bartender,” Clark Williams-Derry, a Seattle-based energy finance analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told The Narwhal of Canada’s actions to discourage the global reliance on coal, whilst increasing our own exports.

“As he’s pouring the drink, he’s saying ‘you really shouldn’t be drinking so much,’ ” he said.

“The world knows [the Canadian government] hasn’t put their money where their mouth is.”

Interested in how exactly Alberta is still moving ahead with new thermal coal mining, without a federal environmental assessment? Read on.

Wait, we still burn coal?

Yep.

According to the Alberta government, coal-fired power is still the main source of electricity in the province.

On average, nine per cent of Canada’s electricity is generated from the burning of coal, according to Natural Resources Canada.

And according to the International Energy Agency, coal is still the single biggest source of electricity for the world, representing a 38 per cent share of global electricity generation. The agency notes that coal is responsible for more than 40 per cent of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, too.

But aren’t we phasing out coal-fired electricity?

Canada and Alberta have committed to eliminate coal burned as a power source — known as thermal coal — by 2030.

“Thermal coal is seen as a low-hanging fruit in the fight against climate change,” according to Fraser Thomson, a lawyer with Ecojustice, Canada’s largest charity working on environmental law.

“It’s readily substitutable and is one of the most [greenhouse-gas] intensive of the large-scale electricity sources,” he said.

“Thermal coal is a 19th-century fuel that has no place in the 20th century,” he told The Narwhal. “It’s disastrous for the climate and dangerous for human health.”

“It really needs to be the first fuel to go if we’re serious about fighting climate change.”

So … why are we building new thermal coal mines?

Many coal-fired power plants are switching to natural gas in anticipation of the phase out in 2030, but that doesn’t stop us from mining coal.

Mining thermal coal that will be burned elsewhere allows Alberta to continue to cash in on a lucrative resource, while the emissions associated with burning that resource are accounted for elsewhere.

The Government of Alberta reported some $15.7 million in royalties earned on coal production (this includes coal not burned for electricity) in 2017, though this figure has been declining in recent years.

The Vista coal mine is expected to operate over a 10-year lifespan.

Tell me more about the Vista mine.

Part of the Vista mine project is already operational. The Coalspur mine, just outside of Hinton, Alta., can produce as much as seven million tonnes of thermal coal each year. (That’s a lot — for reference, the Hoover dam spanning the Colorado River weighs just under six million tonnes.)

The proposed expansion of the Vista mine would increase output by an average additional 4.2 million tonnes of coal each year for a decade.

Although at peak production, the amount of coal mined could nearly double, according to a Government of Alberta webpage that notes the expansion has the “potential to increase annual production from [10 to 15 million tonnes]” in total.

Emailed requests for interviews with representatives from Coalspur and Bighorn Mining, the companies behind the mine and its proposed expansion, went unanswered.

What exactly would the Vista mine expansion expand?

The existing mine, and the proposed expansion, are located just outside of Hinton, approximately 40 kilometres from the eastern edge of Jasper National Park.

The mine will require removing 192 million cubic metres of what is known in the industry as overburden — all of the rock, soil, trees and other materials that must be removed to access the coal

The area of the proposed expansion is an area of the foothills forested with coniferous trees and bisected by small creeks and streams, including a tributary to the Athabasca River, which flows into the sole source of drinking water for the City of Edmonton. Two endangered populations of bull trout and rainbow trout are found nearby.

How much carbon pollution is associated with this mine?

The Impact Assessment Agency estimated the total emissions from the mine to be roughly 222,000 tonnes per year, the equivalent of adding 46,709 new cars to the road for one year, according to the EPA’s emissions calculator.

This is the carbon pollution associated with just the mining. The emissions associated with burning the coal are much higher.

The total production of the mine, should the expansion go ahead, could produce anywhere between 22 million tonnes and 33 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, according to Ecojustice. That’s the equivalent of adding 4.6 to 7 million passenger vehicles to the road for one year.

For Jule Asterisk, project manager with Keepers of the Athabasca, that’s simply not acceptable, given Canada’s climate targets and the country’s international role in pushing to reduce reliance on coal. “We should be thinking about future generations,” she told The Narwhal.

“It’s not that we’re saying stop all fossil fuel production, we’re saying no new fossil fuel production,” she said.

So where’s all this new coal going to go?

According to the company’s application, the coal will be shipped by rail to export terminals and sent to “international markets, primarily Asia.”

In early planning documents for the expansion, the company at the helm of the proposal, Coalspur, noted that it planned to send most of its coal to China, Japan and Korea, and that it had early agreements with CN Rail to ship the coal to Ridley Terminals — a large export facility located in Prince Rupert on B.C.’s west coast.

Ridley Terminal Prince Rupert

The Ridley Terminal in Prince Rupert, B.C., is a major coal-exporting facility. Photo: alexmcc / Flickr

Does this make economic sense?

According to Clark Williams-Derry, a Seattle-based energy finance analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, exporting coal can be a tough game to win.

“You’ve got a long rail trip from Alberta to the coast. Those costs are going to rack up,” he said, noting that transportation costs are billed by the kilometre. “And then you have to get it across the ocean.”

“The fact that you’ve developed a coal mine doesn’t actually mean the coal from that mine will find a profitable home.”

Williams-Derry notes that a significant determinant of the profitability of coal lies in its energy content, which he says is high at the Vista site compared to other large mining areas in the United States, like the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, where 16 mines produce nearly half of the country’s coal.

Still, he notes, that’s no guarantee the coal will fetch a profit. “This is a volatile and cutthroat market,” he said, noting stiff competition from other, much larger coal-producing countries.

“It’s hard to make a profit from shipping rocks halfway around the world.”

So, why are they forging ahead with this expansion?

According to the International Energy Agency’s report on the global coal market, published in December, “average prices in 2018 were more than 60 per cent higher than in 2016, making coal very profitable.”

That kind of news is a big draw for potential coal mines, according to Williams-Derry.

“In any commodity industry, when you go through a boom-and-bust cycle, everybody gets excited in the boom and everybody over-invests during the boom,” Williams-Derry says. “They lock themselves in.”

Were we exporting coal before?

Canada has long exported metallurgical coal, for steel making, but most thermal coal mined in Canada has historically been used here, burned for our own electricity generation.

It’s worth noting that Vancouver is home to a large thermal-coal export hub — 12.6 million tonnes of thermal coal left the Port of Vancouver last year, a third of all coal that moved through the port — but the thermal coal it is shipping to Asia is predominantly mined in the U.S.

Exporting more thermal coal mined in Canada, Thomson said, would be a marked shift in our global coal reputation.

“The proposal to increase the Vista coal mine — that’s a massive mine — will register on the global stage.”

But there is big competition in the thermal-coal export world. Indonesia, for example, exported 435 million tonnes of thermal coal in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency.

What did the federal government say about the impacts of the mine?

In a 30-page analysis released in December, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada listed myriad potential harms that will arise from the mine.

Among the concerns, the agency included adverse effects on fish and fish habitat. According to the analysis, “there is high uncertainty as to whether the project could be carried out in a way that will not jeopardize the survival and recovery” of sensitive species known to be in the mining area.

The agency noted that “detailed assessments will be completed as part of the provincial environmental assessment process.”

The agency also listed adverse effects on species at risk, migratory birds, and Indigenous peoples and traditional activities — including effects on pre-contact archaeological sites found where the mine will be situated.

Each of these concerns relates to federal laws.

The coal-fired Keephills Power Station in Wabamun, Alta. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

So this expansion must be undergoing a federal environmental assessment, right?

Nope.

Federal regulations require a coal mine expansion undergo a federal environmental assessment if it would “result in an increase in the area of mining operations of 50 per cent or more” and if it resulted in “a total coal production capacity of 5,000 tonnes per day or more after the expansion.”

The second criteria was clearly met in this case — by a factor of more than seven. The Vista expansion would result in 36,723 tonnes of coal per day, blowing well past the amount needed to take care of the second part of the criteria.

But the company adjusted its estimate of the “project area” partway through the process, tweaking the size from its March 2019 filings in a revised estimate less than three months later — which left some wondering if it was intentionally done so the project could fit under the 50-per-cent threshold and avoid a federal assessment.

“Instead of acquiescing to an environmental assessment, Coalspur responded by slightly shrinking the area of mining operations … to just below the prescribed threshold,” Ecojustice wrote in a September 2019 letter to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.

The tweak meant the Impact Assessment Agency re-calculated that the Vista coal mine expansion “would result in an increase in the area of mining operations between 42.7 to 49.4 per cent,” so it was just below the 50-per cent threshold.

A spokesperson for the Impact Assessment Agency told The Narwhal by email that “the agency considers the most up to date information provided by proponents in determining whether a project as proposed meets the thresholds set out in the regulations.”

In the end, the expansion just barely squeaked by under the requirements for an environmental assessment — raising red flags for concerned parties.

What are people saying about there not being a federal assessment? 

“While Coalspur may claim to have had other reasons for downsizing the expansion to just below the automatic assessment threshold, the timing of the company’s decision certainly raises questions,” Thomson said in an email. That raises larger concerns for Ecojustice.

“The Impact Assessment Agency plays a critical role in protecting local communities, species and ecosystems by conducting project assessments,” he added.

“If the agency were to form a habit of giving developers repeated chances to sidestep these automatic thresholds, it could undermine its ability to keep Canadians and the environment safe.”

So on behalf of their clients — Keepers of the Water, Keepers of the Athabasca and the West Athabasca Bioregional Society — Ecojustice requested the minister to use their discretion and to designate the mine for an assessment even though it slipped past the regulations.

The minister declined.

Ultimately, in a decision announced in December, the federal government decided that the Alberta Energy Regulator could cover all of the issues of federal concern in its environmental assessment. A spokesperson for the Agency said by email that “In making the decision not to designate the project, the Minister considered the potential for the project to cause adverse effects within federal jurisdiction; adverse direct or incidental effects; public concerns related to the effects; as well as adverse impact on the Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.”

This mine expansion, Thomson said, “slipped through the cracks.”

“The Alberta government is willing to prioritize resource development,” Thomson told The Narwhal. “And the federal government is unwilling to assert its jurisdiction to even assess [this project].”

Ecojustice has raised concerns about the “rigour” of the provincial assessment process, including that there is much less opportunity for public participation or Indigenous engagement than there would be under a federal assessment.

Jesse Cardinal, interim executive director with Keepers of the Water, agrees. And she’s concerned the Alberta government “is supportive of the extractive industry.”

In her opinion, “the norm and the standard in Alberta is to rubber stamp these projects without any meaningful action to protect anything.”

What’s next?

The decision now lies with the Alberta Energy Regulator.

The final terms of reference — which lay out all the information that must be collected and prepared by the company — were issued in June 2019. The company can then move ahead with preparing an environmental assessment report to submit to the regulator.

Earlier this month, the company also applied to the regulator to construct new underground test mines in the same area.

The regulator told The Narwhal by email “an environmental impact assessment for Vista Coal Mine expansion (phase II) has not been submitted to the Alberta Energy Regulator for review.”

Until that happens, it’s a waiting game. SOURCE

Trudeau urged not to ‘prop up rich corporations’ in upcoming federal budget

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enters the House of Commons from a hallway in West Block on Feb. 18, 2020. Photo by Kamara Morozuk

The Trudeau government should not use the oil-price crash and the economic downturn stemming from a public-health crisis as an excuse to back away from environmental commitments in the upcoming federal budget, warned a coalition of civil society leaders.

Speaking on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, representatives from Indigenous, labour, social justice and other organizations said now was not the time for Canada to shy away from tackling the climate emergency.

Instead, Ottawa should move forward with ending fossil fuel subsidies, strengthening carbon pricing, raising taxes on top earners and directing the windfall into retraining oil and gas workers for low-carbon-economy jobs, they said.

“We know, in these times of uncertainty, there can be a temptation to double down on the status quo,” said Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada.

“And we’re saying that, rather than doing that, Canada must actually take this moment to figure out what a new vision for Canada looks like — a vision that addresses the climate crisis, and other economic challenges, while giving communities the investment and tools they need to decide what this transformation looks like for them.”

‘Canadians also told us that climate is a huge priority’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came out of his government’s re-election in October 2019 convinced that Canadians had sent a “clear message” that they want parliamentarians to fight climate change. In December, the Liberals committed to setting a target of net-zero carbon pollution by 2050, planting two billion trees and protecting more land and oceans.

But this year has so far been punctuated by a series of high-pressure scenarios — from the passenger plane full of Canadians that was shot down in Iran, to rail blockades provoked by RCMP action on Indigenous land, to a decision by Teck Resources to walk away from a giant proposed oilsands mine — that has kept Trudeau and his government busy.

Ottawa has not laid out a precise plan for how it will achieve net-zero by 2050; in fact, it still cannot say precisely how it will achieve its more pressing 2030 target of roughly 511 megatonnes of carbon pollution equivalent. Teck hinted at this lack of clarity when it announced it was abandoning the Frontier mine.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said Tuesday he still expected the upcoming budget will feature commitments to combat the climate emergency, while also responding to Canadians’ concerns around the oil shock and the virus.

“My view would be that, while we need to be prudent and we need, definitely, to respond to some of the concerns and the impacts that Canadians are feeling, Canadians also told us that climate is a huge priority. That will be reflected when we see the budget,” Wilkinson told reporters in West Block.

Ottawa should end fossil fuel subsidies, strengthen carbon pricing, raise taxes on the wealthy and direct the windfall into retraining oil and gas workers for low-carbon economy jobs, says a coalition of civil society leaders.

After Bay Street’s tumultuous ride on Monday, which saw the Toronto Stock Exchange temporarily halted after it fell by the most since Black Monday in 1987, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said he was “looking at how we can make sure that we are appropriately dealing with those challenges” faced by the tourism and energy sectors in particular.

Doing so shouldn’t mean forking over more money to the oil and gas sector, said Julia Levin, climate and energy program manager with Environmental Defence.

“In a world moving away from fossil fuels, we should not be using limited government resources to prop up rich corporations, or pay those same companies to pollute less, or not pollute at all,” Levin said.

“We should instead invest in retraining oil and gas workers, funding community-driven renewable-energy projects and creating social supports for all of those impacted by the transition away from fossil fuels.”

Canada promised more than a decade ago to phase out non-tax “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” by 2025, but the government’s progress on this front has been hard to measure. Last year, the independent environment commissioner criticized the government for not conducting a rigorous enough assessment and making its criteria far too broad.

A November report from Levin’s organization estimated that the government was handing over $600 million in direct subsidies, $3 billion in non-tax spending and at least $1 billion in tariff exemptions all to the industry, not to mention support for specific projects, such as $1.6 billion for the Trans Mountain oil pipeline.

“It is likely that this federal budget will contain ongoing and additional subsidies to oil and gas companies. In a climate emergency, this shows a lack of leadership,” Levin said.

The intertwined climate crisis and economic crisis demonstrates the need for stimulus spending to help achieve the low-carbon transition, said Toby Sanger, executive director of Canadians for Tax Fairness.

He called for increasing taxes on top incomes and strengthening the carbon-tax framework for large emitters, and floated the idea of applying taxes to carbon-intensive imports.

The ‘concrete steps’ to a green budget

Abreu said there were “concrete steps” the budget could take, including borrowing ideas from the European Union’s Green Deal, that she said can help stimulate renewable-energy and energy-efficiency programs.

The government should also take the opportunity to provide retraining in carbon-intensive jobs, said Ken Bondy, national representative of Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada.

With federal government support, Canada’s universities, community colleges and trade schools could provide fresh training for new, green manufacturing processes, he said.

Last year, the Trudeau government began efforts to transition workers in the coal industry in Canada, as it moves to phase out coal-fired power plants nationwide by 2030.

That model could be extended to oil and gas workers, added Karri Munn-Venn, senior policy analyst at Citizens for Public Justice. The groundwork has been laid already, she said.

“There’s real lessons that now need to be expanded to oil and gas, as well,” Munn-Venn said.

Ottawa can also lead by example, said Julee Sanderson, first national vice-president at the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. The postal union, she noted, has developed a “community power” plan that envisions “climate-friendly delivery,” postal banking and other pollution-cutting measures.

“We believe that the postal system can help drive transition with its vast infrastructure,” Sanderson said. Canada Post, with the largest public fleet of vehicles, has committed to buying hybrid vehicles — but it could go further, and commit to electric cars, she said.

But Canada should also recognize “non-market solutions” grounded in the rights of Indigenous Peoples, said Lindsey Bacigal, communications director for Indigenous Climate Action.

“Carbon markets will not act at the speed we need,” Bacigal said.

“They will further enable the legacy of dispossession, privatization, violence against Indigenous women and girls and two-spirit people and destruction of Indigenous lands and cultures.” SOURCE

If COVID-19 creates an economic crisis, many see stimulus as a chance for change: Don Pittis

Morneau and others must decide whether to use bailouts to perpetuate what some see as an ailing status quo

Should Canadian taxpayers help Alberta compete with Saudi oil? Or is this latest economic shakeup an opportunity for diversification? (Essam Al-Sudani/Reuters)

As usual, the worst possible time to understand what’s happening in an economic shakeup is when you are smack dab in the middle of it.

As in previous financial disruptions, the sudden transition from “everything’s fine” to “hold onto your hat” comes as a rude surprise not just to ordinary folks at home, but to sophisticated market participants with reams of data and research at their fingertips — those who you would think should have known better.

Only weeks ago, we were being reassured by U.S. President Donald Trump that the North American economy would be little affected by the coronavirus. “The market’s in great shape,” he then said last Tuesday after the first stock declines.

Who can you believe?

All at once, even before COVID-19 had made major inroads into the U.S. (or Canada), markets were in turmoil with businesses demanding bailouts.

Even for those who prefer Trump’s predictions, it is hard to know who to believe.

Credible voices are telling investors to sit tight, because everything will bounce back once this novel coronavirus fades away. Other equally credible voices are suggesting we have only seen the beginning of a bear market, triggered by the sudden realization that the world’s corporations are seriously overborrowed.

Meanwhile, just like in the 2008 market crisis, critics from all sides are demanding hasty action from governments and central banks, asking them to wave a magic wand to solve private-sector symptoms that have been repeatedly diagnosed — and repeatedly ignored.

U.S. President Donald Trump has tried to reassure the world that the coronavirus will not have a strong effect on the United States or its economy. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

 

But among that diversity of voices, a common thread seems to be emerging: A period of crisis may actually be a time for change.

While Calgary-based stock analyst Martin Pelletier wants Canadian taxpayers to help out the country’s oil-producing regions during a period of incredible volatility, speaking on CBC’s The Current, he also suggested government assistance could ultimately be an opportunity to stimulate diversification.

“This is the time that Ottawa needs to step in with some fiscal stimulus for the western provinces, and then, you know, maybe use that stimulus to not only to try to … slow down the impact of this oil crisis, but also, you know, help diversify and maximize your dollars that you’re spending,” he said.

If stimulus is needed, certainly Finance Minister Bill Morneau will be thinking about lessons learned from the last big market meltdown, caused by reckless investments by giant banks in a bubble of U.S. subprime mortgages and the insurance policies that backed them.

Since the Great Recession, an enormous taxpayer bailout and a sharp cut in interest rates have sent stock markets soaring, with companies borrowing money in the bond market to buy their own shares, creating a new bubble that has largely benefited the better off.

Critics have suggested such a bubble might have been prevented if the handouts instead had been introduced by way of consumers, who would have circulated the cash in the economy from the bottom.

Victims of cheap borrowing

For those who foresee a long bear market rather than a quick rebound, it is the end of that process of bidding up stocks they fear, where “elevated asset prices have begun to fall back to where fundamentals suggest they should trade,” as Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser to financial giant Allianz suggested this week.

The energy sector is also now a victim of past cheap borrowing.

A fall in demand for oil, combined with an oversupply, means lenders are suddenly less willing to risk their money, especially on smaller U.S. shale producers who need it to keep drilling and pumping.

This week’s decision by Saudi Arabia to open its taps, rather than restrict supply, feels like a special case. But it may actually be part of a pattern.

Now, especially with Saudi Aramco as trading as a public company, the Saudis may want to keep the oil flowing until it damages the competition enough to allow it to reap the rewards of a rebound in prices.

If Finance Minister Bill Morneau needs to bail out the economy he will have to make choices about who taxpayer money benefits. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

 

If that is so, it is pretty clear that oil will bounce back, just as it did after the 2014 oil price crash. But if global demand for oil begins to decline over the long term, as some predict, like a bouncing ball, each rebound will not be as high.

The federal government is set to announce a spending plan for this latest crisis that will include giving money to workers sent home from the job due to COVID-19 and its economic fallout.

Cyclical or structural

Many market observers, including Andrey Pavlov, a risk-management expert at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, suggest the best way to help an already-battered Alberta economy is to invest more in getting oilsands crude to world markets, allowing it to go head to head with Saudi Arabia.

Others, including Dan Woynillowicz, deputy director of Clean Energy Canada, say this is an opportunity to stimulate the economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan by encouraging change at the same time.

It may be a message many in the oil and gas industry don’t want to hear — but it’s not a new one.

Woynillowicz points to a blue chip panel set up a decade ago by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, which ultimately declared that province’s reliance on energy was an accident waiting to happen — something shown to be true in 2014 and again today.

Rather than just a cyclical swing, there is increasing evidence that climate change means there will be a structural decline in the demand for fossil fuels.

“This requires a fundamental reimagining of Alberta’s economy,” said Woynillowicz.

And while there will no doubt be another bounce in crude prices for companies that survive the Saudi-led price war, any injection of taxpayer cash still might be most usefully directed toward a low-carbon energy transition. SOURCE

Compostable plastics often go to landfill. Here’s one venue that gets them composted

Ottawa’s National Arts Centre and its composter show careful sourcing, testing, training are key

These are some of the compostable items used by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. They’re made from a bioplastic called polylactic acid, or PLA. In North America, it’s usually made from corn kernels. (Emily Chung/CBC News)

Certified compostable plastic cups, cutlery, coffee pods, clamshell containers and other packaging may be touted as greener options at the grocery store, but they’re banned from most residential organics programs in Canada, a recent Marketplace episode showed. That means many of them end up in landfills, where they can take a long time to break down and generate the potent greenhouse gas, methane, when they do.

The good news is that while you typically can’t put them in your green bin for curbside pickup, some of these compostable plastic products are being composted in Canada by composting facilities that deal with organic waste from commercial and institutional buildings, and even some condo and apartment buildings.

One example is the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, a venue owned by the federal government that has four halls and can accommodate up to 4,000 people at a time. Last summer, it switched all its dishware and cutlery to compostable options, including paper and sugarcane fibre cups and containers, as well as PLA (polylactic acid) bioplastic drinking cups, coffee cup lids, forks and spoons, and salad bowls and their lids. (PLA is typically made from corn kernels in North America.)

Composting these items has diverted over half a million pieces of waste from the landfill so far, estimates Nelson Borges, the facility’s general manager of food and beverage.

The National Arts Centre also gets back some of the finished compost for its rooftop garden, where it grows saffron and raises bees in two hives.

“We’re using it, turning it back into compost that now fertilizes our plants,” Borges said. “So yeah, there’s a way to do this.”

That said, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Here’s how the NAC did it.

Step 1: Deciding to go compostable

Borges first started working on the problem in 2018, after then-environment minister Catherine McKenna announced the federal government would eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics from its operations.

Glass and metal weren’t options for safety reasons, since the NAC now allows patrons to drink in its concrete-floored concert halls, including on the balconies. But that has also greatly increased the number of drink cups that customers use.

Borges started looking for compostable alternatives and approached the NAC’s waste hauler and processor, Tomlinson Group, to ask if they would compost it.

“Well, no, you can’t just do that,” was the response he got, he recalled.

The National Arts Centre in Ottawa can hold up to 4,000 people in four different performance halls at a given time. It allows patrons to bring their drinks into the concrete-floored halls, so the glasses can’t be made of glass for safety reasons. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Step 2: Sourcing ‘certified’ compostable products

Borges worked with Tomlinson Group and the Compost Council of Canada to source compostable products certified by the U.S.-based Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) and designed to be 90 per cent broken down within 84 days under industrial composting conditions without leaving behind any contaminants.

With coffee cups and lids, it was easy, as the coffee vendor in the NAC’s lobby, Equator Coffee, already used certified compostable containers. They just weren’t being composted until then.

With other things, Borges found that the cost of things like wine glasses roughly doubled to 12 cents.

“In a sense, it’s not a lot,” he said, noting that the extra six cents can easily be passed on to the customer if necessary.

The cost of processing wasn’t expected to change — it would just switch from recycling to composting.

Samples of the new cups, glasses and plates are displayed at the media launch of the NAC’s composting program in spring 2019. The items, made of sugarcane fibre and PLA bioplastic, were officially rolled out to customers in August 2019. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

Step 3: Testing at the right composting facility

Finding certified compostable products was only half the challenge, though.

“Not everything BPI-certified will really break down in every composting process,” explained Lee Timmins, manager of technology and landfill for Tomlinson Group. “Every facility can be a little bit different.”

So, starting February 2019, the company tested the NAC’s products at their composting plant near Kingston, Ont.

During a tour of the facility last week, Timmins showed CBC News what some of the cutlery used by NAC looks like after sitting in huge “windrows” — or mountains of steamy compost — for two weeks. He bent it slightly to show what happens: “It crumbles apart in your hands.”

In contrast, he showed what another brand of fork sold online as biodegradable looks like after three weeks — still easily recognizable as a fork and still flexible: “Not breaking down at all.”

The NAC’s products composted as advertised, completely disappearing into the compost within weeks. But even then, there were more logistics to worry about.

Step 4: Training and implementation

The NAC had to change all its waste bins and signage and train its staff to encourage patrons to put compostable products in the right bins.

“The hardest part of this whole thing was to get the people to learn and do this properly,” Borges said.

The arts centre finally announced the switch last spring and officially started offering the compostable products to its customers on Aug. 19.

Nelson Borges shows off some of the composting stations at the National Arts Centre. The NAC had to change all its bins and signage and train staff to encourage the public to put their compostable items in the right bin. (National Arts Centre)

Next: Other facilities, but not necessarily homes

Since then, Borges has been inundated with requests for tours and calls from other businesses and facilities — from malls to municipalities — interested in making the switch to compostable products. He’s been referring some of them to Tomlinson Group, but some are in other parts of Canada.

Meanwhile, Tomlinson is proceeding slowly with the expansion of its composting program. Timmins said the key to the NAC’s success is the fact that it includes only a short list of products that have been tested specifically at Tomlinson’s composting facility. “So there’s really good source control.”

Timmins added that there’s a “great spot” for compostable plastics at places like festivals or restaurants, although each one would have to have their own products tested.

“We’ve tested a lot of different supposedly compostable plastics and very few of them were actually useful.”

Many compostable plastics in Canada end up in the landfill because most municipal compost programs can’t process the products. 2:38

But what about residential green bin waste? Tomlinson processes organic waste from homes for the City of Kingston, but for now it doesn’t allow any certified compostable products except plastic bags.

Stephanie Tessier, vice president of business development for Tomlinson Group, said the problem is that it’s really hard for the public to tell which plastics are compostable, given the number of products on the market and the confusing claims on their packaging. (For example, “compostable,” “certified compostable” and “biodegradable” all mean different things, and none of them are necessarily compostable at any given compost facility.) The industry has not stepped up with an easy identification method.

Organic material, including compostable plastics from the National Arts Centre, compost in steamy mountains called windrows at the Tomlinson composting plant near Kingston, Ont. (Alice Hopton/CBC News)

 

Timmins isn’t sure whether compostable plastics will ever be viable in municipal composting programs: “I think the jury’s still out on that.”

Even with businesses and facilities, Tomlinson may be slowly expanding, but may have to limit composting plastics in the future, as there needs to be a minimum proportion of traditional organic matter such as food waste to compostable plastic in order for it to break down in the composting process.

“We haven’t figured out what that final tipping point is,” Timmins said.

Still, he notes that there’s growing interest from businesses that want to switch to more sustainable packaging. In fact, he recently got a call from a cannabis company asking about testing some of its packaging at Tomlinson’s facility. SOURCE

“It’s definitely a space that’s going to grow.”

Thomas Piketty Turns Marx on His Head

Thomas Piketty in 2014.

Credit: Ed Alcock for The New York Times

CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY
By Thomas Piketty

Seven years ago the French economist Thomas Piketty released “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” a magnum opus on income inequality. Economists already knew and admired Piketty’s scholarly work, and many — myself included — offered the book high praise. Remarkably, the book also became a huge international best seller.

In retrospect, however, what professionals saw in “Capital” wasn’t the same thing the broader audience saw. Economists already knew about rising income inequality. What excited them was Piketty’s novel hypothesis about the growing importance of disparities in wealth, especially inherited wealth, as opposed to earnings. We are, Piketty suggested, returning to the kind of dynastic, “patrimonial” capitalism that prevailed in the late 19th century.

But for the book-buying public, the big revelation of “Capital” was simply the fact of soaring inequality. This perceived revelation made it a book that people who wanted to be well informed felt they had to have.

To have, but maybe not to read. Like Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” seems to have been an “event” book that many buyers didn’t stick with; an analysis of Kindle highlights suggested that the typical reader got through only around 26 of its 700 pages. Still, Piketty was undaunted.

His new book, “Capital and Ideology,” weighs in at more than 1,000 pages. There is, of course, nothing necessarily wrong with writing a large book to propound important ideas: Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was a pretty big book too (although only half as long as Piketty’s latest). The problem is that the length of “Capital and Ideology” seems, at least to me, to reflect in part a lack of focus.

To be fair, the book does advance at least the outline of a grand theory of inequality, which might be described as Marx on his head. In Marxian dogma, a society’s class structure is determined by underlying, impersonal forces, technology and the modes of production that technology dictates. Piketty, however, sees inequality as a social phenomenon, driven by human institutions. Institutional change, in turn, reflects the ideology that dominates society: “Inequality is neither economic nor technological; it is ideological and political.”

But where does ideology come from? At any given moment a society’s ideology may seem immutable, but Piketty argues that history is full of “ruptures” that create “switch points,” when the actions of a few people can cause a lasting change in a society’s trajectory.

To make that case, Piketty provides what amounts to a history of the world viewed through the lens of inequality. The book’s archetypal case study is French society over the past two and a half centuries. But Piketty ranges very far afield, telling us about everything from the composition of modern Swedish corporate boards to the role of Brahmins in the pre-colonial Hindu kingdom of Pudukkottai.

He describes four broad inequality regimes, obviously inspired by French history but, he argues, of more general relevance. First are “ternary” societies divided into functional classes — clergy, nobility and everyone else. Second are “ownership” societies, in which it’s not who you are that matters but what you have legal title to. Then come the social democracies that emerged in the 20th century, which granted considerable power and privilege to workers, ranging from union representation to government-provided social benefits. Finally, there’s the current era of “hypercapitalism,” which is sort of an ownership society on steroids.

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Trump Administration Presses Cities to Evict Homeowners from Flood Zones

The community of Mastic Beach on Long Island, N.Y., where some homes will be subject to the buyout program.Credit:  Johnny Milano for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The federal government is giving local officials nationwide a painful choice: Agree to use eminent domain to force people out of flood-prone homes, or forfeit a shot at federal money they need to combat climate change.

That choice, part of an effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect people from disasters, is facing officials from the Florida Keys to the New Jersey coast, including Miami, Charleston, S.C., and Selma, Ala. Local governments seeking federal money to help people leave flood zones must first commit to push out people who refuse to move.

In one city in the heartland, the letters have already started going out.

Last year, Giovanni Rodriguez, whose white midcentury house backs onto a creek in the southern suburbs of Nashville, got a letter saying his home “is eligible for participation in a floodplain home buyout program.” The surprise came a few lines lower: If necessary, the city “would acquire properties through the use of eminent domain.”

Mr. Rodriguez, a 39-year-old freelance musician and composer of funk, R&B and Latin jazz, said he had no interest in selling — at least not for what the city is offering, which he said wasn’t much more than the $188,500 he paid for the home in 2013. “I would lose this house that I love,” he said.

Eminent domain — the government’s authority to take private property, with compensation, for public use — has long been viewed as too blunt a tool for getting people out of disaster-prone areas. It has a controversial history: Local governments have used it to tear down African-American neighborhoods, as well as to build freeways and other projects over residents’ objections. Even when the purpose of eminent domain is seen as legitimate, elected officials are generally loathe to evict people.

Still, in a sign of how serious the threat of climate change has become, some local governments have told the Corps they will do so if necessary, according to documents obtained through public records requests and interviews with officials. Other cities have yet to decide, saying they feel torn between two bad options.

The willingness to use eminent domain shows how quickly the discussion around climate has shifted. Even as President Trump publicly dismisses the scientific consensus of climate change, his administration is wrestling with how to move people out of the way of rising seas and increasingly intense rainfall.

Still, threatening to push people out of their houses is an extreme step, experts said.Thomas Piketty Turns Marx on His Head

Credit:  William DeShazer for The New York Times

 

“It’s going to create a really big political backlash,” said A.R. Siders, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies buyouts. Still, she praised the Corps for “recognizing that the degree of action we’re taking needs to match the degree of the crisis.”

The Corps’ mission includes protecting Americans from flooding and coastal storms. It does that in different ways, including building sea walls, levees and other protections, and elevating homes. The Corps generally pays two-thirds of the cost, which can stretch into billions of dollars. The local government usually pays the rest.

As that risk grows because of climate change, the Corps has shifted toward paying local governments to buy and demolish homes at risk of flooding. The logic is that the only surefire way to guarantee the homes won’t flood again is if they no longer exist. But it also uproots people and can destroy communities.

As a result, federally funded buyouts have usually been voluntary; residents could decline. But at the end of 2015, the Corps said that voluntary programs were “not acceptable” and that all future buyout programs “must include the option to use eminent domain, where warranted.” MORE