Global environmental challenges
“taking cars off the road”, or climate tokenism?
There’s no shortage of references these days in corporate and government reports to earnest, new steps to fight climate change. Often they promise to make carbon emissions cuts equivalent to taking millions of cars off the road…
For example, take Europe’s fourth biggest single source of carbon emissions, Britain’s Drax coal plant. It said in March that as a result of efficiency improvements it had cut carbon emissions equivalent to taking 195,000 cars off the road. But of course that was a cut against a theoretical projection of rising emissions — not an absolute cut.
Take a similar announcement from Canada this week. The oil industry in Alberta is busy trying to extract oil from tar sands. That is a far more polluting, energy-intensive way than just sucking the stuff out of oil wells, because steam must first be injected into the sand to make the oil flow. Now Alberta is experimenting with a technology, called carbon capture and storage, with three test projects which by 2015 would “achieve annual carbon dioxide reductions equivalent to taking about a million vehicles off the road”, the province says.
Funnily enough, 2015 is also the year when a U.N. panel of climate scientists says global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide must stop rising to limit global warming to 2-2.4 degrees celsius, a widely perceived threshold for dangerous effects (page 20 here). It seems a little disingenuous — in that wider context — for Alberta to talk of taking cars off the road from test projects to trim carbon emissions under a wider programme to expand one of the most polluting forms of oil drilling known to man.
The wider context does seem relevant if we’re not to pat ourselves on the back as catastrophic climate effects creep up. And it may be especially relevant this year, as climate talks and rhetoric ratchet up ahead of a meeting in December in Copenhagen, meant to seal agreement on a new climate pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol.