Mar 16, 2010

Peddling GHGs: How much does BC export?


Bill Rees, the father of the ecological footprint, likes to say that fossil fuels are a powerful hallucinogenic drug. We are all addicted to cheap and abundant fossil fuels, and so have reshaped our economy and society in fundamentally unsustainable ways.

When emissions are reported for BC or Canada, there is an accounting convention that restricts the total to emissions released within the borders of that jurisdiction. This means that BC’s major exports of coal and natural gas are counted only to the extent that fossil fuels are used in the extraction and processing, not the combustion of the final product in the US. Most of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuels are due to their eventual combustion.

A recent study takes a consumption (or lifecycle) approach to GHG emissions to see how much has been “outsourced” to countries like China that make the stuff we consume:

Over a third of the carbon dioxide emissions linked to goods and services consumed in many European countries actually occurred elsewhere, the researchers found. In Switzerland and several other small countries, outsourced emissions exceeded the amount of carbon dioxide emitted within national borders.

The United States is both a major importer and a major exporter of emissions embodied in trade. The net result is that the U.S. outsources about 11% of total consumption-based emissions, primarily to the developing world.

The full study has to be purchased through the publisher (here), but a good (free) summary of the main findings is here.

This got me thinking about how much GHG emissions are embodied in our exports that are consumed elsewhere (a lifecycle analysis from the producer perspective). For a province like BC, with its spanky clean green image, there is already a contradiction between stated climate action objectives and the historical (and ongoing) industrial policy of resource extraction.

When it comes to law and order, we have learned not to crack down on the users of drugs, but focus our efforts on the dealers. So what if it turns out that beautiful BC is running the resource economics equivalent of a meth lab?

As a baseline, consider that BC’s official greenhouse gas emissions totaled just over 63 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (63.1 Mt CO2e, to be geeky about it) in 2007, the last year for which we have data. Emissions from extraction and processing of fossil fuels were almost 13 Mt of this total. I was able to get export volume data from Statscan for both coal and natural gas, and then multiplied these volumes by emission factors from BC’s GHG inventory report to estimate downstream emissions (data for natural gas go back to 1980, whereas a break in the coal dataset meant that I only got 2008 and 2009 data).

For natural gas combusted in the US, BC was the source for 53 Mt CO2e in 2008. Interestingly, that is down from an all-time high of 74 Mt in 1998, though I suspect that interprovincial exports to Alberta may make up some or all of the difference. Coal exports led to another 52 Mt of emissions elsewhere in 2008. So bottom line for BC fossil fuels is 105 Mt CO2e in 2008; exports of these two commodities alone led to emissions elsewhere that are 166% larger than BC’s overall emissions within our borders, and about eight times the BC emissions associated with getting those fossil fuels out of the ground and to market.

To put that in perspective, BC’s much-lauded carbon tax is only estimated to reduce emissions by 3 Mt per year after 2020 relative to business-as-usual emissions growth.

So what’s an ethically minded crack dealer to do? The standard industrial growth model of digging it out and shipping it to the US or Asia needs to be broken. For starters, the government should reverse its recent approval of a natural gas processing plant in the Northeast that will add more than 2 Mt to BC’s domestic inventory, and 16-18 Mt of downstream emissions.

The good news is that these resources are not going anywhere, and will only be worth more as time goes on. So there is no reason why we should not dramatically slow down coal mining and oil and gas extraction – until some point when we can sequester the emissions from their combustion. This technology (aka carbon capture and storage) is already out there and is poised to become widespread over the next couple decades. Until then, however, we should think the unthinkable and consider leaving those resources in the ground.