Wednesday 13 October 2010

Let's go green... er, black?

I work in an office tower handled by one of the larger property management companies. As I was leaving work a couple of months ago, my eyes fell on a sign in the lobby that said the management company was following a policy of dimming lights as part of a green initiative. While at face value, this seems like a good thing and I'm sure the company did it with the idea of advertising itself to the public as an eco-company, I was reminded at how we all seem so focused on the little things; we miss the big picture.

A couple of years ago, I was reading an analysis in the editorial pages of the Toronto Star where the author took just this approach to looking at our green efforts. He listed off our various initiatives in North America like changing traditional light bulbs to more energy efficient ones, getting more green appliances, turning off unnecessary lights and dimming others, etc. Then he said that these types of efforts, while laudable were laughable when one took into account that at that moment, China was constructing a new coal-fired electrical power generating station every week. All of our light bulbs were dwarfed by the new developments elsewhere in the world which were leading to even higher levels of pollution.

The author wasn't saying we all shouldn't do whatever we could to economize, conserve energy, go green, etc. He was saying that only at the larger national or international level would we all see a true change which would be hailed as being truly green.

According to the World Coal Institute, coal provides 27% of global primary energy needs and generates 41% of the world's electricity.

The Institute goes on to point out that coal is the major fuel for generating electricity in the world and cites percentages for several major countries (2007): US: 49%; China: 79% and India: 69% but only 21% for Canada.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, burning coal is the leading cause of smog, acid rain, global warming and air toxins. It further says that burning coal produces 54% of the electricity in the United States and is the single biggest polluter in that country. (I find that the percentages sometimes do not match up from one study to another but I think we get the idea.)

According to the Ontario Power Authority, about 21% of the electricity in Ontario comes from coal while 37% comes from nuclear power, 16% from natural gas and oil and finally 26% from renewables mainly hydro. Ontario is home to Nanticoke Generating Station the largest coal-fired power plant in North America. According to Environment Canada, this station is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution anywhere in Canada.

I like to have light. I like my TV. I like my computer and I certainly like my microwave. Yes, I am as guilty as the next guy but while I admit to being "addicted" to my electricity, I should be concerned as to whether I am going to end up in one of those scenarios where the assessment is something like, "Sooner or later, you're going to have to pay the piper." Sounds ominous.

The rest of the world
Canada is part of the most industrialized, most advanced countries on Earth. I have to remember that while I'm enjoying my TV, my microwave and my style of life, there are billions, yes literally billions of people out there who have less than me, much less. Sooner or later, they're going to want a TV and a microwave. Inevitably the need for electricity is going to go up. Is the system going to go bust? Or are we going to collectively figure out a way of dealing with this? Hopefully the way to deal with this doesn't turn out to be another world war to cull the herd!

What can little ol' me do?
4 years ago, my wife and I went from 2 cars to 1 car. A little over 1 month ago, we sold our only remaining car. Our plan is to use transit, walk and occasionally rent a vehicle if necessary. Admittedly, we live in the downtown core and are in a position to benefit from transit. We have also said that if we were still in the suburbs, living without at least one car would be probably impossible. Nevertheless, getting rid of 2 cars must have had a huge impact on our overall carbon footprint.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a single car produces annually on average 5,190 kg (11,450 lbs) of carbon dioxide, 261 kg (575 lbs) of carbon monoxide and 35 kg (77 lbs) of hydrocarbons based on about 2,200 l (580 gallons) of gasoline. We've gotten rid of 2 cars. Somehow I think that is going dwarf anything we could possibly do with light bulbs. I'm not saying we're doing something about bulbs but 2 cars? Wow.

Okay, we managed to do this because we moved downtown and are either close to what we want or have easy access to public transit. What about everybody else? Is transit readily available elsewhere? Could more people do what we're doing even if those people were in the suburbs?

Canada: The Facts
I quote from Environment Canada:

Currently, we have one of the cleanest electricity systems in the world with three-quarters of our electricity supply emitting no greenhouse gases.

Hydroelectricity (energy produced from water), is the largest renewable energy source within Canada, and accounts for 60% of our total electricity generation. This makes Canada one of the top three producers of hydro power in the world!

Hmmm, it would seem we have done and are doing our part. But what about everybody else? What about China and India, 2 countries which are ramping up for one of the biggest industrialized changes this planet has seen? There are a lot of people who would like my TV and my microwave.

Time Magazine in their 2007 article The World's Most Polluted Cities, listed 2 cities in China and 2 in India; the 2 most populous countries in the world. Is this very fact alone a premonition of the future when these two countries strive to attain a level of development currently accorded to the industrialized countries which collectively represent a smaller number of people? From what I understand, India and China may not be known for the strictest of emissions standards. - By the way, 4 other cities listed above are in either Russia or former Soviet states. Hmmm, sounds meaningful in thinking about emission standards.

Of course, I can find several reports which list the United States as the biggest polluter in the world. The list of countries by carbon dioxide emissions in Wikipedia puts China in 1st place followed by the U.S. Canada is #7 but what's really important for the first 2 spots is that China accounts for 22.3% of the world total while the U.S. accounts for 19.9%. Every other country and I mean every other one is 5.5% or less of the total. China and the U.S are so far out in front of the pack!

The Kyoto Protocol
This United Nations agreement aims to fight global warming. It sets out targets in the reduction of various pollutants known to contribute to this phenomenon. As of November 2009, 187 countries have ratified the agreement with one very notable exception: the United States, a country ranked by several reports as the biggest polluter on the planet.

Clean Coal
I thought I would throw a mention of this since many coal fired operations have switched or will switch to this newer technology. While I can't say I fully understand the details of this technology, it seems to burn cleaner and reduce pollution to a certain degree. But, is this an oxymoron? I can't help feeling that the idea of clean coal is like clean garbage. It may be "clean" but it's still garbage.

An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore's Academy Award winning film was either lauded or criticized. You either believed it or you didn't. However, I have a personal story which certainly underlines for me that something is going on, something radical.

I grew up during the 1950's in Niagara Falls, Ontario. I remember that by Christmas time, we had shovelled out the driveway so much that we had banks of snow on either side. As a child, this was a great source of playtime for building forts and for serving as a barrier for impromptu snowball fights.

By the 80's and especially now, I note that we as a general rule do not have anywhere the quantity of snow we had then. In fact, I would say no snow is no longer a rarity; it has gotten to be something of a general rule.

Gore showed several well known world landmarks during his film comparing photographs from 40 years ago with today. The snows of Kilimanjaro are no longer there. The mountain is barren. Makes you wonder. When I think of my boyhood home and a driveway mostly devoid of snow during the winter and if there is snow there is nowhere near enough to see banks beside the driveway for building forts, I have to see some truth in the phenomenon of global warming.

Final Word
Exchange those light bulbs for LEDs. Turn off unused lights. Turn down the temperature a degree in the winter; turn it up a degree in the summer. We can all do our part. But as we move into the future, we must make sure we all do our part. This means the U.S. needs to ratify Kyoto. This also means those emerging nations whose populations are going to want a TV and a microwave sooner or later need to modernize but not at the expense of doing it wrong. I don't think the planet has run out of resources but we had better get cracking on figuring out a better way of conducting our business before we cross the "tipping point". Hint: 350.


BBC: China is building about 2 coal fired electrical plants every week - June 19, 2007

Chart of U.S. / China coal-fired plants

Wikipedia: Environmentalism

World Coal Institute: Coal Statistics

Union of Concerned Scientists: Environmental impacts of coal power: air pollution

Wikipedia: Union of Concerned Scientists
A non-profit science advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Environment Canada: Canada moves to reduce emissions in the electricity sector


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