Category Archives: conservation

China coal use falls for second year in a row: IEA boss

Here’s what Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, tweeted this morning:

The key two words here are “if continues.” During the Paris climate summit, researchers from the Tyndall Centre at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia and colleagues in the U.S., Australia and Norway approached 2014 and 2015 coal use and emissions data with cautious optimism. Is it a lasting trend, or an anomaly? It’s still too early to say.

Driven mostly by a need to get local air pollution under control, China has put a 2020 cap on coal emissions. Less economic emphasis is being put on energy-intensive industries such as steel manufacturing and big investment continues in renewables. That, combined with an economic slowdown, has contributed to a shifting to a “new normal,” said Glen Peters from Norway’s Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research. “It’s happening faster than we expected.”

Assuming the latest data from China is more than just an anomaly, what does that mean in the battle to rein in global GHG emissions? Answering that question means knowing what will happening in India, which was described by the researchers as the big wild card. India’s actions over the next 20 years could make or break attempts to keep average global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees C – let alone keeping such temperatures “well below” that threshold, a target specified in the Paris agreement.

There’s been a lot of hope that global GHG emissions and global GDP have permanently “decoupled”, meaning we can achieve economic growth without increasing emissions. Usually the two rise in lock-step, but the researchers, in a paper published last month in the journal Nature Climate Change, reported that global emissions were expected to fall last year during a period of decent economic growth. That’s unusual – and potentially great news – given that emissions growth between 2003 and 2014 averaged 2.4 per cent.

We’ll see. Some believe India won’t pull its weight in the climate fight, while others point to the country’s determination to embrace renewables, particularly solar. During the Paris summit one of the big announcements came from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spearheaded creation of a 120-country solar alliance to help realize the “dream of universal access to clean energy.”

On the other hand, one of the most sobering moments during the Paris conference was when I heard India’s energy-efficiency chief Ajay Mathur talk about one of the country’s biggest challenges: a fast-growing middle class that wants air conditioning. Studies forecast that India’s middle class could double to half a billion people before 2030, and these people will want more of the comforts that North Americans take for granted. India has had its share of heat waves and is expected to experience more as the climate changes, so who could blame them for wanting to keep cool – especially if they have the means?

Mathur’s wish list over the coming years: amazingly energy-efficient air conditioners, “using at least half if not a third as much energy as we use today, and affordable as well,” he said. “How do we make that happen?”

It’s the billion-dollar question for a country that, based on its current energy trajectory, is expected to become the world’s largest importer of coal by 2020.

This isn’t to downplay Birol’s comment today about China. That such changes are taking place in China is tremendous news that should be applauded and encouraged. But we need to see in India what is currently happening in China before intolerable levels of smog begins choking its urban populations. Fortunately, renewable energy technologies are much more mature and affordable compared to when China began its rapid growth phase. Also, India has the benefit of learning from China’s mistakes and it has the backing of developed countries that want to see it make the right choices. Finally, post-Paris, it has added pressure from the international community to get it right.

 

Tracking the transition to a low-carbon economy: $5.2 trillion invested since 2007, according to report

gts_1.13_web_mediumEthical Media Markets calls itself an independent publisher of research reports and other information related to the emerging green economy, and every six months it comes out with an annual and mid-year update to its Green Transition Scoreboard. The scoreboard has been tracking private investments in the green economy globally since 2007. In its August 2013 report, it highlighted what it is calling a “dramatic mid-year surge” in cumulative global investment since 2007, rising to $5.2 trillion by August from $4.1 trillion in February. And remember, this is private investment — i.e. it excludes investment in government projects.

The jump, according to the report, is partially driven by the following trends: “…the write-down of fossil fuel assets; the inevitable wave of nuclear plants due to be retired; the exposing of hypothetical forecasts of 100 years of shale gas; and the decline of large, centralized electricity generation.”

Nearly $2.4 trillion has gone into renewable energy investments, making it the largest investment theme out of the $5.2 trillion total. Energy efficiency investments represent $1.33 trillion, followed by green construction at $880 billion, corporate R&D at $378 billion and remaining “cleantech” at $235 billion. Ethical Markets Media says it comes up with these numbers by scanning reports from Cleantech Group, Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, Reuters and many UN and other international studies and individual company reports.

The report has a narrow definition of “green” investment. It excludes funds invested in nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, and biofuels, with some limited exceptions. Even so, it projects the $10 trillion investment mark will easily be reached by 2020 and, alongside this increase, we will see a transition away from fossil fuels.

Says the report: “Increasingly, worldwide regulations are leaving fossil fuel investments as stranded assets with pension funds heeding the call to divest from fossil fuels and invest in green technologies. Dutch Rabobank will now refuse loans to companies involved in tar sands and shale gas, citing the long-term financial and environmental risks are too large. In July 2013, Storebrand, a major Norwegian pension fund advisor, excluded from its Energy Sector all 13 coal producers and the 6 oil companies with the highest exposure to tar sands ‘to reduce Storebrand’s exposure to fossil fuels and to secure long term, stable returns for our clients…'”

I don’t entirely agree with some of the conclusions this report reaches, but it adds another interesting perspective to the energy transition that is clearly taking place globally. Big dollars are being spent on cleaner forms of energy. That a transition is happening there is little doubt. The question now is: how fast, and can we accelerate it?

Something to sneeze at: unbleached, 100 per cent recycled tissue latest sign of environmental progress in paper industry

pajaI received a box of tissue in the mail last week, which would seem an odd thing to receive, but as someone who writes about “green” technology and product trends, I get a lot of unsolicited and strange stuff. This particular package came from Cascades, the Quebec paper products manufacturer. It was tissue that is unbleached, 100 per cent recycled, and manufactured with wind power offsets. The tissue looks strange, mind you, but surprisingly it’s pretty soft on the schnoz.

It reminded me how much progress is being made in efforts to reduce our reliance on virgin wood (fibres) for a range of paper products. Railways ties and outdoor decking material are are now being made from recycled plastics. High-value chemicals, fuels and energy are being produced from wood waste. Even some vehicle manufacturers, while niche, are starting to use salvaged wood instead of virgin wood for interior detailing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that a little more than a third of all raw material fibre used by U.S. papermakers comes from recycled sources, and the numbers are growing along with efforts to keep paper waste out of landfills.

In addition to recycling, another way to take pressure off forests is to use different materials, such as recycled plastics, but also alternative plant fibres. Waste wheat straw is one promising option. Fast-growing and abundant, the more paper that can be made from wheat straw using energy-efficient, economical manufacturing methods the more sustainable our forests, which are nature’s carbon-sink workhorses. It’s why Corporate Knights, the magazine I have edited for the past two years, has decided to print its November issue on paper consisting of 60 per cent wheat straw. It’s an experiment — a North American first — one that we hope will prove this paper economical and practical for widespread use, whether for magazines, annual reports, corporate brochures or books. So stay tuned. We’re learning quite a bit as we go through this process, but we’re committed to getting it done with help from our partners. More details to come, but on November 21 be sure to get your copy of Canada’s Magazine of The Year.

Toronto closer to launching Ontario’s first PACE pilot program this fall

retrofitLast November I reported that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who at the time was minister of municipal affairs and housing, approved changes to the province’s Municipal Act and City of Toronto Act, basically empowering all municipalities in Ontario to use a financing tool called a local improvement charge (LIC) to help property owners finance energy- and water-efficiency projects for their homes. This has enabled the creation of what some call Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs, or alternatively Property Assessed Payments for Energy Retrofits (PAPER). I recently wrote a large feature on such programs called “The PACE Makers” in the latest issue of Corporate Knights magazine.

Shortly after the legislative amendments took effect, a group of 22 municipalities formed the Collaboration on Home Energy Efficiency Retrofits in Ontario, or CHEERIO for short. These municipalities have pooled resources as part of a unified examination of PACE/PAPER program design, legal issues and communications challenges. The group is also doing market research to find out what homeowners across the province think about the new funding mechanism, and what lessons can be learned from early efforts in the United States. Bottom line: they don’t want to re-invent the wheel, but they want it to offer a much smoother ride.

All of that is context for what I really want to highlight in this post. Earlier this week a report from Toronto’s City Manager (as well as Deputy City Manager and Chief Financial Officer) recommended that city council create a by-law that authorizes the use of LICs to fund energy-efficiency and water conservation measure on private properties as part of a new Residential Energy Retrofit Pilot Program, which aims to be up and running this fall on a voluntary basis. It would be the first of its kind in Ontario.

Single-family homes and multi-unit residential buildings can participate — specifically, up to 1,000 houses and up to 10 multi-unit buildings. The city is making $20 million available to fund energy assessments and installation costs, which will be repaid through LICs. Owners of single-family houses will have between five and 15 years to pay back the loans through a charge on their property tax bills, while multi-unit residential building owners will get five to 20 years. “The repayment term would be geared to generally reflect the anticipated operating cost reductions (i.e. energy or water savings) and useful life of the retrofit measure(s),” according to the report. This time around, the city won’t be issuing bonds to raise money for the program. They will tap into a Working Capital Reserve, monies from which will be transferred to a Local Improvement Charge Energy Works Reserve Fund that will give out the loans and be replenished through LIC payments.

“The program is projected to stimulate job creation, increase housing affordability through operating cost savings and annually avoid 5,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the report. “The primary focus of the pilot program is to test the market receptivity to this new financing mechanism, its ability to accelerate the uptake for investment in energy efficiency and evaluate how it aligns with the city’s economic development, housing quality and affordability and environmental sustainability objectives.” The idea is to also demonstrate that such a program can be revenue-neutral for the city.

This is terrific to see, and kudos to councillor Mike Layton for leading the push within council. The program will be considered by Executive Committee on July 3, and, depending on what it decides, the full city council will consider it on July 16. Let’s hope all councillors see the huge potential and importance of such a proposal. If Toronto can get this pilot right, it can set the stage for much broader deployment across the city, with the potential to snowball across the province. It would also lend momentum to efforts at getting other Canadian provinces to create enabling legislation, as well as efforts to expand the program to commercial buildings.

Don Valley Parkway flooding a sign of Toronto’s declining green infrastructure?

flooding-3-first-news-gta-jpg_144606I’m sitting at home watching the late-night local news and the biggest story of the hour is the flooding of Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway after a heavy downpour of rain the evening before. “We got a lot… in fact, a month’s worth,” the weather guy explains when asked how much rain came down in a very short period. It caused the nearby Don River to jump its banks and rush onto the highway — a main artery into Toronto — resulting in drivers being stranded and leaving behind a thick layer of muck and garbage. Maybe this has happened before. I can’t remember in my lifetime, but maybe. Either way, cleaning it up comes at a cost.
Why did this happen? Could it be that Toronto simply has too much asphalt and concrete and not enough green living infrastructure? “The Don flooding is perhaps a teachable moment on this issue,” Faisal Moola, director general of Ontario and Northern Canada for the David Suzuki Foundation, wrote me in an e-mail. Moola said there are “definite links” between the flooding and the insufficient green infrastructure where it occurred, beyond the fact that the lower sections of highway and associated urban and industrial infrastructure in the area are built in a floodplain. “We could mitigate some of the worst of it if we integrated green living infrastructure technologies, as well as restored and protected existing natural areas to provide ‘natural’ flood protection,” he wrote. “This includes riparian vegetation, engineered wetlands and permeable land surfaces that collectively would regulate, store and slowly release rainwater into the main channel of the river, as opposed to what happened on the highway — huge amounts of rain simply entered into the river across built infrastructure such as roads, parking lots and homes without any mitigation at all.”
This flooding event is timely, in the sense that Moola has an article in the upcoming issue of Corporate Knights that explains in detail the huge environmental, health and economic benefits that green living infrastructure brings to cities. His piece is part of a larger section on sustainable cities, which includes a sustainability “scorecard” of North America’s 20 largest cities, as well as articles on the problem of urban sprawl, the benefits of GPS-based congestion charging, PACE programs for municipal financing of building retrofits, and why the largest cities in North America won’t look so large on the global stage over the next 50-plus years. The package is a great read, and it comes out June 6 in the Globe and Mail and limited issues of the Washington Post. (Hey, if you want to subscribe to the digital version of the mag for reading on your iPad, click here).
As for the need to “green” the areas around the Don River, the good news is that something is in the works through Waterfront Toronto, the agency created in 2001 to revitalize Toronto’s waterfront. Naturalizing the mouth of the Don River and providing flood protection to the Port Lands were identified as top priorities for all three levels of government when they first establishment Waterfront Toronto. “A naturalized Don River mouth will enhance water and land habitat for natural species and create the potential to re-establish wetlands in the area that were lost 100 years ago. The project will also create flood barriers for the Port Lands area which has been identified as one of the greatest flood risks in downtown Toronto,” according to the agency’s website.
In other words, as far as last night’s downpour is concerned, we had it coming.