Thursday, February 07, 2008

Emissions intensity

Last week I talked about the possibility of a carbon tax to encourage greenhouse gas emission reductions. Today I'm talking about another controversial subject in emission reductions: emissions intensity. And once again, I am assuming the majority of climate scientists are correct--human activity is causing climate change. If you disagree with that, feel free to say so, but I am not prepared to debate it.

The Alberta government wants industrial polluters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions intensity (emissions per dollar of product produced) rather than their absolute emissions. This is controversial because it allows growing companies to actually increase their total emissions while the world actually needs reduced total emissions. (Actually, the world needs reduced CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and that's going to take some major reductions in total emissions.)

Assuming most scientists are right, I would agree that we need absolute reductions, but I think requiring each company to reduce its emissions intensity is a good way to divide up the responsibility. If every company needed to do absolute reductions, it would take a lot of the flexibility out of our economy. If a company comes up with a newer, much more efficient way to produce something, expanding their production could actually be good for the environment because their more-polluting competitors could lose market share. Requiring absolute emissions reductions would make this more difficult. It would also make it hard for companies to respond to changing demands from consumers.

Another example: as it gets harder to find conventional sources for oil, we're getting more development of the oil sands and other less conventional oil sources. These sources need more energy, so they pollute more. I hope we can reduce our dependence on oil, but as long as there's so much demand for oil, the oil sands will have to expand. The emissions intensity of oil sands plants will have to decrease, but we can't expect overall emissions from oil production to decrease.

This situation also shows that each of a company's activities should probably be treated separately (for example, oil sands should be considered separately from conventional oil) in evaluating emissions intensity. Also, we don't want companies expanding their low-polluting activities just so they can get away with doing nothing to improve their high-polluting activities.

One question I have: is emissions intensity a good way to divide up reduction targets for countries, provinces/states, and individual people? This would seem to favour the rich over the poor, because the rich can pollute more. Or maybe it would prevent introducing a new barrier to development in poor places. And maybe it is unrealistic to expect absolute emissions reductions in places like Alberta, in the short term. I already mentioned some reasons for oil sands expansion. That's happening because of increased demand and decreased supply of oil from other places. That's not Alberta's fault. Yes, we need to produce the oil as efficiently as we can, but we can't be expected to reduce other places' demand for oil. Or is this favouring a rich province while holding back the poorer ones?

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