We’ve been too busy running a deep, hot bath

Shades of Green with Ray Grigg

The closure of Quinsam Coal with a loss about 60 jobs is sad news for the Campbell River community, particularly since the mine has been providing relatively stable employment since 1986.

But the closure of five other coal mines in BC during the last two years casts the Quinsam closure in a larger context.

The 195 nations that gathered in December, 2015, at the UN’s COP 21 meeting on global climate change in Paris agreed to dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Whether Quinsam Coal closed because of low coal prices or other causes is moot; its closure is symbolically important because it’s a small step in the necessary transition away from fossil fuels.

Indeed, our task of trying to hold a global temperature rise to 1.5°C and not exceed 2.0°C is a huge challenge, requiring an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 and 100% by 2100.  But we will only meet this global challenge if we remember our larger goal and are not distracted by local issues that invite regressive action. Oil pipelines and refineries are multi-decade investments, committing us to long-term fossil fuel consumption that must be discouraged.

So, too, with LNG plants. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency estimates that the proposed multi-billion dollar LNG plant on Lelu Island at the mouth of the Skeena River — not a smart location for such an industry — would produce 5.28 million tonnes of CO2e every year for the life of the facility, with upstream production of 6.5 to 8.7 million tonnes. The Agency describes the direct emissions as “high in magnitude, continuous, irreversible, and global in extent.”

With 2050 only 34 years away, we have an incredibly short time to reach an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases. And a virtual energy revolution will have to occur well before 2100.

The enormity of our task is nicely described in a “flow” and “store” metaphor. Think of Earth’s thin atmosphere as a bathtub with our greenhouse gas emissions as water being added from a running tap. Until we shut off the tap — until we reach zero emissions — the level of water in the bathtub will continue to rise. By 2050, the amount of water entering the bathtub must be low enough that by 2100 we can shut off all the water before the bathtub overflows at 2.0°C. If we can turn off the water at 1.5°C, we may even have a little room at the top to allow for the unpredictable. If we miscalculate, we will be trying to stop the flow of water while also mopping the floor to prevent house damage.

This metaphor, however, is only a rough representation of our greenhouse gas problem. For a fuller understanding, imagine that the bathtub is made of rubber. As it fills, it changes shape — the sides may bulge and the top may sag depending on the weight and temperature of the water. Because we don’t know much about the design specifications of rubber bathtubs, the 2100 date and the 2.0°C target are only guesses about when the bathtub will overflow. As a further complication, we have been so busy running a deep, hot bath that we forgot to pay the premiums on our house insurance. And no plumber.