Monday, November 28, 2011

Canada Should Withdraw From Kyoto

The Kyoto treaty, even from an environmentalists’ point of view, is flawed and insufficient to stop global warming. It was always the intention of environmentalists that it was to be a stepping stone to something more. But practical experience is showing that environmentalists were wrong to expect that nations would be willing to sacrifice their own prosperity in exchange for something so intangible. The accepted flaws that I am aware of include the following;

1) Kyoto was always voluntary

While there is a punishment mechanism, compliance was always voluntary since there was no way to enforce the punishment mechanism. Moreover, the punishment mechanism doesn’t actually reduce greenhouse gases, it just means that wealthy nations can pay to have their sins absolved like some kind of middle age indulgence. The USA, which promised big greenhouse gas emission cuts, never even ratified the treaty.

2) Kyoto didn’t include all nations

Kyoto targeted the ‘wealthy’ first world nations but ignored any other nation entirely, not even providing them with proposed limits for their greenhouse gas emission increases. Today, with China’s greenhouse gas emissions exceeding those of the USA and increasing rapidly, I think we can safely say that was a mistake.

3) Kyoto targets were arbitrarily set

This is my biggest quarrel with the Kyoto treaty is that the targets were set without regard for the individual circumstances of the nation by politicians who knew that they wouldn’t be around to have to ensure that they met them. Nor were they consistent across nations. Some nations promised just to limit their greenhouse gas increases (ie Norway), some promised to merely hold the line (ie France), and others promised bigger cuts (ie Canada and Germany). If that wasn’t enough, the circumstances of the individual nations is not taken into consideration.

Eastern European nations who began the 1990s with Soviet-era factories that were hugely inefficient and big polluters were shut down or renovated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Is it any wonder then that Bulgaria and Romania nearly halved its greenhouse gas emissions since 1990? [1,2] Or that Hungary and Poland dropped by nearly a third? [3,4] Nations such as Italy, without such inefficiencies to start with could not achieve such dramatic reductions (until the economy's bottom fell out in 2008 leading to a 10% reduction in greenhouse gases in a single year) [5].

As a comparison Canadians would be familiar with, Saskatchewan gets most of its electricity from coal fired power plants, while BC gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric projects. Would it be fair then to expect BC and Saskatchewan to both reduce their greenhouse gas emissions equally? Of course not, Saskatchewan could close its coal fired power plants and open natural gas ones and achieve dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas BC could not do so.

Also, no consideration was given to actual energy consumption. A nation that shutters all of its coal fired power plants only to import their electricity from a neighbouring country that didn’t promise dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions hasn’t really reduced greenhouse gases, they’ve just moved them around.

One would hope that the representatives of the nations involved would take this into account when making commitments but again, how can we hold these politicians accountable for the promises they made when even they don’t expect to be around when the piper comes calling? Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions rose every year (except for two; 1990-1991 and 2000-2001) from 1990 to 2004. [6] Meanwhile, France actually remained relatively stable all the way since 1990 [7] and is on track to meet their 0% increase target.

And what about the effect of circumstances beyond the control of the nation? Venezuela has been hit by numerous droughts in recent years that have crippled its hydroelectric capacity; if they switch to consuming more coal or natural gas to maintain their electric grid it would drive up their greenhouse gas emissions. Japan has had a number of earthquakes in the past which have shut down and/or damaged their nuclear reactors, forcing them to rely on fossil fuels more and more.

In short, Canada’s reported plan to withdraw from a flawed treaty should not come as a surprise to anyone and it doesn’t mean that Canada should be shunned from further climate change negotiations. If the world wants to make a true commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they need to bring every nation on board and set targets realistic and relevant to the nations themselves. Targets that are short term in nature so that the politicians who fail to meet them are around to shoulder the blame, and that adjustments can be made if circumstances make them unrealistic.

Even if you are skeptical of global warming and of the dire predictions that some global warming fearmongerers are making, reducing pollution can only be a good thing and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is a necessary activity over the long term.

Again though, that's just my opinion.

References

[1] "GHG trends and projections in Bulgaria" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

[2] "GHG trends and projections in Romania" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

[3] "GHG trends and projections in Hungary" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

[4] "GHG trends and projections in Poland" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

[5] "GHG trends and projections in Italy" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

[6] "National Inventory Report 1990–2008: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada" Environment Canada, 2008 [pdf]

[7] "GHG trends and projections in France" European Environmental Agency, 2011 [pdf]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Science For Thee, But Not For Me

A common refrain for some people who criticize Harper is that he ‘hates science’. They will usually list a few causes celebre (ie Insite, climate change, etc…) where Harper supposedly ignored or is ignoring scientific advice in a decision or a position. These accusations do an injustice to the issues under consideration by grossly simplifying them but more so I tend to think they are hypocritical.

To begin with, I believe policy decisions should be informed by facts and scientific research but that there are other factors that also must be considered in making a decision on public policy, including matters of principle and morality. And ultimately, the people who will be held responsible for the success or failures of public policy are the leaders who made the decisions and not necessarily the scientists who perform studies or advise them.

As an example, during the events at Fukushima the Japanese government came out with an evacuation order that extended up to 50km from the stricken reactors. The American government came out shortly afterwards telling its citizens to stay at least 80km away from the reactor, claiming that their decision was based on ‘science’. While Obama seemed to be implying that the Japanese government was wrong, the Japanese government received the exact same if not better scientific information. The differences are probably driven by matters of practicality (it’s easier to evacuate all the Americans within 80km of Fukushima than all the Japanese) and the need to continue rescue efforts (evacuating up to 80km will restrict the movement of rescuers and potentially cause more deaths among survivors) rather than political expediency (if you are going to evacuate up to 50km then it won’t be any worse politically to evacuate up to 80km).

In terms of criminal policy, some people point to certain jurisdictions with tough criminal laws and longer sentences as being models of what not to do since some social studies have implied that these are ineffective at deterring or reducing crime. But advocates of tougher criminal laws will essentially argue that the current system does not provide justice to victims who have suffered and reducing sentences to the point where they are nearly trivial undermines confidence in the justice system. (Ironically, that would probably reduce the number of reported) Is a few months house arrest for a rapist ‘justice’? Does murdering someone really merit only a few years in a pampered jail cell where you can earn a university degree? Is stealing millions from taxpayers adequately punished by forcing the person to go on a speaking tour?

Critics of Harper’s government should understand what I’m saying because often they will hold positions that go against the grain of scientific studies. Nuclear power has been shown to be more cost effective than many other ‘renewable’ sources of electricity, and repeated studies have shown the risks associated with radiation are manageable or negligible. But when a study comes out in Germany that contradicts studies in France and the UK, anti-nuclear advocates will cling to the German study and ignore the others. Animals dissections in high school classrooms are frowned upon even though it is known that hands on training and education is far more effective than reading from a book. The seal hunt is attacked even though it is needed to maintain fish stocks which would otherwise be depleted by the large seal population. Animal based testing of products is condemned even though it is one of the best methods for testing new products. Tungsten filament light bulbs are banned even though there is no scientific evidence that they are harmful or dangerous to use. Some people oppose genetically modified foods in absence of any scientific evidence that they are harmful, relying on anecdotes, unconfirmed reports or gut feelings. Studies showing that cell phones or high voltage electrical wires do not pose a health risk are downplayed by people who claim that they do. Evidence showing that limited, increased exposure to radiation is beneficial for your health is buried. Comparisons of health care systems showing that public-private mixes (like in France) provide better care than public only are viciously assaulted.

This is not to say that I don’t have concerns about animal testing, private health care, the seal hunt, radiation exposure or the other items in my list. But my concerns are not always based on the best available ‘science’ but sometimes on morality or other principles. Animal based testing and the seal hunt can be cruel, tungsten filament light bulbs are inefficient and I’m suspicious that long term exposure to any amount of increased radiation can cause cancer in some people despite what the studies I have read say.

What I am not attempting to do is defend Harper from any specific accusation, nor to condemn anyone’s opinion unworthy of consideration because it runs contrary to the best available studies. On a large number of issues, ignoring scientific reality is extremely dangerous and should be condemned. But on a large range of other issues, someone may form their opinions on life experiences or moral principles, and just because their opinion is not fully supported by scientific studies doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong. But it hopefully means they have weighed the evidence and made an informed decision that this other principle is more important.

That is how I see the role of science in public policy; to provide the best information possible and allow those with the responsibility to make informed decisions. If they decide that some moral principle is more important, that doesn’t mean they hate science and it does them a disservice to accuse them of doing so.

That's just my opinion though.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Toronto Condos Not Built to Last

There was an interesting article in the Huffington Post recently about the condo buildings that are sprouting up in Toronto. It covers a number of details about the estimated lifespan of these buildings and how the beauty of floor to ceiling windows comes at a cost.

But there is one issue that I felt they neglected to mention in their article. The windows have argon gas inside to provide insulation and while the argon gas may eventually leak out and ruin the insulating properties of the glass, I'll guarantee that you'll notice a cool draft in your condo long before the glass fails.

That's because of the frame. From what I've seen, its not uncommon for the window to be seated in a metal frame that extends on both sides of the glass. This means that when the temperatures drop, the metal frame itself will be a conduit for heat to flow from your apartment. Doesn't matter how good the insulation of the windows is.

Something to consider if you're looking at buying a condo.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nuclear Waste: One Man’s Trash…

… is another man’s treasure.

In my mind, this adage is very applicable to the treatment of so-called ‘nuclear waste’. To be clear, nuclear ‘waste’ can come in many forms; from the steam generators that are being recycled by the Bruce A Restart project to the spent fuel bundles (or rods) ejected from the core. Not all these ‘wastes’ are created equal, but many if not all of them share one thing in common; they are still valuable resources.

The contaminated steam generators that Bruce Power planned on recycling to reduce the amount of waste are a good example to start with. To explain quickly, the steam generators are used in a CANDU reactor to transfer the heat from one water cycle to another. The two cycles are separated but heat is transferred from one cycle to the next by thermal contact across kilometres of piping. After decades of use, fixed material has built up on the interior of these pipes, some of it radioactive. [1]

At first, the plan was to safely store the entire steam generators for as long as is necessary, until it was proposed that the steam generators be shipped off to Sweden to have most of the metal recycled and the remaining radioactive material returned for long term storage. While seemingly a better proposal, it ran into immediate opposition by environmental groups, despite confirmation by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) that the plan was safe even if the boat sank [2].




Another good example is the treatment of tritium in Canada, which I’ve mentioned before. Long considered a waste, an unfortunate bi-product of using heavy water (water that contains deuterium), tritium was and continues to be released in a controlled manner into the Great Lakes. In accident situations, tritium can be released into the environment as well [3]. Since 1990 though, Darlington has hosted the “Tritium Removal Facility”, which removes tritium from the water and stores it as a gas on titanium [4]. This tritium can be used directly in nuclear fusion, or after decaying into Helium-3 can be used in low temperatures physics and even bomb detection devices. Helium-3 specifically continues to be in very high demand [5].

Finally, even the spent fuel bundles can be ‘recycled’ through reprocessing. If you consider a cycle with the spent fuel rods from light water reactors (which are inefficient from a neutron standpoint) being reprocessed into fuel bundles for heavy water reactors (which are efficient from a neutron standpoint), one can see the benefits. [6] This is something I hope to cover in more depth later.

These are just the uses that we know of now, as has been proven time and again, our abilities to find uses for the things once thought of as waste is immeasurable. Perhaps then we should be hesitant to place so-called 'wastes' into permanent storage facilities the barriers to accessing them are unnecessarily prohibitive.


References

[1] "The Right Thing to Do" www.therightthingtodo.ca (A website created by Bruce Power concerning the recycling of the steam generators)

[2] CNSC assessment concerning the proposed transportation of the steam generators [pdf]

[3] "Report and Advice on the Ontario Drinking Water Quality Standard for Tritium" Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council, May 21st, 2009 [pdf]

[4] "Evaluation of Facilities Handling Tritium", Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, February 2010 [pdf]

[5] Christina Reed, "The Fallout of a Helium-3 Crisis", Discovery News, February 19th, 2011. [link]

[6] "Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel", World Nuclear Association, November 7th, 2011. [link]