Peddling GHGs

My colleague Bill Rees likes to say that fossil fuels are a powerful hallucinogenic drug. We are all addicted to cheap and abundant fossil fuels, and so have reshaped our economy and society in fundamentally unsustainable ways.

In a recent post, I highlighted some research that breaks out of the box of counting emissions only where they occur (the standard National Inventory approach) and thinking about trade impacts. There are many embodied GHGs in the goods and services we consume that are counted in the tallies of another jurisdiction, and the Davis and Caldeira study is an example of sorting out emissions based on who is doing the consuming. Davis and Caldeira find that Canada is a net exporter of GHGs. As an “energy superpower” this makes us different from the US and Europe, who a major net importers of GHGs (with the argument that they have “outsourced” a large chunk of the emissions associated with their consumption).

This got me thinking about how much GHG emissions are embodied in our exports that are consumed elsewhere (a lifecycle analysis from the producer perspective). For a province like BC, with its spanky, clean, green image, there is already a contradiction between stated climate action objectives and the historical (and ongoing) industrial policy of resource extraction. Most of the GHGs associated with fossil fuels are not from the extraction and processing stage, which is large enough, but their downstream combustion.

When it comes to law and order, we have learned not to crack down on the users of drugs, but focus our efforts on the dealers. So what if it turns out that beautiful BC is running the resource economics equivalent of a meth lab?

As a baseline, consider that BC’s official greenhouse gas emissions totaled just over 63 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (63.1 Mt CO2e, to be geeky about it) in 2007, the last year for which we have data. Emissions from extraction and processing of fossil fuels were almost 13 Mt of this total. I was able to get export volume data from Statscan for both coal and natural gas, and then multiplied these volumes by emission factors from BC’s GHG inventory report to estimate downstream emissions (data for natural gas go back to 1980, whereas a break in the coal dataset meant that I only got 2008 and 2009 data).

For natural gas combusted in the US, BC was the source for 52.7 Mt CO2e in 2008. Interestingly, that is down from an all-time high of 73.8 Mt in 1998, though I suspect that interprovincial exports to Alberta may make up some or all of the difference. Coal exports led to another 52 Mt of emissions elsewhere in 2008. So bottom line for BC fossil fuels is 105 Mt CO2e in 2008; exports of these two commodities alone led to emissions elsewhere that are 166% larger than BC’s overall emissions within our borders, and about eight times the BC emissions associated with getting those fossil fuels to market.

So what’s an ethically minded crack dealer to do? The standard industrial growth model digging it out and shipping it to the US or Asia needs to broken. For starters, the government should reverse its recent approval of a natural gas processing plant in the Northeast that will add more than 2 Mt to BC’s domestic inventory, and 16-18 Mt of downstream emissions.

The good news is that these resources are not going anywhere, and will only be worth more as time goes on. So there is no reason why we should not dramatically slow down coal mining and oil and gas extraction – until some point when we can sequester the emissions from their combustion. This technology (aka carbon capture and storage) is already out there and is poised to become widespread over the next couple decades. Until then, however, we should think the unthinkable and consider leaving those resources in the ground.


  • “When it comes to law and order, we have learned not to crack down on the users of drugs, but focus our efforts on the dealers.”

    We have?

    My understanding was that 100 years of the futile war on drugs had proven that the only effective approach was to target demand (i.e. reduce it) rather than supply.

    The only drug I can think of where consumption has fallen steadily over time is tobacco and all the progress has been made on the demand side.

  • I wonder what an would happen if Canada’s exchange rate kept increasing. We would export less, would that not keep those resources in the ground without spending tax dollars to enforce or a minute to legislate. Ironicly weak currencies leads to the selling of more resources that otherwise would have been left in the ground. So we turn to using intervention which can be costly & ineffective.

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