Toward an Emissions Calculation Framework for the Minerals Industry
Imagine driving your brand-new electric vehicle along Main Street on a weekday evening. Sleek and silent, you are the envy of the entire town. You know that the carbon dioxide directly emitted from the engine is nil: that was the whole point of buying the thing, wasn’t it? Going a little further—as you are an environmentally conscious owner—you didn’t find it difficult to figure out, and abate, the climate impact of the electricity you used to charge the car: your local utility offers a green tariff so that you can buy low-carbon electricity.
At this point, you might think that your job of reducing the carbon footprint of your car is pretty much complete. But have you ever thought about the CO2 that was emitted in the production of the car? How far were the materials and components transported? Was the lithium in the batteries extracted in a high-altitude Chilean desert or in a remote part of China? Was the copper in the wires mined in Arizona or in Africa? Was the iron ore for the steel extracted in Australia and then processed in China, or was the steel made from recycled scrap metal?
It’s very likely that you can’t answer any of these questions; the embedded carbon content of any product is largely unknown to the final consumer. Very few consumers are aware of the carbon that has been generated in the production and delivery of products and, as a consequence, virtually nobody takes action to abate these emissions. This is a problem because only 9 percent of carbon emissions come from passenger fuels and 25 percent come from the generation of electricity, while 40 percent of emissions come from the production and delivery of commodities in industrial value chains (31.5 percent from the industrial activities themselves, and 8.5 percent from freight and transport).
What’s the direct consequence for your electric vehicle? The truth is that the accumulated carbon footprint of materials in a newly bought gasoline-fueled car is the same order of magnitude as the footprint of its lifetime fuel consumption—so by buying an electric vehicle and securing green electricity, you are only part of the way through abating your car’s total carbon footprint.
What can we do to change this? Because what is out of sight is often out of mind, the first step is to calculate and communicate the CO2 emissions that are embedded in produced goods. Until people know the CO2 footprint of the products they’re using, it will be impossible for them to demand lower-carbon goods.
Other provinces fighting the federal carbon tax won’t follow Ontario’s lead in forcing gas stations to display stickers at the pumps spelling out the fee.
Representatives from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba say their focus is elsewhere.
In Ontario, gas stations have until August 30th to make sure they’re displaying the stickers, which say that the federal carbon tax has added 4.4 cents a litre to the price of gasoline.
The Canadian scientist built a world-class emissions capture project in Squamish. But don’t misunderstand his aim.
Climate change had caught the attention of governments and institutions around the world, not least those whose budgets seemed irrevocably bound to the Keeling Curve. Keith, then 41, was a big score for the university. The son of an environmental scientist who worked for Canada’s wildlife service and contributed to the effort to ban DDT, Keith had a multidisciplinary skill set rooted in experimental physics and hardware engineering; he’d earned his Ph.D. from MIT by building the world’s first interferometer to study atoms, and later created a high-accuracy infrared spectrometer for NASA. He’d held research positions at Colorado’s National Center for Atmospheric Research and at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities. By the time he got to Calgary, he’d come to view climate change from an astonishing array of perspectives. Over the course of his seven years at U of C, Keith taught in the departments of chemical and petroleum engineering, economics, environmental design and physics and astronomy. He was the kind of person who kept people like Bill Gates up to date on the latest climate research.
Keith founded Carbon Engineering in 2009 (Mauna Loa: 387.43 ppm) with $3 million in seed money, two thirds of it from Bill Gates and Murray Edwards, the oil sands billionaire and co-owner of the Calgary Flames.
Keith had begun studying direct air capture (DAC), “an industrial process that captures CO2 from ambient air, producing a pure CO2 stream for use or disposal,” even before his arrival in Calgary. That research accelerated in Alberta, and by 2009 his research had outgrown the lab. A private company would allow him to build a pilot plant and start engineering machinery that until then had only existed on paper. (Responding to criticism that he was profiteering off taxpayer-funded research, Keith has written: “My view is that universities… are too willing to accept a professor’s involvement in companies that are tightly tied to their academic research… I try and keep the division sharp. I ended all my academic work on DAC soon after forming Carbon Engineering. I have no research grants on DAC and no students or research staff working on it or any similar technology.”)
The problem: developing countries can’t afford to go along
There is much talk today about carbon pricing to reduce CO2 emissions and address climate change. Unlike many environmental pollutants that have a local or regional impact, carbon dioxide (CO2) is global—there is only one atmosphere. If actions taken to reduce atmospheric emissions in one region result in increased emissions elsewhere, then the one atmosphere suffers.
Some form of carbon pricing—a carbon tax, carbon trading, carbon credits—is favored by many politicians, NGOs, academics and even some in industry. But the reality is that a price on carbon will not be adopted by developing and emerging economies because it makes their energy more expensive, and they are too busy trying to build their economies and lift themselves from poverty.
In the developed world, carbon pricing increases the cost of manufacturing and products, which in turn drives manufacturing to developing nations where it is more affordable because of lower labor costs and less stringent environmental regulations and emissions standards. Global emissions rise in the one atmosphere. Put another way, the good intentions of carbon pricing have an unintended negative impact on climate change. This is not hypothetical. It is happening.
If carbon pricing won’t work, what will? Energy science tells us how to actually lower CO2 emissions into the one atmosphere in the time frame needed. Unfortunately, those who are the most passionate about addressing climate change seem to not like the answers from the energy experts.