Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: As some people, including most notably the Prime Minister of Canada, are confused about greenhouse gas emissions, both during production of electricity and during transportation, I feel that it is time to write a quick blog about this. I will focus mostly on CO2 emissions, which are believed to be the predominant greenhouse emissions driving global warming, even though the effect of methane (CH4) emissions on warming are roughly 20 times as potent (see edf.org, greenplanet.org, and Scientific American), and some other industrially produced gases that are ubiquitous in modern life are yet exponentially more potent.
CO2 Emitted during Electricity Production
Electricity is produced in several ways, including from coal burning power plants, nuclear fueled steam power plants, to windmills and hydropower. Comparing the average amount of CO2 emitted during electricity production by each of these methods (Fig. 1), we see that, by far, coal burning power plants are the worst ways to produce electricity.
What is obvious in Fig. 1 is that burning stuff to make electricity is the most carbon intensive means of doing so. Secondly, if the world really wants to make a fast reduction in CO2 emissions, it needs to quickly switch from coal burning to gas burning. I say this because even though every technology to the right of Biomass is very low carbon technology, none of those, save perhaps nuclear and wind, are available in sufficient quantities in the short term to supplant electricity produced by coal, while gas is immediately available and of sufficient quantity to make a really big impact fast.
CO2 Emitted during Passenger Travel
Comparing amount of CO2 emitted per passenger per mile traveled yields Figure 2.
It should be noted that the amount of CO2 produced varies a bit by distance travelled because of such things as airplane take-offs. During take-offs, airplanes are at max power and max CO2 output, but once cruising are sipping fuel, and, thus, CO2 emissions fall. For longer trips CO2 emissions per passenger per mile decrease, but not of sufficient amount to move airplanes further to the right in Fig. 2. For almost any travel, an airplane is the worst way to go. Worse yet is going by private jet.
So what can be done quickly to reduce CO2 output, save the earth and make money doing it? Burn less coal and burn more gas, while providing opportunities for the other clean power technologies to grow and flourish.
For transport, as Greta Thunberg has shown, fly less, and get people out of large cars into smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. This will work in Europe and Asia with their superb rail networks and preference for more fuel efficient vehicles and nascent surge of interest in EVs. But America needs to catch up, with its limited rail network and where folks still prefer to drive a big truck or SUV for solitary commuting and the occasional bag of groceries. It's a bit more complicated than that though, but Americans for the most part still prefer displays of conspicuous consumption rather than building financial security. All other things being equal then, if time is no worry, travelling by train and by bus is the way to go. Most importantly, don’t fly by private jet.
How Are Countries Faring with Reducing CO2 Emissions?
It was the best of governments and the worst of governments: A time of pomp and vanity, versus resolve and obstinacy. It is Canada versus the United States in terms of CO2 gas emissions. While we've just entered 2020, the most current data that I can find for both nations is up until 2018. Fig. 3 compares the per capita CO2 emissions between Canada and the United States.
A few things are surprising. Firstly, since 2005, the year of the Paris Accord to reduce GHG emissions including CO2, the United States has decreased per capita CO2 emissions by 17.6% while Canada has only been able to achieve a reduction of 7.0%. The second thing is that by 2015 the United States passed Canada in lower CO2 emissions. Surely the data must be wrong? The data is not wrong.
In the United States, the big reduction in CO2 emissions has come about mainly by replacing coal fired power plants with gas turbine power plants. Some additional reductions in CO2 have been achieved by better vehicle fuel economy and other efficiency gains in using power in the economy. Going forward, the rapidly expanding wind and solar power plants in the U.S. will start eating into the gas turbine power supply, and we can confidently expect further reductions in CO2 emissions per capita. All this in spite of an administration in Washington that is keen on supporting coal and hostile towards alternative fuels. Yet in spite of this hostility, in the United States, utilities have realized that gas and renewables are now the lowest cost and most profitable means to supply power.
Compare this then to Canada, which since 2015 has been governed by a Liberal, neo-communist government that champions environmentalism and green energy. Why then can't Canada achieve similar reductions as that greedy, capitalist state to the south? Well, therein is a big part of the answer.
Vive l'Alberta Libre!
P.S. It is very likely that CO2 emissions per capita in Canada have climbed even higher in 2019. Last December the Federal Liberal Government in Canada released, then quickly removed from public access, its annual GHG emissions report. If CO2 emissions have climbed higher, then expect the Liberal Government to increase carbon taxes to try to hammer CO2 emissions down. Instead it will be Canadians that in the long run will be hammered – the chocolate rations have been increased and the carbon emissions have decreased – until Canada’s utopia equals Ingsoc on all levels.
P.P.S. Forthcoming blogs: