Blueberries without borders

Blueberries have arrived from Peru in my local store. Next they’ll be coming from Chile, then Mexico. As spring moves north, they will arrive from Florida.  Then in late spring they’ll be ripening in Georgia, after that California and Oregon. Washington will start shipping in early July.

image: Investment Agriculture Foundation of British Columbia

The northward march of the blueberries ends in British Columbia, where the largest crops in Canada are grown and the season is long says Corey Mintz:

“Because of the warm, sunny weather blueberries need to thrive; many regions have a growing season of only four to six weeks. But the climate of BC allows for a longer season: nearly three months, from early July to late September (Walrus magazine October, 2018).”

B.C. returns the blueberry favour by sending them south -all over North America. Blueberry production in BC has grown from 4.3 million kilograms in 1980 to 61 million kilograms in 2017.

The fact Canada exports any produce at all may come as a surprise. We can’t compete with American growers for many other crops says James Vercammen, professor of food and resource economics at the University of British Columbia. Economies of scale, higher labour and land costs, give U.S. producers an edge.

But as the sun lingers over Canada in the summer, we have an advantage that Americans lack. Vercammen says that British Columbia is “now growing raspberries and blueberries like crazy.”

Things didn’t look so good at the start of the 2018 growing season. Blueberries, like one-third of the foods we eat, depend on pollination by bees.

Bees prefer a balanced diet. In recent years, honey producers have expressed concerns over the nutritional value of a blueberry diet alone. “It’s a single fruit,” said Kerry Clark, president of the B.C. Honey Producers’ Association, “It’s like going to a buffet and the only thing there is salsa. It doesn’t give you a balanced diet.”

Monoculture crops that cover vast areas aren’t very nutritious for bees. Weakened bees are more susceptible to disease and the wet spring this year meant that growers were applying more fungicides –also not good for bees.

That meant that owners were reluctant to send their colonies to blueberry fields. “It’s become less and less attractive, to the point where the beekeepers have decided not to bring thousands of colonies into the blueberries this year,” said Clark.

While blueberry production has increased, the number of bee hives has not kept up. One beekeeper predicted a loss because he couldn’t supply enough hives:

“There’s definitely going to be a shortage of bees in blueberries this year. It will be worse this year. The plants will be there, but the bees won’t be there to pollinate them, so they won’t get the berries.”

But all the worry turned out to be for nothing. As the damp spring turned into a sunny summer, blueberries thrived and by the end of the year there was a glut of the crop. The lower prices were good news for berry lovers but disastrous for farmers.

John Gibeau of the Honeybee Centre in Surrey was philosophical: “If it’s nice weather we do well. If it’s poor weather we do poorly. That’s farming.

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When nature gives you tar sands, make carbon fibres

Oil sands crude prices have hit rock bottom. The future could be in the tar -the bitumen. The original name for the deposits, tar sands, should be restored because that’s where their potential value exists.

Image: Mining.com

Extracting oil from tar sands is done at great cost. Huge tracts of land are stripped and the tar sands are dug up or injecting with steam. Once it’s dug up, the thick goo has to be diluted just to get it through pipelines. To turn into useable petroleum, it has to be sent to refineries thousands of kilometres away. Because there aren’t enough pipelines to get it to refineries, and because convention oil is relatively cheap, the extraction of oil from tar sands is not profitable.

Beyond the cost of extracting oil from tar sands, there is the cost to the environment. Because extraction is so energy intensive, more greenhouse gases are produced than from conventional sources. Canada is the fifth largest producer of crude oil in the world but we produce 70 per cent more greenhouse gases per barrel than global averages according to Corporate Knight magazine (Fall, 2018). That higher average is because of the tar sands.

Then there are investment pressures that are moving away from fossil fuels. Europe’s largest asset manager is increasing its “decarbonized portfolios” and so is Canada’s second largest pension fund, Caisse of Québec.

Instead of burning the stuff as fuel, a better plan would be to extract the valuable byproducts of bitumen. An Alberta government agency, Alberta Innovates, is looking to producing derivatives of tar. In their report “Bitumen Beyond Combustion,” they suggest three possibilities.

The most obvious is asphalt for roads. The global market for asphalt is currently at $65 billion and is expected to grow. The tar sands now produce asphalt but the current method of transportation requires that the product be kept very hot for transport. A better way of moving asphalt to market is to turn it into pellets and ship it to markets. An engineer for Stantec engineering who worked on the report says:

“The infrastructure, the rail cars, are out there, the global pull, the pricing mechanisms – people are building roads all over the world everyday.”

Less obvious is the production of carbon fibres. Like any organic compound, bitumen is right for making carbon fibres. The fibres have a wide variety of applications including strong lightweight composite materials used in aircraft, aerospace, and wind industries. They strengthen cement and steel.

When used on their own, they can replace steel in automotive manufacture. If carbon fibres took just one per cent of the global steel market by 2030, that would require 3 million barrels of bitumen a day, one study found.

Another surprising component of tar sands is vanadium used in making batteries and high temperature metals. While one a barrel of bitumen contains only 30 millilitres of vanadium, millions of barrels would produce a lot of the metal.

At the current value of crude oil, it’s not worth mining the tar sands for petroleum. The bitumen, once regarded as a troublesome byproduct, may be the future of the tar sands.

 

Canadians support carbon pricing

Canadians, including business groups, support Trudeau’s proposed carbon-pricing plan announced Tuesday. So why are some politicians opposed? The short answer is politics, although games are being played by both sides.

image: Werner Antweiler

Recent polling from Environics Research shows that nine out of ten Canadians are concerned about climate change. And a majority support carbon pricing except in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Tony Coulson from Environics Research says:

“For many Canadians, it appears their concern about the consequences of climate change is strong enough that they’re willing to bear some cost to help stop it (Globe and Mail October 16, 2108).”

The feds say that they will collect carbon taxes from those provinces that don’t have a carbon-pricing plan and return the money directly to citizens of those provinces. Depending on how little fossils fuels they burn, they could get more back in rebates than they spend on the added carbon tax.

Opposition parties are calling it a vote-buying tactic in time for the next election.

Those opposing carbon pricing include Ontario Premier Ford. During his Alberta visit to bolster Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, Ford tweeted:

“I am proud to say that Ontario will stand with Albertans who oppose this unfair and burdensome tax on families and businesses.”

The Ontario Premier has allied himself with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe in opposing the federal tax plan. Manitoba also recently cancelled its planned carbon tax.

Carbon taxes are directly on the sources of carbon: 70 per cent of them from burning fossil fuels to heat our homes, generate electricity and for transportation.

Ford claims that carbon taxes take money out of the pockets of taxpayers. Not necessarily. A revenue neutral carbon tax such as the one that B.C. has doesn’t. Sure, we pay more for gasoline but receive an equal reduction in taxes elsewhere. As demonstrated in B.C., carbon pricing reduces greenhouse gases and doesn’t harm the economy.

If Ford wanted to take a conservative approach, it would be our carbon tax. A progressive approach would be to take the carbon taxes and directly invest them into sources of renewable energy.

Canadian businesses also support carbon pricing. The business-backed C.D. Howe Institute has recently come out in favour of carbon-pricing. The institute understands both the necessity and practicality of carbon taxes. C.D. Howe policy analyst Tracy Snoddon says:

“The politics of carbon pricing may have changed but the climate change challenge and Canada’s emissions reduction targets under the Paris agreement have not. The economics are also unchanged – carbon pricing continues to be the most cost-effective option for achieving emissions reductions across the country (Globe and Mail October 18, 2108).”

It’s disappointing to see politicians use the future of our planet as a political football.

Canadians want government action. For the first time in polling history, Canadians say that individual action is not working that governments need to step in.  “A slim majority now feels that voluntary action is not enough to address the challenges we face,” says Coulson.

Canadians are waking up to the fact that individual actions, like changing to energy efficient light bulbs, is not working. Only legislated policies will collectively accomplish what we individually wish for.

 

B.C. firm extracts fuel from air

It may sound like alchemy but Carbon Engineering Ltd based in Squamish captures carbon from the atmosphere and turns it back into automotive fuel.

Carbon Engineering,
Squamish, BC. Image: Google maps

It’s not just wishful thinking. Investors with deep pockets are putting money into the project, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

Co-owner of Carbon Engineering David Keith describes the technology as “direct air capture” (DAC). They’ve been running a pilot plant since 2015 and hope to build a commercial-scale operation soon. The plant has been producing a variety of fuels, such as diesel, gasoline, and Jet-A since 2017.

Carbon capture technology is not new but the price barrier has been too high to make it feasible. Previous processes have cost US$600 a tonne. Professor Keith says they have broken the price barrier:

“At Carbon Engineering, we now have the data and engineering to prove that DAC can achieve costs below US$100 (Globe and Mail, June 8, 2018).”

Former processes haven’t worked, as Saskatchewan found out. At higher cost and lower reliability, they extract CO2 and store it into the ground. Former Premier of Brad Wall had high hopes that his province could avoid a federal carbon tax by carbon capture. However, these plants are only operational 45 per cent of the time. The old technology has been tried globally and abandoned; China cancelled theirs.

Professor Keith researched his DAC technology at the University of Calgary. The process is relatively simple in theory. First CO2 is extracted from the air. Then hydrogen is created from water through electrolysis using any energy source, preferably renewable. Solar cells, for example, could create hydrogen by breaking water into its component parts. In the final stage, hydrogen and CO2 are combined to produce hydrocarbon fuels.

The novelty of Professor Keith’s technology is that it solves three problems: rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, drilling for fossil fuels, and the storage of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

Of course, if you are going to extract CO2 from the air only to convert it back into fuels that will put the CO2 back in the air, that hardly seems like a solution. But at least it is not producing any more CO2. And mining the air for fuels is certainly better than fracking shale deposits.

Using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to produce automotive fuel seems counterintuitive at first. The problem with renewable energy sources that they produce energy when it’s not needed and none when is -it has to be stored somehow.  The surplus electricity could be stored in batteries for use later. Or it could be used in conjunction with other renewable sources such as hydroelectricity.

Storing renewable energy as fuel is a good idea because the engines to burn the hydrocarbons already exist. There is no need to build new vehicles with electric motors.

The fuel produced is expected to cost 25 per cent more than traditional gasoline but it would fetch premium prices.

“It’s not a magic bullet, it’s not too cheap to meter,” says Professor Keith, “but it’s something that really we think could be built out, and could be built out at relatively low technical risk. So we hope it is really a turning point.”

 

Empty pipelines spill no oil

The Kinder Morgan pipeline should be built for the same reason as the pyramids –as a national monument.

The pyramids employed workers but served no practical purpose other than an grand burial site for the pharaohs. The humble graves of the workers would have served the pharaohs just as well.

   Composite: David Charbonneau

Construction of the People’s pipeline will employ well-paid union workers. It’s supposed to carry crude oil to Asia but that market doesn’t exist. Therefore, it will serve as a wonderful monument to the “National Interest.”

The pipeline should be built because it serves political interests. Premier Notley’s hopes to be re-elected depend on completion of the pipeline. In her letter to Maclean’s, she said:

“And together, we are building this pipeline — with B.C. workers, using steel made in Saskatchewan, from ore mined in Quebec. Now, it’s time to pick those tools back up, folks. We’ve got a pipeline to build.”

While I’m less optimistic about the future of fossil fuels than Notley, I would rather see her re-elected than Jason Kenney, leader of United Conservative party of Alberta. A progressive premier with delusions about the future of oil sands is better than a retrograde one with similar delusions.

The People’s pipeline will bring the feuding NDP family members back into the fold where they can return to civility. This spat has been an embarrassment for the NDP for the new leader Jagmeet Singh.  Until recently, the NDP was one big happy family; unlike other parties, there is only one party provincially and federally.

The pipeline should be built to strengthen our federation. Prime Minister Trudeau is correct in asserting the nation’s right to move goods to market over the objections of provinces. One province should not have the ability to stop the national transport of commodities.

While the symbolism of the pipeline is strong, the financial rationale for the pipeline hinges on flawed logic. Finance Minister Morneau claims the pipeline is required to get oil to “tidewater” so it can be sold at higher prices than in the U.S.  Economist Robyn Allan is not so sure:

“The facts don’t support the argument. The economics aren’t there. This project is financially compromised and not commercially viable (Globe and Mail, June 2, 2018).”

The fantasy is that Asia will pay more for the goop than it could be sold for in North America. However, in recent years, heavy crude has consistently sold for significantly less in Asia than the U.S.  Refineries in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are ready; they have been re-engineered to process the heavy crude of the oil sands.

Just one per cent of the oil in the existing pipeline flows to Asia. Another pipeline won’t change that fraction. Most oil goes to California and Washington State where it is refined and sold back to Canada as expensive automotive fuel.

The financial reality is that TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. is a better bet in getting crude oil to market. The off again/on again pipeline is breathing new life under the Trump administration.

The pipeline should be built and remain empty. Everyone will be happy, workers and environmentalists alike.

More reasons for reduced guilt while flying

I feel less guilty flying on vacation now that I’ve compared flying with driving by car. Both contribute to global warming about the same.

image: alternet

Comparisons between the two are tricky because there are many factors like the efficiency of the car and how many are traveling. And the distance the plane flies: more fuel is used on takeoff so longer flights are more efficient. The University of Oslo has weighed these factors and concludes: “With only one passenger in the car, corresponding to 20-25% occupancy, the climate impact is at the level of an average air trip (Yale Climate Connections).”

My burden of guilt might be reduced even further. Canadian airlines are looking at using renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. (Globe and Mail, July 25, 2107)”.

Air Canada has flown eight times on biofuels, most recently from Edmonton to San Francisco on May 2, 2018. The flight reduced carbon emissions by over ten tonnes, a 20% reduction in net carbon emissions. This is equivalent to taking 26 cars off the road for a month according to Air Canada. They are careful to say that the growth of biofuels can’t come at the expense of food crops. That should be easy because some land that is unsuitable for food may be fine for biofuels.

Even more arable land will come available because of global warming caused by people (gulp) going on vacation and spewing CO2 into the atmosphere.

Air Canada has also improved fuel efficiency by 43 per cent since 1990 and they hope to be carbon-neutral by 2020. “These efforts and other green initiatives to increase efficiency and reduce waste were recognized by Air Transport World which earlier this year named Air Canada the Eco-Airline of the Year for 2018,” they say.

Planes are becoming more efficient. That, combined with cleaner burning biofuels can reduce air pollution. According to NASA, a mixture of 50% aviation biofuel can cut air pollution caused up to 70%.

If I flew on a plane that used solar, electric or hydrogen fuels, that would be even better. But for now those sources don’t have the power necessary to launch commercial airplanes.

I could also buy carbon offsets to pay for my sins of emissions. WestJet has teamed up with Carbon Zero. Their calculator shows that my return trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, generates 0.65 Tonnes of CO2. For an additional $14.69 I can contribute to an equal reduction of greenhouse gases. They offer two projects. One is diversion of organic waste from a Toronto landfill which prevents methane from escaping into the atmosphere. That’s good: methane is an even worse greenhouse gas than CO2.

However, while I may feel a little better, carbon offsets are a drop in the bucket. Offsets nowhere match the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere.

In addition, carbon offsets only appeal to people who worry about such things. For those who don’t think that humans contribute to global warming, offsets may look like a scam.

No guilt would better than reduced guilt but I can console myself, somewhat, by comparing myself with those who don’t give it a fleeting second thought.

The first Canadians

We arrived in North America, in what is now Canada, 16,000 years ago. Within a few thousand years, three quarters of the continent’s large animals were gone.

   image: sciencemag.org

By “we,” I don’t mean we European colonizers, I mean we Homo sapiens.

There were no indigenous people when we arrived. Not like 70,000 years ago when we came to Europe from Africa. Then, the indigenous people of Europe were the Neanderthals. We probably treated them much in the way that Europeans treated the indigenous people of North America -as savages.

Am I equating indigenous people of North America to the indigenous people of Europe? Yes. We are all humans, says Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens:

“Yet the real meaning of the word human is ‘an animal belonging to the genus Homo,’ and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens.”

We encountered other humans as we spread around the globe, probably with the same disdain. We dismiss other humans who look slightly different as inferior; it’s a convenient way of subjugating “others” and appropriating their land and resources.

The extent to which Neanderthals were human is indicated in our DNA. Shortly after arriving in Europe, the Neanderthals disappeared. There are two possible explanations: either sapiens and Neanderthals interbred to become one species or the Neanderthals died off, or we killed them. If we interbred, we are not “pure sapiens” but carry DNA of those other humans that we encountered –Denisovans from Siberia, Homo Erectus in East Asia.

DNA analysis reveals interbreeding. Europeans and those from the Middle East carry one to four per cent of Neanderthal genes. Melanesians and Australian Aboriginals carry six per cent of Denisovan genes. We humans are probably all one species, just as Spaniels and Chihuahuas are all dogs.

To the chagrin of racists, the only pure members of our species are found in Africa. The rest of us are just bastards.

When we walked into North America 16,000 years ago across the Bering Strait, we had no idea that we were walking into a new world. In just a few thousand years we traveled all the way to the island of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. Along the way, we exterminated many species.

“According to current estimates, in that short interval, North America lost thirty-four out of forty-seven genera of large animals,” says Harari, “South America lost fifty out of sixty.”

After flourishing for 30 million years, sabre-toothed cats were gone as well as giant sloths that weighed up to eight tons. Gone were giant beavers, horses, camels and mammoths.

We arrived in Australia with the same disastrous results. Within a few thousand years, out of twenty-four species of large Australian animals, most of them marsupials, twenty-three became extinct.

The unsettling fact is that we were not good stewards of the land, not as first people and certainly not as European colonizers.

We sapiens are remarkable humans in other respects. We inhabit every corner of the earth. But I can’t help but feel that it’s going to end badly.

Maybe a new version of humans will rise, breed with us, and do a better job at living in harmony with the planet.