Prairie Drought Could Threaten Global Food Supplies

August 5, 2021: An ongoing drought in Canada’s prairie provinces devastated farms and revealed potential future repercussions for both the global and domestic food systems. 

“It’s going to take longer for the realization of how bad things are today to fully flow out to the plethora of crop users around the world,” writes The Western Producer. 

Meanwhile, Global News says a drought impacts report recently issued by Statistics Canada “pointed to record-high temperatures and a lack of rainfall as having debilitating effects on farmers’ abilities to produce.” In Alberta, for example, only 36.6% crops are listed as “good to excellent,” compared to the five-year average of 74.1%. The report notes a general concern among farmers that the drought comes at “at the worst time of crop development,” as some crops are either maturing faster than normal or stagnating. 

Ranchers across the prairies are struggling, as well, as grazing lands and hay crops yield less feed than usual. With limited supply, demand for feed is driving up prices and pushing producers to sell their cattle, writes CBC. 

“Twenty-five percent to half of our cow herd is just going to disappear with the drought…and the feed scenario that we’re in,” said Donnie Peacock, an auctioneer in Saskatchewan. He told CBC producers are selling off calves earlier than usual, and even parting with their breeding cows.

The ramifications of these desperate sales will affect ranchers beyond just losing their herd, CBC notes. Prices are dropping as cows flood the market, but when demand rises as producers move to rebuild their herds, they could soar. That has left farmers—already struggling to make it through the current season—worrying what will happen if next year is also dry.

“It’s kind of a generational, traumatic experience for a lot of people in our cattle industry,” Peacock told CBC. “We have a lot of people that are going to be making decisions that are lifelong changing right now.” 

Losses from the drought will also affect buyers downstream. Reuters says bakers are already paying higher prices for dwindling red spring wheat—when they can find it—and bread prices are expected to increase as much as 6.5% by year’s end. 

There will be international impacts, as well. Canada is the world’s largest producer of some crops, like canola, and is among the top 10 beef exporting countries in the world, reports the New York Times. Reuters notes that North America’s red spring wheat harvest accounts for more than half of the world’s supply. 

Deadly Western Heat Dome Was ‘Virtually Impossible’ Without Climate Change

July 7, 2021: Less than a week after a deadly “heat dome” devastated western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest and burned Lytton, B.C. to the ground, an international science team reported that the blistering conditions would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.

“Climate change, caused by greenhouse gas emissions, made the heat wave at least 150 times more likely to happen,” the World Weather Attribution Network said in a release.

“An event such as the Pacific Northwest 2021 heat wave is still rare or extremely rare in today’s climate, yet would be virtually impossible without human-caused climate change,” the 27-member research team declared in a paper published late yesterday. “In the most realistic statistical analysis the event is estimated to be about a 1 in 1000 year event in today’s climate,” but “as warming continues, it will become a lot less rare.”

They add that the estimate of hundreds of premature deaths in the heat wave to date is “alarming”, but “likely a severe undercount” until health statisticians have a chance to review mortality data and factor in the impact for people with underlying conditions.

“What we are seeing is unprecedented,” said Friederike Otto, associate director of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. “You’re not supposed to break records by four or five degrees Celsius (seven to nine degrees Fahrenheit). This is such an exceptional event that we can’t rule out the possibility that we’re experiencing heat extremes today that we only expected to come at higher levels of global warming.”

“While we expect heat waves to become more frequent and intense, it was unexpected to see such levels of heat in this region,” added Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, senior researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. “It raises serious questions whether we really understand how climate change is making heat waves hotter and more deadly.”

The study results, based on a comparison with historical climate records, “provide a strong warning: our rapidly warming climate is bringing us into uncharted territory that has significant consequences for health, well-being, and livelihoods,” the scientists said. “Adaptation and mitigation are urgently needed to prepare societies for a very different future. Adaptation measures need to be much more ambitious and take account of the rising risk of heat waves around the world, including surprises such as this unexpected extreme.”

And “greenhouse gas mitigation goals should take into account the increasing risks associated with unprecedented climate conditions if warming would be allowed to continue.”

Every heat wave that takes place today “is made more likely and more intense by climate change,” the WWAN release explained. But this time, “the extreme temperatures experienced were far outside the range of past observed temperatures, making it difficult to quantify exactly how rare the event is in the current climate and would have been without human-caused climate change.”

They did, however, conclude that it would have been “virtually impossible” without the climate-warming impacts of human activity.

The review covered a stretch of B.C., Oregon, and Washington State that included the cities of Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle, with a combined population of more than nine million people who sweltered and suffered through temperatures as high as 49.6°C. It looked at the “slow-moving strong high pressure system” that settled in over the area, bringing warm, dry air along with clear skies that led to higher near-surface temperatures.

The science team came up with two possible pathways by which climate change made the extraordinary heat more likely. One possibility is that climate change, combined with the heat dome plus pre-existing drought, made the heat wave more likely, but still a “very unusual event,” the release states. The second is that the global climate system “has crossed a non-linear threshold where a small amount of overall global warming is now causing a faster rise in extreme temperatures than has been observed so far.”

The scientists called for further research to sort out which interpretation is right.

“Based on this first rapid analysis, we cannot say whether this was a so-called ‘freak’ event…that largely occurred by chance, or whether our changing climate altered conditions conducive to heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, which would imply that ‘bad luck’ played a smaller role and this type of event would be more frequent in our current climate,” the scientists write.

But “in either case, the future will be characterized by more frequent, more severe, and longer heat waves, highlighting the importance of significantly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the amount of additional warming.”

While the Attribution Network focused its attention on the western heat dome, a new modelling study published this week in the journal Nature Communications points to greenhouse gas emissions and land use changes as “a key factor in extreme precipitation events such as flooding and landslides around the world,” The Guardian reports.

“Up till now, work in this field has been restricted to countries, rather than applied globally,” the news story explains. In the new study, a UCLA research team used machine learning to tell a wider story. “By examining multiple data sets of observed precipitation, the researchers were able to build a global picture, and found evidence of human activity affecting extreme precipitation in all of them.”

While some areas see increased drought as a result of climate change, “the dominant mechanism [driving extreme precipitation] for most regions around the world is that warmer air can hold more water vapour,” said lead researcher Gavin Madakumbura. “This fuels storms.”

Canada Must Leave 83% of Fossil Fuels in the Ground in Latest 1.5°C Scenario

September 9, 2021: Canada must leave 83% of its fossil fuel reserves and 84% of its tar sands/oil sands in the ground if the world is to have even a 50% chance of holding average global warming to 1.5°C, according to a paper published in the prestigious journal Nature.

The figures were part of a global calculation that called for oil and gas production across all regions to fall 3% per year through 2050, the paper stated. And the authors say the actual cuts will probably have to be faster and deeper.

Even the 3% annual target “implies that most regions must reach peak production now or during the next decade, rendering many operational and planned fossil fuel projects unviable,” write authors Dan Welsby, James Price, Steve Pye, and Paul Ekins of University College London (UCL). But “we probably present an underestimate of the production changes required, because a greater than 50% probability of limiting warming to 1.5°C requires more carbon to stay in the ground, and because of uncertainties around the timely deployment of negative emission technologies at scale.”

The targets in this week’s release are much deeper than the estimates in a 2015 analysis, of which Ekins was a co-author, based on a 2.0°C target for average global warming, the new paper says. They come at a time when “existing fossil fuel infrastructure already places a 1.5°C target at risk owing to implied ‘committed’ future CO2 emissions.”

“The inescapable evidence that hopefully we’ve shown and that successive reports have shown is that if you want to meet 1.5°C, then global production has to start declining,” Welsby told Inside Climate News.

“It is abundantly clear from this and other work that the conversation now is about declining production,” added Greg Muttitt, senior policy advisor at the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. “It’s about leaving fossil fuel reserves in the ground.”

Overall, the authors say 58% of the world’s oil reserves, 59% of all gas, and 89% of all coal will be “unextractable” in their 1.5°C scenario. Canada faces a faster, deeper cut than most other regions, based on its high production costs for a polluting form of oil and its limited influence over world oil and gas markets. Middle Eastern countries and former Soviet states will see their production decline, but not as steeply, so that they retain an above-average share of the remaining oil and gas production.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation says Australia will be in a similar position.

“The United States is the only region that would see oil production increase from current levels, to about where it was before the pandemic, before peaking within a few years and then declining steadily,” Inside Climate writes. “U.S. natural gas production, however, would see an immediate and sharp decline in the paper’s scenario as renewable energy sources displace gas for generating electricity.”

Across all countries, “the plateauing of production and subsequent decline will mean that large amounts of fossil fuel reserves, prospects that are seen today as economic, will never be extracted,” the paper states. “This has important implications for producers who may be banking on monetizing those reserves in the future, and current and prospective investors. Investments made today in fossil fuel energy therefore risk being stranded.”

However, “there continues to be a disconnect between the production outlook of different countries and corporate entities and the necessary pathway to limit average temperature increases,” the four authors add. “The extent of fossil fuel decline in the coming decades remains uncertain, influenced by factors such as the rapidity of the rollout of clean technologies and decisions about the retirement of (and new investment in) fossil fuel infrastructure.”

One of those factors is the extent to which carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies become practical and affordable, in time to contribute to a 1.5°C future. “The possible extent of CDR further complicates this picture,” the authors write. “At high levels, this may allow for more persistent use of fossil fuels, but such assumptions have attracted considerable controversy.”

Alberta MLA May Face Law Society Complaint for Overheated Claim Against Climate Campaigns

An MLA in Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government may soon face a complaint to the Law Society of Alberta, after drastically overstating the dollars from foreign donors that went into anti-tar sands/oil sands campaigns in the province, The Energy Mix has learned.

The challenge to MLA Nicholas Milliken (UCP, Calgary-Currie) comes from former provincial Liberal Party leader David Khan, now a Calgary-based senior staff lawyer with Ecojustice. It centres on Milliken’s Friday tweet that “hundreds of millions of foreign dollars have been used to target the development of our province’s oil and gas industry”.

That figure was apparently Milliken’s take on the long-awaited, long-delayed report from Steve Allan, the UCP loyalist whose commission of inquiry was supposed to look at supposed foreign-funded influence over Alberta’s fossil industry. Unfortunately for Milliken, his numbers didn’t quite match up with Allan’s.

“While [Allan] finds that at least C$1.28 billion flowed into Canadian environmental charities from the United States between 2003 and 2019, only a small portion of that has been directed against the oilsands,” The Canadian Press writes. “Auditors Deloitte Forensic Inc. estimate that money at between $37.5 million and $58.9 million over that period — which averages to $3.5 million a year at most.”

By comparison, the Kenney government’s hapless fossil industry “war room” has received up to $30 million per year in taxpayer funding. Allan found that pro-fossil forces in Alberta took in at least $1.6 million per year, CP says, and Khan noted that the tar sands/oil sands themselves are 70% foreign-owned.

Nor did Allan find fault with the environmental groups he spent years looking into. “To be very clear, I have not found any suggestions of wrongdoing on the part of any individual or organization,” he concluded. “No individual or organization, in my view, has done anything illegal. Indeed, they have exercised their rights of free speech.”

The disconnect in Milliken’s numbers didn’t sit at all well with Khan, who’s vowing to take action if the MLA, an active lawyer on the Law Society rolls, doesn’t dial back the rhetoric.

“This is a lie, and I am going to consider reporting you to the Law Society of Alberta for wilfully promoting misinformation based on an Alberta government public inquiry report that found otherwise, Mr Milliken, Esquire,” Khan tweeted Saturday. “As a member of the bar (& MLA), you have a duty to not lie.”

With that gauntlet formally laid down, “I’m going to put out one more tweet and wait until Monday, asking him to retract and apologize. Normally, we should resolve these things among ourselves,” Khan told The Mix yesterday. If Milliken declines or ignores the request, “there have to be consequences. Lying sounds like a harsh word to use, but I can’t think of anything less direct that encompasses the actions they’ve taken.”

Milliken did not return a call and email requesting comment. An Allan spokesperson sent a prepared statement indicating that the commissioner would have no further comment on any aspect of the report.

A distillation of Deloitte’s work for the Allan report, obtained by The Mix, shows Canadian environmental charities receiving $8.1 billion from all sources over the study period, including $925 million from foreign sources. Non-Canadian environmental charities raised another $353 million for initiatives related to Canada, and Allan got his total of $1.28 billion by combining the two.

But Khan and others note that the totals include nearly $450 million that went to Ducks Unlimited, a non-profit dedicated to buying and preserving wetlands—and currently led by Larry Kaumeyer, a former principal secretary and interim chief of staff to Kenney.

While Khan is focusing his attention on Milliken at the moment, he pointed to similar tweets from Kenney, Energy Minister Sonya Savage, the United Conservative Party caucus, and other UCP representatives, in what could be interpreted as a coordinated online campaign.

“It’s been really shocking to me that a government would push out false claims, lies essentially, based on a report they commissioned which came to different conclusions,” he said. “Rather than respect the commissioner and the report they paid for and commissioned, which was Mr. Kenney’s idea, they’ve decided to push out the same narrative they’ve been flogging like a dead horse for years.”

Despite Allan’s findings to the contrary, “they’ve made no changes to their conspiracy theory about this vast network of evil environmentalists”—even though one of the principal sources of that theory, Vancouver blogger Vivian Krause, has since walked much of it back.

“What’s been most disturbing is that they’re using the figure that our Canadian environmental organizations have received in U.S. funding and conflating that with the very tiny amount of money that went to the anti-oilsands campaign which was never hidden, was never a conspiracy,” Khan added. “These people in a position of power are getting away with lying about something fundamental to our province and our future, and lying about something they spent so much time trying to prove, that the commissioner essentially disproved.”

Khan said he was concerned about that activity as a member of the legal profession, and acknowledged he might be more attuned to it because of his own time as a provincial party leader.

“I know how the sausage is made, I guess, and I was involved for three years at the highest level of provincial politics,” he told The Mix. “So I know all the players, I know how they operate.” But even so, “the confluence of it all was absolutely shocking to me,” particularly the apparent coordination across multiple Twitter accounts.

“Essentially, it’s misinformation from the highest levels of the Alberta government, the party in power, and the premier and leaders,” he said. “So it’s incredibly disturbing.”

New Zealand Became First Country to Set Climate Disclosure Rules for Big Investors

April 18, 2021: In a world first, New Zealand will require all its biggest banks, insurance companies, and investment managers to report the climate impacts of their business activities.

“We simply cannot get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 unless the financial sector knows what impact their investments are having on the climate,” Minister of Climate Change James Shaw said in a statement. “This law will bring climate risks and resilience into the heart of financial and business decision making.”

The new rule, introduced last week, applies to banks with assets above NZ$1 billion, insurers with more than $1 billion under management, and all equity and debt issuers listed on the New Zealand stock exchange, Reuters reports. It’s expected to mandate disclosures from about 200 companies beginning with the 2022 business year, which means company reports will begin showing up in 2023.

The news goes back to New Zealand’s promise in September, 2000 to introduce mandatory climate risk reporting requirements based on the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Risk Disclosures (TCFD). “New Zealand has made a leap in the right direction to safeguard its businesses and financial market for the future,” Michael Zimonyi, policy and external affairs director at the Climate Disclosure Standards Board, said at the time. “Now the real work begins of ensuring that businesses have the skills needed to implement these new requirements.”

Reuters notes that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has called the climate crisis the “nuclear-free moment of our generation”. Her government “has introduced several policies to lower emissions during its second term, including promising to make its public sector carbon-neutral by 2025 and buy only zero-emissions public transport buses from the middle of this decade,” the news agency writes.

In 2019, the country legislated a net-zero target by 2050, after promising that it would apply to all greenhouse gases except methane.

Major Canadian Solar Firm Denied Reports of Forced Labour

January 31, 2021: A Canadian solar company claimed no Uyghurs were employed at its 30-MW solar farm in China’s Xinjiang region, nor were any members of the persecuted Muslim community being forced into labour anywhere along its solar supply chain. But human rights observers said that last assertion didn’t stand up to the evidence.

Guelph, Ontario-based Canadian Solar claims that all of the seven people who work at its solar farm in Xinjiang are ethnic Han, “the majority group in China that make up more than 90% of the population,” writes the Globe and Mail. And despite widespread reports of abuse in the industry, a representative for Canadian Solar told the Globe the company “doesn’t believe ‘there is forced labour in our industry’.”

On the contrary, said company representative Isabel Zhang, the international spotlight on the persecution of Uyghurs stands to hurt the community. “The media narrative is not helpful for companies that don’t support forced labour, that wouldn’t engage in forced labour—because we would really think twice if we are employing Uyghur labour,” she said. “In a way, that’s actually bad for the Uyghur ethnicity.” 

That logic doesn’t stand up in the face of the corroboration, however. “Evidence for involuntary employment in Xinjiang come from numerous official documents about transfers of ‘rural surplus labourers’ as well as the existence of manufacturing plants alongside, and sometimes inside, fenced detention facilities,” writes the Globe. Personal testimonials from Uyghurs have also played a role.

The international outcry has led the Canadian government to propose a law requiring companies seeking federal trade commission assistance in China to supply a “Xinjiang Integrity Declaration.” Ottawa has also formally advised companies working in China that they face legal risks and “reputational damage related to their supply chains if it is discovered that they are sourcing from entities that employ forced labour.”

As for Canadian Solar’s assurances, any denial of the potential for forced labour in the solar supply chain “defies belief,” said Nathan Picarsic, co-founder of Horizon Advisory, which is currently gathering evidence of forced labour throughout the polysilicon supply chain in the Xinjiang region. 

More than a third of this critical solar panel component is produced in Xinjiang, by four of the world’s top manufacturers of the material. Horizon found that these companies “‘appear actively to participate in the resettlement of ethnic Uyghurs from poor areas of Xinjiang’ and ‘contribute to and implement re-education programs that impose political and military training on resettled populations’,” the Globe reports. The company explicitly named Canadian Solar as a buyer as recently as 2019.

Even if Canadian Solar comes through in its stated intent to audit its supply chains, that work is getting more difficult. “Numerous international audit groups have said publicly they will no longer work in Xinjiang, where authorities have used tools of surveillance and law enforcement to interfere with visits by outsiders,” the Globe writes.

‘Substantial Damage’, No Injuries as Freight Train Hit Wind Turbine Blade

September 25, 2021: A sleepy Sunday in Luling, Texas (population 5,800) was shattered in late August when a semi-truck and trailer pulling a wind turbine blade was struck by a freight train.

Citing local police shortly after the crash occurred, Austin-based KVUE News said the truck and trailer unit was two-thirds clear of the track when an oncoming Union Pacific freight train hit the end of the turbine blade.

As this video makes alarmingly clear, that last third made all the difference. Reporting (with suitably colourful language) on the scene unfolding before his eyes, the trucker who recorded the video describes the moment when the railroad crossing gate arms come down on the wind turbine blade. 

Also caught on the trucker’s cell phone camera is the driver of the wide-load escort vehicle, hot-footing back to his truck when he realizes the train is going to hit, and that the trapped semi needs room to try to pull free before impact. 

But it was too late: in the video, the semi is dragged backwards towards the track, flipping on its side, fenders and doors peeling away like an onion. 

Citing the police report, KVUE says the two engines pulling the train both suffered “substantial damage” in the collision, as did the truck and turbine blade. Three unoccupied parked cars, a commercial building, a utility pole, and the railroad crossing signal controller were also damaged.

While the truck driver was unhurt, train crew members were taken to hospital, apparently as a precaution. Luling police and Union Pacific Railroad’s own law enforcement are investigating the crash.

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The Battery Boom is Here

Wall Street Journal: Companies are poised to install record amounts of batteries on America’s electric grid this year, as government mandates and a steep decline in costs fuel rapid growth in power storage. The U.S., which had less than a gigawatt of large battery installations in 2020—roughly enough to power 350,000 homes for a handful […]

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