One of the wonders of the global trade system is that these imbalances are efficiently sorted out. Not always however, without a few hiccups. The logistical hiccups are understandable and that’s what engineers are made for. The ideological or baseless ones are far more irritating, the result of misguided initiatives that have cleverly captured the moral high ground.
The preponderance of general opinion is that certain industrial developments are leading directly to a climate-related pending catastrophe. The question of whether the right developments are being scrutinized is drowned out by fact-challenged emotional arguments, or just plain old screaming. Looking after the environment is admirable, but it’s worth spending some time to make sure the right beasts are in the crosshairs.
Many climate change debates zero in on rankings of per capita emissions by country. While the reasons for this remain pointedly unclear – countries with insignificant absolute emissions and small populations stand out like cartoon villains – the statistic nevertheless garners most of the headlines. It’s unfortunate that the comparison gets made without reference to the net benefit provided to energy importing countries, a benefit that exists whether these countries admit it or not. In fact, the phenomenon goes beyond energy to all raw materials – producing countries are maligned by end users who choose not to understand what it takes for building materials to show up on their doorstep.
Countries that produce raw materials for other countries’ consumption tend to be high per capita green house gas emitters, particularly for those with small populations. Any ranking of per capita emitters will be dominated by small countries, particularly those that produce far more energy than they consume. Excess energy production is exported, benefitting those that need it. These transactions also present a net benefit to global standards of living.
With that said, does it make sense to unduly punish the producer? If you hire a firm to install a geothermal system that enables living off the grid, entailing serious digging, is it sensible to try to run the contractor out of business because his earth moving equipment creates pollution?
As an example, Canada is a huge country – the second largest by land mass – with only 35 million people. For perspective, Canada is 41 times the size of the United Kingdom with about half the population. Canada is also blessed with an abundance of minerals and energy resources that it shares with other countries through one of the most open economies in the world.
For this, Canada, and similar thinly populated raw material exporting countries like Australia, are singled out as climate change reprobates. The size of the land mass alone means, as an example, that natural phenomenon like decomposing vegetation will produce as much GHG emissions as many countries, but no one wants to hear that. And the reasons are as much to do with laziness as anything.
It’s easy to attack things like oil sands tailings ponds because they are widely known and not hidden, even though they are utterly insignificant on a global scale. They represent a small fraction of oil sands development (see below) and a ridiculously small fraction of even Canada’s total, never mind the world.
Before firing up your scathing comment machine, please include in your assault an analysis of how the aerial extent of oil sands tailings ponds compares to other industrial sites, or mines, or processing sites for materials used to make environmental products. Here’s a head start for you – oil sands tailings ponds cover approximately 77 square kilometres (out of total oil sands deposits covering 142,000 square kilometres). A single tailings pond in Baotou, China, created by processing rare-earth minerals for use in high tech devices like wind turbine magnets, covers approximately 61 square kilometres and is at least as toxic. Furthermore, there are others like it in the area.
Every school child knows how deadly the oil sands are, but how many know about this disgusting side of the green energy business?
This is in no way meant to be a diatribe against green energy. The point is that industrial development is not always pretty and often leaves a sizeable environmental footprint. That holds true for green energy, where even solar farms are sometimes unwelcome. Any energy production has an environmental footprint, whether someone is chained to the security gate or not.
Somewhere along the line, common sense has up and left the debate.
Energy and mineral production requires large-scale industrial processes that will necessarily increase emissions levels. But that production is necessary for even the most fundamental green initiatives, never mind feeding nations and building cities. The consequent irony that densely populated areas can lower their per capita environmental footprint because of the countries that provide their raw materials is totally lost on everyone. It’s part of the fairy tale world we live in, where everyone likes a burger but the thought of a cow dying of unnatural causes is enormously upsetting.
I mention the oil sands because the green movement has chosen them for some inexplicable reason as the poster child for environmental destruction. This is even though the actual size of development is measly compared to the overall size (767 square kilometres developed out of 142,000, as opposed to the only slightly misleading 152,000 oil sands-disturbed square kilometres that the Sierra Club calculates (23 percent of Alberta’s size).
If you’re serious about total greenhouse gas emissions, China, the US, and the European Union produce half of them, so time would far better be spent watching those places. China continues to build coal fired power plants at an alarming rate, dwarfing even total oil sands emissions. By current estimates – which should be dubious to any bystander who simply looks at the reference periods, but it’s the best we’ve got – China produces almost 23 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Canada? Less than 2.
But who’s the primary villain according to real experts like Leonardo DiCaprio?
Cleaning up the environment is a good thing. Commodity producers don’t want waste, they don’t want to generate excess emissions, and they don’t particularly care to be vilified by children.
But at the end of the day, protests and name calling and fear mongering don’t change the fact that the world currently needs 94 million barrels of oil per day, or 1.6 million tonnes of copper per year, and so on.
Everyone’s standard of living depends on these goods arriving as needed…Everyone! Canada and all exporting countries, will continue to provide the materials necessary for the remarkable standard of living we enjoy today, for as long as the world needs them. Someday the world might well run on renewable energy, but today it does not.
If you choose to bite the hand that feeds, well that’s OK, because those hands are protected by work gloves; never far away from real solutions.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here