The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change 2017 report looks behind the numbers on planetary carbon footprint, with a special focus on how the burning of fossil fuels affects human health.
While the Keystone XL pipeline dominated headlines this week, one astute comment in The Times asked how much demand is out there for crude oil from Alberta? If KXL were built to its original purpose — to run across country to refineries in the southern U.S. to render the tar sands into a global export, then a new report from The Lancet ahead of the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, suggested the future of the pipeline could be on shaky ground. While global demand for liquid fuels started growing in 1970, more recent trends toward fuel efficient and alternative fuel vehicles, the plummeting use of coal, and the global climate accord signed in Paris in 2016 indicate the consumption of fossil fuels may have reached its peak.
“Although some transport types have transitioned away from carbon-intensive fuel use and fuel efficiency has improved in select countries, transport is still heavily dominated by gasoline and diesel. Transport fuel use on a per-capita basis has increased worldwide by almost 65% since 1970.
“However, non-conventional fuels (electric, biofuels, and natural gas) have been rapidly gaining traction since the 2000s, with more than 2 million electric vehicles sold since 2010, mostly in the USA, China, Japan, and some European countries. These figures are modest compared with the overall sales of cars per year (77 million in 2017) and the total global fleet of 1.2 billion cars.”
Canada might be better off building its own refinery — not least because climate change-enhanced hurricanes have exposed the vulnerabilities of U.S. refineries in Houston and New Orleans. Or, building EVs and solar panels instead of the Keystone XL pipeline.
“Levels of sustainable travel appear to be increasing in many European cities, while cities in emerging economies are facing sustainable mobility challenges. Although levels of private transport use remain high in many cities in the U.S. and Australia, evidence suggests that they are beginning to decrease.”
In the U.S. — where cars are the second largest generator of all U.S. carbon emissions at 28% — car ownership rates have plummeted since 1990.
While electric vehicles are suddenly cool again — quadrupling their market share since 2000— cities need to do more to discourage driving. Cities known for their urbanism like Chicago and Vancouver have added more cars than transit riders during their boom years. Northeast Ohio is faring just as poorly in every sustainable transportation indicator, from its dead last rank in job access to increasing its vehicle miles traveled during the worst Recession in two generations.
Nowhere near the UN recommended 20% of national transportation budgets are being invested in public transit, cycling and other sustainable transportation options. Driving is the unhealthiest activity in America.
“Exposure to air pollution from road transport is particularly challenging in cities where vehicles emit street-level air pollution.”
Long the laggard, power generation has been a brighter spot. The decline of coal promises to be swift. New coal power plants have dropped by 50% in the last YEAR (pre-construction planning at 570 gigawatts in January, 2017, compared with 1090 gigawatts in January, 2016).
Powering our computers, TVs, refrigerators, and living spaces with coal generates 85% of the soot and smog worldwide — which has an estimated cost of reducing lifespans by 10 years in some places: 71.% of the nearly 3,000 cities in a World Health Organization database keeping track of their pollution are above the recommended safe levels for soot and smog.
The bright spot is the growth of renewable energy. “Renewable electricity as a share of total generation has increased worldwide by more than 20% from 1990 to 2013. Meeting the IEA’s 2 degree Celsius pathway and the Paris Agreement requires that no new coal-fired plants be built (beyond those with construction already underway), with a complete phase-out of unabated plants (not fitted with carbon capture and storage) by 2040.”
Which brings us back to the Canadian electric vehicles and solar panel industries. We’re going to need them. China likely won’t be big enough to meet the need. If the Paris Climate Accord stays and each nation in it follows through on its commitments to reduce global emissions and remain on the 2 degree C pathway, the market for renewables will need 2% growth for the next 35 years, which is about 2.5 times the current level of growth. Global output of renewables will then reach the 400 gigawatts needed by the year 2050.
The report touches on other areas that are major contributors to global greenhouse gases, like agriculture and health care.
The United States is easily the biggest red meat consumer. Europe reduced its consumption and Africa has not seen an increase in 20 years. China has increased consumption of red meat from cattle — which dominates the carbon footprint of agriculture at 6 gigatonnes emitted per year — at the fastest pace (+13%) because of its growing middle class.
Like renewables, health care is touted as a bright spot. The industry has set some impressive carbon reduction goals and is starting to follow through on them. The Cleveland Clinic’s goal to make its operation carbon neutral by 2027 is not at all an outlier, with other giants like Kaiser and the entire UK national health systems setting carbon neutrality as their goal as well.