Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Grocery hike has direct link to climate change

Climate change expert Dr. Thomas Pedersen spoke in Saskatoon on the same day as several major announcements were made about food price increases both in Canada and globally. It underscored his thesis of "the global implications" of climate trends.
"We are paying more for bread now as a consequence of supply disruptions that began with a record six week heat wave in Russia in July and August 2010," said Pedersen, executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) based in B.C.
Over July and August 2010, the global wheat price rose more than 50% as Russia predicted a 25% decline in production and banned wheat exports, Pedersen explained.
The pressure on wheat prices continued apace with torrential rains in parts of Canada, Australia and Pakistan. On March 3, 2011, George Weston Ltd., one of the largest grocery-product manufacturing and distribution conglomerates in North America, announced an average 5% food price hike, starting April 1. Competitors are expected to follow suit.
Rising food prices are also considered a factor in sparking the protests in Tunisia and Egypt.
Pedersen outlined the back stories to other headlines of "the warmest decade in recorded history," the period 2001-2010. The heat wave in Europe in 2003 led to 29,000 deaths of elderly citizens in France, twice as high as the normal death rate. "These elderly had never experienced such prolonged heat before and did not know how to react or adapt," he said.
The institute Dr. Pedersen heads is researching a range of social and technological innovations.
"A detailed study of glaciers in the Canadian Rockies was published in 2010. It documents that glaciers in B.C. have lost 11% of their surface area of ice in the 20-year period 1985-2005, and in Alberta, 25%."
In 2010 a Swedish team sailed the Northwest Passage and didn't encounter any ice. This is the third time in the last five years that the passage has been open. The decline in the Arctic ice pack and more open ocean surfaces will mean far more absorption of heat and an amplifying of the warming.
Pedersen also sees some hopeful signs. Russia previously had an obstructionist position on climate change, but during the extreme drought and record-shattering conditions of July 2010, President Medvedev called it a wake-up call and advocated a global response to climate change. More concretely, in Pedersen's home province, former premier Gordon Campbell developed a personal commitment to the issue after reading The Weather Makers: The History and Future Impact of Climate Change. He instituted a small, progressively accelerating but revenue neutral carbon tax in the province in 2008. According to Pedersen, "it is a beautiful tax." It is now driving capital investments in universities and elsewhere that will lead directly to improved energy efficiencies.
One good example is their research on an east-west electrical grid in Canada. He said, "B.C. gets 95% of its energy from hydro. Alberta relies on coal and gas for 90% of its energy. It is right next door to the third largest battery in the world, the W.A.C. Bennett Dam but there is no line to Alberta."
If there were, Edersen claimed, "the dam could backstop a huge conversion to wind energy in Alberta. An integrated prairie grid with wind in Alberta and Saskatchewan bookended in B.C. and Manitoba could compensate for the intermittency of wind power."
Wind and hydro make a good marriage because hydro can be easily turned on and off. "A turbine is turned on at the Bennett Dam at 4: 30pm daily to meet the suppertime demand in southern B.C. and there is a one to two minute response time," he said.
The institute is studying the obstacles to a prairie wide or national grids including the provincial jurisdiction aspects.
In his view, the essential thing is bringing the right people to the table for big policy decisions and he outlined a cautionary tale. The U.S. Energy Independence Act of 2007 set noble goals for expanding ethanol production from corn. However, this contradicts water policy goals. A large dead zone caused by phytoplankton blooms in the Gulf of Mexico will now expand substantially due to the larger nitrogen use on corn and run off into the Mississippi drainage basin.
Pedersen expressed great concern about the lack of investment in clean tech in Canada compared to the U.S. and nations in Asia and Europe. "Jurisdictions which have reduced CO2 emissions have found it stimulates innovation, employment and economic diversification," he said.
Pedersen calls a low carbon economy "the next industrial revolution." PICS is looking at the role of incentives in helping overcome the psychological aversion to change, the role of regulations, like building codes and the establishment of social norms.

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