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Zero sum game

To save the world, we’ll need to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, says Canada’s top climate scientist.


"People don't have any idea about the scale of this problem," says Andrew Weaver. "You can't just go and do a little conservation here, and do a bit of recycling there and deal with it---that ain't gonna cut it. We have to find a path toward zero emissions. The only way to stabilize the atmosphere at any level of greenhouse gases is to go to zero emissions."

Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria, is one of the leading Canadian scientists looking at climate change, and co-author of the last three reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world body charged with studying climate change.

Weaver holds strong opinions. He urged Canadians to vote for Stéphane Dion and Dion's proposed carbon tax, forthrightly condemns the Harper's government "inaction and obstruction" on climate change and argues for increased use of nuclear power. He'll bring those opinions to a public talk in Halifax tonight, Thursday, at Dalhousie University.

The goal of completely eliminating human GHG emissions in order to avoid reaching irreversible and devastating climate change is firmly rooted in the accepted science. The real question is: Can we do it?

"We have a heck of a long way to go, but that doesn't mean we can't do it. There's still time," says Weaver.

Just not much time.

Climatologists, says Weaver, figure humans can emit about another 500 gigatonnes of GHG "between now and evermore" before we hit a "tipping point"----a point of no return---where the global climate caterwauls out of control and problems become too large for humans to manage.

If we get serious about it, he says, we can quickly reduce our emissions, then reduce them further (by perhaps 80 percent by the year 2050) and after that, eliminate them entirely.

How? First, says Weaver, there should be a carbon tax, as opposed to the cap-and-trade regulator system for large industrial emitters now being discussed in Ottawa. "Look at Canada right now---we've been talking about cap-and-trade for years. In BC they woke up one day and put a carbon tax on---that's the difference."

If a carbon tax slowly rose to $200 per tonne, suddenly seemingly futuristic schemes to scrub carbon from the atmosphere become feasible, says Weaver.

But $200 per tonne is an enormous figure---with no other changes, it would cost Nova Scotians $5 billion a year. The idea, however, is that as it costs more to emit GHG, it becomes more attractive to start using non-GHG emitting technologies.

I challenge Weaver on his support for nuclear power: Building nuclear plants requires huge capital expenditures for a reduction in GHG emissions that won't materialize for perhaps 20 years into the future. Wouldn't it be better to instead spend that money on wind farms and other renewable technology that can see returns in a year or two?

"That's the kind of argument we should be having, not these debates about waste, which is localized." says Weaver. "It's a good point---we should go after the low-hanging fruit of renewables. But I think nuclear power will play a part in the long run."

Weaver has nuanced views on the Canadian issue that looms largest in climate change. "Oh, god," he says simply when asked about the Alberta tar sands, then recites the litany of problems associated with them. Still, "it's mistaken to be focusing on the tar sands; rather, we should be focusing on the consumption."

Is humanity up to the challenge at hand? "I'm an optimist," he says. "In this business of science climate, let's be realistic. If you're not an optimist, it's depressing as all hell. It's such a big problem that it's too important for us not to deal with it, so I'm confident that we will."

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