Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Race to be No. 1 polluter (per capita)

Dr Julien Kenny
Trinidad Express
April 4, 2006

One of the problems of scientific investigation is that it may only conclude the reality of any phenomenon on the basis of probability. In some the probability edges toward certainty. But in some it hovers around a 50-50 chance. In the case of global warming and climate change it does hover backward and forward between yes it's real, and, no it's merely part of a long-term cyclical change in an interglacial period.

The problem lies partly with the comparisons between the life span of the average human being and time scales of changing global weather patterns, and the adequacy of long term data. The last glacial period ended some 11,000 years ago when much of the northern hemisphere was under one vast sheet of ice.

But the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere is well known scientifically. The higher the concentration of this gas the greater amount of heat is trapped in the atmosphere. And it is well known from ice cores in both hemispheres that the levels of carbon dioxide have been rising over the past two centuries, coincident with industrialisation and fossil fuel burning.

And now come the events. The calving of immense sheets of the Antarctic ice sheet, thinning of the polar sea ice sheets, retreat of glaciers, the melting of the snows of Kilimanjaro, sea level rise and the polar bears starving.

There are many in the scientific community who are of the view that we may have crossed the critical point of no return where the rate of heat trapping is beyond any known measure of human reduction of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The great fear is that when this point is passed there will be irreversible global warming with devastating effects.

Not that I expect to be around for the experience-it may take two or three generations-but the musings arose from two sources, the revised National Environmental Policy (NEP) and Mr Manning's prediction that by 2020 Trinidad and Tobago will have become the world's No. 1 in terms of per capita electricity consumption. Even the NEP is in on the No. 1 thing.

In its foreword, referring to the petrochemical sector, it proudly states that the country is the largest exporter of LNG to the United States of America (the largest polluter currently) and the largest exporter of ammonia. It slips the writers of the policy that the country also has the largest gas pipeline and LNG train in the western hemisphere. And I am sure that becoming the No. 1 in electricity consumption is certainly one of Mr Manning's most accurate predictions.

But look at the other side of the coin. If we generated all the electricity that we use from hydropower, solar and wind power, and oceanic currents, we would really be the No. 1 nation in the world in terms of environmental sustainability. But hold on. Most, if not all, of the electricity will come from burning natural gas and what does this produce? Carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. It may be an "environmentally friendly" fuel, compared with petroleum, in that the products of combustion are carbon dioxide and water, but it nevertheless produces a greenhouse gas, tonnes and tonnes of it.

Mr Manning suggests that our production of electricity = natural gas burnt, has doubled in a few years and there is no doubt that he is absolutely correct. If one looks at the world figures for carbon dioxide emissions for Trinidad and Tobago the picture is-980 : 9.97 million metric tonnes (mmt), 1990 : 18.14 mmt, 2000 27.38 mmt. The most recent figure available from the source consulted is 2003 some 32.39 mmt.

In other words we have tripled our carbon dioxide emissions in a mere 23 years. On a per capita basis we will certainly become, as Mr Manning has predicted, No. I in electricity generation, and, No. 1 in carbon dioxide production. We will therefore lead the world in per capita contributions to global warming, if it exists.

Curiously, the system of accounting for carbon dioxide emissions assigns the figures to the source of production. Thus any LNG exported and burnt to keep the world's No. 1 polluter is actually accounted as T&T production. The natural gas actually burnt in T&T to generate electricity is also part of the national figure for emissions. So that assuming that the current figure is in the order of say 40 mmt, this will work out at about 30 metric tonnes per citizen! Per capita we were supposed to be either No. 3 or No. 5 just two years ago. Just think, No. 1 in the world!

Forty years ago the North Sea gas came in to the British homes and everyone converted their heating and cooking. Today the source is depleted to the point where Britain is importing energy from Russia! I guess we'll import from Chavez.


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