Why Canada (and all nations) Should Embrace a Price on Carbon – a rebuttal

There was a recent article in the National Post attempting to explain why Canada shouldn’t do anything about its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Thankfully, the article never stooped so low as to argue that human-induced climate change is not a serious issue. Rather, the author’s main argument was focused on the fact that China currently emits over 10 times more GHG emissions than Canada, and therefore, any GHG emissions reductions that Canada achieves would be a useless attempt to curb this global problem.
Sure it’s a bit of a sting when Canada has the goal of reducing its GHG emissions from 739 Mega Tonnes (Mt) CO2eq (in 2012) to 524 Mt CO2eq by the year 2030, and China’s current policy allows their GHG emissions to rise from 7,500 (2012) to 13,600 Mt CO2eq by 2030. However, this increase in China’s GHG emissions is understandable given they are a developing country and the GDP per capita difference between Canada ($29,800) and China ($5,000) is a justifiable reason to give China far more leniency than Canada. Let’s first look at a country-by-country comparison of annual GHG emissions and country population to get an idea of where China and Canada fit into this picture along with most other nations in the world.

Figure 1: Annual greenhouse gas emissions by country (Mt CO2eq, top axis); population by country (million, bottom axis). Both on a log10 scale graph.

Figure 1: Annual greenhouse gas emissions by country (Mt CO2eq, top axis); population by country (million, bottom axis). Both on a log10 scale graph.

Data sources: GHG emissions ( 1, 2); population.

It is an extremely flawed attitude to believe that Canada shouldn’t do its part because Canada’s 33 or so million people and 739 Mt CO2eq of GHG emissions (2012) are so much smaller than China’s 1.3 billion people and 7,710 Mt CO2eq emissions (2012).
What if all countries that are relatively small take this attitude? If we add the GHG emissions of countries with populations that are less than 100 million people the result is around 12,270 Mt CO2eq per year – an emissions rate that is 1.6 times greater than China’s annual GHG emissions. If all of the 184 some odd countries with populations that are less than 100 million people and emitting a marginal amount of GHG emissions when compared to China took on the attitude that they’re small, and therefore, shouldn’t do their part in reducing their country’s emissions, we’d be in a lot of trouble. If these countries adopted the attitude portrayed in this recent article,we’d likely be creating a far worse climatic impact on the planet than China for many years to come.
To say my country contributes minutely to a global issue and hence we should do nothing, is simply a deplorable attitude to take when it comes to global problems such as climate change. We need to think less like nationalists and more like global citizens. When we do this, we gain a clearer picture of who is really to blame and who should put in the most efforts. As figure 2 illustrates below, it is places like Canada that have the greatest carbon footprint per capita than most countries in the world. In fact, Canada’s carbon footprint is about 3.8 times larger than China’s average per capita footprint. So how can a Canadian argue that Canada should do nothing?

Figure 2: Average per capita Carbon Footprint of nations (tonnes CO2eq/person)

Figure 2: Average per capita Carbon Footprint of nations (tonnes CO2eq/person)

Data sources: GHG emissions (1, 2); population.

As a Canadian, does this attitude reflect a globally justified balance? Simply think about why an average Canadian emits more GHG emissions than an average Chinese person. It is clear that there is a huge inequality gap between nations and this is why developing countries like China are given greater leeway while still not getting a free ride.
As for Canada’s carbon tax and the expected cost to Canadian households, I recommend you read a far more informed article on the subject here. One thing you need to realize is that Canada’s carbon tax is to be a revenue neutral tax. That means taxes on carbon-intense energy sources that consumers end up paying will be distributed back to the people in a way that supports the most needy or sustainably innovative groups of our population. The people who win in this equation are those who take climate change seriously and innovate and adapt to live a lifestyle that is considerably less reliant on fossil fuels.



Ecogamut Consulting – helping you achieve your sustainability goals

At Ecogamut, making sustainability metrics work for you is the bread and butter of our operation. Our toolbox of expertise includes life cycle assessment, environmental product declaration, carbon footprinting, carbon offsetting, and climate change adaptation strategies. With a team of Ph.D.-level experts you can be rest assured that Ecogamut will deliver a high quality and high impact product that will effectively direct your organization or jurisdiction towards its most cherished sustainability goals.
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Measuring the Success of British Columbia’s Renewable and Low Carbon Fuel Regulation

British Columbia’s (B.C.) Greenhouse Gas Reduction (GHGR) Targets Act (GHGRTA) contains ambitious goals of reducing province-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 33% in 2020 and 80% in 2050 (relative to 2007). With ~38% of B.C.’s GHG emissions stemming from transportation (in 2012), it is clear that B.C.’s GHG emissions reduction goals can only be realized with an effective transport fuel policy. Enacted in December 2009, the GHGR Renewable and Low Carbon Fuel Requirement (RLCFR) Act and Regulation have achieved significant GHG emissions reductions accredited to its enforcement with 904,900 t CO2eq emissions reduction in 2012. At face-value, this is a great success. However, there are several accounting issues that suggest these GHG emissions reductions are inaccurate.
In a recent study published in Biofuels, we show that the RLCFR legislation has not been nearly as effective as proclaimed by the B.C. government. Nevertheless, this transport fuel regulation is essential if B.C. wants to achieve its future GHG emissions reduction targets.
If you’d like more details, please feel free to contact us. Otherwise, here’s a brief overview of the paper…

An Intro to BC’s fuel regulation

With overwhelming consensus (Cook et al., 2013), it’s become clear that human-induced climate change is a serious issue and this has led to a number of local jurisdictions stepping up their climate action plan with bold targets written into legislation, where B.C. is poised to be at the forefront. Taking inspiration from California’s Greenhouse Solutions Act (approved September 2005) the Liberal government of B.C. first expressed their ambitious GHG emissions reduction targets during the reading of the provincial Throne Speech in February 2007 with now legislated targets of reducing GHG emissions by 33% in 2020 and by 80% in 2050—relative to GHG emissions in 2007 (64.3 Mega tonnes (Mt) CO2eq) (Sodero, 2011). One act/regulation that has gained particular notice is the GHG emissions reduction Renewable Low Carbon Fuel Requirements (RLCFR) Act/Regulation of B.C. (B.C. Government, 2014), because it has been noted and given media attention as being B.C.’s most effective climate legislation to date in terms of reducing GHG emissions (Thomson, 2015; Wolinetz & Axsen, 2014).
Enacted in December of 2009, the RLCFR Regulation requires two main conditions of large-scale (greater than 75 million m3 per year) transportation fuel suppliers of B.C. Firstly, these fuel suppliers are required to blend their fossil gasoline and diesel fuels with at least 5% and 4% of renewable fuels, respectively (B.C. Government, 2014). Secondly, these fuel suppliers must ensure that the life cycle carbon intensity (CI) of their fuels is below the CI limit prescribed during a given year, where this CI limit is set to be reduced by 10% from 2011 to 2020 (B.C. Government, 2014).
According to B.C. government accounts the RLCFR has been a success thus far, where in its first three years, GHG emission reductions attributed to the RLCFR have increased: 558.7 Kilo (K) tonnes (t) CO2eq in 2010 to 904.9 Kt CO2eq in 2012 (B.C. Government, 2012). In fact, a recent report has stated that the RLCFR is currently B.C.’s most important piece of climate legislation where it has contributed to 25% of B.C.’s GHG emissions reductions in 2012, relative to the 2007 baseline year (Wolinetz & Axsen, 2014). With this early success, it is important to ask how this reduction in GHG emissions is being calculated and whether there are any important life cycle accounting measures being left out of the equations.

What the study did

The study looked into the details of the RLCFR of B.C. to firstly understand how past GHG emissions reductions that are being reported and accredited to the RLCFR are being calculated. Secondly, this study highlighted two key CI accounting items that the RLCFR neglects to consider: incorporating indirect land use change (iLUC) and developing fossil fuel CIs that are representative of the fossil fuel mix of a given compliance period.

Now let’s take a closer look at iLUC.

Why iLUC is important

The inclusion of iLUC is important because GHG emissions due to iLUC can lead to a significant increase in CI (Broch, Hoekman, & Unnasch, 2013). For instance, Ahlgren & Di Lucia (2014) undertook a review of iLUC modelling results and found iLUC factors for corn and wheat ethanol to range from 7 to 104 g CO2eq/MJ and -80 to 155 g CO2eq/MJ, respectively. For canola, soy and palm-based biodiesel, iLUC factors ranged from 2 to 220 g CO2eq/MJ, 2 to 270 g CO2eq/MJ and 3 to 114 g CO2eq/MJ, respectively (Ahlgren & Di Lucia, 2014). These iLUC factors are substantial given that the most recently approved CIs (iLUC not included) reported by the B.C. Government for ethanol, biodiesel and hydrogenated derived renewable diesel (HDRD) ranged from -4.23 to 70.36 g CO2eq/MJ, -0.05 to 38.32 g CO2eq/MJ, and 18.16 to 63.66 g CO2eq/MJ, respectively. The inclusion of iLUC factors for B.C.’s dedicated crop‐based ethanol and biodiesel fuel sources would dramatically change the perceived benefits of a renewable fuel that is derived from cropland.

What we found in the accounts as reported

In terms of total GHG savings, the reported GHG savings are 12% higher than those calculated in this study using the regulation’s equation. As illustrated in figure 1, the main disparity stems from GHG savings due to the use of biodiesel and HDRD fuels. In all cases, except for propane, the reported savings tend to be higher than the values we calculated using the regulation’s specified equation.
Figure 1: Greenhouse gas savings (kilotonnes [Kt] CO2eq) in the year 2012 attributed to the RLCFR Regulation for each alternative fuel type. Values are presented as those reported in the government accounts and as a result of own calculations. Percentage values represent the C/¡ % difference of calculated results relative to reported values. HDRD = hydrogenated derived renewable diesel; CNG = compressed natural gas; LNG = liquefied natural gas.

Figure 1: Greenhouse gas savings (kilotonnes [Kt] CO2eq) in the year 2012 attributed to the RLCFR Regulation for each alternative
fuel type. Values are presented as those reported in the government accounts and as a result of own calculations. Percentage
values represent the C/¡ % difference of calculated results relative to reported values. HDRD = hydrogenated derived renewable
diesel; CNG = compressed natural gas; LNG = liquefied natural gas.

How reductions change when iLUC is included

GHG savings are greatly reduced when the average iLUC factors are included. In some cases, from this GHG perspective it would have made more sense to use conventional petroleum-based gasoline and diesel in place of these GHG intense crop derived ethanol and HDRD supplies consumed in B.C. These significant fuel-specific reductions in GHG savings, in turn, equate to significant reductions in total 2012 GHG saving, as is depicted in figure 2.
Figure 2: Total greenhouse gas emissions savings in the year 2012 that are attributed to the RLCFR Regulation when iLUC factors are included. Total values are calculated using own calculations. Calculated and reported savings with no iLUC factors are also included (horizontal broken lines) for comparison. SD = standard deviation of iLUC factors. ‘#’ yr AP = amortization period (years) to divide iLUC related GHG emissions across; K = kilo ('000). Negative values indicate no savings or a net burden.

Figure 2: Total greenhouse gas emissions savings in the year 2012 that are attributed to the RLCFR Regulation when iLUC
factors are included. Total values are calculated using own calculations. Calculated and reported savings with no iLUC factors are
also included (horizontal broken lines) for comparison. SD = standard deviation of iLUC factors. ‘#’ yr AP = amortization period (years) to divide iLUC related GHG emissions across; K = kilo (‘000). Negative values indicate no savings or a net burden.

Figure 2 displays the range of total 2012 RLCFR-related GHG savings when iLUC is factored into the calculations and it clearly shows the importance of including iLUC where even the application of median iLUC factors can lead to greater than 50% reductions (see triangle markers in figure 2) in total GHG savings. As the amortization period increases, the range of GHG savings converges because the iLUC factors decrease. When a 30 year amortization period and the median iLUC factors are applied, total 2012 GHG savings are reduced from the reported 904.9 Kt CO2eq, to 505.4 Kt CO2eq—a significant 44% decrease.

Some important points of discussion

Another important caveat that is lost in the RLCFR reported total savings lies with electric mobility. The majority of GHG savings attributed to electric mobility stems from B.C.’s lower mainland (greater Vancouver area) sky-train and trolleybus system in which most of this transport network existed well before the RLCFR regulation was enforced in 2010. In other words, the RLCFR cannot claim any sort of additionality or credit for implementing the vast majority and if not all of this low-carbon mode of electric public transportation.
Another concern is that there is no public RLCFR documentation that provides an explanation as to why iLUC is not accounted for. Uncertainty should not be an argument for systematically excluding iLUC from the life cycle CI of a biofuel (Muñoz et al., 2015). Even with the level of uncertainty in iLUC factors to date, including iLUC gives us an indication of an extremely relevant hotspot that should not be overlooked. The inclusion of iLUC makes the CIs of biofuels more accurate, not less. In other words, it is better to be ‘approximately right than precisely wrong’.
In the immediate short term the RLCFR regulators need to provide a better publicly accessible explanation of why they are not including iLUC. This explanation should be accompanied with an implementation plan that clearly states milestones and methods for generating iLUC factors to be incorporated into the RLCFR Regulation.
There are numerous reasons to remain optimistic that technological innovation will enable the goals of the RLCFR Regulation to be realized. It is becoming increasingly clear that carbon capture and storage systems will need to be integrated with oil sands related processing units, upgraders and refineries. For instance, results from Cai et al. (2015) indicate that around 16.3 to 39.7 g CO2eq/MJ diesel occurs during the oil sands recovery (9 to 30.1 g CO2eq/MJ diesel) and refining (7.3 to 9.6 g CO2eq/MJ diesel) processes. If CCS units can create even a 50% net reduction in these life cycle emission sources, then B.C.’s increasingly stringent CI limits will be easier to reach.
B.C. needs to continue research, development and provide economic incentives until regional waste wood and agricultural residue-based diesel/ethanol (i.e. 2nd generation biofuels) can be generated at a commercial scale. Generating fuels from such sources have proven to exhibit substantially lower life cycle GHG emissions (in the range of ‐5 to 30 g CO2eq/MJ) than their petroleum counterparts and iLUC is not a significant issue (Chum et al., 2011).
One of B.C.’s big transport related GHG solutions resides in electric mobility. Given B.C.’s vast quantity of hydro power resources and a correspondingly low electricity grid CI, the Government of B.C. has a great opportunity for incentivizing the increased adoption of personal electric vehicles (PEVs). The commercial availability of PEVs is global, and with an already developed and expanding network of charging stations, B.C. is ripe for increasing PEV share in the personal motor vehicle fleet. Smart meters could also be used to account for domestic EV charging and thus increase measured GHG emissions reductions from personal EV transport in B.C. However, caution and analysis is required to ensure PEVs do not end up as just a secondary family vehicle (due to the currently low mileage per charge) and PEVs do not significantly displace more GHG friendly modes of transportation, like bus (trolley), sky train, bicycling and walking.

For a full list of references and more details please contact us…



Ecogamut Consulting – helping you achieve your sustainability goals

At Ecogamut, making sustainability metrics work for you is the bread and butter of our operation. Our toolbox of expertise includes life cycle assessment, environmental product declaration, carbon footprinting, carbon offsetting, and climate change adaptation strategies. With a team of Ph.D.-level experts you can be rest assured that Ecogamut will deliver a high quality and high impact product that will effectively direct your organization or jurisdiction towards its most cherished sustainability goals.
Have a sustainability project on your mind and think we can help? Contact

Canada’s Environmental Scorecard on Agriculture

im McCabe / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

With nearly sixty-five million hectares of land for crops and livestock production, Canada is among the largest agricultural sectors in the world. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has recently published their fourth Agri-Environmental Indicators report providing an insightful look into a number of sustainability metrics used for measuring the environmental trends (1981 to 2011) in Canada’s agricultural sector. In this post we’ll take a glance at the sustainability trends of Canada’s agricultural sector over the past twenty years through four nation-wide environmental indices.
Trends for the four Compound Sustainability Indices that are currently applied in AAFC's Agri-Environmental Indicator reporting

Trends for the four Compound Sustainability Indices that are currently applied in AAFC’s Agri-Environmental Indicator reporting (adapted from AAFC’s report)

It should be kept in mind that AAFC’s science based agri-environmental indicators as presented above are a nation-wide summary of environmental performance covering a range of different environmental indicators across Canada’s diverse regions and commodity mixes. You’re urged to dig deeper into the different indices and region-specific results by following this link.


The overall trend from 1981 to 2011 for biodiversity shows steady and consistent improvements across Canada, moving from a ‘Poor’ status in 1981, to a ‘Moderate’ status in 2011, as depicted by the Biodiversity Compound Index above. This compound performance index is a weighted average of the Soil Cover and Wildlife Habitat Capacity performance indices.1 As such, it is a highly  statistical snapshot of these two variables both in terms of current state and over time.2 The improvements are largely due to changes in tillage practices reflected in the Soil Cover Indicator in particular. The use of reduced tillage and no-till has been increasing continuously since the early 1990s, as a means to reduce fuel costs and improve soil health. Between 2006 and 2011, the total area of agricultural land under intensive tillage declined by 30.9%. In 2011, no-till land management was applied on more than 50% of all agricultural areas prepared for seeding in Canada (Statistics Canada, 20116). This reduction in tillage, coupled with the decreased use of summerfallow, resulted in a national-scale improvement in average levels of soil cover in Canada. From 1981 to 2011, average levels of soil cover in Canada increased by 7.6%.
From 1986 to 1996, wildlife habitat capacity (WHC) was relatively stable; however from 1996 to 2011 there was an overall decline in WHC at the national scale, despite the drop in summerfallow (which offers limited capacity for wildlife) and rise in soil cover. The decline in WHC was primarily due to the intensification of farming as well as the loss of natural and semi-natural land, mainly resulting from the shift away from pasture and forage production to annual cropping, especially in Eastern Canada.

Soil Quality

Considering various aspects of soil quality together, as illustrated in the Soil Quality Compound Index above, agriculture’s environmental performance has a ‘Good’ status, and has significantly improved over the 30-year period preceding 2011. This compound index is a weighted3 average of the performance indices reported for the Soil Erosion, Soil Organic Carbon and Soil Salinization Indicators, plus findings from the Trace Elements Indicator (extrapolated from previous years, not reported in this publication).4 As such it is a highly generalized statistical snapshot of soil health, both in terms of current state and over time.
Improvements to the Soil Quality Compound Index can be directly attributed to improvements in land management practices, such as increased adoption of reduced tillage and no-till practices, and the reduction in area under summerfallow. The improved performance was driven by the Prairie Provinces where cultivated agriculture is extensive and is dominated by cereals and oilseeds. This agricultural region is most amenable to reduced-till and no-till practices. Increased soil cover resulting from these has led to a significant increase in soil organic matter. The reduction in tillage has also led to a reduction in soil erosion risk, notably tillage erosion, which has historically accounted for the majority of erosion losses (followed by wind and then water). The extensive reduction in area of summerfallow has also improved soil health, leading to a reduction in soil erosion – particularly from wind and water; and has also reduced salinization risk.
Generally, higher rainfall in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces compared to the Prairies supports more intensive agriculture and a different mix of crops. These regions have seen a shift away from pasture and forage production, following the decline in cattle production in 2006, towards row crops which offer less soil protection. However, as the majority of agricultural land is sited in the Prairies, where soil health is improving, the national picture is also one of improvement for soil health.

Water Quality

Considering various aspects of risks to water quality together ,5 agriculture’s environmental performance currently has a ‘Good’ status. It does however represent an overall decline from a desired state in 1981. This overall declining performance is mirrored by the individual indicator performance indices, which moved from ‘Desired’ status in 1981 to ‘Good’ status in 2011, with the exception of the Phosphorus Indicator, which moved from ‘Desired’ status to ‘Moderate’ status. The deterioration in the index can be attributed to increased application of nutrients (N and P) as fertilizer and manure as well as an increased use of pesticides across Canada.
The declining agri-environmental performance was observed in all regions of the country. In the case of nitrogen, the levels of residual soil nitrogen have increased steadily as inputs from fertilizer and manure in particular have increased at a faster rate than outputs from crop harvests, gaseous losses and leaching. This soil nitrogen is most readily available in the form of water-soluble nitrates, which are at risk of leaching to ground water and, where fields are tile-drained, into drainage water, which can then be directed into ditches, streams and rivers.
Despite this increasing risk, the Nitrogen indicator remains in the ‘Desired’ category. In the case of phosphorus, performance has declined quite dramatically from ‘Desired’ in 1981 to 1991, dipping to ‘Good’ in 1996, recovering to ‘Desired’ in 2001 and declining since that time. This report is the first time this indicator has been classified as ‘Moderate’, reflecting a combination of phosphorus source and transport. Increased surpluses in soil-phosphorus in all regions reflect national increases in fertilizer and manure application as well as increased concentration of livestock. Added to this increased source is the much higher than average runoff in 2011, following a very wet spring throughout the Prairies. This increased runoff increased risk by flushing much of the built-up soil phosphorus into surface waters.
While overall livestock numbers have decreased on a national scale, there is a growing trend towards larger operations, with higher concentrations of animals. A consequence of this increase is that on-farm manure capacity can grow to exceed the capacity of surrounding land to use it as fertilizer, sometimes leading to higher application rates. As a result, the Coliforms Index has deteriorated from ‘Desired’ in all preceding years, to ‘Good’ in 2011. In the case of pesticides, the risk of water contamination has increased on about 50% of cropland over the past 30 years. The index has deteriorated from ‘Desired’ in all preceding years to ‘Good’ in 2011. The highest risk increases occurred in the Prairies between 2006 and 2011 where the area treated by fungicides doubled. This increase, as well as increases in herbicide use, can be attributed to the switch to reduced tillage and no-till which necessitates the use of pesticides to control weeds and diseases (reduced tillage systems are more susceptible to fungal diseases). The increased risk can also be explained by a shift away from pasture and forage to cropping systems that require more pesticide inputs and, to a lesser extent to wetter weather in the Maritime Region in 2010.
Increased efforts are required throughout Canada to minimize the risk of nutrient, pesticide and coliform movement to surface water bodies and leaching beyond the rooting depth of vegetation. This is particularly so in higher rainfall areas of the country. This risk can be further reduced through practices such as regular soil testing and better matching agricultural inputs application to field conditions. Practices that mitigate surface runoff, such as establishing riparian buffer strips, winter cover crops, maintenance of surface residue, etc. will also contribute to a reduced risk to water quality.

Air Quality

Considering various agricultural atmospheric emissions together,6 agriculture’s environmental performance in air quality is ‘Good’, having been relatively stable between 1981 and 2006, and then significantly improving to 2011. This improvement is mirrored by improvements in all the individual performance indices within this theme.
Improvements in land management practices such as increased adoption of conservation and no-till practices, reduced use of summerfallow, and increased forage and permanent cover crops were primarily responsible for the improved agri-environmental performance for air quality. Adoption of these management practices, particularly in the Prairies, led to soils becoming a net sink for atmospheric carbon, which means more carbon is being sequestered in soil than is being emitted, leading to a reduction in overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The same practices have led to improvements in particulate matter (PM) emissions over the period of study. A decrease in numbers of livestock across the country between 2006 and 2011 is the primary reason for the improvements in the ammonia emissions performance index, which now sits at just above 1996 levels.
Land management practices that favour sequestration of carbon in the soil, such as reduced tillage and residue management practices to maintain soil cover, need to be continued and expanded in order to maintain and increase the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil. Similar practices that reduce the number of field operations and protect the soil surface from wind erosion are effective in minimizing PM emissions. Improved animal feeding strategies and more efficient use of nitrogen in agriculture are examples of beneficial management practices (BMPs) that can be used to mitigate emissions of methane, ammonia and nitrous oxide.
In future posts, I’ll delve deeper into each of these environmental indicators to better understand key regional differences, and reasons for poor or desirable environmental performance as well as take a closer look at some promising current and prospective best management practices available for farmers to implement.

1. All national “core” indicators, to include Soil Cover and Wildlife Habitat Capacity on Farmland have a weighted value of 1.
2. More information on how performance indices are calculated can be found in Chapter 2 “Assessing the Environmental Sustainability of the Agri-Food Sector.”
3. All national “core” indicators, to include Soil Erosion, Soil Organic Carbon and Trace Elements have a weighted value of 1. In the case of Soil Salinization Indicator, which covers only the Prairie extent, its weighting is reduced to 0.81 to reflect the percentage of farmland area under coverage.
4. The Risk of Soil Contamination by Trace Elements Indicator was developed for the 1981 and 2006 Census years only and therefore does not have a Chapter designated to it in this publication. However, since these trace element values are not likely to change significantly from year to year at the scale of analysis used in this report, they have not been recalculated for 2011. Instead, the 2006 trace element values were extrapolated for use in the 2011 year, and were included in the calculation for the overall Soil Quality compound index.
5. The Water Quality Agri-Environmental Performance Index combines indices for water contamination by nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), coliforms and pesticides.
6. The Air Quality Agri-Environmental Performance Index combines indices for greenhouse gases (GHGs), particulate matter (PM) and ammonia emissions from agriculture.



Ecogamut Consulting – helping you achieve your sustainability goals

At Ecogamut, making sustainability metrics work for you is the bread and butter of our operation. Our toolbox of expertise includes life cycle assessment, environmental product declaration, carbon footprinting, carbon offsetting, and climate change adaptation strategies. With a team of Ph.D.-level experts you can be rest assured that Ecogamut will deliver a high quality and high impact product that will effectively direct your organization or jurisdiction towards its most cherished sustainability goals.
Have a sustainability project on your mind and think we can help? Contact

The Climate Encyclical and Biophysical Limits

A recent commentary in Nature Climate Change by Paul Ehrlich and John Harte highlighted an important limitation in the Pope’s Climate Encyclical and its recommendations for fighting climate change. Although it is a passionate and compelling call for enormous changes in our global society, it lacked cohesion in terms of solving the two inseparable issues of inequality and demographic growth. The Climate Encyclical states quite clearly that the biophysical limits of our Earth ought to not stand in the way of our push for equality while simultaneously allowing with open arms unfettered demographic growth as this passage from the Climate Encyclical states:

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’. Yet while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues (§50).

If one peers deeper into the complexities of inequality, the economy and biophysical limits of Earth, the realization that continued demographic growth is not compatible with sustainable development will likely arise. After all, more people equates to more resources required from a finite planet that is already surging past its safe operating capacity. “More people using more fossil fuels means more climate change; more people eating more food means more land conversion (with associated loss of biodiversity), more overdraft of groundwater for irrigation, and more pressure on threatened marine resources; and more people consuming more material goods potentially means more toxic waste products and more mining.”

Humans are not stupid: we tend for the lowest hanging fruits first. Think back when copper could be picked up with near 100% purity like a rock from the river, and now we are digging farther than 1 km below the surface to mine copper ore of no more than 3% purity. Think back when oil gushed from the ground with little drilling challenge, and now we are forced to turn to oil sands, and more challenging still, the Artic circle, in order to appease our ever increasing demand for oil. It does not take a genius to understand we are on a resource extraction trajectory requiring ever more energy and chemical-intense techniques for rendering the pure and useful compounds and metals that we demand both for necessity and for sheer desire. We’ve created an obvious trend where increasingly difficult resource extraction results in greater environmental impact. Humanity’s Impact on the planet invariably boils down to the multiplication of the variables–though globally diverse–Population, Affluence and Technology (aka the I=PAT equation). If P(opulation) or both P and A(ffluence) increase then we put ever more pressure on T(echnology) to ensure a reduced environmental impact. If we allow A and P to grow without concern we are putting all of our risks into the technology bucket. We cannot put all of our faith in the green or the nano or the nuclear fusion revolution to save us from our clear and present predicament. There are likely no quick fixes just like there is no such thing as a free lunch. Allowing demographic growth while simultaneously allowing the poor to catch up with the rich would create nothing more than an even faster runaway train chugging towards the precipitous edge of sudden economic and ecosystem collapse.

These two issues of demographic growth and inequality are so intertwined with multifaceted layers of complexity that we would be foolish to try and treat them separately. “Focusing on only half the source of, or half the potential solution to, a complex problem can be nearly as ineffective as ignoring the problem altogether, when both factors jointly determine the outcome.” Biophysical limits of Earth will simply not allow everyone–at least with our current technology–to live like an average upper-middle-class person from a developed nation and this is something that policymakers need to understand. Demographic growth will not make the solving of our inequality issues any easier and we already have so much to fix already with our current population and our skewed distribution of wealth.

“Those who champion increased equality as a means of achieving global food security must team up with those who urge curbing over-consumption and humane transitioning to a much reduced and thus sustainable population. Otherwise, the new political and economic institutions desperately needed to redirect humanity toward sustainable food security and away from the fiction of perpetual growth will not evolve.” As Genesis 1:28 has commanded, we have been fruitful and we have multiplied and subdued the Earth. Perhaps we have done enough multiplying and subduing and we should now focus more on achieving a sustainable balance with nature, a balance where the Church’s obsession with abortion and contraception  is dissolved and exchanged for  a leadership role in family planning and women’s rights.

Changing your Diet Could Have Huge Land Use and Greenhouse Gas Implications

We all have within our power an incredibly effective way of reducing our planetary impacts:  embarking on your sustainability diet pathway. The concept is quite simple. Every person needs to take stock of their current diet and better understand two things: firstly, what impacts do your foody habits have on the planet; and secondly, what can you change in your diet to significantly reduce your food induced environmental footprint.

To illustrate the diet direction that we all ought to consider, I rely on a recent study that modelled our planetary impacts in the year 2050 with the very important assumption that our human population reaches nine billion inhabitants. The authors of this study simulate a planetary ecosystem and economy where the entire human population of Earth is on one of the following five diet variants as listed here:

  1. A reference diet, meaning our business-as-usual recent diet trends which encapsulate the good, the bad and the ugly of our regionally diverse, highly inequitable and majority high meat content that our diets have become.
  2. A ‘Healthy Diet’, as defined by the Harvard Medical School. This diet allows you to consume all meat sources (avoiding processed meats) in moderation while the bulk of your calorific intake should consist of fruits and vegetables. The Healthy Diet, and subsequent diets below, emphasize the need to eat in moderation avoiding any excessive over-eating habits.
  3. A no ruminant diet, is quite similar to the Healthy Diet only now no ruminant based meat (e.g. beef,  goat, sheep, buffalo) is allowed in your diet.
  4. A no meat (i.e. vegetarian) diet, where only dairy based animal products are permitted in your diet.
  5. A no animal (i.e. vegan) diet, meaning only plant/fungi based foods are permitted.

This study, entitled ‘Climate benefits of changing diet’, ensured that with the reference alternatives, every one of the nine billion human beings on the planet projected in 2050 would be nourished in a healthy and equitable fashion. Therefore, the reference alternatives (diet variants 2-5 above) would lead to a much healthier global population than our currently unbalanced food system. These four diet variants (2-5) can be seen as a sustainability diet pathway to embark upon, because in the equivalent order that these diets are presented above, they lead progressively towards less environmental impacts. The results from this study are actually quite amazing and I’ve illustrated the main findings in this short video below (please share!).

Certainly the models used to generate these astounding results require simplifying a great number of assumptions. However, the models utilized are among the best global integrated assessment models available in the world relying on years of research and refinement. The authors also undertook a number of sensitivity analyses to ensure their main findings were robust. Even if these findings are half the magnitude as they were presented, there is still ample justification to assume that these four diet variants progressively achieve less planetary impact in the proposed order as listed above.  Therefore, these diet variants provide us with an easy rule of thumb to follow if we wish to strive to achieve a diet that is considerably better for the planet.

Some of you may also be wondering what about fish? Although fish consumption was not modeled in any of the reference alternatives, this high protein meat sources generally has a life cycle environmental impact falling somewhere between chicken and pulses (like soy). (see above video for further context). However, as with most complicated systems in life, the devil is in the details. If your fish is flown halfway around the globe before landing on your plate, impacts can sky rocket towards similar greenhouse gas emission per unit protein as beef sources. So beware! The eat local mantra should be practiced to the best of your ability.

Back to those devils in the details: what major limitations do you feel need to be addressed in such an analysis? We’d all be thankful to hear your words of insight, caution, or skepticism.

LCA Inc: A brief history of life cycle assessment in the corporate world

LCA’s Beginnings

The initial seeds of LCA’s conception reach back as far as the 1950s when ideas about bioeconomics and systems ecology were formalized in Samuel Ordway’s ‘Resources and the American Dream‘ and Eugene and Howard Odum’s ‘Fundamentals of Ecology‘. However, most LCA practitioners track LCA’s humble beginnings back to the year of 1969 when Coca Cola hired the MidWestern Research Institute to conduct a material and energy flow study of their packaging alternatives. The study consisted of a comparative analysis between returnable glass bottles, primary aluminium and plastic alternatives. Harry Teasley, the Coca Cola executive who initiated the study was conscious of the need for environmental knowledge for both internal planning purposes and for public relations. Study findings suggested that plastic measured far better than the other alternatives, however, it took a number of years before Coca Cola began the switch to plastic. The MRI defined their technique as “Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis” and it was based on a “cradle to grave” systems analysis of the production chain of the investigated products.

This led to LCA’s period of conception throughout the 1970s and 1980s (spilling into the early ’90s) during a time when environmental issues such as resource and energy efficiency, pollution control and solid waste management became important to the public at large. During this time firms applied diverging life cycle techniques largely for the purpose of substantiating market claims. This time of uncoordinated efforts often led to competing firms challenging one another’s products where studies of the same products often saw widely differing results (e.g. the cloth vs. disposable diaper debates between the pro-cloth National Association of Diaper Services and pro-disposable Proctor & Gamble).

The early to late 1990s ushered in a decade of LCA standardization and convergence where a number of workshops, forums and published academic articles began to appear. This decade began to see international coordinated LCA involvement with the likes of the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). ISO eventually harmonized the LCA process with the still current ISO standards, ISO 14040 and ISO 14044. LCA then became far more credible and corporations began to adopt the technique more readily.

What LCA is, and what LCA is Trying to be

Highly esteemed science writer Daniel Goleman predicted that LCA would be a major game changer. In his book entitled ‘Ecological Intelligence‘ he described how LCA practitioners could measure material and energy flows and associated environmental impacts of products with ‘near-surgical precision’. In reality LCA actually measures only the potential environmental impact and tends to fall far short of attaining a high level of certainty in the final results. Since the global economy is essentially connected across vastly complex supply chains, the very concept of LCA’s cradle-to-grave analysis entails the accounting of essentially everything; this however, is an impossible task. The technique rather involves the application of scientific based modelling to account for the most prominent processes in a given value chain so that the major or most likely hot-spots of the system are guaranteed coverage.

Many see LCA as the essential accounting technique to sound and sober sustainability decision making. As stated in the ISO standard 14040, LCA is a technique that considers ‘the entire life cycle of a product or service and all attributes or aspects of natural environment, human health and resources’. The major insights that LCA can provide an organization about their products or services are two fold: firstly, LCA objectively ascertains exactly where the environmental hot-spots of the value chain are located (often in very unexpected places); and secondly, LCA examines several environmental impact categories such as climate change, ozone depletion, resource scarcity, acidification and human toxicity and this allows for an analysis of possible trade-offs between two or more competing functionally equivalent products or designs. LCA then becomes particularly useful in the initial design phase of a product, service or policy. As LCA advances, LCA Practitioners are always trying to reach towards the impossible task of modelling the global economy in its entirety and this pursuit likely won’t letup anytime soon.

LCA’s Big Break in the Corporate World: Walmart

Walmart had concocted a dream of undertaking 10,000 or so LCAs in order to attain a detailed LCA of every single product that they sold. With the finances to back this vision Walmart broke into the LCA world with a lot of enthusiasm and momentum. In July 2009 they announced their ‘Sustainability Index‘ that would cover a product’s entire life cycle, from resource extraction through to disposal. This led to what is now termed the Sustainability Consortium which currently boasts more than 80 corporate members, operates on four continents and since late 2012 has worked with the much larger Consumer Goods Forum to establish ‘a globally harmonized science-based approach to measure and communicate life cycles‘. There are a number of similar green initiatives around the world where LCA has gained a high degree of popularity. What was once a rather unpopular, academic and dare I say geeky system of accounting turned into the go-to approach for corporate and government initiatives to measure, disclose, inform policy and improve existing products’ cradle-to-grave environmental impacts. The corporate supply chain itself has become a breeding ground for knowledge and insight of a company’s operations and its big picture implications.

For the majority of LCA’s existence, it has for the most part been situated in a place where academics told industry that LCA will benefit you and therefore you should utilize it. With the initiatives of Walmart it really helped to open the flood gates of LCA application, where it is now industry that inquires with LCA consultancies that they need that tool. LCA has reached a renaissance where even the big four (Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young, and KPMG) have adopted it into their toolbox along with many other specialized consultancies (like Ecogamut!) where they are finding a growing demand.

LCA in industry has not been a total success however. The methodological rigor required to undertake a detailed LCA brings upon several challenges with industry: LCAs can be time consuming and cost thousands of dollars to undertake; LCAs can become too complicated for the public and results do not always turn out in favor of the companies best financial interest; more supply chain transparency can lead to greater vulnerability and potentially moral disquiet. These challenges can lead to industry misuse of LCA, which in turn harms its reputation. A notable quote from Oscar Wilde, “The truth is never pure and rarely simple” and many LCA practitioners struggle to avoid the muddy waters of complexity, data gaps and what the funding corporation wants to hear.

Signs that LCA is Here to Stay

Despite this industry unease, LCA has already proved itself to be a popular tool in both the corporate and governmental world. There are a great number of signs that LCA is thriving and will likely only get better. All companies face rising resource costs, and many are dealing with growing pressures for transparency requiring that they account for and better manage both the environmental and social impacts throughout their supply chain. LCA is one of the best tools to provide this transparency and it also protects companies from the accusation of ‘greenwash’. European Union regulations now require lawmakers to apply life cycle thinking when undertaking waste management decisions. Many European governments have looked to LCA to inform them about key policy decisions covering key sectors as recycling, public transport, food labeling and renewable energy production.

In the United States, both federal and California biofuel standards draw on LCA results. It is common practice for greenhouse gas emission reduction initiatives to require an LCA framework for quantifying reductions. China, Chile, New Zealand and others are investing in LCA research programs and LCA database development, not only for their own benefit, but in anticipation of an encroaching need to better inform global corporations of their upstream impacts. Similar to the nutritional content label of food products, hundreds of companies are utilizing LCA to substantiate their product’s environmental product declaration in a certifiable and third party verified fashion. LCA has even received extensive coverage in top-ranked journal Science, where they published their June 2014 issue on the sustainability of global supply chains.

Supply chains are likely to remain a focus of corporate knowledge production and public reporting. Citizens globally have gained an insatiable demand from corporations to see demonstrable and measurable evidence that they are making progress toward supply chain sustainability. This demand may soon become a requirement, and even if it doesn’t, LCA will remain to be an important technique towards reaching the goals of a sustainable world.

How Clean Would Site-C Hydro Power Be?

As most citizens of British Columbia realize by now, the Site-C hydro power project along the Peace River has been approved by both the Federal and the Provincial Government. After reading the aforementioned approvals I noticed the project was always referred to as being the “Clean Energy Project”. This notion of clean they refer to is commonly understood as being due to the operation phase of hydro power not requiring any solid fuel substrate to convert into electricity and therefore does not emit undesired air emissions during energy conversion such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, dioxins and heavy metals. The Site-C project’s level of ‘cleanness’ can also be referred to in terms of life cycle greenhouse gas emissions which is an important metric when comparing several power production alternatives. I became very curious to understand, how ‘GHG-clean’ would the Site-C project likely be.

GHG Intensity of Site-C Hydro Power as Calculated

Well, it turns out Site-C hydro power would likely be quite clean. Upon reviewing the ‘Report of the Joint Review Panel Site C Clean Energy Project‘ information was limited on how BC Hydro undertook the life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) analysis of the project. After a little more digging I found the original technical report for which the life cycle GHG intensity of 10.5 grams CO2eq. per kWh (gCO2eq./kWh) is based on. At face value British Columbians should  feel fairly good about this low GHG intensity factor considering natural gas and coal power have GHG intensity factors that typically fall in the range of 350-550 and 900-1200 gCO2eq./kWh, respectively. The IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy provides the following concise figure explaining life cycle GHG intensity of different power sources as depicted below:


Figure 1: Life Cycle GHG Intensity Ranges for Several Power sources (units: gCO2eq./kWh) (source)


Despite the Site-C hydro power system likely having a low GHG intensity it is a worthwhile exercise to gain at least a simplified understanding of how this 10.5 gCO2eq./kWh factor was derived. The GHG technical report split GHG project emissions into two main categories: hydro power reservoir construction and operation. With a series of sensitivity analyses included, the likely annual average emissions from these two activities were estimated to be 124,600 tonne (t) CO2eq. per year due during the construction phase (for 8 years) and 43,400 tCO2eq. (net) per year during the operation phase (for 100 years). Since the capacity of Site-C is designed to be 1100 Mega-Watts (MW) and the average annual energy generation is expected to be about 5100 Giga-Watt-hrs (GWh) we can calculate the report’s estimated likely GHG intensity factor of 10.5 gCO2eq./kWh:  


10.5 gCO2eq./kWh = (43,400 tCO2eq./yr + 124,600 tCO2eq./yr*8yr/100yr)/(5100 GWh/yr*106kWh/GWh)*106g/tonne


The GHG emissions during the 8 year construction period were due to material requirements, fuel combustion and electricity demand and these emissions contributed 1.95 gCO2eq./kWh to this 10.5 value. The remainder and majority of the GHG intensity (8.5 gCO2eq./kWh) was due to the net GHG emissions that stemmed from direct land use change (emissions that occur during the operation phase). Let’s explore this part of the GHG intensity factor next. 

Net GHG emissions from Land Use Change

The Site-C reservoir requires a significant area to be permanently inundated. Stretching 83 km along the Peace River the surface of the reservoir is expected to span an area of 9,330 hectares (ha) and this would require the flooding of 6,345 ha of land. The figure below shows the land-type breakdown of the land area that would be slated for inundation. 


Figure 2: Breakdown of the land-types to be flooded as a result of Site-C Hydro Project (source)


As shown above the majority of land inundated would be sparse trees while about 570 ha of land to be flooded is considered as cultivated agricultural land. The idea of net GHG emissions attributed to the Site-C project due to inundation was calculated by taking the difference in GHG emissions/sources between the inundation area as it is today and the inundation area upon project completion where operational GHG emissions are estimated across a 100 year operational time horizon. In terms of current land productivity the technical report assumed that apart from the cultivated land there were also livestock/grazing activities considered where a current estimate for beef (1,000 head) and dairy cattle (300 head), swine (300 head), horses (150 head) and bison (300 head) was made. GHG emissions from current activities (i.e. farming) upon areas planned for flooding were then estimated and subtracted from the operational GHG emissions expected from the reservoir over the 100 year life time. The figure below illustrates the possible GHG emission sources from a typical hydro reservoir.


Figure 3: A schematic of the various GHG sinks and sources in a hydro reservoir system (source)


As illustrated in the figure above there are a series of complex mechanisms that need to be considered when estimating GHG emissions and sources. A recent study by Professor Edgar Hertwich attempts to integrate these emissions into a life cycle assessment perspective. Here Prof. Hertwich reviewed and analyzed the generation of greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs for the purpose of technology assessment, relating established emission measurements to hydro power generation. What he found was the global average emissions from reservoir hydro power are estimated to be around 85 gCO2/kWh and 3 gCH4/kWh. Despite this relatively high average in net GHG emissions (equates to 148 gCO2eq./kWh) the study’s recommended numbers for boreal reservoirs (0.97 kg CO2/m2/yr and 40 g CH4/m2/yr) leads to a GHG intensity factor of 21 gCO2eq./kWh.

These factors suggest that the likely GHG intensity assumed for the Site-C hydro power system might be underestimated though the level of uncertainty in calculating net GHG emissions from a reservoir makes it difficult to say who is more correct. At first glance, I think the Site-C GHG technical report undertook a thorough GIS based site-specific analysis utilizing as much localized data as possible and their likely GHG intensity factor of 10.5 gCO2eq./kWh is probably more accurate because of the details that went into this technical report. All in all, Prof. Hertwich highlighted the importance of this emission source, the major limitations of trying to measure these emissions and the high level of uncertainty involved in these calculations. He also found that the power density (plant capacity divided by reservoir area) of the hydro power plant has a strong correlation with reservoir GHG intensity. He cautioned that any hydro reservoir plants with a power density of around 4 W/m2 or less should be avoided. It turns out that the Site-C hydro power plant would have a power density of 20 W/m2 which is well above this CDM project eligibility boundary that Prof. Hertwich generally agreed with.

Followup Questions

Although I do think the Site-C hydro power system would be relatively clean in terms of GHG intensity I do think it is only fair to explore the alternatives and to better understand their associated GHG intensities. For instance, the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association proposed a more cost effective geothermal power alternative and Clean Energy BC proposed a more affordable small-to-medium scale renewables alternative as well. While these projects suggest less cost to BC tax payers, could these projects also equate to less GHG intensity? Another question on my mind is what about the 570 ha of cultivated land and the additional land required for grazing and livestock activities currently taking place on the to be inundated Site-C project land? In a typical LCA study involving presently productive land use change the GHG emissions due to indirect land use change should also be considered in the GHG intensity calculations. In subsequent blog posts I will explore these followup questions. Please stay tuned.