On spherical cows, an idealized China and the futility of arguing with activists on BC LNG

It seems like every week we get another announcement from the BC government about the BC LNG industry. While there are clearly issues with how our government is handling the financial end of the BC LNG industry (including taxation policy and subsidies) the one area where the case is solid is on the emissions side of the ledger. As I describe in my blog post on the topic the peer reviewed academic literature shows quite categorically that BC LNG will lower global emissions for electricity production. BC LNG is not “dirtier than coal” as some activists falsely claim, rather it is much cleaner than coal. So how can the activists fight this science? Well the answer is simple: they use the “consider a spherical cow” defense, by imagining an idealized China. As I will show in this post, ultimately it is futile to argue against the professional activists if they insist on ignoring the real world and “assume we have a can opener“.

To start let’s explain what I mean by “consider a spherical cow”. This expression derives from a book: “Consider a Spherical Cow: A Course in Environmental Problem Solving“. The term is shorthand for relying on a too-simple model for a complex problem. Here is a good description by Timothy Lee:

There’s a famous joke about a dairy farmer who, hoping to increase milk production, seeks the help of a theoretical physicist at the local university. After carefully studying the problem, the physicist tells the farmer, “I have a solution, but it only works if we assume a spherical cow.”

There is a similar joke called “assume we have a can opener” which Wikipedia describes as:

there is a story that has been going around about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist who were stranded on a desert island with no implements and a can of food. The physicist and the chemist each devised an ingenious mechanism for getting the can open; the economist merely said, “Assume we have a can opener”!

You are probably asking what I mean by this? Well here is an example from today:

I presented data that showed that:

in the current market, BC LNG would not be replacing coal when exported to China. Instead BC LNG would mostly be replacing Chinese SNG and the climate math is even more categorical on that topic. BC LNG is much, much cleaner than Chinese SNG. Replacing Chinese SNG with BC LNG will help the planet and even if exporting BC LNG causes Canada to miss our Paris Agreement targets then the sacrifice is worth it. We have to keep reminding ourselves GHGs are global and it is more important to address global emissions than local ones. If a minor increase in Canada emissions can result in a major decrease globally then that is well worth our missing our Paris Agreement commitments.

The Wilderness Committee response was a link to a model that completely ignores the real world. The link provided by the folks at the Wilderness Committee concentrates on how there is no room for new natural gas. In the context of our discussion this can only mean that we are supposed to simply ignore what the Chinese are doing because there is “no room” for their emissions. In essence they are insisting we imagine some idealized China completely unrelated to the existing China. They argue that if we are to meet the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius then China can’t be allowed to use the fossil fuels that they have declared they will use so the activists will simply pretend those emissions won’t happen.

Now here is a secret I need to share: China doesn’t care what a climate think tank or a bunch of North American activists say they should do. We do not have some idealized China, we have a very proud nation state that currently occupies a large hunk of the planet on a continent called Asia. The Chinese government has declared their intentions and backed those declarations with huge financial investments.

When activists argue that we shouldn’t lock in the emissions associated with BC LNG they ignore that the Chinese are investing billions building synthetic natural gas (SNG) projects:

As of June 2018, five pilot synthetic natural gas projects are operating in China, with a total capacity of just under 6 billion cubic meters per year (bcm/year). Roughly 80 SNG projects with a cumulative capacity of more than 300 bcm are in different stages of the development pipeline. (This is 10 more than were in the pipeline in June 2017.)….China currently emits 25.5 MT (or one third of the entire oil sands in 2017) just to create the SNG they will later burn. To put this into perspective the LNGCanada project in total is estimated to emit 10 MT/yr while Woodfibre would generate about 1 MT/yr .

These projects lock in emissions that produce around 1.4 – 2 times the emissions for the same energy output as compared to BC LNG. Our real-world China is expanding its coal industry not reducing it. They are locking in emissions that BC LNG can help reduce.

As a pragmatic environmentalist I keep insisting the climate change energy debate has to rely on real-world numbers. We need to look at what real countries are planning to do and figure out how we can reduce those emissions. We need to recognize that there are no spherical cows out there. We can’t simply “assume we have a can opener” and we can’t plan based on an “idealized China”. We live in a world where spherical cows don’t exist, where can openers don’t simply materialize and where the Chinese government exists and its current energy use trajectories cannot be dismissed. In that real world, BC LNG will lower global emissions for electricity production and are something reasonable observers should support, not fight.

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5 Responses to On spherical cows, an idealized China and the futility of arguing with activists on BC LNG

  1. that Robert says:

    Beautiful! “Blair’s Fables”, for the unwilling.


  2. DMacKenzie says:

    Over the Meng Wanzhou incident, China is playing hardball on Canola, next will be BC coal, is anyone going to build an LNG plant that might not have a customer ?


  3. After the Meng Wanzhou incident, Canada has lost 2.7 Billion$ Canola market, BC coal next. Who is going to build an LNG plant that might not have a customer ?


    • Rod Hailey says:

      Korea, India, Japan will likely buy our LNG if the plants are ever built….Europe is also a potential market for eastern Canada.


      • Ruud Hommel says:

        Better get to an understanding with friend Vladimir. NA-east coast LNG plants will not deliver to Europe when Nordstream II is in service (maybe UK could be a client).
        Japan is starting up nuclear again and gets most of its gas from Malaysia and Australia.
        Canada will be coming late to the party.


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