For Many, Climate Debate Over

By Tim Portz | May 21, 2013

On May 9, at a monitoring station atop the volcano Mauna Loa, scientists concluded that for the first time ever, the daily average for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm). The station has already recorded hourly spikes above this threshold, but until that day, the daily average had not exceeded 400 ppm.

The public and the policymakers in this country may debate the implications and ramifications of this number, as well as the general trend of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere. Amongst climate scientists, however, there is little debate about how human beings are changing the planet’s climate. Unfortunately, climate scientists do not draft nor pass laws, and the U.S.—which was recently eclipsed by China as the No.1 generator of carbon dioxide—has no binding policy to begin limiting the amount of carbon that can be emitted via the production of the energy products we are so reliant upon.

While more than half of U.S. states have a renewable portfolio standard on the books, and a handful of others have renewable targets and goals, the country’s policy and policymakers have, so far, shown no appetite to explicitly target carbon dioxide and pass robust policy that would significantly limit or make more expensive the generation of energy from fossil fuels by placing a price on its carbon.
More and more, our industrialized peers are distancing themselves from our policy reluctance and charging forward with aggressive energy policies, all drafted and implemented to dramatically decrease carbon dioxide associated with energy production.

Anna Simet’s feature, “End of an Era,” examines the complete elimination of coal from Ontario’s energy diet, and her article reports that “By the end of this year, the province will have shut down or converted 17 of its 19 coal units.” The power station featured in her piece, the 211-MW Atikokan Generating Station, is in the middle of coal-to-biomass migration, and the plant will burn wood pellets exclusively by mid-2014.

The ongoing conversion story at the Drax Power Station in England is tailor made for this conversion and retrofits issue. Drax's enormous biomass conversion, featured in “Yorkshire’s Game Changer,” on page 14, is a case study in the role aggressive policymaking can play in dramatically changing the trajectory of a country’s energy future.

Whether or not policymakers in the U.S. eventually confront carbon emissions in a meaningful way almost seems beside the point now, as North American biomass resources are increasingly being tapped to deliver reduced-carbon Btu to foreign power facilities that are generating billions of dollars in capital investments for pellet facilities and port infrastructure. As Peter Emery, production director at Drax wryly muses, “We’re getting your biomass supply chain ready for you, so it’s there when you are ready for it.”