Banking into the abyss
Two big news items this week about the great pumps that drive our world. RBC emerged as the planet’s pre-eminent pump for the lifeblood of fossil fuels. And that torrent of money is overwhelming the great oceanic circulatory system vital to our living Earth.
You may have heard about RBC’s rise to the pinnacle of fossil-fuelled finance, knocking JPMorgan off its perch as the biggest banker of climate breakdown. Unless you follow climate news closely, you may not have heard that the breakdown includes the deep flows and “overturnings” that drive the currents circulating from the abyssal depths back up and around the Earth’s oceans.
That may sound familiar — choking off the ocean’s currents was the premise behind the ridiculous movie The Day After Tomorrow (fun fact: the highest grossing movie ever filmed in Canada). Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid rush into action after Antarctica’s Larsen Ice Shelf breaks away, disrupting the Atlantic’s overturning circulation, shutting down the Gulf Stream and freezing the Northern Hemisphere in a global superstorm.
We may not get flash-frozen but the underlying mechanism of melting ice disrupting the ocean’s currents is eerily similar to the results scientists published this week in the journal Nature.
About 250 trillions tonnes of cold, dense salty water sink into the abyss off Antarctica each year, and that downward flow acts as a kind of pump, driving the deep currents of the “overturning circulation.” Oceans away, water rises back towards the surface in a majestic hydraulic loop, circulating heat and nutrients, carbon and oxygen around the planet. We terrestrial creatures go about our busy lives utterly clueless about our dependence on these deep cycles yet they determine the Earth’s climate, its carbon cycle, its winds and rainfall, marine life as well as life on land.
“But there are worrying signs these currents are slowing down,” write the scientists. “They may even collapse.
“Climate change is to blame. As Antarctica melts, more freshwater flows into the oceans. This disrupts the sinking of cold, salty, oxygen-rich water to the bottom of the ocean. From there, this water normally spreads northwards to ventilate the far reaches of the deep Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. But that could all come to an end soon. In our lifetimes.”
There’s already evidence of a slowdown in the North Atlantic and the scientists published measurements confirming a similar weakening is underway in the Antarctic. They project the Antarctic overturning will slow by more than 40 per cent over the next 30 years, along with another 20 per cent weakening in the Atlantic.
“It’s yet another reason to address the climate crisis — and fast,” they say.
Which brings us to that other pump, the one pumping money, fuelling the crisis, overwhelming even the most mighty hydraulic forces. Like most big banks, RBC says it’s addressing the climate crisis and committed to net zero. At last week’s shareholder meeting, its CEO called for an “orderly transition,” just like he did the year before.
It’s a strange definition of transition — RBC increased its fossil finance year on year. Canada’s biggest bank is now the biggest fossil financier in the world.
Another way to measure a “transition” is the ratio of investments in fossil fuels versus clean energy. And that ratio couldn’t be more dramatic: RBC pumped $99 into fossil fuels for every $1 in renewables.
RBC is even bucking the broader tide among the banking sector. Overall, financing for fossil fuels decreased in 2022 while RBC’s went up. RBC provided over US$42 billion in fossil funding last year.
“It's totally obscene that we're in this situation and so clearly shows RBC is on the wrong track,” Richard Brooks told Canada’s National Observer. Brooks is the climate finance director for Stand.earth.
“This is why we need regulators to step in and regulate the banks into taking real climate action.”
Scotiabank and TD also made the “Dirty Dozen” list of the world’s dirtiest banks in 2022. Bank of Montreal and CIBC just missed that honour, ranking 15th and 16th respectively. It’s part of an arduous analysis of the world's biggest 60 banks, organized each year by Rainforest Action Network along with the Indigenous Environmental Network, BankTrack, Oil Change International, Reclaim Finance, Sierra Club and Urgewald. (I should probably disclose that I worked for Rainforest Action Network many years ago and was the organization’s executive director until 2003.)
The Banking on Climate Chaos report uncovered some other nuggets: no surprise the Canadian banks take the top five spots for bankrolling the oilsands but it is remarkable that RBC managed to come fifth globally for bankrolling fracking (Scotiabank and TD also cracked the Top12 on that measure).
And their ambitions are far-reaching. Both RBC and Scotiabank made the Top12 for bankrolling oil and gas in the Amazon.
One final metric of “transition”: bankrolling not just ongoing operations but expansion of the fossil fuel industry. RBC comes fifth in the world, beaten by some big American banks, but well ahead of China’s.
When it comes to fossil fuel expansion, banks and Big Oil are working against the oceanographers and climate scientists but also against the world’s top energy analysts. This week, the head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, told Deutsche Welle: "We have to bring the consumption of oil, gas and coal down. And if we are able to do that, if we have a trajectory like that, the current existing oil and gas fields and coal mines are more than enough to meet the demand growth."
Birol didn’t mince his words about companies making net-zero pledges or claiming alignment with the Paris Agreement: “If they say, 'I am going to increase my oil production three million barrels per day and my company's strategy is in line with the Paris Agreement' — this doesn't work.
"There is a contradiction here — black and white."
Or green and blue, perhaps. Pumping money into fossil fuels, stalling the planet’s deep hydrological forces. Banking right into the abyss.
For more on the pumps working against each other:
- How RBC took the “carbon crown,” by John Woodside.
- Canada’s banks have sunk $1 trillion into fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement was signed.
- Melting Antarctic ice is changing the abyssal currents.
In related news, scientists at NOAA report the ocean’s surface temperature is already “headed off the charts” this year.
Ocean average temperatures are currently the warmest ever observed.— Dr. Robert Rohde (@RARohde) April 6, 2023
It is hard not to look at this and be a bit concerned.
The previous record came during the big El Niño in 2016. While an El Niño is likely to develop later this year, we don't have one right now. pic.twitter.com/R3xaoGvw92
On Friday afternoon, the feds released Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions data for 2021 (there’s an infuriating lag time in reporting). Emissions went up by 12 megatonnes (1.8 per cent) from 2020 — that’s not surprising considering the drop during the pandemic. Emissions in 2021 were 53 megatonnes lower than pre-pandemic levels.
We’ll have more analysis after sifting through the numbers properly. But here’s the important line:
Biden admin lays a ‘golden egg’
The Biden administration has proposed strict new pollution limits for vehicles, effectively requiring two-thirds of new passenger vehicles to be EVs by 2032. That could be a “golden egg” for Canadian mining companies, EV factories and battery plants, according to the Pembina Institute.
Students force divestment
On Day 18 of the student occupation, the University of Toronto’s Victoria College agreed to divest from fossil fuels. The students had vowed not to leave until the college divested.
We will not rest until @VicCollege_UofT divests. Checkout coverage of our ongoing occupation of Old Vic in the @NatObserver 👇https://t.co/f4AhYAJstR— Climate Justice UofT (@cjuoft) April 11, 2023
Clean and efficient
The path to clean electricity must include energy efficiency, write Efficiency Canada’s Brendan Haley, Alyssa Nippard and James Gaede.
“The more electricity we save, the easier it will be to achieve zero-carbon grids and electrification of heating, transportation and industry. However, the (federal) budget had little emphasis on saving electricity, an area where Canada significantly lags behind the United States.”
Another ‘1,000-year flood’
Fort Lauderdale got almost half its typical annual rainfall in just six hours on Wednesday, washing out the airport and flooding the city. “It blew away the 1-in-1,000-year threshold,” said Jeff Berardelli, WFLA-TV’s chief meteorologist and climate specialist.
The heat is on
It’s only April but the heat is on in the Northern Hemisphere.
SE Asia is boiling and getting every day hotter.— Extreme Temperatures Around The World (@extremetemps) April 11, 2023
Today 42.6C in Thailand at Thoen and dozens stations >40C in several countries, including China with 40.4C at Yuanyang.
It will just get hotter day by day with records falling more and more frequently. https://t.co/H435FY3swF
Meanwhile, in Europe, the Spanish farmers’ association warned drought now affects 60 per cent of the countryside, reports The Associated Press. Staples like wheat and barley are likely to fail entirely across four regions. Three years of heat and low rainfall have officially put Spain into a “long-term drought,” the weather agency declared last month.
Another kind of drought was also in the news: “A special and particularly nasty sudden kind — called ‘flash droughts’ by experts — is casting an ever bigger crop-killing footprint.
“What happens is the air gets so hot and so dry that it sucks water right out of plants and soil.”
Growth in solar and wind ‘truly unprecedented’
Solar and wind are both growing far faster than other energy technologies that emerged in the postwar era.
Nick Ferris reports on an analysis by Shell tracking growth rates after each technology grew to one exajoule (roughly double the electricity consumption of Sweden): “Nuclear power took four years to double its contribution to 2EJ, while LNG took around nine years.
“Solar and wind, however, are tracking a different course: solar power has quadrupled its contribution in six years, while wind has quadrupled its contribution in a decade… Both solar and wind's growth rates are far outpacing LNG and nuclear.”
Chipotle is ditching gas and going electric, as the company aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. “That means taking out the gas stoves, as well as adding rooftop solar panels where possible, heat pumps for water heaters, improved exhaust hoods and even charging stations for electric vehicles,” reports Restaurant Business.
Some good climate news! @ChipotleTweets is going all electric at a ton of its restaurants. They've already electrified 12, on their way to 100 by next year.— Dr. Leah Stokes (@leahstokes) April 13, 2023
This is the kind of corporate leadership we need. Bravo Chipotle!https://t.co/Iesr1JI08n
Overturning the abyss
I’ll leave you with this video profiling two of the scientists on that study about the abyssal ocean overturning slowdown. It’s some impressive knowledge mobilization — in less than four minutes of Australian accents, you’ll get a clear picture of the ocean circulatory system, the science behind their study and the effect torrents of Antarctic meltwater are having on our planet’s deep cycles.
Zero Carbon is made possible through the support of I-SEA and the Trottier and McConnell foundations.