by Joseph Ingram
The Canaries in the Coal Mine
The prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 (and its attendant impact on the planet’s economic and social welfare) looms ominously in the upcoming flu season. However, this summer’s record heat in North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australasia and the polar caps (2019 was the second hottest year on record) should give us even deeper cause for concern. In May of this year, sensors in Hawaii measured an atmosphere of 417 parts per million CO2, “higher than anything in at least the last 3 million years”2 and significantly higher than the 315 parts per million in 1958. Moreover, in the last few weeks, the highest temperature ever recorded – 54°C – in the Middle East, was exceeded in Death Valley, California where the temperature reached a sizzling 54.4°C. Meanwhile, wildfires consume large swaths of forest and whole communities in the Western U.S. Indeed, this year dozens of heat records have been broken in North America, the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa. In June of this year, the Arctic recorded a record high of 38°C. And as Lynas has pointed out, all of this is happening on a planet where the global average temperature has risen by only 1°C above its level before the Industrial Revolution.
In Paris in 2015, governments agreed it was imperative to keep the rise in the Earth’s temperature to no more than 2°C, and preferably below the 1.5° considered a tipping point beyond which irreversible damage could threaten the liveability of large parts of our planet. Unfortunately, subsequent studies which incorporate the costs that radical transformation of our economic, social and consumption patterns will require – costs reflected in the commitments signatories made to the 2015 Climate Accords – reveal a temperature rise of about 3.5°C later this century. Other scientists are predicting an average temperature rise of more than 4°. A study on the impact of the heating of tropical soils, published in the journal Nature this month, has added weight to the concerns of the more pessimistic. The study suggests that the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from tropical soil would increase almost exponentially, substantially undervaluing emission estimates to date.3 Such an increase in the average global temperature would dramatically affect human civilization as we know it.
Indeed, in an econometric study published early this year in the Climate, Disaster and Development Journal, evidence accumulated in 155 countries over the last 46 years clearly connects climate change with a significant increase in the frequency and intensity of hydrometeorological disasters,4 a reality being felt in virtually every part of the planet today. Therefore, this requires a massive and high-speed shift away from the use of carbon-emitting energy. As the economist Martin Wolf has put it, “We must move beyond them almost completely.”
The Security Blanket
So where does this place Canada? In 2019, over 60 per cent of the energy we produced was from fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal)5, producing over 81 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions and leaving Canada in 2017 as the third highest contributor per capita of CO2 emissions.6 In fact, between 2000 and 2017, Canadian GHG emissions from oil and gas production increased 23 per cent because of a 46 per cent increase in production, largely from the oilsands.7 As a 2010 federal government report described the situation, on the face of it we would appear to be in a secure position in terms of energy supply. Rich in our diversity of sources, both renewable and non-renewable, Canada is the sixth largest producer of primary energy with three per cent of global production, and is among the top five exporters of crude oil, natural gas, uranium and electricity. In addition, the report cited market transparency, continued investment in energy, our impact on the environment and favourable geopolitics as elements contributing to our energy security. Only energy intensity was then considered a “negative”.
In projecting forward to 2030, the report concluded that every constituent component of our energy security would by then be either “positive” or “neutral”. Certainly a reassuring picture, subsequently endorsed by a 2017 paper from Petra Dolata of the University of Calgary that proposed Canada use LNG as the prime energy source bridging the gradual shift to a carbon-free economy. The problem with this more gradual approach is that today, a decade before 2030, key components of our security – as defined by the government of Canada’s report – have become “negative”, threatening both Canadian and global efforts to rapidly reduce fossil fuel dependence.
A False Sense of Security
With respect to our energy mix, although some 80 per cent of our electricity comes from carbon-free sources (hydro, nuclear and other renewables), 61 per cent of the energy we produce is carbon emitting and only 3.5 per cent is from wind, solar and waste.8 Europe has recently issued a Hydrogen Strategy for a Climate Neutral Europe, backed by robust research and development funding to commercialize the use of electrolysers. However, the Canadian report makes no mention of hydrogen as a potential energy source. Though the federal government pledged to double public investment in clean energy9 R&D to $775 million by 2020, this amount pales in comparison to the European Union’s €5.9 billion for clean energy research and innovation under their Horizon 2020, a program that is also intended to lay the basis for tens of thousands of new jobs in the clean energy sector.
In addition, the Canadian report estimated that today, in 2020, some 15 per cent of our electricity generation infrastructure would be over 40 years old and require upgrading or replacement if it were to keep pace with growing demand. Yet in 2018, capital expenditures in Canada’s energy sector were 38 per cent lower than their peak in 2014 at $73 billion, with oil and gas extraction constituting the largest share of new investment at almost $37 billion.10 The report – almost wilfully ignoring the threat from climate change – projected a continued rise in the price of oil, thereby rendering a picture of Canada’s future oil production as highly profitable. In fact, the contrary has happened with the current price of Brent crude now down to $40 per barrel, well below the level that would make much of Canadian production economically viable. As recently reported, “In Canada, only 42% of reserves can be produced with Brent at $60 a barrel, a share that falls to 16% at $40. The energy needed to extract and refine Canada’s thick bitumen makes its oil sands even less appealing.”