Dr. John Hollins, past Chair and Robert Hoffman, past Chair, analyse energy systems.
This briefing note has been adapted by John Hollins from a paper by Robert Hoffman on the assessment of computational tools for analysis of energy systems
My maternal grandfather was a cabinetmaker. He insisted on using the right tool for the job. He would not be pleased to learn that Canada has been and still is using the wrong tool to address the existential issue of global warming.
It is evident that there has been a failure in the implementation of public policy in Canada with respect to energy and global warming. The need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to avoid catastrophic global warming was recognized and accepted in Canada more than three decades ago. It was based on an understanding of 19th century physics and clear scientific evidence that:
o global warming was occurring, and that
o it was extremely likely that human-made CO2 emissions were the primary cause.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, on behalf of Canada, was the first to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. Bravo, but that turned out to be the easy part.
Canada was a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in December 1997. Canada committed to reduce its emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) to 6% below the 1990 level by the commitment period of 2008 to 2012. In fact, Canada’s emissions increased; they were 24% above the target. Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in December 2012.
Under the Paris Accord of 2015, Canada committed to reduce its GHG emissions to 30% below the 2005 level by 2030. (Canadian emissions in 2005 were already well above the Kyoto baseline of 1990.) The policy goal was to keep the increase in average global temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, preferably below 1.5°C. It is highly unlikely that Canada will make any significant contribution to meeting either of these global goals.
The failure to deliver on clear policy goals raises a fundamental question: the adequacy of the process of first making policy and then implementing it. The analytical approach and the tools used have not worked.
Nature of the challenge
In order to meet its commitments, the Government of Canada needs to transform the structure of the entire economic system. Such a transformation would take 50 to 100 years to complete, simply because the structure of our current system is embodied in stocks that take decades to turn over, for example, for:
o vehicles, 10 to 20 years;
o power stations, buildings, and infrastructure, at least 30 years.
Sound policy therefore requires analysis that looks forward at least 50 years in order to capture one or two stock rollovers. The analysis must start with desired end points and find pathways that reach those results.
Energy is an integral component of the economy that cannot be treated in isolation from the structure of the whole socioeconomic system. The system is complex and it evolves, but pathways towards a desired future can be identified in broad outline with the right tools. There are at two sources of uncertainty that must be taken into account. Firstly, new technologies are likely to emerge that open up pathways that cannot be anticipated precisely. Secondly, the response of citizens and organisations to circumstances outside the range of past experience is unpredictable. An adaptive approach is the only one likely to succeed.
Understanding complex systems is difficult; managing them is even more so. Canada does not yet understand, so its efforts to manage have been and are likely to remain fruitless until it takes a new approach.
Political insiders and the most senior executives are the source of advice for government ministers in Canada. The advice to date has been grounded almost exclusively in conventional economics, without attention to what is in fact feasible in the real biophysical and technological world. The economic equilibrium models that have been used invariably prescribe a carbon tax as the most effective tool for reaching targets, despite the fact that evidence that they actually work is scant. Furthermore, tax increases at any level are anathema to many voters and therefore to most politicians; they are a fragile political choice.
It has not been possible to assess the effectiveness of policy measures taken to date for lack of pathways with milestones. Furthermore, governments in the past have agreed to emission targets, but sufficiently far into the future that those who set targets were not likely to be held accountable when they were missed. For example, Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister at the time of Kyoto; Stephen Harper when Canada withdrew.
The long time horizon and the inherent uncertainties of this issue require an adaptive rather than a simplistic, prescriptive approach to policy and the mechanisms to implement it. The framework must include ways of identifying potential pathways and provide a way of choosing among them. It must also be able to establish ways of developing consensus in a democracy, of monitoring progress, and of adapting continuously.
The first element of a sound policy framework requires targets that can be reached. This requires a biophysically and technologically coherent pathway over a time horizon long enough to enable a transition from the current state of the system to a desired state in the future: backcasting rather then forecasting. This requirement has not yet been met in Canada.
The choice of a pathway is inevitably subjective; various stakeholders may value alternative pathways differently. It involves understanding the real trade-offs among interests and negotiating until a choice can be made that is acceptable to all parties. This vital issue requires a non-partisan approach, along the lines of a national government in wartime.
It is only after a pathway has been created that sound policies can be established and implemented. A wide range of policy instruments is available, ranging from suasion, through taxes, subsidies, trading schemes, and regulation, to the establishment of new institutions. They may all be needed, not just a small selection.
If something that you are doing isn’t producing results, do anything else. If what you’re doing isn’t working, anything else has more chance of success.
corollary to the First Law of Cybernetics
The adaptive approach to policy-making contrasts sharply with the established practice that simply has not worked. A change in approach and tools is past due.