Author: Robert Hoffman, Ottawa.
Prime Minister Trudeau demonstrated at the beginning of his mandate his intention to take seriously the challenge of global warming by appointing a Minister of Environment and Climate Change and attending COP21 in Paris. He has now engaged provincial premiers. Canada has an obligation to develop an action plan to do its part in seeking to limit global warming to 1.5°C in 2100.
The Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, has taken the position that emission targets can be set only after pathways that would meet them have been identified. In Kyoto, by contrast, Canada’s target was adopted without any understanding of the potential tracks for reaching it. The consequence was that the policies and programs that Canada adopted have failed totally.
The federal commitment to the pricing of carbon is but a modest beginning. Much more important is that the track adopted by Canada to get to a low-carbon future be practically feasible. In order to meet Canadian needs, inter alia, to:
- heat and cool commercial and residential buildings,
- move motor vehicles,
- power electrical and electronic devices, and,
- run industrial processes,
there must be capacity available in each and every future time period to transform energy sources into the energy currencies needed. It is only after coherent pathways have been identified that an effective track can be selected, and only then can effective policies and programs be designed and implemented for Canada.
The step of understanding the practical options is essential, but has been missing in Canadian policy. Policies have been advocated or implemented following the rationale that they are ‘steps in the right direction’, or that they are ‘win-win’ and do not conflict with vested interests. An example of such a policy was mandating that motor gasoline contain a percentage of ethanol from biomass. This policy had the effect of raising the price of corn, a win for farmers, and ensuring the continued use of hydrocarbon-fuelled vehicles, a win for oil companies; it met little resistance. Little did it matter that in practice there would be no real reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases.
What components of the energy system must change if a low-emission future is to be reached within the time frame dictated by the dynamics of global warming? It is clear from modelling of the options for the Canadian energy system that there are two critical components, both of which must be reconfigured if Canada is actually to get to a low-emission future.
The first involves the generation of electricity: electricity must be generated only from non-fossil sources of energy: hydro, solar, nuclear, wind or marine. The second involves motor vehicles, both passenger and freight: these must have engines that are powered by non-hydrocarbon fuels, most likely electricity or hydrogen, provided that these are themselves produced from non-fossil sources.
Both of these reconfigurations could be accomplished within twenty-five years with existing technology. In Canada, only two provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, depend to a significant degree on coal or gas-fired power generation. British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec and the Maritime provinces have or will have systems based primarily on hydroelectric generation. The Ontario system is based on a combination of hydroelectric and nuclear generation.
Motor vehicle stocks turn over in fifteen to twenty years, with the consequence that the entire vehicle stock could be non-emitting by 2040 if the new vehicles entering the stock were non-emitting by 2020.
So, Canada, with the right policies, could in practice get to a low-emission future.
But most economists and policy makers mistakenly concentrate only on the use of economic instruments — either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax — on the grounds that they are economically efficient. Their objective is to find the price of carbon that would internalize the cost of global warming and provide the ‘right’ incentives to consumers of energy to conserve and to substitute non-emitting energy for carbon-intensive energy. But global warming is a superordinate issue — paramount for life on our one and only planet — that today cannot be priced in any meaningful way. Even if a ‘right’ price could eventually be calculated, it would be too late to intervene effectively. Economic instruments alone cannot meet the challenge.
Conservation, meaning reduction in demand and more efficient use, has been a major plank in the platform of green advocacy. However, once electricity generation is non-emitting, using more or less electricity has little impact on carbon emissions. Furthermore, making devices such as furnaces or vehicles that burn a hydrocarbon fuel more efficient is redundant if these devices are to be phased out in favour of those that don’t burn a hydrocarbon fuel.
Likewise, smart urban growth with infrastructure for mass transit and active transportation will improve the liveability of cities, but the reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases from changing urban form would be too little and too late to meet the target. Further, once the motor vehicles of the future are non-emitting, smart growth may relieve congestion, but will have little impact on emissions.
What is needed are policies that are focused on reconfiguring Canada’s system of generating and transmitting electric power and its stocks of motor vehicles: these reconfigurations are essential if the objective of mitigating global warming is to be met.
Bio: Robert Hoffman is one of the seven Canadian Members of the Club of Rome. He is President of whatIf? Technologies Inc., a company that has modelled energy systems for Canada.