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Dust collector, or blueprint for climate security and the renewable energy revolution?

Tom Hackney
Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Is the Trudeau government serious about its bold promise to cooperate internationally to cut greenhouse gas emissions and so limit harmful global warming to below 2 or even 1.5 degrees Celsius?

The government’s most concrete actions on that question so far have been the granting of an environmental certificate to Petronas’s Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas facility near Prince Rupert, and last week’s cabinet approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. Environmentalists and others who worry about climate change justifiably interpret these as a strong “no” to serious climate action.

But there is also work on planning and coordination. The federal government is convening the provinces and territories to develop a national climate action plan, including carbon pricing – unthinkable for the Harper government and the Chretien government before that.

screen_shot_2016-12-07_at_11.36.22_am.pngThe most recent piece relating to this process is Canada’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy. This policy paper was announced by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna at the COP 22 Climate Conference this November, billing it as a key component of Canada’s climate action plan.

The paper purports to “begin the conversation about what a long-term low-greenhouse gas emission society would entail,” and to provide structure for the development of Canada’s climate and renewable energy plans.

Given the right promotion, it could well fulfill the first goal. And at my level of analysis, it appears to be suitable for the second goal.

Engaged lay people will find Mid-Century Strategy clear and informative. The topics are laid out without undue waffling. We have the familiar case for climate action, briefly noting the urgency and risks of inaction. Canada’s commitments are noted, but the paper moves quickly beyond that to define a mid-century goal of decarbonization and energy transformation, and to go systematically over the range of Canada’s emissions and uses of energy, assessing potential solutions, based on the findings of half a dozen models.

There is little to surprise the informed reader: we need to expand the electricity grid and renewable generation; we need to switch from fossil fuel to electricity for transportation, buildings and industry; we need to become much more efficient; we need to cut out methane emissions; we need to manage agricultural lands and forests to retain carbon; and so on.

Most solutions use currently viable technologies; however transportation models tend to rely on a large expansion of biofuels; and a couple of models assume hydrogen fuel systems.

Potential environmental concerns include a reliance on nuclear power by several models, and in some cases a reliance on carbon capture and storage (CCS).

There are the obligatory words to reduce potential fears:

“Responding to climate change presents an opportunity for Canada to discover and adopt new and innovative ways to enhance our quality of life, while ensuring that this prosperity is sustainable given finite natural resources and environmental concerns.”

But there is also a warning:

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to levels consistent with the reasonable probability of maintaining this temperature goal will … require substantial effort on the part of all Canadians, with a fundamental restructuring of multiple sectors of the economy.“

Public education is an objective:

“Most Canadians recognize the need to mitigate climate change and limit the increase in the global average temperature, but the magnitude of the challenge is less well understood...”

screen_shot_2016-12-07_at_11.38.13_am.pngWhile the paper does not get down to Fred and Martha and their heating bill, the big changes are laid out clearly enough.

The paper is enriched by the third party forecasts and analyses. For example, the Trottier Energy Futures Project (a collaboration of the David Suzuki Foundation, the Canadian Academy of Engineering and the Trottier Family Foundation) is cited extensively, as is the modelling of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (by Chris Bataille, et al).

This represents huge progress in public discussion from 2008, when the Pembina Institute and David Suzuki Foundation were excoriated by the federal minister of natural resources for modelling slight reductions to Alberta bitumen production in their report, Deep Reductions, Strong Growth.

I recommend this as a good read. For too long, the dialogue on climate change has been caught up in proof/denial debates and overwhelm/fear/reassurance debates. Society may be ready to move on, and there is lots to discuss about how this all will affect us. This paper can contribute to the proverbial grown-up conversation.