I started this blog to provide a venue for pragmatic discussions about evidence-based environmental decision-making. The problem with being both pragmatic and evidence-based is that it grounds you in the mundane realities of the world. It prevents you from taking the flights of fancy that seem to be the strength (and weakness) of the environmental community. My colleagues in the environmental community like to think big. They like big ideas and big plans. The problem is that their plans tend to concentrate on the big picture while being light on the details. What is most annoying is when I point out the holes in their plans and the needs to identify achievable goals; I get responses that question my sincerity or dedication to the “cause”. It is as if there is a requirement to put my scientific mind in neutral in order to be considered an environmentalist. Well I am a scientist, a pragmatist and an environmentalist and I want to make real advances not simply generate good in sound-bites.
So I am going to challenge the climate activists, the Leap Manifesto proponents (Leapers) and the anti-pipeline activists. Provide a cogent, evidence-based mechanism to implement one of your plans? You see in all these discussions I keep hearing negatives about my ideas but never any positive, practical alternatives from you. Specifically: in the last year I have presented a cogent, environmentally-balanced and pragmatic viewpoint on pipelines and have been insulted and heckled. I have pointed out specific limitations in the renewable energy dreams of the Leapers (and their 100% Wind, Water and Sunlight acolytes) and have been assured that I must be working against environmental causes. I have poked holes in the numbers of the innumerate climate change activists and have been called a “denier”. I challenge you to present a plan that can actually achieve a goal, heck any goal, because right now all I get from you is platitudes and hand-waving.
Let’s start with climate change since these are the most self-righteous of the activists. As we enter the second year of a post-Paris Agreement world it is becoming increasingly clear that the activists do not have the slightest idea how to achieve the goals they claim are imperative. Under the Paris Agreement Canada’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) (note I have linked to our INDC as the NDC library does not have Canada’s submission), Canada has agreed to:
achieve an economy-wide target to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Now I will give some credit where credit is due, Canadians for Clean Prosperity have presented a means to possibly get part-way to our 2 degree Celsius NDC by 2030 but it involves a massive rise in carbon taxes coupled with some pretty significant policy changes and even then they only achieve 13-14% below 2005 emissions by 2030?
The issue is that Canada’s INDC was created when the goal was still to avoid 2 degrees Celsius. Since the NDC was produced we agreed to an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Now consider the research by Dr. Simon Donner and Dr. Kirsten Zickfeld of the University of British Columbia. They have calculated what it would take to achieve the aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius and have presented it here. Under their model Canadians we would need to emit essentially zero carbon dioxide sometime before the year 2030 or as they put it:
It would require a 90% to 99% reduction in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. The budget is equivalent to less than seven years of emissions at current (2013, year with most recent data) levels
Now think of that. By the year 2030 we would need to essentially emit no carbon dioxide? That means no gasoline automobiles, no diesel trains, no container ships, no trans-continental airliners, no diesel transport trucks, all by 2030? In the 14 years between now and 2030 our society would have to invent, prototype and mass produce engines capable of moving all the essential staples of our civilized society around the world. Within that time window we will have to get the entire existing fleet of automobiles, passenger trucks, transport trucks, airplanes, tugs, etc… out of commission and replaced with these, as yet, still hypothetical technologies.
In reality it would take a monumental effort to simply address personal vehicles but to achieve our aspirational goal we have to do away with all fossil fuel-reliant technologies? No a World War II level mobilization will not do the trick, we need at least an order of magnitude greater effort to change virtually every vehicle out there. The activists say words like, “but we have to do it for the future” and my simple answer is: show me how?
Now let’s play devil’s advocate and imagine a scenario where, by some miracle, we achieve that goal, that still leaves us only part-way to our goal since in that same time frame we still need to develop the electrical infrastructure to power those electric vehicles. I will go into more detail on that question when I deal with the Leapers.
In order to electrify all those vehicles we would need to massively ramp up our electricity system? By how much? Well let’s ask the hero of the Leaper movement: Dr. Mark Z Jacobson of Stanford. I have previously described what Dr. Jacobson has to say about Canada in his 100% WWS scenario….that would be the one promoted by the Leapers. As I wrote in my previous post, their proposal is simply not tenable. It is reliant on us inventing new technologies that are subsequently implemented on an industrial scale, all by 2050. Consider it asks for us to have 27,323 0.75 MW wave energy devices when we still don’t have a working prototype for the first unit? It is really hard to industrial facilities to tool up to build something that has not even been invented yet.
Besides being virtually impossible the Leaper approach would be devilishly expensive. Once again, I must give some credit, at least some economists associated with the Leap Manifesto tried to explain how they will pay for all this but they fell sadly short. They have proposed a set of policy alternatives that they estimate would raise $48.85 billion dollars a year. Now this list is essentially a poison pill for any politician who attempts to implement it, but that’s not the half of it since it doesn’t even cover the $53 billion a year Dr. Jacobson indicates it will take to pay for the power generating units for their 100% WWS program. Remember that $53 billion a year was prepared by their own expert Dr. Mark Z Jacobson from Stanford. Virtually every expert who has looked at his numbers suggest his costs are unrealistically low and still those numbers don’t include the infrastructure costs associated with the energy plants and necessary to build that infrastructure (roads etc…). It also excludes the costs or time to carry out the environmental assessments and all the consultations on all those projects or to purchase (or compensate owners for) the land used by that infrastructure.
That $53 billion/year is simply the capital costs of the actual units themselves. And those aren’t one-time only costs since that infrastructure will not last forever. It is well understood that wind turbines and tidal power units have relatively short serviceable lifetimes. Barnacles, salt water and winds take their toll and these units seldom last the 25 years. Yet the Leapers need them to last much longer in order for their numbers to work. Moreover, because of where we would need to install these units we won’t simply be able to abandon them, we will need to decommission each unit and reclaim the land under it. None of these costs are factored into the equation?
So let’s look at what we need by 2050: new technologies to generate power, new technologies to power vehicles and the replacement of all the existing vehicles in use today….all in 34 years in this case? Which brings me to the:
As I have shown above we aren’t going to be anywhere near ready to get off fossil fuels before 2050. That means we will need updated infrastructure to move that oil, so how do the anti-pipeline activists respond? They simply insist that we should just stop using oil. Now I have addressed that topic in detail and it is not pretty scenario.
Having quickly dispatched the anti-oil pipeline folks, let’s look at LNG. The major complaint about LNG is that it will blow us over our Paris Agreement numbers but as I point out, we shouldn’t let that stop us. There are 1.2 billion people living in energy poverty in the world today and they are not going to sit idly by as the rest of the word advances without them. Each year 4.3 million people a year die from preventable indoor air pollution. Let’s not let some confusion about how we calculate carbon emissions leave those 1.2 billion Indians, Indonesians, Malaysians and Africans using coal to power their future instead of cleaner, lower-carbon, BC natural gas.
It is clear that our nation and our planet are facing some monumental challenges in the next few decades. It is equally true that we are not going to be able to address all these challenges in the time-frame indicated. What does that mean? Well as a pragmatist it means we will have to make compromises. If we know that India has a choice between coal and natural gas, then we should make sure it chooses natural gas. If we know that 100% WWS is not possible, then we had better include hydro and nuclear into the energy mix for our renewable energy future. If we know we are not going to achieve our aspirational 1.5 degrees Celsius target then we should throw it away and fight for a target we can achieve. Wishing for unicorns is not going to make them appear. We need to identify our priorities and work as hard as we can to achieve them. We have to stop chasing rainbows and instead try and chase achievable targets. That means it is time to stop making enemies out of potential allies. It is time to recognize that standing on the sidelines throwing out insults is not getting us anywhere. We need to come up with pragmatic plans to achieve our joint environmental goals.