In the last week a group of Canadian activists have decided to mimic their American cousins by trying to advance a Canadian pact for a Green New Deal (GND Can hereafter). This is not the American Green New Deal you might have heard about, it is entirely Canadian project, and like the Leap Manifesto (its political cousin) the GND Can represents a sort of aspirational thinking best relegated to fairy tales and not worthy of consideration in serious climate change discussions.
I’m sure a lot of people reading this post will think that I am being a bit unkind by describing the GND Can as a grand delusion, but as I intend to show in this blog post, it is clear that the people who created this project are innumerate when it comes to energy policy. The demands being forwarded are so ridiculous that it is unclear how any informed individual/organization could sign on to this deal.
Once again I have presented some pretty strong words, so let’s start with the obvious question: what are the core demands for the GND Can? From their Q&A we get this:
The Pact for a Green New Deal rests on two fundamental principles:
a. It must meet the demands of Indigenous knowledge and science and cut Canada’s emissions in half in 11 years while protecting cultural and biological diversity.
b. It must leave no one behind and create a better present and future for all of us. That means ensuring that solutions are universal and far reaching.
Now I can hear you all asking: isn’t eleven years to cut Canadian emissions in half a bit ambitious? Well the GND Can web site answers that question as well. Here is their response:
We must remember we are living a climate crisis. If we would have started acting decades ago we wouldn’t need such a wide-spread and rapid transition. But because of government delays and fossil fuel funded disinformation campaigns our window has become very short and our timelines are no longer negotiable. We have a 303 MT gap* to make up and we need to get started. We are talking about survival now. We either choose to act and avoid catastrophe or we don’t. We’d prefer the former.**The IPCC 1.5 degree report uses a 2010 baseline. Canadian GHG emissions were 694 MT in 2010, so to meet the science Canada’s emissions would need to fall to 347 MT. The most recent data is on 2017 emissions (716 MT), so that’s a ~369 MT reduction from 2017 levels. Canada’s current climate plan gets us to 616 MT (excluding LULUCF), so there is still a 303 MT gap to get to 369 MT: http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2018/eccc/En1-78-2018-eng.pdf
As a numerate individual interested in energy policy I find this argument somewhat less than compelling. Crisis or not, demanding the impossible will get you nowhere. I say this not because I don’t want to see it happen, I say it because I want us to fight climate change and when we spend time arguing for the impossible we are not arguing about accomplishing the possible.
To understand the extent of the problem we have to remember that evidence-based environmental decision-making relies on using real data in the process. So let’s look at Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to see what I mean (here is the Env Can summary doc and the document the GND Can web site cites in their footnote).
Let’s start with the big picture (all figures from Env Can). According to the government of Canada, in 2017 Canada emitted 715 Megatonnes (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalents. Sectorally this can be broken down to:
- Oil and gas – 195 MT
- Transportation – 174 MT
- Buildings – 85 MT
- Electricity – 74 MT
- Heavy industry – 73 MT
- Agriculture -72 MT
- Waste and others (light industry etc) – 42 MT
To achieve the GND Can demand of a 50% decrease would bring us from 715 MT/year to 357.5 MT/yr. This means we have to find 357.5 MT to reduce from our yearly emissions. Moreover, if the demands of the GND Can are to be met we need to achieve this goal in 11 years. So let’s start chopping to see what it will take.
Let’s first look at the oil and gas sector since it represents the low-hanging fruit.
From the supporting documentation we get these yearly numbers:
- Natural gas – 49.5 MT
- Conventional oil – 31.3 MT
- Oil Sands Mining and extraction – 16.4 MT
- Oil sands in situ – 41.7 MT
- Oil sands upgrading -22.4 MT
- Other 33.2 MT
Let’s assume we will need conventional oil if we want to keep our planes, trains and buses operating. That leaves us about 160 MT which gets us almost half-way (44%) there.
Cutting the oil and gas sector brings about some pretty serious problems from a public policy perspective. We are talking about a significant percentage of Canada’s economy, hundreds of thousands of jobs and most importantly the tax dollars that will be needed to pay for this massive program. By killing the industry we are starting from behind the eight ball with a massive Canadian recession and an even bigger hole in the national budget.
The killing of the oil and gas industry doesn’t just destroy our economy it also leaves an even bigger hole in Canada’s energy picture. Natural gas is used in almost every sector of our economy but is particularly important for housing. Natural gas is used over much of the country to heat our homes and businesses. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
Over six million Canadians use natural gas to light, heat and cool their houses, heat their water, and cook their food. Natural gas is increasingly used in energy-efficient furnaces and appliances such as dryers.
Natural gas currently provides 13 per cent of Canada’s electricity generation, and because it can be delivered quickly and affordably it is an excellent partner for intermittent renewable power sources such as wind and solar.
According to the NEB, in British Columbia 58% of households rely on natural gas for heating, in Ontario it is 67% and in Alberta it is 79%.
To go without natural gas means we will need to upgrade EVERY SINGLE home or business that uses natural gas for heating or hot water. All in 11 years. Think about that number 58% of British Columbian households, 67% of Ontarian households and 79% of Albertan households would need to be upgraded in 11 years. That is millions and millions of households.
Having addressed the biggest source, the next biggest source is transportation.
Transportation emitted 174 MT in 2017 broken into
- Passenger Cars – 34.6 MT
- Passenger light trucks – 50.5 MT
- Passenger aviation, bus, rail and motorcycle – 8.6 MT
- Freight trucks – 59.9 MT
- Freight aviation, rail and marine- 11.9 MT
- Others (recreational, commercial and residential) 8.9MT
Now looking at these numbers the first thing to understand is that technologically there are no currently available alternatives for the two freight options. You can’t expect us to go without food or water so those we are stuck with using liquid fuels for passenger aviation, bus, rail and freight trucks. The only problem is they only represent 41% of the pie. To achieve a 50% cut we need to eliminate 85% of emissions from the other four categories. If we assume that mass transit should be protected (bus, rail and domestic airlines represent about 7 MT) that leaves a stately 8.2 MT for all remaining passenger vehicles (or over 90% reductions). Reducing your personal vehicle use by 90% shouldn’t be a problem in 11 years should it?
A lot of people would likely be able to switch to EVs but then we have an increase in electricity, challenges with our power grid and the problem of simply getting all those EVs built and sold.
A minor consideration not previously mentioned. Most municipal electrical systems are not easily upgradeable and all those EVs, electrical heaters and electrical hot water heaters will overload the local grids.
Having completely upending our transportation system still only earns us 87 MT (roughly 24%). We are far from where we need to be.
Now for the electricity sector.
Since the aim is to get off coal and natural gas, this seems like an easy one. We can simply eliminate all 74 MT. This helps a lot (20%) but leaves us in a pickle because every step to date has assumed we will have more electricity. Since building new electricity infrastructure is both expensive and time-consuming we will just have to go without for the time-being. After all hospitals don’t really need ventilators.
We also need to massively upgrade our transmission system to move all that new power to where it is needed. As I’ve written previously, even the most optimistic view has a new grid costing $25 billion and taking a couple decades to build. A more realistic appraisal puts the cost of a national backbone of 735 kV transmission lines at around $104 billion and taking 20 years to complete. I’m not sure how we will do that in 11 years but at this point it is becoming clear how awesome this task really is.
We are now reasonably close. We have cut 321 MT and need only 36.5 MT to reach our goals. Considering that a lot of the buildings (85 MT) involve burning natural gas for heat and hot water that should easily get us below the magic number to below 357.5 MT. So let’s consider what this entire project will cost us:
By 2030 we need to
- Essentially eliminate the personal vehicle
- Eliminate our oil sands and natural gas industries
- Retrofit every household in Canada that uses natural gas for heat and/or hot water
- Eliminate all our fossil fuel electricity capacity
- Build the electrical capacity to provide the power for all those EVs, hot water heaters and heaters and
- Build an entire electricity transmission system to move all that power around.
Moreover we need to do this in 11 years while
- Dealing with the massive recession that comes from destroying our oil & gas industry
- Paying for a massive upgrade to our public transportation infrastructure to deal with the fact we virtually eliminated personal automobiles
- Paying for massive retrofits for virtually every household in the country that uses natural gas or fuel oil for heating and hot water
- Paying for a massive increase in renewable electricity capacity to deal with the sudden jump in demands and the loss of fossil fuel electricity infrastructure
- Paying for the massively upgraded transmission capacity to move all that new renewable electricity from where it was generated to where it is needed.
Admittedly the GNDers have one thing right. They will create a massive number of new jobs, the only hitch will be how to pay for them all.
Now the funny part of this whole blog post is going to be the replies. I’ve already been asked “so what would you do instead?” and “so you think we should stand back and do nothing?”.
My response is simply to point out that the first step in evidence-based environmental decision-making is to assemble the data to help make an informed decision. Having done so it becomes clear that whatever we choose to do, the Canadian GND shouldn’t be part of the discussion. Looking at what it would take to achieve their goals it is clear that even with an infinite amount of money at their disposal they could not get there. 2030 is only 11 years away and there are too many tasks on their plate with too many rate-limiting steps and that doesn’t even consider that they want to run each step through the lens of indigenous knowledge and equity.
Until the authors of this Green New Deal actually put pen to paper and show how they will achieve their goals I think they should simply be ignored. They are peddling a fantasy. Trying to argue that we should attempt the impossible is a ridiculous approach that is guaranteed to end in failure and failure is something we can’t afford. If you want to see what we should do let’s look at the City of Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Response document. It is a great start but even it sets more realistic timelines.
Put simply the Canadian Green New Deal is another fantasy project that will distract from the real work that needs to be done. It is time activists stopped demanding the impossible and started working towards the possible.