Why political demands we radically speed up decarbonization represent wishful thinking

This blog post started as a potential Twitter thread that got out of hand. It grew out of recent demands by major political organizations that Canada increase its pace of decarbonization. First it was the Canadian pact for a Green New Deal which demanded we:

cut Canada’s emissions in half in 11 years while protecting cultural and biological diversity.

Then the Green Party’s Mission Possible, which is looking to establish our new target of:

60 per cent GHG reductions against 2005 levels by 2030; zero emissions by 2050.

Most recently we have the Assembly of First Nations calling on the other levels of government to:

reduce emissions in Canada by 60% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

It is like each organization is attempting to claim the moral high ground and trying to outbid their rivals to prove their environmental plan is the Greenest.

The problem with these demands is they betray a lack of understanding where greenhouse gas emissions come from and what it will take to achieve our decarbonization goals. It is unclear whether this lack of understanding is a political ploy or reflects a true misunderstanding of the scope of the problem we face. In either case, it appears necessary to explain what we face in achieving our decarbonization goals. In doing so I hope to explain why the unrealistic goals of these organizations reflect an unhelpful form of wishful thinking.

The first thing to understand about decarbonization is it is not just about giving up on high-carbon energy sources but replacing them with lower or zero-carbon energy sources. We can’t simply give up on producing food, we have to decarbonize the food production system. We can’t simply give up on transporting food to communities. We have to decarbonize the means by which food reaches communities. We cannot simply give up on heating our homes in winter. We must switch from higher-carbon heating (coal, fuel oil natural gas) to lower-carbon heating like electricity or heat pumps.

Switching over modes of energy generation, and consumption, means replacing existing infrastructure with different infrastructure. In some cases, it means replacing existing technologies with still undeveloped technologies or technologies not currently available in the mass market.

These replacement technologies, and this new infrastructure, won’t simply materialize overnight. They need to be designed, tested and built. Each step in that process consumes time and resources. Moreover, since these technologies often depend on similar supply chains, accelerating the development of one may limit our ability to develop another. As an example, there is not enough lithium available to create all the batteries needed for a complete transition to electric vehicles and for battery back-ups for electric homes.

Also recognize that Canada does not operate in a vacuum. Other jurisdictions are also seeking to reduce their carbon footprints and so are also laying claim to limited resources to achieve their goals. Every electric automobile built in North America, and sold in the United States, is one less North American electric automobile available for purchase in Canada.

It is also important to understand that supply chains are limited. As has been demonstrated in the last decade, trains that are moving one commodity are not available to move another. This is why we have had massive backlogs in grain transportation for the last 10 years.

Going back to our initial challenge. Building infrastructure takes time. Right now, Metro Vancouver is planning for an upgrade to the transit system. Given the limitations of our planning processes they anticipate the newest major transit infrastructure won’t be completed for over a decade.

Yet here we have political groups demanding that we completely upend our national energy system within a decade.

Understand, to achieve a 50% reduction in GHG emissions means replacing all that energy with some other form of energy, likely electricity.

Before you can replace that energy with electricity you must build facilities to generate that electricity. That means building thousands of individual solar, wind, tidal, wave or hydro units and each one of those units involves planning and financing. You can’t just say I am going to build a wind facility and then do it the next day. You must identify appropriate sites; you must get the appropriate permits; you must carry out environmental assessments and adjust your plan to reflect the results of the assessments; you must secure financing; you must undertake First Nations consultation and you must incorporate the results of that consultation in your project.

Each “must” step above takes time and that list is just the steps before you start construction.

Now let’s look at the scope of the problem. As I described previously, a 50% reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions would require we

  • 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 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.

To understand the complexity, let’s briefly look at one single step: upgrading our electrical grid.

From a planning perspective, building an upgraded grid would involve identifying a route. That route needs to be surveyed which takes time. An environmental assessment would need to be carried out on the new route to identify the potential ecological effects of the project. Since it is a massive project that assessment would have to include seasonal information. Once an initial route has been identified, consultation will have to be undertaken with any affected communities and First Nations. These consultations must be carried out in the spirit of understanding and will likely require re-routing portions of the project. Any re-routing would require subsequent environmental studies. Given all this pre-planning, for a single linear development we are already 2+ years into the process and haven’t put up a single meter of line.

When it comes to construction, we must consider seasonality. You can’t cut trees during the nesting season and you can’t build river crossings during the fisheries runs. Work will also have to slow down or stop during the heart of winter. This adds more time. Ultimately, to achieve our goal we need to build a backbone of high-power transmission lines which will then connect to a series of laterals and we haven’t even started the process on these laterals. This is not the work of a decade; this is the work of multiple decades.

Moreover, that is just the transmission lines, we haven’t even started on all the solar facilities, wind farms, tidal and wave plants.

Do these appear to be a series of steps that are even vaguely possible to complete before 2030? We are talking about completely remaking our economy on the fly. All the while respecting the needs and desires of legitimate interests including our natural environment, our First Nations partners and our global neighbours. This in a country where a motivated local government can’t get a transit line built in under a decade. Don’t even get me started on the costs. If you imagine medical wait times are long today, imagine what they will be after we completely ignore any investment in our medical system for a decade so we can dedicate ourselves to the hopeless task of getting that energy system built.

To conclude, my understanding is that these groups often see their goals as aspirational rather than literal, at least that is what I hope is true. Admittedly, the Green Party claims their plan is “possible” which is why they named it “Mission Possible“. Looking at the steps involved, however; there is simply no way any reasonable group of policy experts could honestly believe we could achieve these goals in a decade and anyone who claims otherwise is either lying to you or is ignorant and neither of those choices looks good on a political party. But even if we imagine these demands are merely aspirational, I don’t see the point. What point is there in demanding the impossible? All it does is cause the hesitant to plant their feet more strongly while feeding red meat to opponents.

If we are going to achieve our climate goals it will be through incremental change. Set tough goals and then work like the dickens to meet those goals. Certainly, we need to set long-term goals and clarify our aspirations but demanding the sun, the moon and the stars is not how you get things accomplished. As for the people saying “it is a climate emergency we have to get this done” my response is: How? We live in a world of linear time and finite resources, simply demanding the impossible contributes nothing.

This entry was posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, Climate Change Politics, Leap Manifesto, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Why political demands we radically speed up decarbonization represent wishful thinking

  1. Malcolm McColl says:

    My favourite scientist pays regular visits to reality.


  2. Andrew Roman says:

    You wrote: “An environmental assessment would need to be carried out on the new route to identify the potential ecological effects of the project.” I was recently invited to be a witness at the Senate of Canada on C-69, our new impact assessment law. As I explained to the somewhat shocked Senators, just like proposed new pipelines, any new electricity transmission corridor that is interprovincial or international will, under this new law, require an assessment of not only the environmental consequences of the proposed project across the planet, but also the inevitably controversial economics of the project, the social impact on anyone including first nations, the impact on gender identity, etc, to be followed by the inevitable legal challenges. The assessment process will take at least 6-10 years before any construction starts, if the project is approved. And after all that slow and costly assessment, approval may be denied by the Cabinet or the courts.

    Canada has neither the legal mechanisms not the capital nor the technology to reduce fossil fuel consumption significantly (after closing coal generation) over the next 3-6 decades. Regrettably, the media have created a “climate crisis” (unsupported by IPCC reports) which is inducing politicians to out-promise each other to do the impossible. They fear that if they are out-promised they will be outvoted, which may well prove to be the case. Thank you for your voice of sanity.


    • It is the intention of C-69 that infrastructure projects will proceed only if government promotes and enables them up front. Six years for an approval just causes companies to look for earlier returns in some other country.


  3. Ron says:

    … and none of this has addressed that CO2 levels are extremely low, below half the level found in commercial greenhouses.


  4. Liba Cunnings says:

    An excellent article and equally excellent comments. I would add one more comment not mentioned here. All along the new high voltage transmission lines wide tracts of land along the power lines will be uninhabitable because of a strong electromagnetic field the lines generate. That alone makes the purchase of land needed escalate the costs to astronomical price. Nobody wants to live under or near them, so it also means relocating all the farms along the way. In Alberta our system is already overloaded and we can’t get a single new transmission line built here. I don’t know details so I am not sure if the approval process takes this factor into account.
    Liba Cunnings


    • Andrew Roman says:

      Under Canadian environmental assessment law most if not all province will require an environmental assessment of any proposed high voltage transmission line. These are normally not too onerous and are conducted within a reasonable time. However if the line is across provincial or international boundaries or is for any other reason”designated” by the Federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change as a project to be federally assessed then it will fall under the new C-69, which will take many years for a federal impact assessment. The federal process allows anyone who wishes to appear at a hearing to do so, and requires that most opponents from recognized NGOs and First Nations be funded for their participation.


    • Chris Morris says:

      Liba – there are no problems living near HV AC power lines. The EMF at ground level or even greater than 5m from the line is negligible. Electric blankets give a lot worse EMF. Most countries only ban significant development directly underneath, but that is to minimize the risk of something touching the line or providing an arc path. There is also the risk of an insulator failure dropping a line.


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