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:
Then the Green Party’s Mission Possible, which is looking to establish our new target of:
Most recently we have the Assembly of First Nations calling on the other levels of government to:
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.