By Hugh Holland
Today, November 30, 2023, the 28th annual UN Environmental Conference known as COP 28 opens in Dubai, UAE. Representatives from 192 countries including Canada will be there to review progress and continue developing consensus around climate goals and solutions.
Just a short time ago, media around the world featured articles about the great progress of the 75 years since WW2. Life expectancy and the standard of living were better than ever before, especially in developed countries. In November 2019, the US journal “Correspondent” published an essay called “The great paradox of our time: everything is both better and worse than ever before”. “In the past two centuries, fossil capitalism has made us wealthier, healthier, safer, and more informed than ever. Now, however, this driver of progress has begun to cause our demise, making us feel cynical, or powerless. Yet there is always room for hope – that is the nature of humankind”.
Global warming, caused mainly by emissions from burning fossil fuels, has been a growing concern since the 1980s. In 2019, Canada was near the top of the list in terms of emissions per capita. But Canada was and still is among the top 10 countries in terms of almost every other measure of human development.
Then all hell broke loose with the election of the most disruptive US president in history, the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s attack on Ukraine upsetting global supply chains for energy and grain, the spiking of extreme weather events around the world including unprecedented wildfires and floods and melting permafrost here in Canada, and yet another war in the Middle East. Canada survived that turmoil as one of only two G7 countries with a AAA credit rating.
On November 14, the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, in collaboration with 52 research institutions published a report that projected heat-related deaths and food insecurity will skyrocket by mid-century — particularly in the developing world. “We’re already seeing climate change claiming lives and livelihoods in every part of the world. These impacts are early symptoms of a very dangerous future unless we tackle climate change urgently.”
Getting to net-zero emissions will be the hardest peacetime project the world has ever undertaken. But not getting to net zero will be harder. We are faced with decisions that could take us forward or seriously backward, depending on whether we connect the dots, or not.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) says, “We know what to do and how to do it, but international cooperation is crucial to success.” Indeed, a recent report by the New Climate Institute found that the global Electric Vehicle sector is on track to meet 2030 targets aimed at averting the worst impacts of the climate crisis. But there’s no indication that any other industry — including power, buildings, agriculture, and finance — will curb greenhouse gas emissions enough to meet 2030 targets.
At the COP 28 conference, the UK and the US will lead a pledge to triple nuclear power in the world by 2050. That could shift 15% of the world’s total energy supply or 82.4 quadrillion BTUs from fossil fuels to clean nuclear. The initiative is aimed especially at the large and growing populations of India and Africa where it could be even more beneficial than in developed countries. However, if the new nuclear capacity came from small nukes with co-generation instead of big nukes, it could again double the clean energy output and shift 30% or 164.8 quadrillion BTUs of the world’s energy supply from fossil fuels to clean nuclear.
Small nukes known as SMRs, or Small Modular Reactors, can safely co-generate both electricity and heat. They can be safely located near where the heat is needed for district residential heating and industrial applications like manufacturing cement, fertilizers, chemicals, etc. and the electricity can be transmitted as usual to where it is needed. District heating has been common in Europe for decades. The big nukes generate so much heat that they are located away from populated areas and sited where the excess heat can be dissipated. So, all that heat output, equivalent to their electrical output, is just wasted.
Just as Canada’s new Trans Mountain and Coastal Gaslink pipelines are about to come on stream, the IEA says global demand for oil will peak in 2030 and steadily decline until 2050. Jonathan Wilkinson, our Minister of Energy and Natural Resources says, “In the modern world, accepting the reality of climate change and taking aggressive action to reduce emissions from the production of oil and gas is critical for any producing country that wishes to capitalize on its resources during the transition and into a post 2050 net-zero world.”
Canada has huge opportunities in the Alberta oil fields. 33% of Canada’s total consumption of natural gas is used to melt bitumen for in-situ oil extraction and that contributes to our high level of emissions per capita. That can be replaced by heat from SMRs which can at the same time replace emissions from Alberta’s gas-fired electricity generation. Terrestrial Energy of Oakville Ontario is working with the Oil Sands Alliance to do just that. Terrestrial’s Integrated Molten Salt Reactor design is particularly well suited for that application.
Alberta’s oil and gas industries have all the expertise they need to thrive in the new era of cleaner oil, deep geothermal, green hydrogen, and ultra-strong, lightweight, and recyclable carbon fibre materials made from bitumen. Alberta could have a more prosperous future than it has ever had, but you can’t do that by doubling down on the status quo of old energy. Hopefully, Alberta’s politicians will not cling to old energy so long that their people miss out on the new opportunities.
Some people and politicians are not being honest with themselves. People everywhere, not just in Canada, are feeling the effects of higher food prices that are directly affected by global warming. But too many don’t connect the dots. People everywhere, not just in Canada, are feeling the effects of higher costs of housing that are caused partially by the domino effects of mass migration already resulting from climate change. But too many don’t connect the dots.
Open denial of Climate Change has not gone well for Canada’s conservatives. So, Poilievre and the far-right media have shifted tactics to hyper-aggressive deception, complete with threats and smear campaigns, even though those tactics don’t fit with the new Mr. Nice Guy image he is trying to cultivate. He claims he would address climate change with “technology” but won’t say what technology. He denounces proven technologies, such as cold climate heat pumps now used by two-thirds of the population of Norway, and zero-emission methods for drying grain developed by our agricultural research institutions. He aggressively attacks the refundable carbon tax, the most internationally endorsed tool for engaging everyone, consumers, and producers alike, in the effort to reduce emissions.
Leading economists have long favoured putting a price on carbon, a mechanism Europe introduced in 2005, as the most efficient way to engage the entire market, both producers and consumers, in fighting climate change at the fastest speed and lowest cost. There are currently 54 countries with a carbon tax. Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act passed in 2018 and followed the formula endorsed by leading economists. The refundable carbon tax is working exactly as intended. It motivates producers and consumers to think about how to reduce emissions. Low-income people pay little or no tax but still get the carbon tax rebate.
Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England and now the UN special envoy on climate change says, “It’s very clear to me the problem is there is no Canadian government that is ever going to be able to finance the transition to a clean or green economy alone. We must leverage the private market,” he said. And capital markets “need transparency, consistency, data, and credibility,” he added, pointing to the need for clear regulations and definitions about what counts as sustainable finance.
Poilievre wants to “axe the tax”, and recent polls suggest a significant percentage of Canadians agree. However, the refundable carbon tax provides the kind of internationally recognized support for clean-energy projects that capital markets require. What message would “axing the tax” now send to domestic and international capital markets about Canada as a consistently reliable place to invest?
Poilievre says he would address climate change with “technologies”. But he has no magic wand. He would have only the same technologies available that the liberals are already supporting and incentivizing. “Axe the tax” and you also axe the motivation for both producers and consumers, and progress would take much longer.
There were millions who didn’t want to fight in WW1 and WW2. But thank goodness there were millions who did. There are millions who are not interested in making any sacrifice whatsoever in the name of climate change, because they focus on the negative, and are not aware of, or choose to ignore, the millions of opportunities and benefits the new era of clean sustainable energy will bring. We need to find the same measure of unselfishness to defeat the greatest enemy this and the next few generations will ever face. We don’t have time to waste. It is time to think about the future of our grandchildren. Both yours and ours.
Hugh Holland is a retired engineering and manufacturing executive now living in Huntsville, Ontario.
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