Contributed by Robert Lyman ©2019
In a recent apocalyptic tweet, Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, warned Canadians that we would face “unsafe levels” of heat and “climate catastrophe” if we do not transition off fossil fuels before the next election. It has charitably been interpreted that “by the next election” she meant four year from now (i.e. 2023). I thought that it might be interesting to imagine the briefing note that would be sent to Prime Minister May by the Clerk of the Privy Council in the (unlikely) event that she were to win the forthcoming federal election and ask for advice as to how to implement the transition.
To: Prime Minister May
From: B.O. Crat, Clerk of the Privy Council
Subject: Transition to a Non-Fossil Fuel Economy
This note is In response to your request for a briefing on the measures that may be taken to honour your government’s commitment during the election campaign to transition the Canadian economy off of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) within four years. Here, I wish to give you a preliminary report based on internal consultations among the federal departments primarily involved. These included Environment and Climate Change Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Finance Canada, Justice Canada and National Defence Canada.
A full inventory of the measures required and a proposed plan of action will take considerably more time to develop. However, In view of the urgency, I thought you would wish to have an overview of our main conclusions.
Planning to end the use of fossil fuels in Canada in four years is like the challenge given to various think tanks in the 1960’s of planning for the first year after a nuclear war. It takes one into the realm of the previously unthinkable.
To state the basic facts, about 70% of the energy Canadians use is based on fossil fuels, the rest being supplied by hydro-electricity, nuclear energy, and some wind and solar energy.
The combustion of coal, generally for electric power generation and in steel making, is the most carbon dioxide-intensive of the fossil fuel uses. Major efforts have already been made by the provinces of Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia to phase out existing coal-fired power plants, but in some cases the currently planned phase out will not be completed before 2030. Shutting down all existing coal-fired power plants within four years would be feasible, but extremely costly, as many of them still have several years left on their economic lives. The Federal government could pass a regulation imposing this requirement under the Canadian Environmental Protect Act. Unfortunately, this regulatory action would probably prompt legal challenges from Alberta and Saskatchewan. A federal-provincial dispute would result, which would require a considerable amount of the Government’s time and potentially delay implementation by months or years.
As the power now produced by coal plants could not be replaced by natural gas-fired plants, the affected provinces would have to replace them by building solar and wind plants. Unfortunately, the power from such plants, in all the provinces, is intermittent and unreliable. Without backup natural gas plants or significant additional hydro and nuclear capacity, several provinces would henceforth face serious electricity reliability problems (i.e. frequent blackouts and brownouts in both summer and winter).
Building more solar and wind plants, in the absence of proven and affordable bulk electricity storage systems, would only increase the risk of supply interruptions. To build additional hydro and nuclear power plants, in the face of existing regulatory and political constraints (notably from the Government’s core constituencies) would take at least ten years and probably much longer. In the meantime, residential and commercial electricity ratepayers would probably face sharply higher rates and be at permanent risk of supply loss, including during the heaviest power use periods (i.e. the coldest days of winter and hottest days of summer). There are several industries across Canada that depend on reliable electricity to operate. The most likely outcome of reduced reliability is that these firms would move their operations out of Canada. That would, of course, help to reduce emissions, but it would have quite noticeable impacts on employment and revenue generation for the Government. It is possible, in other words, but rather problematic.
Oil is used primarily for transportation and for petrochemical feedstocks. Passing legislation prohibiting the production, import and sale of oil and refined products is theoretically possible, although Justice Canada still has to evaluate the possible liabilities of the Government. Enforcing such legislation would be an unprecedented compliance challenge. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, it would make enforcing the former anti-marijuana laws look like a cakewalk.
Without oil, a small fraction of the population might be able to afford electric vehicles (and thereby be frustrated by the unreliable electricity supply), but the majority would be left with the choice of walking, riding bicycles or horses, or driving across the border to the U.S. to fill up their vehicles. There simply are not enough horses in Canada to provide the personal or freight transportation needed, and it would take at least 40 years if not more to breed that many horses. The public transit system, which now runs mostly on oil fuels, would also have to either shut down or begin a long, slow and costly electrification that would take several decades to complete. Getting around in winter would be a nightmare, especially in large cities. There would, of course, be no aircraft, so transporting goods to remote areas would take months, not hours, and moving people across the country by steam locomotive (when they could be built and distributed) several days. Air travel for holidays and recreation, regrettably, must end. Electricity cannot be stored so as to power marine vessels, so all existing marine vessels must be converted to steam power and sail. As this will take much more than four years to effect, the shortage of timely freight transportation will have further significant adverse impacts on the economy.
Oil and natural gas are the essential feedstocks for petrochemicals. Petrochemical products number in the thousands and include plastics, soaps, detergents, solvents (such as paint thinner), paints, drugs, fertilizer, pesticides, explosives, synthetic fibers and rubbers, and flooring and insulating materials. Eliminating their production would entail the shutting down of plants in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec.
It would, of course, be possible to import these products from other countries, but it would be necessary to develop new horse-drawn tanks.
Natural gas is primarily used for residential and commercial heating, as well as crop drying and electricity generation. The federal government could pass legislation to ban the production, sale and import of natural gas. As it would take several years, if not decades, to develop alternative heating systems, there is a substantial risk that thousands of people would experience adverse health effects and possibly die of cold in wintertime. The provinces, and no doubt some constituencies favoured by the Opposition, would object to this.
Much of Canada’s oil and gas consumption occurs during the process of producing these energy sources. Shutting down all oil and gas production in Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia. Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories would eliminate a major source of revenue for the federal treasury and create a rather large unemployment problem, especially in western Canada. It seems highly likely that this would result in legal challenges and possibly other retaliatory measures by the provincial governments. A well-designed communications strategy demonstrating how the Government is saving the planet will be one part of a concerted federal response.
I noted previously that the federal government could pass legislation, but that depends on having majority support for this in Parliament and broad public support in the country at large. Based on recent polls, I regret to advise you that it is extremely unlikely that a majority of citizens would support these measures. Indeed, based on several formal and informal polls, it appears highly likely that many citizens would actually take hostile action against the Government. This might make it necessary to invoke the War Measures Act and impose severe penalties on the recalcitrant citizens. Unfortunately, far more of them appear to have licenced firearms than do the citizens who form the Government’s core supporters. In extremis, if a substantial portion of the public were to revolt, the Government could order the Canadian army to move tanks into the streets. The really bad news, Prime Minister, is that tanks run on diesel fuel.
Back in the realm of reality:
Look Before You Leap into Climate Emergency Mode
Energy Policy Needs to Transition to Reality:
Climate Change Policy – A Threat to Canada
Energy Revolution? More Like a Crawl – Prof. Vaclav Smil