2050: An energy odyssey

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
May 9, 2009

Ottawa’s low-carbon energy projections leave Canada producing more energy from coal, oil sands, nuclear and forests. This is green?

Here’s a toast to the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy for providing us with a vision of what a carbon-lite Canada looks like. A toast, too, to environmental groups like Pembina, for endorsing the Round Table’s vision and letting all Canadians in on the future that these carbonistas foresee for us.

First, they say we need coal, lots of it, and especially lots of coal mining, if we’re to reach their vision. In fact, under the Round Table’s recently released blueprint — Achieving 2050: A Carbon Pricing Policy For Canada — the coal mining sector, enhanced by carbon capture technology, is one of the economy’s big winners, attracting a growing share of investment. Thanks to these new government-subsidized carbon technologies, remote, coal-rich mountains could become worthy of plunder for the first time.

Next, they say we need lots of crude petroleum, most of which will be invested in boosting the tar sands — petroleum crude extraction is another big winner in the carbonista economy. As the Round Table enthused in a background document, Canada will be an energy superpower, a “leading provider of world energy.”

Natural gas is also a winner, completing the Round Table’s government-subsidized blessing of all forms of fossil fuel extraction. The Round Table seems troubled not at all by the inevitable scarring of the countryside that accompanies mining for coal and tar-sand bitumen, presumably because those harms will be forgiven in full with the emergence of new technologies to capture and store carbon dioxide [Carbon dioxide, a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas, until recently considered benign or beneficial. Of late, some scientists have attributed to it a large role in global warming.] Neither does the Round Table seemed bothered by the possibility that the carbon storage technologies are doomed to fail, as many predict. That may be because the Round Table has a better purpose for the carbon than storage — more energy production. By pumping the carbon dioxide underground in a process called “enhanced oil recovery,” the Round Table expects we’ll be able to extract even more fossil fuel energy.

The Round Table’s obsession with making Canada an energy superpower isn’t limited to fossil fuels. Its plan calls for the takedown of our forests — they’ll be needed to produce ethanol for cars. And for mega dams in Labrador, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba, along with little dams everywhere. And for massive new transmission corridors to carry wind power to urban markets from remote regions and to carry power of all sorts in an east-west direction, from province to province.

But the biggest energy bonanza of all would fall to the nuclear power sector, particular in Ontario, where the Round Table projects some 24,000 megawatts of new nuclear construction. That works out to some 20 giant nuclear reactors of the kind that Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. now touts — each one twice the size of a typical Pickering reactor. To have these built by 2050, as the Round Table recommends, the reactors would need to come on stream in rapid-fire order. After the first of them was completed a decade from now, the following 19 would pop up at the rate of one every 18 months, giving Ontario the developed world’s most ambitious nuclear program, and making Canada the developed world’s most energy-intensive economy by far.

With Canada awash in all this energy, you’d think prices might fall. Think again. Households in Alberta and Ontario face electricity rate hikes “in the order of 50% by 2050,” the Round Table tells us, while “For space heating and domestic hot water in houses, natural gas costs could increase by about 60%.” We’ll be using less of the energy ourselves, it explains, the better to increase our exports to others and maintain “Canada’s growing role as a major energy exporter.”

To them, it’s all quite idyllic. The report writers revealed life in 2050, where large scale manufacturing and industry has largely vanished, along with the car and the single family home, and Canada has become a nation of artisans, techies and service providers. “Housing densities have increased to the point where 70% of Canadians live in some form of multiple dwelling. With the majority of jobs in services and light manufacturing, these land uses are integrated into residential developments so that it has become common to live and work in the same ‘walkable’ neighbourhood or work at home for several days each week.”

The cost to the economy of this nirvana? Not much if done right. “With an efficient carbon pricing policy, the overall economy would likely be reduced in size from what it would have been by only about 1% to 3% in 2020 and 3% to 5% in 2050.” The cost to the individual? It would fall disproportionately on the poor: “For the 20% of Canadians with lowest income, a carbon price of $100 per tonne in 2020 would add approximately $1,000 a year to living costs.” The Round Table report doesn’t tell us what the costs to the poor will be by 2050, when the carbon price doubles to $200 or what our fate will be if, after we turn our economy and our society inside out, its fantastical projections don’t work out.

But the Round Table also doesn’t want us to take its computer model simulations too seriously, because it as much as admits, and repeatedly so, that its work is tantamount to navel gazing on a computer game. As it explains in describing how its proposals might affect different Canadian industries and consumers, “the NRTEE recognizes the uncertainty inherent in our analysis, and therefore the following should be viewed as directional at best.”

At best, the Round Table is pointing us in the right direction. More likely, it has it all backwards, and it is asking Canada to embark on a course of economic and environmental destruction based on predicting the future half a century out assuming the existence of technologies that may never exist to solve a global warming [Global warming is the increase in the average measured temperature of the Earth’s near-surface air and oceans in the-20th century, and its projected continuation.] problem that may never have existed.

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