Saturday, 16 February 2013

A coal-fired plant and the lie of the land

By Mark Jaccard
Originally published in The Globe and Mail August 11, 2011

Stephen Harper can’t allow new coal-fired electricity plants to be built, such as the one Maxim Power is proposing in Alberta, and achieve his promise to reduce Canadian greenhouse-gas emissions 17 per cent by 2020. As a researcher of energy-economy systems, I say this with virtual certainty. I also know that any scholar in my field would agree with me, and that the Prime Minister’s expert advisers would tell him the same thing. The reasons are simple.

Our energy-economy system is currently dominated by the combustion of fossil fuel products made from natural gas, oil, tar sands and coal, a combustion that emits carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas causing climate change. The use of fossil fuels is linked to long-lived investments in energy supply and use – coal mines, tar sands processing plants, coal-fired electricity plants, oil and gas pipelines, industrial plants, buildings etc. We already have the technologies to use energy more efficiently, to switch to zero-emission sources such as hydropower, wind, solar and biofuels, and to prevent emissions by capturing and storing them.

But these technologies require considerable time to transform our energy-economy system, and it usually only occurs as old facilities are retired and replaced by zero-emission investments. Building a new coal-fired power plant goes in the opposite direction. It puts the lie to claims of significant emissions reduction over the next decade – an extremely short time frame.

History has a funny way of repeating itself. In 1997, Jean Chrétien committed Canada to a 2010 target for greenhouse-gas reduction, under the Kyoto Protocol, but did not implement the policies needed to achieve it – namely, a significant price on emissions and regulations to prohibit new investments that foster the combustion of fossil fuels. But 13 years was a safe distance in politics, and he left office before Canada officially reneged on its Kyoto commitment. One of his policy advisers has since acknowledged that Mr. Chrétien knew his policies would fail.

In 2007, Mr. Harper committed Canada to a 2020 target for greenhouse-gas reduction but hasn’t implemented policies that would achieve it. Like Mr. Chrétien, Mr. Harper must know his scant policies will fail. Recently released internal government documents show he’s receiving information from civil servants telling him his current policies are not transforming the energy-economy system in the direction he’s promised. Even his hand-picked National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy has said this, albeit inadvertently, in its 2009 report, Achieving 2050. The report shows that emissions must be falling already to achieve his 2020 target, which they certainly don’t when you allow new coal-fired electricity plants.

Mr. Harper’s choice of a target 13 years distant, without implementing policies to achieve it, is eerily reminiscent of Mr. Chrétien. Perhaps he sees the wily political master as his model. But there are other models available.

In 2007, then-B.C. premier Gordon Campbell also committed to a 2020 emissions reduction target. But to convince people of his sincerity – especially after two decades of climate policy failure by all Canadian governments at all levels – Mr. Campbell acted very differently. First, he got an independent body to set interim targets for 2012 and 2016, so people would know within a political time frame if he were on track to keep his promise. Second, he asked his advisers what investments needed to happen in 2007, and every year thereafter, to meet the 2020 target. On that basis, he immediately implemented a zero-emission electricity policy, which caused the cancellation of two proposed coal-fired electricity plants that had signed preliminary supply deals with BC Hydro.

BC Hydro abandoned its pursuit of coal and natural gas and switched to renewables such as run-of-river hydro, wind and biomass. If Alberta were not allowed to build another coal-fired plant, it would likewise use more renewables such as wind, biomass, hydropower and perhaps solar. This would slightly increase electricity rates, but not much because of the inertia in the energy-economy system – most electricity in Alberta would continue to be generated by existing low-cost facilities for years to come.

All of this raises an interesting conundrum for Canadians. What do you do when your government knowingly permits investments that prevent it from meeting its promises? Do you simply stand by and watch the construction of a coal plant that contributes great harm to the planet? Or is the only remaining ethical option to use every legal avenue and perhaps even peaceful civil disobedience to try to stop the plant?

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