Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2015
Robert Lyman is a retired economist and federal public servant who spent much of his career working on energy, transportation and environment issues. He now works part-time as a consultant in Ottawa.
At the recent G7 meeting, the leaders of the world’s most influential free market economies committed that they would eliminate their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 2100 and aim to reduce emissions by 2050 to between 40 and 70% below their 2010 levels. The European Union and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continue to urge that leaders go further, and seek to reduce emissions by 80% below 2010 levels by 2050.
In 2010, Canada’s emissions were 707 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) GHGs. Actual emissions in 2013 were 726 Mt. To attain the 70% target, therefore, Canada would have to reduce emissions to 212 Mt. That is 514 Mt below 2013 levels. Assuming the return of normal economic activity following the recent extended economic recession, emissions would normally rise considerably, thus making the proposed target even more daunting. We are supposed to achieve this in 35 years.
To understand what this means, one has to examine what are the sources of emissions in Canada today. The following table shows the breakdown by economic sector, according to Environment Canada.
GHG Emissions by Economic Sector (MtCO2e) in 2013
How could we eliminate 514 Mt? Well, let’s start by considering what we absolutely can’t eliminate or would find virtually impossible to cut. We have to live in buildings; in fact, we will have to build considerably more simply to house the additional population expected by Statistics Canada to reach 46.9 million by 2050. Even with a considerable 20% increase in the energy efficiency of our buildings, which is possible but unlikely, a 25 % increase in population will override that. So we can’t cut there.
Similarly, we have to feed ourselves. We might be able to cut back on agricultural production of the crops and animals that we export, things like wheat, beef and pork. Bovine flatulence is reportedly one of the causes of methane emissions that the IPCC strongly wants to reduce. So, we might be able to cut emissions there by half, say by 37 Mt. Of course, we don’t grow all the food we use; much of it is imported and has to be moved by truck. Of that 170 Mt of GHGs from transportation, trucking represents about 45%, but it is likely that no more than 15Mt specifically relate to transporting food.
If you are keeping track, that means we cannot avoid 86 Mt on buildings, about 38 Mt on agricultural production, and 15 Mt on transportation because we have to house and feed ourselves. That’s 139 Mt. How will we be spend the remaining 73 Mt of our 212 Mt carbon dioxide budget?
Right now, there are no practical alternatives to petroleum-based fuels in transportation, especially for aviation. Unfortunately we live in a large cold country and we have to get around a bit. We could cut out all pleasure travel and sacrifice tourism, eliminate all use of cars, spend several billion dollars to electrify the railways, and cut marine shipping to the bone, and we might be able to get emissions down by 73 Mt.
There, what’s left? Well, we would have to eliminate all production of oil, natural gas and coal – not just new investments, but every single existing well and oil sands mine and in situ operation. We would have to stop all emissions intensive industries – those include mining and metal processing, industrial chemicals, cement, pulp and paper, oil refining and gas processing, and vehicle manufacturing, among others. We would have to shut down every electricity power plant based on coal, oil or natural gas. Tourism would be out. Finally, we would have to find some way to stop every other activity covered by the catchall category of “waste and others”.
So, in Alberta, there would be no fossil fuel industry, no energy refining, processing or petrochemicals industry, no agricultural export industry, no mining or metal processing, few hotels and resorts and very little forestry. As these activities now represent more than 80% of the revenues for the Alberta government, unfortunately there would have to be major cutbacks in education, health care and other public service employment. In fact, the province could go back to the “good old days” in the 1930’s before major oil and gas fields were discovered and when prolonged drought hit agriculture. I think they called that “the Depression”.