OPINION | Beware of climate delay, masquerading as climate action

We should be wary of plans from any government where efforts are directed at creating completely new technology when suitable technology is available today.

Slow-walking action on climate has almost the same impact as outright denial

An artist's rendering of the TransPod hyperloop with the Calgary skyline. The company has signed an agreement with the Alberta government to support the development of an ultra-high-speed transportation line between Calgary and Edmonton. (TransPod)

This column is an opinion from Sara Hastings-Simon, a senior researcher at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines, and a research fellow at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

As political leaders face growing calls for climate action, we must be careful to understand where investments in technological development are, in fact, a form of climate delay, masquerading as action. 

A set of recent announcements around the development of a hyperloop train between Calgary and Edmonton and small modular reactors (SMRs) in Alberta were framed as a step forward in climate action.

But a closer consideration of the technologies involved, and the gap in the deployment of other, more realistic technologies, shows it's better understood as a form of climate delayism. 

Unlike outright climate denial, "climate delay" acknowledges the reality of a changing climate and the role of carbon emissions from human activity in climate change. But instead of actively working to deal with the issue, it seeks to create a debate about what should be done, who is responsible, and how we should allocate costs and benefits.

The end goal is to significantly delay action to reduce emissions. 

It is an effective strategy. Slow-walking action on climate has almost the same impact as outright denial. Ensuring we remain bogged down in discussion means little actually happens, while leaders can claim they are taking action on climate. 

There are four primary types of climate delay, all of which can be found in the Canadian debate.

  • Redirect responsibility — The focus is put on the importance of individual action, while excusing collective action. An example is the idea that it's consumption, rather than production, that matters. Another variety argues that small contributions from a given country or industry on the global scale are immaterial.
  • Emphasize the downside — This pushes the fallacy that the cost of action is higher than the downside risk of climate change. In many cases this argument includes an appeal to social justice, such as emphasizing the costs of action borne by disadvantaged groups, when in fact the downside risks of inaction faced by these groups are typically highest, while the costs can be mitigated through policy design.
  • Surrender — This is a form of climate doomerism, claiming falsely that we can't possibly make changes to reduce the impacts of climate change, therefore the only thing to do is focus on adaptation.
  • Focus on non-transformative solutions — This involves taking actions and making investments in technology that won't result in transformative change, including technologies far from market, focusing on carrots rather than sticks. It also relies heavily on technological optimism to solve problems within a narrow solutions space.

How to recognize it

The last type, non-transformative solutions, is one of the hardest to recognize because of the overlap with actions that are needed to address emissions.

In order to meet the goal of a net zero world in 2050, there are significant technological advances that are still required. Yet addressing climate change is not a matter of picking between developing new technologies or deploying existing solutions, rather the path forward includes both

This illustration shows a NuScale SMR power module on a truck. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of this technology acknowledge it will be more than a decade before it is ready for widespread deployment. (NuScale Power)

Excluding or putting minimal focus on the deployment of existing technologies is one way to differentiate necessary technological development from climate delay. Cases where efforts are directed to innovation to create completely new technology when suitable technology is available today are particularly suspect.

In the case of transportation, there are existing solutions for low carbon transportation — conventional passenger trains — that are widely deployed globally. A hyperloop would have to deliver significant benefits over conventional rail to compete with the existing low carbon technology, particularly given the amount of new infrastructure required and the existing infrastructure in place.

Development coupled with deployment

One can debate the case for the development of the technology, but if this type of transportation is important, it should be coupled with the deployment of trains in Alberta today, or other significant efforts to reduce transportation emissions.

A similar example exists in the case of SMRs, where even the most enthusiastic supporters acknowledge it will be more than a decade before the technology is ready for widespread deployment. High-profile developer NuScale is now targeting 2029 for operation of its very first plant, a recent delay from the previous plan for 2026.

In the meantime, very high levels of decarbonization in the power sector can be achieved with existing technologies — including wind, solar, geothermal and batteries — at low costs. A recent study from the United States showed the potential to reach 90 per cent clean electricity by 2035 without increasing consumer bills. 

Again, while there is room for debate over the role of SMRs as one of the technologies for the final decarbonization of the electricity sector, or in harder to decarbonize industrial sectors, there is little justification for focusing on technology development at the exclusion of deployment.

Alberta's legislated target for renewable energy generation now lacks any enforceable compliance mechanism, and the target of 30 per cent renewable electricity by 2030 is far below what could be economically constructed.

What to do about it

Not all technological development is climate delay, and even technologies that fail to deliver in the expected time frame — such as carbon capture and storage in Alberta — can continue to develop and mature for new markets to come. But early stage technology investments should be viewed as a bet on future development and an important part of a portfolio of solutions.

A credible plan is one that is comprehensive — deploying technologies that are ready today along with a range of piloting and development for the future.

We should be wary of plans from any government that are heavy on technological optimism to the exclusion of concrete actions for deployment and changes to the underlying systems.

We can't afford any more delay in our actions to address climate change. Instead, let's harness a sense of optimism toward our ability to meet the challenge presented, and create a prosperous future for Alberta in a low carbon world.

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Sara Hastings-Simon is macro energy systems researcher, and an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary.