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OPINION | Greens' climate plan adds up to Mission: Improbable

Andrew Leach says the Green Party's new climate plan would radically transform Canada's economy in a frighteningly short period of time.

Kicking the tires on the federal party's new energy and environment plan

The Green Party's climate plan gives a sense of the order of magnitude of the transitions we’d need to see if we’re going to meet aggressive global goals. But the plan leaves far too many loose ends and includes far too many inconsistencies. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles from energy and environmental economist Andrew Leach about the federal political parties' climate plans. Read his other articles here:


It's summer, so we can all likely be forgiven for not paying attention to plans and early platform commitments in the lead-up to the fall election. One of those plans, the "Mission: Possible" climate change plan from the Green Party, merits more critical attention than it's getting.

What drew my attention to it was the publication of a transcript of the interview that Green Party Leader Elizabeth May did with Macleans' Paul Wells in Ottawa, but you can see the plan here. A few things in the interview rubbed me the wrong way, not least of which was the implication that the policies that many of us have been working on for years amounted to little or nothing.

After tweeting a little too much about this interview and the plan itself, I also had the opportunity to chat with May, and some of her comments to me are reflected here as well. It's certainly to the credit of the Greens that they reached out, not just at the policy level, but also with a phone call from the leader, to clarify their plans.

Radical transformation

Mission: Possible proposes a radical transformation of Canada's economy in a frighteningly short period of time. Beyond the scope and scale of Mission: Possible, the regional disparity of the likely impacts is remarkable.

Let's be clear: if the world is to act on climate change in sufficient measure to meet global goals, we're going to need a lot of transformation quickly. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) reported recently that keeping the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees would likely require a decline in global emissions of about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030.

The Green plan gives a sense of the order of magnitude of the transitions we'd need to see if we're going to meet aggressive global goals. For that, they deserve credit. However, the plan leaves far too many loose ends, includes far too many inconsistencies, and off-hands near-impossible adoption rates for retrofits and renewable power. And, it doesn't say a lot about how these actions will spur similar kinds of cuts globally so as to benefit from reduced impacts of climate change.

Tracking emissions

If you are going to address emissions in Canada, you first need to know where they come from. It's become fashionable in conservative circles to point at heavy industry as the source of Canada's emissions, while exempting from scrutiny emissions from chimneys and tailpipes. Polluters not commuters, to borrow from Doug Ford.

Elizabeth May makes a bit of the same mistake in her conversation with Wells when she says first that, "there are basically 200 facilities across Canada that are responsible for the lion's share of greenhouse gases."

In fact, the 200 largest industrial facilities account for about 32 per cent of our national emissions — a significant share, but not the lion's share by any means.

If you want an accurate summary by sector, oil and gas production (27 per cent), transportation (24 per cent), buildings (11 per cent), and electricity (10 per cent) account for about 75 per cent of emissions, with other heavy industry (10 per cent), agriculture (10 per cent) and waste disposal (six per cent) making up the rest. Provincially, Alberta dominates with 38 per cent of national emissions, and the top five emitting provinces account for 91 per cent of emissions combined.

To reduce emissions from oil and gas, the Greens' plan pledges to ban oil imports and fracking, to eliminate not-clearly-defined subsidies and to continue carbon pricing. May also alludes to stringent regulations on emissions-intensive sources in her interview with Wells, though that's not reflected in the plan.

Frankly, I'd have expected to see stronger leave it in the ground language, but it's not there. There's a throwaway about transitioning the oilsands to supply only petrochemical facilities by 2050, but that's it — the lack of a clear oilsands policy is surprising given that oilsands production alone accounts for more than 10 per cent of Canada's emissions.

Creating chaos

Banning oil imports has the potential to create chaos with no clear emissions impact.

Canada imports a lot of crude, much of it to supply refineries in Eastern Canada. How are you going to replace or eliminate demand for those barrels? In her interview with Wells, May talks about using Newfoundland oil, but using currently-exported Newfoundland oil would still leave Eastern Canada short about two million cubic metres per month (about 400,000 barrels per day).

Perhaps the Greens expect some refineries to close? If they do, they should say so. Otherwise, the options to keep them open include more pipeline capacity from the West or continued tanker-borne imports. And, if you're just shifting barrels around and shipping some barrels further than you otherwise would, you're not reducing emissions.

We also currently import a lot of hydrocarbon liquids to dilute oilsands bitumen production for shipping via pipelines. Again, clarity is needed here: if we're not going to import diluent, then what? Perhaps, in line with Elizabeth May's previous statements, we could upgrade or partially upgrade more bitumen in Alberta. This would reduce the need for diluent, but to offset our imports, a major processing increase would be needed and this would increase both emissions in Alberta and total, life-cycle emissions from oilsands.

It seems odd that a Green party would be behind tens of billions of dollars in heavy oil refining capacity, especially in a North American market that is already over-supplied with refined products.

There's a lot of contradiction here since Mission: Possible states that it would allow investment in upgraders and, presumably, full conversion refineries, in line with previous statements from May. Yet, in clarifying comments to me, Ms. May stated that there is no need for new pipelines and no support for new fossil fuel infrastructure. That leaves a pretty gaping hole that needs to be addressed.

Electrical system revamp

Electricity would also be in for dramatic changes under the Greens' plan: they pledge to remove all fossil fuel generation by 2030. Nationally, about 20 per cent of our generation comes from coal and natural gas, with a little bit from oil. Stated that way, it sounds manageable, but fossil fuel sources make up more than 85 per cent of the generation in Alberta, over 80 per cent in Saskatchewan, and more than 50 per cent in Nova Scotia. Furthermore, natural gas plants also often serve as peaking plants, supplying the grid only during periods of high demand. They are, therefore, both relatively low generators and crucial to overall system reliability.

Replacing all of that in 10 years? When electricity is a provincial jurisdiction? How?

The answer, I'm told, lies in the plan's proposal to "rebuild and revamp" our east-west electricity grid. Interties — the connections that allow current to pass between separate electric utility systems — are indeed crucial to increasing the use of renewable power.

But constructing substantial interprovincial interties in 10 years is a challenge, let alone construction at a scale sufficient to offset mothballed fossil fuel generation in some regional markets.

And because you never want to have a single point of failure, jurisdictions would need to have either peaking power plants or immediately droppable demand to offset imports in case there's a line failure. This is precisely the capability we are significantly reducing by phasing out gas plants.

While the electricity supply side is undergoing upheaval, the Green plan would also radically increase electricity demand by electrifying transportation and building energy use.

The plan pledges to ensure that all new cars are electric by 2030 and that, by 2040, all internal combustion vehicles are off the road. This seems like a lot, but it's a path less aggressive than the one Norway is currently following, and with the speed at which range is increasing and cost is decreasing for electric vehicles, it's plausible. Meeting these targets would increase electricity demand, likely by 5-10 per cent. Again, this is significant but manageable in and of itself.

The plan leaves open the question of heavier-duty vehicles, where the electrification challenges get much larger, as this Julia Pyper piece points out. But at least there's a plausible path to these outcomes.

Mind-boggling costs

But then things get really serious. The plan calls for retrofitting every building in Canada to be carbon neutral by 2030. Every. Building. In. Canada. In 10 years.

Canada has more than 14 million private dwellings and, in every province but Quebec and New Brunswick, more than half of average household energy consumption comes from natural gas or heating oil. And you've got commercial and industrial buildings on top of that.

You can get part way to carbon neutrality with renewable natural gas, but you're going to have to electrify a lot of heating and hot water systems, and make sure that electricity is carbon neutral to meet this goal. And you're going to need a whole lot more electricity to do that.

And we haven't even considered how we're going to replace industrial heat currently provided by on-site combined heat and power systems fuelled by natural gas, never mind the mind-boggling logistics and costs of deep retrofits to Canada's entire building stock.

In conversation with me, May compared the effort involved to the rescue of British forces at Dunkirk in World War II. She might be underestimating the challenge.

The combined electricity demand changes would likely mean upgrades to most local distribution systems at a time when we're undertaking an unprecedented revamp of our electricity supply and a major investment in transmission.

How's it all going to get paid for? And how would the federal government mitigate the massive regional differences in the costs of these policies? And I'll remind you again: electricity and the building stock are both within provincial jurisdiction.

Perhaps we'll see more in the lead-up to the election, but today this remains more of a wish list than a plan. I'm assured that more detail, including a full costing of all the measures by the Parliamentary Budget Office, is coming, so that might assuage some of these critiques.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Andrew Leach is an energy and environmental economist and is Associate Professor at the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta. His research spans energy and environmental economics with a particular interest in climate change policies. In 2015, Leach was Chair of Alberta’s Climate Change Leadership Panel, and in 2012-2013 he spent a year on leave from the University of Alberta as Visiting Scholar, Environment Canada, where he worked mostly on greenhouse gas policy for the oil and gas sector.

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