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June 23, 2010

Canada's heavy carbon footprint

Reuel S. Amdur

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Canada needs to do better in reducing carbon emissions. That is a key conclusion of Measuring Up: Benchmarking Canada's Competitiveness in a Low-Carbon World.

This report was recently released by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, which found that Canada ranked sixth among the G8 Nations in moving to a low-carbon future.  The Round Table is an independent think-tank appointed by the government.

This ranking is based on an index measuring performance on five categories composed of 15 indicators. 

The category of emissions and energy includes carbon productivity, carbon that enters into exports (“embodied carbon emissions in exports”), and low-carbon electricity. 

However, the report indicates that Canada has the potential to do better.  Canada comes up on top in available skills and developing skills (through education) for the change to a low-carbon economy. 

However we are hampered by some major factors: our heavy reliance on production of oil and other natural resources and our less than spectacular showing in the category including policy and institutions: no low-carbon growth plan, and a middling rating on greenhouse gas targets and accountability and on “carbon price coverage and stringency.” 

Other negative factors include our cold climate and large geographical area.  Movement toward a low-carbon economy is identified as a key element in global economic competitiveness.

Canada is second only to France in low-carbon electricity production, primarily because of our hydroelectric generation.  However, other renewable energy only produces three per cent of our electricity.  The study does not provide information on what portion of our electricity is generated by nuclear energy, the source putting France at the top of the low-carbon race.

While the French outperform the pack due to reliance on nuclear power, Germany uses “market incentives and requirements to drive increased renewable energy generation.” 

Ontario’s McGuinty government wants to increase reliance on atomic energy while also increasing commitment to renewable forms.  We all know the dangers of nuclear, with memories of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. 

France’s nuclear option may be a quick fix that turns out to be problematic in the long run.  Cost overruns in construction are a common problem, and facilities tend to require expensive repairs and to have a surprisingly short life.  In the long run, nuclear may not be the magic bullet, and the problem of what to do with the waste has so far proven elusive. 

Here are some reflections on where Canada is at and what directions we are taking. 

Efforts are underway to decrease the pollution created in the extraction of oil from the oil sands.  How much progress can be made is uncertain.  Meanwhile, before the high-carbon era is past, the oil from the sands promises to generate export dollars from the United States.  Deep-sea drilling for oil is of course not especially popular there at this time.

Efforts are also underway to make coal less polluting, again with uncertain end results.

Renewable energy other than hydro is more expensive than more traditional sources, but wind and sun are slowly coming on, and with government support research may make these more economical. The question arises as to just how much Canada is prepared to commit to renewables, while oil production is subsidized by tax measures. 

Oil may be a societal drug, but it is a drug we know and one that has useful effects, but then there are the side effects.  Do we put our money into addressing the side effects, or to replacing oil with other sources that are currently much more expensive?  Can we proceed at full speed to search for more oil, perform R & D to make it cleaner, and at the same time expand use of renewables and attempt to develop new technologies to make them ore affordable?  In the struggle on these two fronts, it is likely that something will give, and unfortunately that something is likely to be renewables.  After all, oil is the devil we know.

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