2.2 The Risks of Business As Usual

As the world’s large economies jockey for position in the race to a new-energy future, canada is languishing near the back of the pack. By one account, this nation has in recent years missed out on approximately 66,000 jobs because the federal government has failed to match the United States in clean-energy investments.

But while Canada is overlooking employment opportunities today, these losses are minor compared to the risk of serious economic disruption in the coming decades. A number of presently circulating Canadian energy-policy frameworks appear to assume an ever-increasing domestic and international demand for our raw carbon based energy commodities—particularly in rapidly developing and urbanizing nations of the Pacific Rim.

However, the recent dramatic surge in low- carbon infrastructure investments in these nations—particularly in the transportation sector—point to an increasing push to sharply reduce dependence on imported oil. China, for example, recently committed to place one million electric cars on the road per year. By 2020, that nation’s high-speed rail network is expected to connect all provincial capitals and cities with populations over a half-million, significantly offsetting domestic aviation and the petroleum it requires.

While China and other markets will, in the short term, increase their demand for oil, real risk exists that these economies will eventually leapfrog over 20th-century energy sources, and take advantage of the inevitable mass commercialization of more nimble, scaleable, and sustainable innovations brought to the global market by nations that are investing today in clean-tech research and development. By 2030 or so, we expect many nations will have reinvented their economies and retrofitted their cities to become more complete, compact, and liveable. These cities will use dramatically less energy in general, and far fewer hydrocarbons in particular.

Several recent assessments suggest that potential exists for a very different global energy system by the middle of this century. One recent study, conducted by Stanford University and the University of California, concludes that the world can meet all of its new-energy needs with wind, water, and solar by 2030, and can replace all pre-existing energy sources with these renewable sources by 2050.

We are concerned that, if Canada continues to place petroleum at the centre of its energy-planning future, that a rapid global shift away from hydrocarbons could ultimately jeopardize our long term economic stability, public services, and quality of life. Further, any economy that grows too dependent on any one commodity or sector stands to undermine other sectors. Canada has already lost manufacturing jobs as a consequence of our currency’s close link to the price of oil.

Beyond these economic vulnerabilities, there are numerous security, stability, and reputation risks associated with Canada’s current path of increasing fossil-fuel reliance.

Though Canada generates much of its electricity through hydropower, for the most part this nation meets its energy needs through fossil fuels, and helps other economies do the same. About 80 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions are a direct consequence of the hydrocarbons we burn to make electricity, heat our buildings, power our transportation, and extract, upgrade, and refine petroleum. Canada is the world’s 9th largest overall carbon emitter, 8th most polluting on a per-capita basis, and 10th with respect to total cumulative emissions.

While some argue that our greenhouse-gas emissions are relatively low compared to those of other countries, the fact is, every nation must do its fair share. Our nation’s contribution to climate disruption more than doubled between 1990 and 2008—increasing by 121 percent. one of the largest areas of growth is in the fossil-fuel sector, including Alberta’s oil-sands projects. According to Environment Canada data, emissions from these operations have tripled since 1990. If all oil sands projects that are currently seeking approval or have been announced by companies proceed, production will more than quadruple today’s levels. Without widespread and aggressive deployment of carbon-capture and storage technology, which, despite significant federal subsidies, remains in its infancy, emissions will follow on a similar scale.

As a northern nation, Canada is already witnessing the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. our northern residents are particularly vulnerable, especially indigenous peoples who have done little to contribute to the problem but who are now observing massive changes in weather, ice formation and movement, game migration, and more. These residents are also grappling with the opportunities and risks inherent in increased marine traffic through an ice-free northwest passage, including the possibility of increased petroleum exploration.

Canada has made a range of international commitments to reduce its own emissions and limit average surface temperature warming to two degrees above the pre-industrial era. To date, our governments have done little to meet these commitments. Despite well-documented economic benefits, this country is investing relatively little in new energy technologies, and is not committing significant resources to helping Canadians shape their future and understand the role of energy in their lives, and the many benefits of conservation and efficiency.